Saving a cathedral to carcasses and meat

Reeling through the history of a famous London market and the campaign to save part of it from commercial development.

UPDATE July 2014: The result of the public inquiry into the future of Smithfield General Market was announced in early July and planning permission for the scheme was refused as “wholly unacceptable.”

Smithfield Meat Market (Photo by Sarah Ainslie and reproduced by kind permission.

Smithfield Meat Market (Photo by Sarah Ainslie and reproduced by kind permission.

Smithfield is an area soaked in London’s religious and civil history. It has seen the tournaments of kings and the execution of heretics, radicals and enemies of order such as William Wallace and Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants Revolt in 1381. It was the site of the infamous Bartholomew Fair, a summer fair closed down by the authorities for supposed debauchery and public disorder. Such London hedonism has gone full circle with the area hosting a nightlife plethora of bars, pubs and infamous clubs such as Fabric and the (now closed) Turnmills.

It is also infamous for its meat market which goes back nearly a thousand years because of easy access to open land and water provided by the now underground River Fleet.  The market expanded so that by the 19th century nearly two million animals every year were forcibly driven through the crowded, narrow ways of London bringing with them endless waves of terror, slaughter, effluvia, filth and pestilence. In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations he describes the old market: “I came into Smithfield, and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me.”

The solution to this “abomination…in the very heart of the most Christian and most polished city in the world” was to move the cattle market to Islington in 1855 and build a new meat market designed by the architect Sir Horace Jones and completed in 1868, with additional buildings added during the rest of the century. Animal carcasses were brought in by train to underground sidings beneath the market and then eventually by road.

Jones’s market is a large air and light cathedral of ornamental cast iron, stone, Welsh slate and glass. There is something other-worldly about Smithfield, a place where even time is bent to its purpose and the local pubs open for early-morning pints and breakfast. The market is quiet and empty in the evening but in the early hours, long before normal working London splutters into action, butchers with bloodied aprons and whistling porters work to their order and ritual. Carcasses and dejointed parts are wheeled about past bronze statues bearing the City’s coat of arms, and beneath carved stone griffins.

Photograph c. 1895 (Photo:

I regularly walked through the market in dark early mornings and remember the pungent smell of flesh, the rows of carcasses lined up on gleaming steel hooks and on counters beneath the brightly-painted cast iron. The pavements are hosed down to spare commuters the sight of blood and offal as they walk to work munching on sausage breakfast rolls.

Often at night I reeled around the old arcades, reeking of whisky and sin or I walked in from the east on my way to work in Clerkenwell taking in ancient churches, alleyways and hidden squares. Once walking past Barts with my mother she suddenly dropped to her hands and knees at the foot of a gate. To my brother and I’s astonishment, and that of passerbys, she eased her hand through the gap and started slowly, inch buy inch, lifting the inner bolt free. To her utter delight she had the gate open within a minute. It was a trick the nurses would use to bypass curfew for parties and dates. I still occasionally pass the gate and am always tempted to see if it still can be opened from the outside.  While training at Barts she persuaded the surgeons to be allowed her to watch operations, and then, only slightly changing tack, visited the market to watched skilled butchery and buy meat.

Grand Avenue, Smithfield Market (Photo: Insider London walks.

The current threat to Smithfield

Recently Hendersons Global Investors had proposed to partly-demolish the market halls of Smithfield General Market and replace them with office development. The proposal had been approved by the City of London Corporation and opposed by a campaign of conservation groups, writers, Londonphile figures and historians. The campaign was boosted last week by the Secretary of State Eric Pickles referring the matter to public inquiry.

None of the above is as yet threatened by the proposed development although the authorities would probably be quite happy to banish the meat market from the centre like so many other trades. In many ways this would be more practical but such history is often inconvenient in the modern age. The proposals only concern a quarter of the site, the general market, which has been derelict for some time, argued over, partly-modernised after a destructive and fatal fire  and more than a little tattered.

So should we care? The ghost of Betjamin hovers over this very place, reminding us of the threat to London’s heritage. He lived only yards away in the Cloth Fair, a hero to London for his campaign to save St Pancras and helping to develop a new consciousness about historical architecture that just in time saved Covent Garden from destruction.

The Henderson proposals cynically abuse this spirit by using a veneer of preservation that allows them to do a ‘scoop-out’ job: the gutting and hollowing out the historical interior while preserving the historical façade. It is a process that allows developers to claim a legacy of preservation and make a healthy profit.

