Smithfield Market

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Above: View at night of the side of the Victorian market buildings facing the City.

The large open space that is still known as Smithfield today was from Norman times in use as a cattle market for the City of London. It was the largest cattle market in England and certainly the most important. By the middle of the 19th century the Victorians worked out how to build refrigeration plants. They were not particularly efficient and were only suitable for large installations. Small refrigerators were not produced until well into the 20th century. Being able to keep meat frozen meant that animals could be slaughtered and the sides of meat kept until they were sold. This meant that holding animals in fields and slaughtering them just before they were to be eaten was no longer necessary.

The Victorian Market Buildings

In 1852 the Smithfield Market Removal Act was passed, relocating the cattle market to Copenhagen Fields in Islington. This cleared the way for Sir Horace Jones, the City Surveyor, to design the new market buildings. Work was completed in 1868. The actual name for the premises at Smithfield are ‘London Central Markets’. The vast building was opened on 24 November 1869 solely for the sale of slaughtered meat, taking over from Newgate Market which had become a serious obstruction to traffic.

The new building was used for the sale of what Victorians called ‘dead meat’ was conducted – meaning slaughtered meat – in contrast to selling an animal while still alive. The combination of open ironwork, to let light and air in; the louvred roof, to keep the sun out; and the breezy hill-top location meant that the market was considerably cooler than the shade outside. This was ideal for keeping meat fresh in the days before refrigerators. The market building, together with the newly constructed Metropolitan Line underground railway, contributed to Smithfield’s success. In 1873 the Poultry Market was erected to the west of the Meat Market. This was followed by two buildings further west known as the General Market and the Annexe.

In addition, a Central Fish Market opened in 1883 but that did not last long. In 1889 the Central Fish Market was reopened as a poultry and provision market. According to the stone plaque on the wall, towards Farringdon Street, the new buildings were started 1886 and were opened officially 7 November 1888. Lastly, a fruit and vegetable market opened in 1892.

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Above: One of four huge dragon figures that decorate the sides of the Victorian building. Dragons are the heraldic supporters on the City of London coat of arms.

World War II

During the Second World War Smithfield was closed for business. The Government did not want large concentrations of people in buildings that were easily recognisable from the air. The de-centralisation of meat stores put paid to Smithfield’s trading. It was only used to store small amounts of meat and to provide space for an Army butcher’s school. In 1942 the Poultry Market was damaged by a German bomb.

The Market Returns

On 4 July 1954 rationing on meat was lifted and Smithfield Market was back to normal. Meat then came from New Zealand, Australia, Africa and South America – brought to the market by rail to the unloading bays underneath the building (now the car park). The great displays of carcasses and the grand cast iron structure of Horace Jones’ building provide a fascinating view of an era long gone. It was time before Britain joined the Common Market and patterns of world trade, as well as hygiene regulations, changed for ever.

Poultry Market

In 1958 the original Poultry Market building was all but destroyed by fire. The remaining walls were demolished and in 1961 a new building was constructed on the site. It was opened in July 1963. While the building looks unremarkable from the outside, the internal dome is one of the great technical achievements of its era. Designed by engineers Ove Arup and Partners, the concrete ‘shell’ structure was the cutting edge technology of the day – the thickness of the 69m (226 feet) span concrete dome was just 7.5 cm (three inches) thick).

The Changing Years

In 1968 the Market celebrated the centenary of the completion of Horace Jones’ building. The nature of the meat market was changing as Britain joined the European Economic Union in 1972-73. This not only affected the supply of meat from Commonwealth countries but also brought about new hygiene standards that required the upgrading and refurbishment of the Victorian buildings. This work, which was carried out in the mid-1990s, included the construction of sealed loading bays, new automatic moving hook-lines, new stalls, chiller rooms and offices. It is this work that can be seen today.

Recent Developments

For about two years the western half of the market buildings was completely renovated. The exterior ironwork was restored and re-painted. In June 1996 the interior was reopened for use with extensive modernisation to provide hygiene requirements laid down by the European Commission.

The market handles mainly flesh but also poultry, fish and vegetables in a small way. The meat market is the largest in the world. There are 15 miles (24 km) of hanging rails capable of carrying 60,000 carcases at one time. Just before Christmas each year Turkeys arrive by about 20 December and cause a traffic jam. A visit to the market just before Christmas will reward the visitor with the largest display of seasonal poultry and meat he is ever likely to see. The largest Turkey is auctioned for charity at Smithfield and displayed in Dewhurst’s butcher’s shop on the east side of Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Street Station.

The Royal Smithfield Show began at Smithfield. It had the Royal Agricultural Hall built at Islington and used it until the First World War. The hall was commissioned for use in the First World War and the show transferred to Earl’s Court, where they still are.

During most of the 20th century most of the meat sold in London was first brought to Smithfield Market. These days the huge supermarket chains have their own distribution warehouses and only meat destined to be sold to smaller butchers and restauranteurs is delivered to Smithfield. It may well be that, in years to come, the need for a wholesale meat market at Smithfield vanishes altogether.


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