Smithfield Market on the moo-ve after 900 years

One of my favourite less-visited parts of London is the area known as Smithfield.  Like many an ancient city in the Middle-East, India or elsewhere, London had and to an extent still has, districts that would specialise in certain produces such as gold, silver, fruit or meat.   Smithfield has been a meat market for more than 800 years and is one of the largest too.

Sadly, just as with the main fruit and vegetables and fish markets which moved a few decades ago, it seems that Smithfield Market is about to relocate out of its historic city centre location to an area further east.   Partly to allow expansion and modernisation and partly no doubt as the existing site is so incredibly valuable sitting as it does on the boundaries of the old Roman City of London as well as it being somewhat anachronistic to have the centre of the city meat trade in amongst financial and technological institutions.

In 1123, the area near Aldersgate was granted by King Henry I for the foundation of St Bartholomew’s Priory at the request of Prior Rahere, in thanks for his being nursed back to good health. The Priory exercised its right to enclose land between Aldersgate (to the east), Long Lane (to the north) and modern-day Newgate Street (to the south), erecting its main western gate which opened onto Smithfield, and a postern on Long Lane. The Priory thereafter held the manorial rights to hold weekly fairs, which initially took place in its outer court on the site of present-day Cloth Fair, leading to “Fair Gate”.

An additional annual celebration, the Bartholomew Fair, was established in 1133 by the Augustinian friars. Over time, this became one of London’s pre-eminent summer fairs, opening each year on 24 August. A trading event for cloth and other goods as well as being a pleasure forum, the four-day festival drew crowds from all strata of English society.

Royal 18 E I f.165v

The culmination of the Peasants Revolt took place at Smithfields

Originally known as Smoothfield, Smithfield was once a large open space just outside the city boundaries. It was used in the 12th century as a recreational area for jousts and tournaments.

Though it is fashionable to think for people in times part to me simple, the people of London made some sensible decisions with city planning.  One of the oldest hospitals was established here and at the other end of the scale, from the early 13th century Smithfield was used as a place of execution for criminals. Notably, Scottish leader Sir William Wallace was executed there in 1305.    No-one wanted executions right on their doorstep and by having them here, it was out of the way from the main city and the bodies could be easily disposed of or left for animals such as wolves to take them away.

Smithfield in the Middle Ages was a broad grassy area known as Smooth Field, located beyond London Wall stretching to the eastern bank of the River Fleet. Given its ease of access to grazing and water, Smithfield established itself as London’s livestock market, remaining so for almost 1,000 years. Many local street names are so-called due to the meat trade such as “Cow Cross Street” and “Cock Lane” and until the Victorian re-development of the area there were many more such as  “Chick Lane”, “Duck Lane”, “Cow Lane”, “Pheasant Court”, “Goose Alley”.


Smithfields as it was around 1561AD

In 1348, Walter de Manny rented 13-acre (0.05 km2) of land at Spital Croft, north of Long Lane, from the Master and Brethren of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, for a graveyard and plague pit for victims of the Black Death. A chapel and hermitage were constructed, renamed New Church Haw; but in 1371, this land was granted for the foundation of the Charterhouse, originally a Carthusian monastery.

From its inception, the Priory of St Bartholomew treated the sick. After the Reformation it was left with neither income nor monastic occupants but, following a petition by the City Corporation, Henry VIII refounded it in December 1546, as the “House of the Poore in West Smithfield in the suburbs of the City of London of Henry VIII’s Foundation”. Letters Patent were presented to the City, granting property and income to the new foundation the following month. King Henry VIII’s sergeant-surgeon, Thomas Vicary, was appointed as the hospital’s first superintendent. The King Henry VIII Gate, which opens onto West Smithfield, was completed in 1702 and remains the hospital’s main entrance.

The Priory’s principal church, St Bartholomew-the-Great, was reconfigured after the dissolution of the monasteries, losing the western third of its nave. Reformed as an Anglican parish church, its parish boundaries were limited to the site of the ancient priory and a small tract of land between the church and Long Lane. The parish of St Bartholomew the Great was designated as a Liberty, responsible for the upkeep and security of its fabric and the land within its boundaries. With the advent of street lighting, mains water, and sewerage during the Victorian era, maintenance of such an ancient parish with so few parishioners became increasingly uneconomical after the Industrial Revolution.

In 1910, it agreed to be incorporated by the Corporation of London which guaranteed financial support and security. Great St Barts’ present parish boundary includes just 10 feet (3.048 m) of Smithfield — possibly delineating a former right of way.

Smithfield and its Market, situated mostly in the parish of St Sepulchre, was founded in 1137, and was endowed by Prior Rahere, who also founded St Barts. The ancient parish of St Sepulchre extended north to Turnmill Street, to St Paul’s Cathedral and Ludgate Hill in the south, and along the east bank of the Fleet (now the route of Farringdon Street). St Sepulchre’s Tower contains the twelve “bells of Old Bailey”, referred to in the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”. Traditionally, the Great Bell was rung to announce the execution of a prisoner at Newgate.   The Old Bailey of course being one of the oldest courts in the world and again cleverly placed on the old city walls.


Victorian Smithfield Market.


Despite all of this history, at its heart, Smithfield has always been about the meat trade.  At times, the meat-trade and the execution business could happily though illegally help each other out when those tasked with disposing of the bodies would find eager purchasers in the meat-trade who having cut up and skinned the bodies would them be able to disguise the human flesh in those famous London meat pies to the impoverished masses who wouldn’t ask too many questions, if they even noticed at all, as to what was in their beef, lamb, pork or chicken pies.

In Victorian times, divorce was an expensive and shameful procedure and to avoid expense, men would bring their unwanted wives to Smithfield and swap them with other men which is why in Britain we sometimes use the term ‘meat-market’ when teenagers go to discos and clubs hoping to find a girlfriend.

Visit Smithfield in the day-time as I do and it is hard to imagine anything much going on but Smithfield is primarily a nocturnal market with hotels and restaurants buy vast quantities of meat.  Unlike 1,000 years ago when animals arrived on foot or 150 years ago when they came by train, these day the animals arrive as carcasses.

One thing that hasn’t changed however is the unusual tradition

Soon to be married male ‘bumarees’ (that’s Smithfield porters) are likely to suffer the ignominious tradition of being stripped to their birthday suit, then carried into a stock trolley, stripped naked, pelted with eggs, flour, offal and any other rotten matter the others can get their hands on. The poor newbie is then left in the trolley for a while to be gawped at by the general public. Welcome to Smithfield Market, hope you like the job!

A number of my tours with Ye Olde England Tours visit Smithfield including Sherlock, Great Crimes and Punishment, the Pub Crawl and the London Extended History Tour.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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8 Responses to Smithfield Market on the moo-ve after 900 years

  1. Thanks for this very interesting review with some great anecdotes.

    Liked by 1 person

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