The Last Day at old Smithfield Market

Our picture (SM109) shows the scene at Smithfield on the day the old market closed in 1855 – a livestock market has been held here since the Middle Ages. The Illustrated London News tells the story:

‘On Monday, the 11th of June, the last market (a more than usually crowded one) was held on this memorable site, which for many centuries has been so well known as the scene of historical events, and a place of bustling commerce.

‘Wishing to see the last of this ancient institution, we progressed at midday to the spot, and found the place occupied by hundreds of sheep and oxen. Scores of animals and hundreds of pounds of sterling currency changed hands hourly. Men learned in the qualities of meat were seemingly mesmerising the devoted beasts, most of which bore the handling with innocent patience. We have never been able to get accustomed to old Smithfield; and notwithstanding the unfitness of the position and space for its purposes, it has never failed in interest … Wandering in a dreamy manner from pen to pen, the lowing and bleating might have taken us in memory to green pastures, but for the strange and strong oaths of the drovers, and the peculiar bark of the vulture-headed sheep-dogs. The mind became confused with calculations as to how many millions’ worth of human food had here been sold? How many pounds of good English roast beef at Christmas time in the days of ‘good Queen Bess’? How much in those of Queen Victoria? …

‘The scene of confusion would have been to a stranger overwhelming. ‘Mind yourself! Whoop! Whoop!’ Dogs yelped and ran over the backs of flocks of sheep. One of the most unpleasant sounds which helped to make the Babel-like confusion was the sharp knocking on the tender part, the horns of the oxen. ‘Why, Mr Drover, do you strike the animals so sharply when it seems so unnecessary; why prick them so savagely in the tender parts near the eye; why twist their tails? That poor animal has stood there tied to the stake without food or water and not allowed to lie down since one o’clock this morning, it is now two in the afternoon?’ ‘Mind yourself, mister. Heup; heup!’ and off goes Mr Drover, more savagely than ever bent upon his business.

‘The old women who sell leather purses – the venders of periwinkles, whelks and such like dainties – who have, from times immemorial, pitched in old Smithfield, wondered if they would be allowed in the new one. The shopkeepers popped out in front, and conversed gloomily together – a great deal of hand-shaking went on between them and well-known customers …

‘Great and beneficial as will be the change effected by the removal of Old Smithfield market – as the time came for the ringing of the last bell – we felt a sort of indescribable regret, something like that occasioned by the necessity which causes us in its old age to change our hack horse for a young one, or of adopting the swift, strong and wonderful locomotive for the pleasant and sociable stage-coach. This feeling, in different degrees, seemed to be shared by all, but generally in a somewhat jolly manner. The countenances of the drovers had, by numerous potations, become more like the animals who were beside them. ‘Good-by, old man! We shan’t see you any more in the Old Market – come, old fellow!’ and friends rushed into the Rose and other neighbouring hostelries.

‘A quarter-past three. – The last bell of Old Smithfield market was rung. Soon after the stock on hand slowly moved off, the sweepers began to clean the ground, the six or seven banking-houses were closed, and this immense space was left in as much silence as such a place can be in this great and populous city. This, which has been a Fair and Market for more than 800 years, was closed without any ceremony …

‘What is to be done with Smithfield? Dwellings are wanted suitable for the families of porters, warehousemen, etc, employed in the City – for married clerks, etc. We want more baths and washhouses, schools, and similar establishments. Here is an area which, if wisely occupied, may not only be made profitable to the Corporation and to the surrounding neighbourhood, but also to the community at large.’

In fact, the Corporation of London decided to build a new market building here, and in 1868 the vast cathedral-like structure of cast iron, glass, stone and slate was opened. It is still in use today, and Smithfield is the largest – and oldest – meat and poultry market in Britain.

Comments are closed.