City of London Markets

Above: Outline map showing the City’s markets and the new proposed site at Dagenham (Click on image to enlarge to 1280×800).

The City of London has had several important markets which have been in existence for hundreds of years. Some of them are so well-known that their names are familiar to English speaking people around the world. Take Billingsgate Fish Market as an example. Smithfield Meat Market is another. Covent Garden Market would probably be a third. Billingsgate and Smithfield have both been markets in the City of London and we shall list a few others in a moment. Covent Garden Market – the name of a fruit and vegetable market as well as the famous opera house – was not in the City of London but situated further west on a site just north of the Strand (in the City of Westminster). One other market is Borough Market – once famous for fruit and vegetables – is not in the City of London either, being south of the Thames (in the London Borough of Southwark). It is the City of London markets that are under consideration in this article.

Until the 1970s, the City of London was well-known for its wholesale markets – supplying shops and restaurants as well as large organisations. While all the markets were mainly wholesale, they would also sell goods to members of the public who turned up in person. Starting in the west of the City and working towards the east, it was an impressive list.

Smithfield Meat Market, as most people called it, started on the west side of the City in the 12th century as a livestock market, with hundreds if not thousands of cattle, sheep, pigs and often poultry being brought to a large open field and sold live to the City’s butchers. In the 19th century, refrigeration was invented and the animals could be slaughtered on farms and their meat kept fresh. It was then referred to by the Victorians as the ‘dead meat market’. Its actual name was London Central Markets.

Leadenhall Market, standing beside Gracechurch Street and Leadenhall Street, right in the centre of the City, was smaller in area than the other markets and over the centuries sold many commodities. By Victorian times, when the large structure that we know today was erected, it was famous for meat and poultry as well as fruit, vegetables and some fish. During the mid-20th century, the market gradually declined and by the 1990s its activities had ceased.

Billingsgate Market, just a short distance east of London Bridge, in what is now called Lower Thames Street, started life as a wholesale market for corn and coal. It was not until the 17th century that the market became famous for the sale of fish. That market was transferred in the 1980s to a new site just north of Canary Wharf.

Spitalfields Market, situated on the NE edge of the City’s boundary, derived its name from standing on fields that had once been part of the large religious house called St Mary Spital. The market started in the 17th century and sold fruit, vegetables and flowers. In the 1990s the market was transferred to a large new site near Stratford.

The four markets just named are all controlled by the City of London and all operated on land owned by the City, regardless of where they are situated. For anyone who remembers the 1960s, it was a matter of pride that you could say that the markets were still in operation on sites that went back many centuries. However, the streets of London were becoming busier. Traders supplying those markets and retailers buying from the markets were finding the roads to be increasing clogged with heavy traffic, making each market very hard to access. With delivery lorries and retailer’s lorries stuck on traffic jams, time was money which was being wasted while negotiating the narrow streets.

Although few people wanted to face the hard facts, the ‘writing was on the wall’ for the City’s markets. Their days were numbered and relocating to new sites was essential if they were to continue as viable businesses. The first market to make a move was Billingsgate which, in 1982, relocated to a large site just north of the Canary Wharf Estate. The old building in the City was converted into offices and a function venue. Between the 1980s and the 1990s, the shops in Leadenhall Market – selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, meat and fish – gradually closed down one by one, as trade declined. The market buildings are still in existence but are now in use as coffee shops, restaurants and sandwich bars.

Spitalfields Market was the nest to move from the City to a new much larger site near Stratford in 1991, having celebrated 350 years on the original site. In 2005 new offices were built on half of the old covered market, leaving the other half to continue as market premises for a completely different kind of trader. While Spitalfields Market was on the move, large sums of money were being spent on the modernisation of the Victorian premises at Smithfield. The big question being asked was ‘Would all this money being spent be a good investment?’ Everyone said that it would but, with the benefit of hindsight, it is now realised that Smithfield is in the wrong place today for it to be a success.

