London’s 2nd Most Famous Landmark Vanishes


This vast edifice once came after Big Ben in the list of London’s most visited landmarks.

Everyone in the city knew it, and it was much loved. Its history has been almost entirely wiped away, except in the logbook of the London Fire Brigade. I cobbled together this photo from shots taken during its devastating destruction, filmed by a Pathe Newsreel team. So, a grand tower, but why did it mean so much?

One reason is that it marked one of the oldest continuously used sites in the city – Smithfield. A green space that went from knightly tournaments to public executions, and eventually a cattle market.

In 1958, Poultry Hall burned to the ground. The building was immense – an entire city block was topped with this ornate, elegant tower. Two and a half acres of labyrinthine basement had caught fire. The building’s linings were impregnated with decades of animal fat, and turned the flames into a relentless blowtorch of an inferno with only one escape channel, through the vast circular roof.

The meat lockers below were lined with flammable insulation, cork affixed by tar. It was as if the place had been built as a giant candle lined in tallow. Firefighters were sent in, and died. The underground parts were a maze that quickly got you lost, and they were cut off by the flames. The meat, fat and grease provided ample fuel that burned for three days. Flames eventually gutted the market floor and toppled the roof. Station Officer Jack Fort-Wells and Firefighter Dick Stocking from the Clerkenwell Fire Station died in the cold storage lockers in the early stages of the battle, which was ultimately waged by 1,700 firefighters and 389 appliances. Dozens were injured.

The ornate building was replaced with a concrete shell – the largest freestanding concrete structure in Britain – and it’s pretty ugly, although you can get an idea of the size when you stand beneath it.

Now the old market is to house the Museum of London, which is leaving its Barbican home, but it’s a massive project that will take a long time to finish, and the museum has gone mysteriously quiet on the project lately. They had a competition for the new design and selected (IMHO) the right design. But has anyone heard anything more about the plans?


27 comments on “London’s 2nd Most Famous Landmark Vanishes”

  1. SimonB says:

    According to Ian Visits the planning application has now been submitted and most of the funding is in place. I’ve put the link to his latest piece on it under my name.

  2. snowy says:

    Planning Application has gone in, fundraising still £42M short.

    Bear in mind these things always take an absolute age, they are usually late and wildly over budget. [The target is £337M – 2025].

    [From Press Release dated 13/01/2020 – linked above]

  3. snowy says:


  4. Peter Dixon says:

    In Newcastle there was a rail goods depot at Manors, adjacent to the city centre, that was bombed during the war – it was full of sugar and burned for over a week.

    It always amazes me that significant landmarks can suddenly disappear – people think that the north-east is full of coal mines and pit heads but you would have to be Sherlock Holmes to find any sign of them now. They are all housing estates or ticky tacky ‘industrial parks’ or possibly nature reserves because the land is so polluted you can’t build domestic dwellings on it. There isn’t a museum to shipbuilding on the Tyne or the Wear so things that were landmarks for 100 years have simply ceased to exist.

    !0% of that London Museum budget would make a hugely significant change to somewhere like Tyneside where the railways were born, navies from 3 continents were built by Vickers Armstrong, the revolutionary steam turbine was built (and subsequently shamed the Royal Navy at the Spithead Review) and the first electric lightbulbs were developed. Plus we invented windscreen wipers for cars.
    We also supplied London’s domestic coals for over 150 years.

    We’ve also got some fascinating churches, including the place where The Venerable Bede lived, Durham Cathedral, and Hadrian’s Wall, plus the first house to be powered by hydro-electricity.

    London is fascinating, exotic and ridiculously rich. Its a shame that the places where wealth was made a century and a half ago get little recognition (or funding) of their contribution (monetary, culturally, intellectually and industrially) to what positioned London as the dominant city after WW2.

  5. admin says:

    Peter, having read ‘The Britain That Was Lost’ I totally agree. The disrespect for historical buildings is staggering. I’m especially horrified at what has happened to Manchester.

    A friend staged a show in York about the Cadbury girls, who replaced men during the war – an amazing story that (it turned out) no-one I spoke to had heard of. I’m not sure we need a coal mine-themed family outing centre though.

    I remember as a child passing a coaching inn called The Bull which was one of the last completely unaltered coach-stops in the country. It was demolished to build a Tesco superstore on the site. An embarrassment of riches makes us careless about what we still have.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    During the modernisation carried out in the 1960s in Liverpool , my nan used to say-“The town planners are succeeding where Hitler’s bomb failed”

  7. Jan says:

    What I found really interesting about the Smithfield site was the small single storey red brick building which if I remember rightly (dodgy ground already) was an emergency exit from the vast refrigerated stores beneath Smithfeld itself. This little building facing East I think looking roughly toward the vast post office depot is in Little Britain. Fantastic little building Edwardian I think but possibly late Victorian. The fire that causd the widespread destruction of Smithield ‘s refrigeration actually -almost unbelievably- didn’t cause the entire meltdown of all the access and storage here beneath this little outpost. Extensive underground tunnelling which was refrigerated and some additional storage space . Which left the City and Smithfield authorities with a bit of a problem ….that is how to defrost this bit of the fridge!! There were allegedly real concerns that bacteria could have survived within the iced up unit which upon release from the ice could pose real difficulties. (Honestly not winding you up.) Eventually the whole thing must have been debacteriafied cos it turned into some sort of bar or club. But was semi derelict for ages. Awful really that Smithfield itself has now gone. Good place to go drinking at about 5a.m. or after night’s. Are the gates and domed structure at the main entrance retrieved from the first building or recreations?

  8. Roger says:

    I think all the new buildings in London now are deliberately designed to be so boring or ugly that no-one will care or object when they’re knocked down and something just as boring or ugly is put up in their place.
    I can remember over fifty years ago as a child in Lancashire there were still mill chimneys – possibly even working cotton mills – but seeing pictures of the towns now they’ve all gone.
    “As Mr. Osbert Sitwell remarked at the time of the ‘Baedeker raids’—how simple-minded of the Germans to imagine that we British could be cowed by the destruction of our ancient monuments! As though any havoc of the German bombs could possibly equal the things we have done ourselves!” George Orwell, right again, Brian Evans.

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    The Cadbury Girls or Cadbury Angels are remembered by a few around Birmingham, especially Bournville. The few being those who recall or value our manufacturing heritage. Many factories in the West Midlands recruited women into what had been blue collar, men’s jobs during both World Wars.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Right. The area in Old Monkland (south of Glasgow) where my grandfather and his brothers were born and worked in a coal mine has disappeared and is now mostly covered by housing. There is, however, an excellent museum called Summerlee, with magnificent iron gates commemorating the men who worked in the area. It is on the site of a steel works. You can trace the old canal and there’s that inn/pub called the Waterman that was for sale 10 years ago.

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    The destruction of Manchester is still on-going. If you think the London skyscrapers are bad, come and have a look at the rectangular blocks they put up here. At least the Shard is trying to do something, and I quite like the Gherkin, it reminds me of an old SF drawing of a fat rocket ship. As for the walkie talky well it’s different and has the superpower to melt the paint on cars. Our big tower has a fence on top (to make it look like the tower disappears in the sky – it doesn’t and has red-lights on it at night, so we at least we know it’s open for business, although it does disappear into the clouds which sometimes hang low over Manchester.) that made so much noise it effected the shooting of Coronation Street.


  12. Jan says:

    Wayne is the tower you are on about the one that’s sort of divided into two vertically looks like a mega giant version of one of those Chocolate parcel decorations that you hang up on an Xmas tree? Where one wrapped piece of chocolate is tied to another.

    The one with the very large trees growing through it?

    Very strange.

    Wot I found weirdest about town wasn’t the disappearance of buildings so much it was that whole streets or blocks seemed to have just gone. Very odd – town planning or architecture on steroids.

    There’s few decent buildings sneaked into the City the Gherkin is pretty much liked but suddenly its been dwarfed by buildings that just seem to get into the way of each other. They have destroyed each others sight lines pretty much. Like a load of tall drunks blocking your way to the bar!

  13. Ian Luck says:

    I was surprised to discover that Manchester actually had a coal mine in the city, and in recent enough times to be photographed – I find that astonishing. The youtuber Martin Zero has made many fascinating videos about Manchester, above, and below ground, in it’s drains, canals, and rivers, documenting what was, what is, and what shortly won’t be. His research is always good, too. He’s a good host and guide, in a definite ‘Fred Dibnah’ sort of way. I enjoy watching and reading things that make me think:
    “I did not know that.” His videos do that every time. Well worth watching

  14. My mother worked at Charterhouse, right next to Smithfield, and walked through there on her way to work each day from the mid-sixties on. I don’t think she realized that the Poultry Hall had ever existed. And if she noticed the ruins, might have thought they were left over from the war. She was always that Charterhouse had survived so long, starting with Henry VIII not razing it in the Reformation…

  15. jan says:

    Hello Gabi! What did your mum do at Charterhouse? (don’t mind me being nosey) Charterhouse is a fantastic place one of the last real remnants of the City of London laid out in the Medieval period and probably at it greatest a bit later on.

    most of that City and the lands which abutted it are gone( Charterhouse itself is in LB Islington is it not?)drovers ways, orchards and market gardens. Probably duck ponds and the Fleet running above ground where fish were regularly caught. The almshouses are wonderful and the idea that people still live communally to an extent carrying on the idea of the Carthusian monastry that held this space initially. it makes you wonder how it could have survived such an anachronism in itself… does this partiuclar place carry onpretty much in the spirit of its founders when all around it becomes concerned with wealth manipulation of money

  16. Jan says:

    Worth remembering really it was just the poultry part of Smithfield that did go up. Only the one particular hall. What’s pictured above is pretty much still visible. Or what’s left in situ is pretty much a reflection of this same design. It’s a huge site as is the Old P.O. Depot practically next door. The PO site has links into the old underground Civil defence network of I remember rightly. Barts hospital is also partially defunct now and sections of the hospital seem to have become the site of residential flat dwellings. The hospital still functions but either has been partially relocated or lots of ward space has disappeared.

    Actually you know Smithfield might be almost too big a site for the Museum of London. Unless lots of stuff is going to come out of storage. I wonder if this mysteriously quiet hiatus has something to do with some mega lush property deal being thrashed out as a side issue?

  17. Jan says:

    It’s wrong of me I know I am completely lopsided in my view of this but although Manchester’s my home city Manchester and Salford – being the twin cities of the North. Conjoined twins at that closer than Leeds to Bradford even. I just can’t muster up the same enthusiasm for Manchester’s oddities, quirks, nooks and crannies as I feel for similar Londons features.

    I suppose essentially because I spent over thirty years exploring London spending hours
    walking round all sorts of places. I got the time to do the place properly. Spending me with blokes who knew their bit of town very very well. People who wanted to share that knowledge.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    It is impossible to know a place when you are only visiting it. It’s all very well for locals to say, “Just wander off the main streets, you’ll find all sorts of things in the back streets.” Perhaps you will and perhaps you’ll just have really sore legs. London is better than most because there is so much in such a small space.

  19. Diane Englot says:

    Gosh, what a story! First time I’ve heard of this, so thanks. Was there ever a book written about it?

  20. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – I urge you to give Martin Zero’s videos a look. They’re good fun for a start, and he has a pleasant habit of putting ‘then and now’ maps on the screen, to show how things have changed. He once pointed out an arrow carved into the stonework of a canal behind what once was ‘FAC51’, the famed Haçienda Club, and said that it showed the position of a small underwater trapdoor, that, when opened, allowed the canal water to flow into a culverted river. Some months later, work on the canal revealed that trapdoor, and he was allowed to film it, and the drained canal. That video got over a million views. I’ve only been to Manchester twice, and not recently, either, but I love these videos. I do enjoy watching people who are passionate about something, sharing it.

  21. Jan says:

    Well I did do Ian. Yes I enjoyed the plug hole in the canal! In fact I can remember Tib Street and Whitworth Street is – if I’ve remembered it properly where the Art Gallery is. Yes I enjoyed it and it was nice to hear the bloke talk he talked like home.

    I never realised when you were talking about a Colliery in Mancs that you meant Agecroft! I can remember Agecroft very clearly. I can remember one of my mates from Worsley Tech who was a bit political going and supporting the picketing there when the first miners strike was on the Edward Heath v the miners first round in 1973. I’ve got vague recollections of folk getting nicked outside or maybe it’s just memories of Debbie talking about the blokes picketing there getting lifted.

    Yes that was interesting too. Never realised it went in 1994! I knew there was something I wasn’t seeing up there! Think you could see that place out of our back bedroom window. Great view right across the Irwell river valley. Up right up into the Pennines and from our back garden across in the direction off the MCR Ship Canal (Before the Eccles Overspill went in) a view across to the Derbyshire hills. I

    No thanks for that much appreciated.

  22. Wayne Mook says:

    The Manchester pit was The Bradford Pit (Bradford – Manchester just near Beswich.), it closed in the late 60’s, although I did hear there was activity until the 70’s. I guess it’s who you believe. There is is a fault there that the mining reopened and the resulting subsidence destroyed a building, there is coal there but the fault made it no longer
    a financial going concern. The pit head is actually where Man City’s ground is (When the Commonwealth Stadium – AKA The City of Manchester Stadium – now The Etihad, was being built here were a number of earthquakes in Manchester and the area, some now think it was due the the stadium construction and mine.) The mine runs from the Etihad to the Great Ancoats St. A friend told me the Ashton mine was closed when it almost reached the Manchester Mine.

    Agecroft did last until the 90’s, it seems odd the Salford pit lasted until then, the power station there was the main customer which went in the 90’s too.

    The destruction of whole areas in Manchester can be quite shocking, the building work is starting to spread too, too places like Bolton.

    The tower that effected Coronation St. is the Beetham Tower, it has a fence on top. There is a taller tower that has been topped, but not yet finished at Deansgate Square (Owen St.) it is part residential. Trinity Island is the next one about to start and will be a ‘vertical village’,Trinity X will be taller again, it will be on Water St. and they say there will even be a boat club to take advantage of the Irwell. The blurb says, ‘there will be nearly 1400 apartments, over 500 car parking and 2000 cycle spaces, flexible working opportunities, sky gardens and observation decks, along with a ground level high street comprised of farmer’s markets, shops, cafes, gyms, educational facilities and event areas.’

    The thing with London Jan is it is a lot bigger than Manchester and has a lot more to it. Even Pre-Roman we had the Brigante, but little is known of them in this area, Queen Cartimandua is thought to have had her headquater’s in Stanwick in North Yorkshire. She sold Caratacus down the river to the Romans, sadly a lot is not known before her.

    Even our local knight Sir Tarquin, was a bad ‘un, eating a baby for breakfast so his neighbours left the area, the evil Saxon was finally beaten by Sir Lancelot. Lancashire named after Lancaster, of the river Lune and the Saxon/Old English for a roman fort, but the Lancelot connection goes this way – from The Traditions of Lancashire – ‘The name of Lancelot is derived from history, and is an appellation truly British, signifying royalty, Lanc being the Celtic term for a spear, and lod or lot implying a people. Hence the name of Lancelot’s shire, or Lancashire.’ Although he is said to be from Brittany, before being taken by Vivian the nymph & mistress of Merlin, but some how ends up at Martin Mere or Mar-tain-moir, “a water like the sea.” Hence Lancelot of the Lake. (You can get the book from the Gutenberg Project.)

    Sorry, I rambled.


  23. jan says:

    i’ll try and answer this in a couple of bits. Yes you are quite right about the relative size Manchester is tiny in comparison with the capital even doubling up with Salford its still nowhere near the size of the capital.
    i can remember my manager at Tescos Irlam one of the first superstores telling me this he had moved up north with his dad not long before i was due to move south to London. Chris said there was just no comparison and he was quite right.