Ironically the campaign to save Smithfield General Market seeks to preserve the heritage of Victorians, who like their butcher counterparts eyeing some lifestock, cheerfully gutted and eviscerated entire medieval streets and buildings. Nor would the Victorians, their power built on imperial and global wealth, have disapproved of the international capitalism behind the proposals.

Part of the currently derelict Smithfield General Market threatened by the Henderson proposal (Photo: Urban Space Management)

But Smithfield is a curiosity, an oddity, an inconvenient tradition harking back many centuries and a counter-balance to the proliferation of generic commercial development dominating Farringdon. The more historically sensitive and alternative proposal being developed by the campaigners with Urban Space Management would conserve the existing buildings for stalls, markets and cafes in a similar fashion to Borough Market. Intriguingly the plans may also develop the labyrinth of railway tunnels and storerooms beneath the market.

While the reference to the inquiry, mindful of the history and heritage of all the Smithfield markets and not just the listed parts, has postponed the Henderson development the future of Smithfield General Market is still unresolved. Watch this space for the battle for this and other buildings will always go on.

Update: July 2014

The result of the public inquiry into the future of Smithfield General Market was announced in early July and after hearing all the evidence from both sides, the Inspector and the Secretary of State have refused planning permission for the scheme by Henderson Global Investors.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage press release
Decision Letter and Inspector’s Report

Further information

SAVE Britain’s Heritage

Sarah Ainslie photography: The Smithfield Project

Urban Space Management

9 thoughts on “Saving a cathedral to carcasses and meat

  1. Great history of a fabulous London landmark. It is indeed an oddity of a building. I am trying to think of another Victorian wholesale market building in the UK that still survives as one (& can’t). It has an alien quality that must be the bane of corporate developers seeking a new progressive branding for the building.


    • Thanks for the comments dobraszczyk. You’re right – how it has survived as a meat market down the years is remarkable when there is so much pressure for development in London. Plus people like messy things in life like blood and carcasses to be done out of sight although it is much more sanitised than it used to be. Long more it prosper although as semi-vegetarian I find it a bit odd saying that.


  2. Here in South London we may potentially have the opposite problem – a Chinese conglomerate has put forward plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace… as a shopping mall and development of luxury flats. (Which of course is exactly what we need… I don’t think!) I’m all for preserving the metal-and-glass Victorian cathedral that is Smithfield (I too as a vegetarian feel a bit odd saying that) but I think the Crystal Palace in its current state – a rather Romantic ruin of a few bits of statuary and ironwork overgrown with brambles – is more beautiful and more useful to the surrounding community than a shiny, ersatz recreation ever could be.


    • Funnily enough I never visited Crystal Palace when growing-up and living in London but after a quick image I entirely agree with you, it is a rather lovely ruin. I couldn’t remember which era was obsessed with ruined abbeys and celebrated romantic era with etchings and drawings (I don’t think it’s the usual suspects, the Victorians – early Romantics?) so I did another quick search and came across this thought-provoking article.

      It argues against over-preserving faceless mounds of rock and stone that might have once been an abbey. However, even the writer would probably baulk at the idea of another shopping mall.

      Anyway, thanks for the comments – I shall watch what happens in Crystal Palace with interest.


  3. Really, really well-written. I loved the reference to “Great Expectations” — one of my favorite books, and the images reminded me of “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair. It is interesting to watch as cities around the world change and develop with time. What is worth saving? What should be started anew? I agree that there is quite a bit of history to be preserved there, though I too feel a bit funny saying that as I am mostly vegetarian as well!


    • Thanks Jessica – that is very kind of you. Dickens is the master of London writers and one of my favourite as well.

      The question of what is worth saving is very relevant at the moment. The Stirling Prize, a prestigious UK architecture award, was given to Astley Castle, a 12th century castle mostly destroyed by fire, which was re-built and modernised into a holiday home using the ruins of the original building. It was apparently ground-breaking and beautifully done so this might be one answer for some of these old buildings that are glorified piles of stone.


      • I would hope so. It seems sad to tear them all down. So much history… Here in New Orleans they are tearing down the country’s oldest Projects. Seems sad in some ways, but apparently they really *were* just piles of rubble. I suppose there should be a balance to everything.

        Hope you had a great weekend! 🙂


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