That brings us right up to date. At the time of writing [2019], the City of London has finally admitted that more drastic measures are needed if the markets – which are still under their control – are to survive, even though two of them are no longer within the City’s Boundary. Although the boundary of the City of London is static, Greater London continues to develop as old sites fall into disuse and new plans bring new ideas. In 2019 the City of London took the bold step to purchase the site of a disused power station at Dagenham, in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (an Outer London Borough). The site is so huge that all the City markets can be accommodated on it and, by all being in one place, they can become even greater than the sum of their parts.

The move will require legislation that will not be passed until November 2020 at the earliest. Once everything is finalised, new market buildings will have to be constructed and it will not be until after everything is complete that the existing markets can make their move. It could even be a decade away. The whole concept makes sense. The new site is beside the Thames which means that some goods could be moved by water. Being well outside the centre of London, access for road transport will be easier and the well-known Inner London traffic jams will be a thing of the past. The new site is only a short distance from the M25 orbital road around London.

It is all too late for Leadenhall Market to be part of the market scene. Smithfield – which has traded on its ancient site since at least 1174, being described as ‘a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold’ as well as ‘swine… and cows and oxen’ – will certainly benefit from the move. It is already being ‘bypassed’ by most meat lorries which deliver their loads or meat from farms to large processing units located around the M25. The move of Billingsgate market to Poplar was seen as a good one in the 1980s but London has grown out of all expectation since then and it is high time that it was moved to a new site like the one at Dagenham. A similar argument can be made for Spitalfields which, although it is beside the main thoroughfare leading to Blackwall Tunnel, it could benefit from being nearer to the M25.

Unlike most of the blogs on this Website – which tell the history of an ancient site – this one looks forward to future developments. It is interesting to observe that what looked like a good site at one point in time is now seen as being a poor choice with the benefit of hindsight. Will the new moves save these historic markets? Perhaps in the new globalisation of trade, even this move will be overtaken by new ways of handling food in the future.


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6 Responses to City of London Markets

  1. Tony says:

    Was Smithfield the only meat market in London in 1901? In the 1901 census my great grandfather was listed as a butcher at the meat market. The address is listed as Shandon Road Clapham. If Smithfield was the only meat market in 1901 would the tram or railway been the way to get to work from Clapham in 1901.


    • In 1901 Smithfield sold only slaughtered meat. Live animals were being sold at the Caledonian Road market in Islington. For transport from Clapham to Smithfield, there were some buses but, as you say, also trams and trains. Trams never ran through the City so the City part of the journey could have been by bus. With the right connections, it was also possible to take a train to Holborn which was very close to Smithfield.


  2. Tony says:

    Have you done anything on the Metropolitan Cattle Market?
    An ancestor of mine in the 1911 census worked as a horse keeper and lived near the market
    Was the Metropolitan Cattle Market connected to Smithfield or was it just for live animals
    On my OS maps of the time (1892-1914) there are slaughterhouses marked as well as the market building, The market buildings are all gone now, that is the site of Caledonian Park.
    Did animals get slaughtered there and moved to the Smithfield after


    • The Metropolitan Cattle Market has no article at the moment. The live cattle market was moved from Smithfield to Caledonian Road and Smithfield only sold what the Victorians called ‘dead meat’.


  3. Tony says:

    Thanks for the reply and the interesting and informative posts
    Can I just repeat the key question for me.
    In 1901 was Smithfield the only (dead) meat market in metropolitan London,
    I suppose I want to know with what level of certainty am I saying that the detail in the 1901 census meant my great grandfather worked at Smithfield.


  4. Thank you for your kind comments. Coming back to your question, you have to understand that many butchers in 1901 were (as their shop fronts often said) ‘butchers and graziers’. Butchers often bought live animals and kept them in a field near to their shops until they needed to sell more meat in the shop. They then slaughtered the animal at the back of the shop and chopped it up into joints of meat. My local butcher (in SE London) still had ‘butcher and grazier’ beside his name over the shop – until Tesco took over from most butchers. So, there was local slaughtering of animals as well as those who worked at Smithfield. Just because he worked at a slaughterhouse does not mean he definitely worked at Smithfield.


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