There has been a meat market at Smithfield for at least 800 years and probably closer to a thousand. Until 1852, it was a livestock market too, and the animals were slaughtered and butchered in the same location. In his novel Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens gave a vivid description of the hellish conditions:
It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; 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. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim 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 confounded the senses.
(Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens)
As London’s population grew and the demand for meat increased, so too did Smithfield’s insanitary conditions. Each week, thousands of animals were driven through the narrow, congested streets of central London. Each year, the noise, smell, and filth of the slaughter yards became more intolerable. After several decades of campaigns and debates, an 1852 Act of Parliament enabled the move of the livestock market to Copenhagen Street in islington. A further Act of 1860 led to the construction of the market buildings seen today, designed by Horace Jones.
Since the mid-twentieth century, London’s great markets have left the city centre, one by one. Covent Garden went to Nine Elms in 1974, Billingsgate to Poplar in 1982, and Spitalfields to Leyton in 1990. Smithfield has hung on, but now its days are numbered. The City of London Corporation plans to move it, along with Billingsgate and Spitalfields, to a new site at Dagenham Dock. The market building will become the new home for the Museum of London.
Visit the old Smithfield Market while you can, though it means an early start (I got there at 4.40 one Friday morning). It is not as boisterous as it once was, and the basement pub where you could get an early morning pint closed a decade ago, but even so, it retains the atmosphere of a much older London.