    i can’t quite get used to the new Manchester somehow when i move through it going through the music colleges university dwelling country, some really vibrant parts of the city near Oxford road maybe wheres theres that sort of elevated train station its all great but it is so different to my early memories of the town. Going up to the area of the city which sold dressmaking materials with my mam i think “Bachers ” was it a big material shop and up around Kendals, St Anns square but now its all so different and theres nothing to navigate by so many streets have simply gone. As a youngster i came up to central Manchester and did a bit of late night clubbing but all those places are well gone. It feels like a foreign country now. it almost feels like a north American or Canadian city to me. its funny Wembley is the only place in London that feels a bit like that to me all the old relics of the Exhibition which formed a proto industrial estate have gone to be replaced by acres and acres of new stuff. A place where i spent so much time so different. Everything changes

  24. Wayne Mook says:

    I agree Jan, the way they change Manchester is shocking. The whole Northern quarter is so different now, and very vibrant. Spinningields is a prime example of a fast change, what is happening there now and since the turn of the century is frightening. In fact in just the past 10 years it altered totally.

    Here’s a question which is the oldest, the Manchester Metropolitan University or The University of Manchester?


  25. jan says:

    now promise i haven’t looked at GOOGLE or similar i would have thought against the grain really that its MANCHESTER MET even though it probably was immediately birthed out of the old Poly because of Manchesters extraordinary development out of being “Cottonopolis” in the early stages of the industrial revollution we must have had a need for educated engineers pretty swiftly and that sort of beams out at it being the poly. type institution which would have blossomed first. The redbrick 2nd the more i think on it the more i doubt meself but no i will stick with my first thought,

    now might be completely wrong about that …. Wayne i am actually old enough to remember my contemporaries putting in to study at U>M>I>S>T and have got to say i was proper shocked to find that had gone. In the seventies and into the early ’80s when i admit i completely lost track of the place that was the sort of instiitution that had gained a really strong international reputation. Not just as an undergraduate teaching centre but across the board theres something really unbalanced about an educational system where you lose a place like U.M..I.S.T but tiny little new universities like Halifax or Bolton or Edge Hill where one of my mates went to do teacher training for gawds sake well they have pretty much all got thriving oversubscribed humanities Departments,, Whats going then?

    Now to return to the other thing i was going to chip in yesterday about what you had to say about Lancashire being Lancelots county….it is really interesting the lancelot thing. Last year i was up in North Lancs up beyond Clitheroe (where i stayed the year before visiting Pendle and getting up top of Pendle hill and failing to find the Silver well!) The Arthurian connections are everywhere all over the Uk and each area has managed to find itself a link in with each particular knight if not the big guy himself.. its fascinating how local story tellers getting in with the all conquering Normans at the same time as dissing the defeated Saxons put the seal on the deal by harking back to the Arthurian legends. NOT that it did em much good up north William still came for them and harrowed the north big style. No saving them.

    Somehow from really early on Arthur becomes our saviour…. he battles the Romans, gets claimed by the Welsh the only city in the UK with written mention connection with Arthur i was told is Carlisle but that had more to do with one of the Medieval kings Edward maybe (own up can’t remember) fancying himself as Arthurso some shrewdie has had him written into the backstory of the city

    the guy who was guiding this tour of Cumbria and Lancs had lots of ideas about the Lune being a Sacred river i dunno so much about that but an important river for trade and as a border yes indeed

    now a return ? which i will answer (cos might not be about tomorrow well tucked up at present)


    NOW THAT ODDLY ENOUGHT BUT NOT THAT ODD WHEN U THINK ON IT IN A DIFFERENT WAY IS CARLISLE border country see? Space to spare cos who really wants to be stuck between both sets of reivers ours and the scots? The wild north-west of England even before there was an England. When Aethelstan grandsdon of Alf the gr8 brings together all the chiefteins and minor regional kings of the land and gets them to agree hes top dog. @ Eamont Bridge or even perhaps at King Arthurs round table a very strange double henge near the old great north road at Eamont. (Mayburgh Henge is nearby) thinking on how much the Saxons respect and acknowledge and basically tap into places created in prehistory to fight their battles in, + to define their borders by i wouldn’t be surprised if it was at King Arthurs Round table England is formed,

    Best go cheers Wayne

  26. jan says:

    Wayne above should read English city trying to be quick put wrong country in!

    have you ever seen the Roman glassware found at Bothergate in Carlisle? so impressive

  27. jan says:

    BOTCHERGATE More haste less speed

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