Monday, 14 November 2016

The Wards of Old London: Smithfield - Slaughter and Tournaments

A visitor to London, exploring the Ward of Farringdon Without, and walking north from Saint Bartholomew's Hospital emerges into West Smithfield, a road running north-east to south-west, connecting Aldersgate Street with Holborn. Today, this quarter of London is dominated by Sir Horace Jones's meat market, which opened in 1868. The market sits above a network of tunnels, which made it possible for trains to bring an annual total of 220,000 cattle and 1.5 million sheep into London, to be slaughtered out of the sight, hearing and smell of the city's inhabitants, and the effluvia cleared away, before the cleaned and butchered carcasses were hauled up into the market itself.

Sir Horace Jones's Smithfield Market. Photo: James Ketteringham (image is in the Public Domain).

It had not always been like this. Before the construction of the Victorian market, and the beginning of the railway age, cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys were brought on foot to the capital from all corners of England Scotland and Wales. The drovers who brought them did not use the main roads, where the presence of so many animals would have been a considerable nuisance to human travelers: instead they followed a network of tracks, many of which had probably been in use since prehistoric times.

Montgomeryshire drovers, c 1885, National Library of Wales (image is in the Public Domain).
Stone bridge carrying a drovers' track over the River Dylif, Gwynedd. Photo: Tony Edwards (licensed under CCA).

In the pre-Victorian market of Smithfield, beasts were slaughtered and butchered in the open air, having previously been fattened by graziers in Islington or Bermondsey, and driven though the streets of the City itself. By the mid-Nineteenth Century, however, the presence of a beast-market in such close proximity to the metropolis was, in itself, recognised as a public nuisance.

Smithfeld in 1827, by John Greenwood. Image: Mark Annand (licensed under CCA).

"Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed," complained Thomas Maslen, in 1843, "there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined ... " Charles Dickens was among those who campaigned for its closure, which finally took place in 1855, the market moving out to Islington whilst Jones's state of the art facility was being built.

The last day of Old Smithfield, 1855, Illustrated London News (image is in the Public Domain).
New Smithfield Market in the Nineteenth Century (image is in the Public Domain).

The sale and slaughter of beasts had been carried on at Smithfield at least since the Twelfth Century. Nor was it only animals whose blood was spilled there. It had, in the Middle Ages, and in Early Modern Times, been a place of public execution. Lollards (proto-Protestants who argued for the translation of the Bible into English) were burned at the stake here under Henry V; as were Protestants under Mary I; and the Scottish rebel (or patriot, depending on one's point of view), William Wallace, had been hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield in 1305. Here it was, also, that Wat Tyler, the leader of the "Peasants' Revolt," had met his death at the hands of the City's Lord Mayor, in 1381.

Smithfield, as shown on the Agas Map of 1561. Image: Stephencdickson (licensed under CCA).
The death of Wat Tyler, from Les Chroniques de France et de l'Angleterre, by Jean Froissart. Image: British Library (Public Domain). The building in the background may be the Priory of Saint John, Clerkenwell. 

As an area of open ground beyond the City gates, Smithfield was also the venue for Medieval tournaments. The ageing Edward III held a seven day tournament in 1374, in honour of his mistress, Alice Perrers. Richard II held one in 1390, with Geoffrey Chaucer as master of ceremonies: this tournament had been announced by heralds the length and breadth of Europe, ensuring that the greatest knights of France, Flanders, and Germany, as well as England and Scotland, came to Smithfield to compete. Edward IV held a joust in 1467, as part of his strategy to win the support of Londoners for his regime.

Knights competing in Edward IV's joust at Smithfield in 1467 (image is in the Public Domain).
Whilst the wholesale meat market at Smithfield continues to function today, it does so on a much smaller scale than was the case only a few decades ago. The future of many of the area's historic buildings is currently uncertain, although the proposed relocation of the Museum of London to the former market (perhaps opening as early as 2021, if funding can be secured, offers some hope of sustainable regeneration.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. I hope the buildings are saved. The reason one visits London is for the history that's visible there.

  2. Thanks, Petrea, those buildings are listed, so should be saved. We have some great architects who specialise in adapting old buildings to modern uses

  3. I agree. London is really good at preservation and reuse. Such a beautiful city. I was there once for 10 days and it wasn't nearly enough.