Today (November 24) in London History – Smithfield

Iconic (yes, I know, overused word, but in my estimation it’s called for here) – iconic Smithfield Market opened on November 24th, 1868. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

So many handholds with this one. 

We can start with a gv, a general view. A wide-angle shot. Start with the year, and then zoom in to today, November 24th.

Our year is 1868. The annus mirabilis of Victorian architecture. 1868 brought us the Hop and Malt Exchange in Southwark. And we got the spectacular Abbey Mills Pumping Station – the Cathedral of Sewage. How do you go wrong with a sewage pumping station that’s Byzantine in appearance, complete with red and green Moorish domes and a vast iron-galleried engine hall. Then there’s Boy George’s house, The Logs, on East Heath Road in Hampstead, all turrets and galleries and a razzle-dazzle of styles ranging from Italianate to Gothic.  Take my word for it, these are must-not-be-missed buildings.

But – and now we zoom in – our building is Smithfield Market. It opened on this day, November 24th, 1868.

But – this is London – things are never quite that simple. It’s one of the reasons this place is so fascinating – it’s complex and complicated and infolded and layered and many-hued.

In this instance, Smithfield, yes, it opened on November 24th, 1868. But it also opened in 1875 and in 1883. Which is by way of saying, it was built in three sections.The central meat market – that’s where we are today, what we’re marvelling at. Seven years later – 1875 – the poultry and provision market came along. And then the baby of the family, the fruit and vegetable market, pitched up in 1883.

We’ll come back to our opening on this day in London history, November 24th, 1868. 

But let’s first head over to another series of handholds, see where they take us. In short, let’s move from architecture to architect. Let’s get to know, however briefly, Horace Jones. He’s a Londoner through and through. Born at 15 Size Lane, Bucklersbury. The son of a solicitor. As a mere stripling, he begins his practice as an architect at 16 Furnivall’s Lane, Holborn. 

And frankly, he’s something of a plodder. He does his time, pays his dues. And then – he’s in his mid-40s – it happens. His career takes off. The turning point is his appointment, in 1864, as architect and surveyor to the City of London. 

Buckle up, folks. Because what follows is an extraordinary ride. The late 1860s is the first phase of Horace Jones’ great period. That first great period gives us Smithfield Market. That’s late 1860s. In the middle phase – the late 1870s and early 1880s – he gives us the reconstructed wholesale fish market at Billingsgate, the Griffin Memorial marking the site of Temple Bar and then for good measure, Leadenhall Market. And then his last hurrah – in fact it wasn’t completed until after his death – Tower Bridge, one of London’s most famous landmarks.

I don’t know, it may be a London nerd thing or a London Walks guide thing – but there’s something very satisfying about going to these places and thinking, “I know who built you. And I know what else he built.” These structures, architecturally they’re part of the Himalayas of London. Knowing a little about them, knowing about Horace Jones and when he did them, it’s akin to watching a time-lapse film of the birth of the real Himalayas.

And for a third series of handholds, the history of Smithfield. 

Again, to put it in photographic terms, were you to shoot from a satellite a time-lapse thermal imaging recording of London’s history, Smithfield would be the hottest spot of the whole shebang. No other place in London has seen as much history as Smithfield. You can start with the name. It’s not named for Captain John Smith or some other distinguished Smith. Smithfield is a corruption of the smooth field. And because it was flat and level and just outside the city, tournaments were held in Smithfield. Knights jousted there. Giltspur, the name of the street that runs up to Smithfield from Newgate, is another reminder of that chapter in the area’s history. Knights would ride through the gate. Fully kitted out in their armour. They’d ride up that lane to the smooth field. Their spurs would glint in the sunlight. The sun would appear to gild their spurs. Ergo the name. 

It was in Smithfield that that extraordinary character Rahere – he was, variously, a Norman priest and monk, a courtier, a jester, and a minstrel – anyway it was in Smithfield that Rahere founded Barts, the oldest hospital in the United Kingdom and the second oldest hospital in Europe. That was in 1123. Nine hundred years ago now.

Smithfield was where the great Scottish patriot William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered. It was in Smithfield that the peasant’s rebellion climaxed. It was in Smithfield that the first protestant martyrs were put to death – burned to death at the stake. It was in Smithfield that Bartholomew Fair – the Tudor equivalent of Mardi Gras – roistered every year at summer’s end. It was in the precincts of Smithfield that the great Puritan poet John Milton went to ground – went into hiding – after the Restoration.

Smithfield took a beating in the Great War. To this day the scars of that beating – shrapnel damage from bombs dropped from a Zeppelin – pockmark the wall running along the front of Barts. A generation later Smithfield copped a V2 rocket. The list just goes on and on. Including of course the climax of everybody’s favourite film, Four Weddings and a funeral. 

