A covered – and splendidly decorated – Victorian-era market located just off Gracechurch Street in the heart of the City of London, Leadenhall Market might go un-noticed by many but visit at lunchtime on a weekday and you’ll to fight for space among the besuited City workers looking for sustenance there.

The history of a market on this site goes back to Roman times for it was under the current market that the remains of Londinium’s basilica and forum – the Roman marketplace – can be found (there’s apparently a part of the basilica wall in the basement of one of the Leadenhall shops).

This fell into disuse following the Roman period, however, and the origins of the current market are generally agreed upon as emerging in the 14th century when it occupied the site of a lead-roofed manor (hence “leaden hall) which was at one stage leased by the famous Lord Mayor Richard “Dick” Whittington before it burnt down in the late 1400s. The subsequent market was initially associated with poultry and then with cheese and other foodstuffs (it remained known for game and poultry) and separate areas were later developed for trade in wool, leather and cutlery.

In 1666, a small section of the market was destroyed in the Great Fire of London but it was rebuilt shortly after – for the first time under cover – and was divided into three sections: the Beef Market, the Green Yard and the Herb Market.

In 1881, after the existing building was demolished, a new structure boasting wrought iron and glass was designed by Sir Horace Jones (architect for the Corporation of the City of London, he also designed Billingsgate and Smithfield Markets – see our earlier entries here and here). The market is now one of the City’s five principal shopping centres and, as well as fresh food and flowers, hosts a variety of specialty shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs.

The Grade II* listed building was extensively restored in 1991. It has since starred in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as well as other films including The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and the recent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Before we finish, we would be remiss not to mention Old Tom. A celebrated gander, he managed to avoid the axe for years and became a favorite of traders and customers (even being fed by local innkeepers) – so much so, that when he died at the age of 38 in 1835, his body lay in state before he was buried on site. There’s a bar in the market named for him.

WHERE: Gracechurch Street, City of London (nearest Tube stations are Monument, Bank and Cannon Street); WHEN: Public areas are generally open 24 hours a day with core trading hours between 10am and 5pm weekdays (check with individual shops for opening hours); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.leadenhallmarket.co.uk

PICTURE: DAVID ILIFF. Licence CC-BY-SA 3.0. Via Wikipedia.

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In its ultimate grandiose form, Londinium’s basilica, the city’s first civic centre, was the largest building of its day, and in fact was the largest building of its type west of the Alps.

Located where Gracechurch Street now stands, the first basilica, which served as a town hall and law courts, was first erected in 70AD on high ground to the east of the now hidden Walbrook stream. It stood at one end of the forum or marketplace, enclosed on its other sides by shops and offices.

Twenty years after the first complex containing the basilica had been constructed, work began on a second, far larger basilica and forum on the same site. This took 30 years to complete and involved the removal of surrounding houses and other nearby structures.

The new basilica, which consisted of a large hall with a nave, was three stories high and apparently could be seen from all over the city. At the eastern end of the building’s nave was a raised platform, known as a tribune, where judges would have sat. The new forum’s central rectangular courtyard measured 100 metres by 85 metres in size.

The buildings were variously repaired over the years before being largely destroyed at the start of the 4th century. Speculation is that the destruction was carried out as punishment for London’s support of Carausius, who had declared himself emperor of Britain and northern Gaul in the late 200s. It is believed the eastern end of the basilica was perhaps retained and used as a temple or perhaps even an early church.

Sections of the walls of the basilica and forum apparently still survive in basements around Gracechurch Street today (including apparently in the basement of hairdressers Nicholson and Griffin at 90 Gracechurch Street). The eastern end of the complex now lies under the Leadenhall Market.

For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Collections-Research/Research/Your-Research/Londinium/analysis/publiclife/structures/15+Forum.htm

Interesting reads on Roman Londinium include Jenny Hall’s Roman London (The Museum of London), and John Morris’ Londinium: London In The Roman Empire. It also worth getting hold of Londinium: A New Map and Guide to Roman London, an invaluable resource for those wanting to come to grips with the city in Roman times.