In Photos: An Early Morning at Smithfield Market
There’s not many things that can tempt me out of bed at 5.30am, but an early morning tour of Smithfield Market is one of them.
The tour, run by City of London Guides, had been on my London to-do list for ages, but I finally got around to it recently.
The Market’s History
Dating back to the 12th century, when livestock was traded on the ‘smooth field’, Smithfield market remains Britain’s oldest and largest wholesale meat market and the only Corporation of London market still at its original site.
The area has hosted everything from jousting tournaments, religious executions and the riotous St Bartholomew Day Fair (3 days of boozing, dancing and debauchery) before it was abolished in 1855.
But what you see today – the mass of purple and green cast iron – was designed by Horace Jones (of Leadenhall Market and Tower Bridge fame) and catered to a market dealing in wholesale carcasses rather than livestock.
This bell used to signal the start and end of trade, once strictly adhered to, it now collects dust and is only rung on remembrance day. As it happens, this was an oddly poignant metaphor for the market itself; caught between historic nostalgia and London’s unrelenting drive for progress.
I think it’s fair to say it can no longer be described as ‘thriving’ and so faces the challenges of the other famous markets like Covent Garden and Billingsgate, who’ve both been forced out of central London.
But to say that Smithfield was without spirit would be wrong.
Die Hard Traditions
Like most London Institutions, it’s the people that make them and one of the characters (and star of a 2012 BBC documentary) we met was ‘Biffo’.
Biffo has been working here for 38 years and says his grandfather was here when the market first opened. With a twinkle in his eye he told us about slicing 150 pigs a night and getting into scrapes in his youth; “I was always in fights an’ in trouble. Always ‘ad a black eye”. Which I guess explains the nickname.
Each of the ‘Cutters’ (who butcher the carcasses) use a chainmail glove while working. Dismissed as ