Smithfield: A brief history

It is thought that the name Smithfield came from a corruption of ‘smeth field’ Saxon for “Smoothfield”. The City of London gained market rights under a charter granted by Edward III in 1327. Smithfield was also the site of two monasteries, St Bartholomew-the-Great and Charterhouse. St Bartholomew-the-Great and what was then the ‘hospital of the church’, now St Bart’s were founded by Rahere in 1123.

When on a journey in Italy he dreamt he was taken up by a beast with four feet and two wings to a ‘high place’ where St Bartholomew appeared to him and addressed him: ‘I, by the will and command of all the High Trinity, and with the common favour and counsel of the court of heaven, have chosen a spot in the suburb of London at Smithfield’.

The ancient and famous Bartholomew Fair was also sited on West Smithfield from 1133, the last one being in 1855 when it had degenerated into one of London’s most raucous entertainments and was suppressed by the Corporation. The fair was held on St Bartholomew’s Day, 24th August and for many centuries lasted a fortnight, but in 1691 it was shortened to four days only. By 1641 it had become so large that it involved four parishes: Christ Church, Great and Little St Bartholomew’s and St Sepulchre’s. It was customary for the Lord Mayor of London to open the fair formally on St Bartholomew’s Eve and, on his way, to stop at Newgate where he received from the governor a cup of sack (a white wine). During its history the fair grew to be a vast national market and the chief cloth sale in the kingdom.

Until 1854 it was usual for the representatives of the Merchant Taylors’ Guild to come to the cloth fair, which formed part of Bartholomew Fair, and test the measures used for selling cloth there by the company’s silver yard. In 1753, owing to the change in the calendar, the date of the fair was changed to 3rd September. By then it was one of the most spectacular national and international events of the year. The fair featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, freaks and wild animals.

William Wallace was one of many executed at Smithfield. Sir William evaded capture by the English until 5 August 1305, when Sir John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward I, turned Wallace over to English soldiers at Robroyston, near Glasgow. Wallace was transported to London and tried for treason at Westminster Hall where he was crowned with a garland of oak to suggest that he was the king of outlaws. He responded to the charge, “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.” The absent John Balliol was officially his king; however, Wallace was declared guilty.

On 23 August 1305, following the trial Wallace was removed from the courtroom, stripped naked and dragged at the heels of a horse to Smithfield Market. He was drawn and quartered; strangled by hanging but released near death, emasculated, eviscerated, beheaded, then divided into four parts (the four horrors) at the Elms in Smithfield. His head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge, which was later joined by the heads of his brother, John, and Sir Simon Fraser. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth. A plaque stands in a wall of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital near the site of Wallace’s execution at Smithfield, people frequently visit the site, and flowers often appear there. Edward I, was popularly known as “Longshanks” because of his 6 foot 2 inch frame. His tombstone reads: Hic est Edwardvs Primus Scottorum Malleus, “Here lies Edward I, Hammer of the Scots.

As a large open space outside the City walls, Smithfield was used for jousting and gatherings such as public executions and was the meeting place for the peasants in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and was the site of Wat Tyler’s fatal meeting with King Richard II. Wat Tyler was the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt – the first great popular rebellion in English history. His leadership proved to be one of the chief factors in the success of protest against the harsh taxation of the poor.

His Kentish rebels captured Canterbury on the 10th June and London Bridge and the Tower of London on the 14th June. Although Richard promised concessions Tyler’s men refused to disarm and disband. Tyler confronted Richard on 15th June at Smithfield where Tyler presented more radical demands. Fighting broke out, and the rebel was apparently stabbed by Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth, his followers took him to St Bartholomew’s Hospital where he later died. After Tyler’s death the government quickly reasserted its authority and ended the rebellion.

Charles Dickens wrote of the Old market in Oliver Twist in 1838: ‘It was market morning. The ground was covered nearly ankle deep with filth and mire; and a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney tops, hung heavily above … Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a dense mass: the whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of beasts, the bleating of sheep, and the grunting and squealing of pigs; the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, amd quarrelling on all sides, the ringing of bells, and the roar of voices that issued from every public house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng, rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene which quite confused the senses.’

Max Schlesinger describes similar scenes in ‘Saunterings in and about London’, written in 1853 when the Old live animal Market was in its final two years at Smithfield. After the 1852 Smithfield Market Removal Act was passed the live cattle market was relocated to a new site at Copenhagen Fields in Islington in 1855. The dead meat trade from Newgate Market was transferred to Smithfield which was subsequently designated as a meat, poultry and fish market.

‘… to the north there is the provoking, broad, impertinent extent of old Smithfield, the notorious cattle-market of London, the greatest cattle-market in the world, the dirtiest of all the dirty spots which disgrace the fair face of the capital of England.

This immense open place, or more properly speaking, this immense conglomeration of a great many small open places, with its broad open street market, is covered all over with wooden compartments and pens, such as are usual on the sheep-farms of the continent. Each of these pens is large enough to accommodate a moderate sized statue; each of them must, on Mondays and Fridays, accommodate an ox and a certain number of cattle, pigs, or sheep. If by a miracle all these wretched animals were converted into marble or bronze, surely after thousands of years, the nations of the earth would journey to Smithfield to study the character of this our time in that vast field of monuments. But since such a poetical transformation has not taken place, the appearance of that quarter of the town is curious but not agreeable.

Surrounded by dirty streets, lanes, courts, and alleys, the haunts of poverty and crime, Smithfield is infested not only with fierce and savage cattle, but also with the still fiercer and more savage tribes of drivers and butchers. On market-days the passengers are in danger of being run over, trampled down, or tossed up by the drivers or “beasts”; at night, rapine and murder prowl in the lanes and alleys in the vicinity; and the police have more trouble with this part of the town than with the whole of Brompton, Kensington, and Bayswater. The crowding of cattle in the centre of the town is an inexhaustible source of accidents. Men are run down, women are tossed, children are trampled to death. But these men, women, and children, belong to the lower classes. Persons of rank or wealth do not generally come to Smithfield early in the morning, if indeed, they ever come there at all.

For years Smithfield has denounced been by the press and in Parliament. The Tories came in and went out; so did the Whigs. But neither of the two great political parties could be induced to set their faces against the nuisance. The autonomy of the city, moreover, deprecated anything like government intervention, for Smithfield is a rich source of revenue; the market dues, the public-house rents, and the traffic generally, represent a heavy sum. In the last year only, the Lords and Commons of England have pronounced the doom of Smithfield. The cattle market is to be abolished. But when? That is the question —for its protectors are sure to come forward with claims of indemnity, and other means of temporisation; and the choice of a fitting locality, on the outskirts of the town, will most likely take some years. For we ought not to forget that in England everything moves slowly, with the exception of machinery and steam. Smithfield and its history are instances of the many dark sides of self-government. Great joy there would be in London, if Smithfield, as Sodom of old, were consumed with fire; but the whole of London would have been urged to resistance if the government had presumed, on its own responsibility, to interfere with Smithfield.’

After the Old Market was closed the City of London obtained an Act of Parliament (The Metropolitan Meat and Poultry Market Act of 1860), allowing the construction of new buildings on the Smithfield site. Work began in 1866 on the two main sections of the market, the East and West Buildings. These buildings were built above railway lines which had newly connected London to every other part of the country, enabling meat to be delivered directly to the market.

The buildings, designed by City Architect Sir Horace Jones, were commissioned in 1866 and completed in November 1868 at a cost of £993,816. The Metropolitan Meat & Poultry Act also authorised the development of the Poultry Market which opened in 1875. This building was subsequently destroyed by a major fire in 1958 and was replaced by the current building in 1962. Further buildings were added to the market in later years, the General Market in 1883 and the Annexe Market in 1888.

Sir Horace Jones was born in 1819, he is well know for his work as Architect for the Corporation of the City of London from 1864 to 1887. His works included the restoration of the Great Hall at the Guildhall in 1866, London markets, including Smithfield 1866, Billingsgate, 1875 and Leadenhall in 1881, and Tower Bridge which was completed after his death in 1887.

Parts of this text were sourced from