Just like Billingsgate Market, Smithfield sprung to life years before the Norman Conquest. It was not even part of the city yet, but a pleasant expanse of grass, known as “Smooth Field”. Some local street names, in fact, still retain the memory of this early enterprise: Cock Lane, where the poultry was sold, and Cow Cross Street, where the livestock was traded.
In 1133 it became a site of renown, if notorious, Bartholomew Fair. This fair always began on St Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August, and continued for four days.
As centuries passed, Smithfield had grown from a modest site into a flourishing market. The sale and racing of horses was conducted there since the days of Henry II, the market becoming famous for its strong and fine steeds. Costs, customs and rules were now meticulously laid down; for instance, we know, that for an ox, a cow or a dozen sheep you could get 1 penny. These dairy cows were referred to by a charming, vaguely Germanic name of “milch kine” – a peculiar reminder of England’s Saxon past. Taxes and regulations, regarding quality of products, were also drawn and strictly observed.
Then as now, festive season was considered the busiest and potentially most profitable for commerce of all kinds. Although most of Christmas traditions that we know today weren’t really invented until Victorian period, celebrations of various kind were still taking place. Even modest craftsmen, let alone more prosperous citizens, would enjoy a little feast with their family – and such occasion, of course, would demand a good piece of meat. Sharp-witted traders, of course, flocked from all the neighbouring counties to take advantage of the season. However, “foreign dealers”, operating on the market between St Martin’s day (11 November) and Christmas had to give their ‘third best beast’ to the market bailiff in return for trading there. Local merchants, on the other hand, could showcase their cattle absolutely free of charge. I would like you to guess, who were those bloody foreigners, required to pay for the privilege of using the same ground as respectable Londoners. Right answer: these were merchants from beyond Middlesex County…
As years went, the Smithfield Market passed from being merely a good place to buy meat into a veritable city landmark, an institution. It had firmly taken place in collective unconsciousness. Shakespeare’s character, Falstaff from Henry IV Part II, says of Bardolph: ‘He’ll buy me a horse in Smithfield’. In 1613 Ben Johnson dedicated a play to Bartholomew Fair, which still took place there every autumn.
At the time this play came out, Smithfield was still located on an isolated pasture, which Saxon traders found so convenient those centuries ago. However, post-Restoration building boom made sure it didn’t stay this way for too long. In the 17th century London spilled out of its ancient shell, and this motion proved to be unstoppable. Rolling hills and neighbouring villages, towns and pastures were rapidly incorporated into metropolitan suburbs. Some hailed the progress; some regarded the capital as a monstrous creature, devouring the innocent countryside. Some witty landlords, living on the cusp of the city borders, were calling their pubs “World’s End”. But the borders were constantly expanding, and the pubs with their curious names were left in what we would nowadays regard as city centre.
This tendency didn’t spare Smithfield Market. It rapidly came to be surrounded by shops and houses. In the 1710 a wooden fence – the first in the history of Smithfield – was built to prevent livestock from roaming through nearby streets. But, of course, the fence couldn’t prevent an inevitable clash between essentially medieval market and newly rebuilt capital. Resurrected after Great Fire with broad avenues and airy piazzas, noble residences and leafy suburbs, London was now regarding itself as genteel and sophisticated. And livestock, driven through Oxford Street, didn’t exactly fit this image. It just so happened, that the street followed direct route from West Country to Smithfield…
Cattle, roaming the streets, was one of the urban nightmares. One story in particular would have made a great Sun (or Onion?) headline: about 2 p.m. people at the Royal Exchange were unnerved by the sudden appearance of a cow.
Unnerved or not, but these proud citizens of the imperial capital still had to eat something. And, in the 18th century, annual sales in Smithfield accounted to 74,000 cattle and over half a million sheep.
These impressive numbers didn’t make the clash go away, of course. If anything, they made it worse. As Victorian era dawned and bloomed, attempts to regulate, purify or eradicate the boisterous market altogether only intensified. They were well-founded, though. An area of pasture, that once had been spacious for supplying a medieval city, turned out to be completely inefficient for an imperial capital. Increasing number of livestock was forced into the same five acres of land. Apart from pointing to obvious practical inconveniences, concerned citizens also regarded this arrangement as a scar on “the most Christian and polished City in the world” (as one writer claimed in 1843). The Bartholomew Fair was finally banned for excessive rowdiness.
In response to such complaints Parliament authorized in 1852 the creation of a live cattle market at Copenhagen Fields, Islington, which was then still considered rural. This solution must have proved inefficient, if scarcely more, than 10 years later, the new market building had to be constructed. It was the last one – in fact, it functions to this day. From then on, Smithfield Market became an example of Victorian progress. It was swiftly expanded to accommodate poultry and fish. It had its own railway station, which could be reached by deliveries from King’s Cross and Blackfriars. It became one of the first places in London to sell refrigerated meat, arriving from Australia and New Zealand (the first consignment was received in 1880).
Smithfield had another moment of fame in the 20th century – it became the site of a celebration, which marked a long-awaited end of the rationing. On that day, meat became freely available for the first time in fourteen years. Smithfield opened at midnight – earlier, than usual – and ration books were ceremonially burned.
Nowadays you can visit Smithfield market from Monday to Friday, to look at the splendid selection of meat and rub shoulders with celebrity chefs, hoteliers and dedicated foodies. Now, just as in the Middle Ages, Christmas time is the busiest time of the year, people stocking up for their family feasts. However, there s one catch – to find the full range of stalls open, you should arrive by 7 a.m. So, better set your alarm clock beforehand!
London: the Biography, Peter Ackroyd.
Georgian London: Into the Streets, Lucy Inglis.
“The High Middle Ages”, Philip Daileader.