And all of those matters are just the setting for the opening, on this day in 1868, of Horace Jones’ Smithfield Market. 

It was a game-changer for London. As the Times put it, “The opening of the meat and poultry market in Smithfield was an affair of national importance. Up to now, the greatest city in Europe has been behind all others in respect of public markets. For seven centuries, dating from 1150, historic Smithfield had been used as a market for livestock. Within our own time its continued application for such a purpose was felt to be intolerable.”  Why intolerable? Well, all those cattle and geese and other animals being herded into Smithfield – all the noise and stench and turmoil and excrement. And then being slaughtered there. A corner of London turned into an abattoir. Blood and foam in the streets. Offal flung into the Fleet River. A breeding ground for rats and disease. Smithfield was the live cattle market. And just to the south of it, was the meat market, Newgate Market.

Let’s hear from the people who experienced that London, who lived it. Here’s the Times again.

London is about to lose a very old friend, but few tears are likely to be shed over its memory. 

A new love, with all the advantages of youth and beauty, takes the place of the old. 

The opening of the Metropolitan Meat Market yesterday has doomed Newgate market to destruction, and when it has gone we shall all probably be marvelling how it ever came to be tolerated so long.

 It has been, perhaps, the most remarkable standing monument that even London can boast of how much inconvenience and discomfort Englishmen will bear if only they have grown up to it from plastic youth, and learnt to look upon it as a national institution. The flourishing citizens of the first city in the world are, we believe, entitled to the credit of having long patiently endured the worst Meat Market possessed by any town of repute in Europe….It is to the very badness of the old market that we owe the new one. And Perhaps the best and briefest eulogy we can bestow upon the Metropolitan Market is that it is conspicuously free from all the faults of its predecessor.”

A final point, a final set of hand-holds.

Beginning with another point the Times was at pains to stress. Here’s how they put it, “The site on which the new market has been erected is considered by the Corporation to be the most central in London.”

Location, location, location. It was important then. It’s important now.

And here we catch a glimpse of a hugely important, fundamental truth about London. Namely that this town is forever renewing itself. We’re well into the 21st century now. Horace Jones’s Meat Market is still going. But its days are numbered. In just a wink of time – five years from now – a wink of time considering that Smithfield’s been a livestock and latterly a meat market for over eight hundred years – in just a wink of time the market will move to Dagenham.

But Horace Jones’ market structure isn’t going anywhere. Well, it’s going to be renewed, reinvigorated. repurposed. Get a new lease of life. It’s going to be a cultural hub, the centrepiece of which will be the new Museum of London. And what do you know, the Director of the Museum of London has made the point that the location is perfect in every respect. It’s perfect because there’s been so much London history there. It’s a historic hub. But also because the new Queen Elizabeth line, going to and through Farringdon as it does, means Smithfield is going to be in the exact centre of London. Ten, fifteen minutes from West London you’re in Smithfield. Ten, fifteen minutes from East London you’re in Smithfield. In 1868 – excited about their new addition to London – they were stressing location location location – the site was the most central in London. 

A century and a half later, excited about our new addition to London – the renewed and rehoused Museum of London – the director of the Museum is stressing location location location. The Museum of London’s new site – new site which is also an old site, very London, that – the Museum of London’s new site is going to be in the exact centre of London. It’s going to be the beating heart of London. 

Having written that last sentence I said to myself, “ok, David, free-associate – that last thought, is there a single word it brings to mind?”

“Yes, David” – I said, talking to myself – “thrilling” – that’s the word. 

And a Today in London recommendation. Farringdon station and the Elizabeth Line just got a mention. One of the things that was so innovative, so new about Horace Jone’s creation was the railway station underneath it.

The anonymous Spitalfields Life blogger – she calls herself the gentle author – puts it very well.

She says, The great drama lies beneath. Here is an enormous black underground cavern, wider than the market above, with a vaulted roof of brick, grimy from steam trains. This was constructed as a railway station where trains from the London docks once brought meat which arrived from across the world. Deliveries were unloaded onto carts that drove up the ramp to the market above.”

Well, inasmuch as railways are an important part of this story, how about a trip over the way to the nearby Postal Museum? They’ve got their own little miniature railway. The Mail Rail. It’s miniature but it’s not a train set. It held bags of mail which means it can also hold people. And it’s a hoot, the Mail Rail ride. Or in my case – and in the case of about 70 per cent of its takers – it’s the Male Mail Rail ride. Five-star recommendation from David Walks, as my mate Orlando at Hornets in Kensington has taken to calling me. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *