London Off The Tourist Map: No. 1: Smithfield

London

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.

11 comments on “London Off The Tourist Map: No. 1: Smithfield”

  1. SimonB says:

    Some fantastic iron work there. Do the pubs nearby still open at unexpected times to serve the needs of the market or has that just been subsumed into the general flexibility of licencing these days?

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    The London School of Barbering is there as well – free haircuts for men (and women if a traditional barber style is what’s wanted). Students may even photograph your head for their portfolio – which is a bit weird.

  3. admin says:

    The Cock Tavern no longer opens at 5:00am and has been replaced by the Oriole Bar, which serves fancy cocktails – a bit embarrassing for a burly porter!

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    Extendable drinking hours existed all over the place – steelworks that worked 24 hours a day and awarded workers 5 pints per shift to make up for lost sweat. The boozer shut between 1am and 5am.

    Fruit and veg markets where the pubs were open from 6am. Fish markets with pubs opening at 2am for the trawlers.

    Pubs closed during the day to stop munitions workers getting befuddled.

    Almost all business of one kind or another was done in the pub, where everyone knew everybody’s business but nobody knew nothing.

    Once went into a local bar at 9.00am with a pal who was a detective – he was in civvies and was having some personal problems so we went for an early startand a blokes chat (ended up an all – dayer). I got the first round in. The crew at the bar took one look at my mate and said ‘You’re the Filth?’ He said; ‘Yes, but I’m not here for bother.’ Drinking resumed.
    He said; ‘No matter how you’re dressed or what you’re doing they can spot you.’

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Peter, loved that story. You come across comments like that in fiction from all over. My husband says he can usually tell ex-military and RCMP, which are trained much the same way.
    That ironwork is really quite lovely and is very similar in design to London Bridge. Did they rebuild the Poultry Hall? That’s not the same location as 1 Poultry Place is it? (that striped rounded building.)

  6. Chris H says:

    Always nice to see Smithfield get a mention. You’ve conflated two markets in your potted history though – as the market grew to fill the open space available and with all the associated problems such as the waste in the Fleet that you mention, the result was that it closed entirely and was moved in 1855 to a new Metropolitan Market for livestock, later called Caledonian Market.
    The site of the old Smithfield market then lay generally unused for over a decade until the City decided to use the site for a meat market and the building was finished in 1868. It was extended in the 1870s to create the poultry market, and extended again to make the general market which opened in the 1880s. The cellars are about the same area as the buildings above but not as high, so are smaller not larger as you suggest, but it is a big building so the cellar of the poultry market that caught fire was indeed over 2 acres.

  7. admin says:

    I trimmed out mention of Cally Market because I’d written about it in the past, and took old BFI archive material as a source for the ‘cellars larger than buildings’ – thanks for pointing that out.

  8. Jan says:

    There a little building dunno if it’s actually part of Smithfield or just close by- in Long Lane is it? Not sure can’t quite remember. Well this little single storey redbrick building is an entry point to one of these large underground freezer spaces. So worried were the authorities when it came to defrosting that particular freezer space people went in fully kitted up in the same sort of gear they use when dealing with extremely contagious diseases. There was a genuine concern that some form of infection could be released when the space was returned to normal temperatures.( It’s a bit like that when I defrost my freezer.) Meat from all over the world was stored there Argentina, Australia, Brazil, South Africa.

    This building has very ornate stained glass windows and fancy plaster work. Surprising really that its not been repurposed mind it could have been by now. I have been gone a long time.
    Maybe fire regs require it be maintained as entrance/ exit way to the underground space.

    When they removed many of the very old coffins from a church on the border of the City and Holborn near Ely place the workers went in in similar gear just in case they released some version of the Black Death into modern London. The whole crypt was bagged up. Think I have mentioned this church cleansing before to you.

    After night duty on thursdays, fridays and saturdays we used to go for steak butties down at Smithfield followed by a pint or two. It’s so weird to be on the tube at about 0830 together with lots of smartly dressed city workers when you are half cut and totally knackered cos you have been awake for nearly 24 hours.

  9. Jan says:

    Strange the clock tower the last remaining part of The Cattle Market is now situated on the housing estate situated – I want to say between Carnegie and Copenhagen Street but not 100% about that. The roads which are close by the all weather football pitches. I should know have spent enough time around there. Very vibrant neighbourhood.

  10. Jan says:

    Brixton has some very high quality buildings which have been redeveloped to be appreciated during its gentrification over the last twenty or so years. Electric Avenue was of course one of the first streets to be lit by electricity. (Although the very first street in the UK to be lit by electricity was up in Newcastle. (oops inner anorak broken out once more. Deep breaths deep breaths) Yes some very nice property.

    Bombing during WW2 provided the space for council hi rise development.

    The high concentration of West Indian residents came about because many of the first West Indians who came to London in the 1950s were housed in underground shelters -leftover from WW2- and when they emerged to the surface the first place nearby with affordable property to rent was in Brixton. These shelters being at Stockwell and Clapham.

    There’s some interesting work to be done one day about why people from different islands came to different cities. Birminghams got a massive Jamaican population. That’s why in 2012 the Jamaican athletics team were based for initial pre games training at Birmingham university. The team would be made up of the children and grandchildren of the folks who had stayed behind when their neighbours and relatives made the move. All the team members relatives and friends supporting them had contacts and available accommodation locally in Birmingham.

    Course this is not only happening in the UK but in France, Belgium, Germany and Holland. What specifically brings people from particular parts of the old colonies into specific areas of a country? Lots of Indian and Bangladeshi people headed to the North of the UK figuring there would be available employment within the Mills which wove the cotton they had been involved with growing and picking in India. It’s interesting topic what moves people where.

    In Brixton the same first families who eventually bought property locally have pretty much cashed in their property chips and joyfully legged it into the suburbs. Wealthy white middle class trendies having bought into a hugely inflated property market in the area. Strangely the first wave of gentrifiers have moved along with the locals. Off to Purley or somewhere else ripe for gentrification I suppose.

    Also there’s a big Portuguese population in the North bit of Brixon. Some lovely local Portuguese restaurants. Can’t remember what brought this about. Of course all the inner boroughs S of the river very influenced by the old docks and which wharves certain nations used. Such an interesting subject.

    Best I stop blathering Grand National today …..

  11. Ian Luck says:

    A huge fry up at stupid o’ clock in the morning, washed down with a pint of bitter in a pub in Smithfields? Nothing better, in my way of thinking. Trips to London in the early 1980’s always started this way. And why not?

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