Now the largest wholesale meat market in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe, the connections between the site of Smithfield Market, officially known as the London Central Markets, and livestock go back to at least 800 years.
Since the 12th century animals were routinely traded here thanks to the site’s position on what was then the northern edge of the city. Smithfield was also known for being an area for jousting and tournaments and was the location of the (in)famous St Barthlomew Fair (this closed in 1855) as well as an execution ground – among those executed here were Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, and ‘Braveheart’, Sir William Wallace (1305).
Skip ahead several hundred years and, by the the mid-1800s, traffic congestion led to the livestock trade being relocated to a new site north of Islington. Plans were soon launched to locate a cut meat market on the Smithfield site.
Following the passing of an Act of Parliament, work on the new market began in 1866 with Sir Horace Jones (he of Tower Bridge fame), the City Architect, overseeing the design. Constructed of ornamental cast iron, stone, Welsh slate and glass, the initial market buildings were completed in 1868 with the result being two vast buildings, separated by a grand central avenue, but linked under a single roof. The new market was opened amid much pomp by the Lord Mayor of London on 24th November, 1868.
Four further buildings were soon added – only one, the Poultry Market, which opened in 1875, is still in use – and in the 1870s the market began to see the arrival of frozen meat imported from as far afield as Australia and South America.
Closed briefly during World War II – when the site was used for storage and an army butcher’s school – it reopened afterwards. The main poultry building was destroyed in a fire in 1958 and a replacement featuring a domed roof – the largest clear spanning dome roof in Europe at the time – was completed by 1963.
More recently, the market underwent a major upgrade in the 1990s. Queen Elizabeth II opened the refurbished East Market Building in June, 1997.
WHERE: London Central Markets, Charterhouse Street and West Smithfield (nearest Tube Stations are Barbican, St Paul’s and Moorgate); WHEN: From 3am Monday to Friday (visitors are told to arrive by 7am to see the market in full swing) (There are walking tours available – see www.cityoflondontouristguides.com for details); COST: Free entry; WEBSITE: www.smithfieldmarket.com.
PICTURE: Rossella De Berti/www.istockphoto.com