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 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.
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.
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.
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.