Smithfield on Agas


What is the Agas Map ?

The first complete map of Inner London in existence today is a actually not a map but a ‘bird’s eye view’ originally made as a wood-cut about 1561. Only three paper copies of the map exist today. Over their long life an 18th century historian attributed the map to a well-known mapmaker called Ralph Agas. The only trouble is, Agas made a map of Oxford but he is not likely to have made the London map. However, since the originator of the London map is not known, having a ‘handle’ even if it is the wrong name is useful. Every librarian and archivist knows the story and so calling the map the ‘Agas map’ is known to be incorrect but it is a well-used quick name for the map.

Problems with the Smithfield Section

The map section above is centred on a large open space to the NW of the Roman Wall of the City of London when was originally called ‘Smooth Field’ and became corrupted to Smithfield. The area is shown in yellow on the above map. The section shown is taken from the eastern part of one large sheet and the western part of the the adjacent one. There is a large ‘gap’ running vertically. The original map was printed about 1561. The wooden blocks are no longer in existence and there are no known paper copies of that printing.

It is known that the original wooden blocks were reused to reprint the map about 60 years later. The only change made was to insert an up-to-date royal Coat of Arms where the old one had been. The royal coat of arms for the reprint was that of James I, making the date for printing the sheets around the 1620s. Only three paper copies of that version of the map exist. While being stored over several decades, it is believed that the edges of the original wooden blocks had rotted – probably due to water seeping into the end grain. It is likely that the new owner of the wooden blocks used a saw to cut off the rotten parts of the blocks before reprinting. That would account for the large gap between the two pages. When laying out the large sheets they therefore need to be spaced apart in order that the information on each sheet aligns with the adjacent ones.

Description of the Smithfield Section

Starting on the left with Holborn Bridge the eastern road forked into Newgate Street which runs through Newgate (Gate) and into the City. The other part of the fork is a narrow street called ‘Cowe Lane’ which no longer exists due to street re-alignment. Across the vertical gap are parts of a church which is St Sepulchre. A rebuilt church is still on that site. St Sepulchre is on the corner of Newgate Street and Giltspur Street which is shown on the map (unlabelled) leading to Pie Corner (marked by a small statue today) and then to the large open space of Smithfield.

To be quite accurate the open space was known as West Smithfield in contrast to East Smithfield a similar open space just north of the Tower of London (whose name is kept alive by a street of that name). West Smithfield was used for one of the largest cattle markets in England. Thousands of animals were brought to market each day to be sold for slaughter. The map only shows a very fer animals – hardly conveying what a busy place it was.

Animals were led to the market along Newgate Street and also Cowcross Street. ‘Cowe crosse’ is a name to be seen on the map towards the top left of this section. The street is still at that alignment today. Cattle also arrived from the north of England by being driven along St John Street of which only a tiny part is to be seen immediately left of the ‘gap’ at the top.

On the eastern side of Smithfield are shown the Great Gate, monastery church and many other buildings of the enormous Priory of St Bartholomew which is labelled ’S Bartholome’. About half the Norman monastery church is still standing and in use as a City parish church.

Smithfield today is probably best known for St Bartholomew’s Hospital – commonly known as ‘Bart’s’. The hospital was also founded in Norman times and is one of England’s oldest hospitals. On the Agas map it does not really stand out but it is represented by the cluster of lightly coloured buildings at the SE of the large yellow area, along with its church – with ’32’ on the tower – which is known as St Bartholomew the Less.

The hospital was (and is) very close to the Roman Wall that once surrounded the City. Most of that wall was demolished in 1760. The wall is clearly shown on the Agas map as well as one of the Roman gateways called Newgate. The actual gate was used as a small prison in Tudor times. By Victorian times Newgate Prison was built on a much larger site near the ancient gateway and became one of the most infamous in Britain.


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One Response to Smithfield on Agas

  1. James Crowe says:

    Another interesting post. Thanks.


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