London Off The Tourist Map: No. 1: Smithfield
London’s less obvious areas have porous boundaries. Confusing to the casual visitor, they are hardly ever clearly defined, and Smithfield exists in blurred patch of London that lies between Farringdon, the Barbican, the Thames and Clerkenwell. It was once known as Smooth Field and is one of London’s most magical places, and one of the least understood, a strange and secular world with its own rhythms and residents.
The area has been occupied since the Bronze Age, and was heavily occupied by the Romans. A number of religious orders came to the spot, the biggest being St Bartholomew the Great whose hospital for the poor was built and remains one of the world’s leading medical centres.
At the same time as providing succour and healing it became a place of punishment, standing between Newgate Prison and the Fleet Prison, and so an execution site. Catholics and Protestants were tortured and burnt there.
The area was always poor, and found itself in a perfect spot for resting cattle. By the eighteenth century hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle were brought to the market, but by the time they had been walked to London they were thin and sickly, and needed fattening up. Their waste was dumped into the Fleet waterway that ran to the Thames and eventually clogged solid with rotting animal parts. As the market rose and grew bigger, huge refrigerated cellars, far bigger than the buildings above ground, were dug and filled with hanging carcasses. They were connected to underground railway lines for faster delivery.
During WWII there was a desperate need to be able to launch and land aircraft from mid-ocean. Ice floats, so a bizarre plan was formed to created landing strips by building them in Smithfield’s ice cellars. When you add sawdust to water and ice you can make Pykrete, a shatterproof material that becomes self-insulating and is very slow to melt. This was the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that went on in the war. In the event, it wasn’t needed.
In 1958, the two and a half acres of the market’s labyrinthine basement caught fire. The matchboarded linings were impregnated with decades of animal fat, and turned until a relentless inferno with only one channel for the fire – through one of London’s most familiar landmarks, the ornate Poultry Hall, which burned to the ground.
The market’s ‘bumarees’ – newbie porters – are initiated by being dumped in a stock trolley, stripped naked, then pelted with eggs, flour and rotting offal. This still appears to happen.
Yet Smithfield’s history has still layered itself through its passages and alleyways because it escaped the greatest conflagrations; the Great Fire and the Blitz. And because its meat market still operated through the night, the area remains one of London’s only twenty four hour neighbourhoods, with restaurants, clubs and bars balanced against creative start-ups, locals, butchers and doctors. The one thing that has changed? Smithfield is no longer poor.
Now the market is to be sensitively restored (many of the unique structures are rotting away) and will become home to the Museum of London, which will move from its existing site by part of the London Wall in the Barbican.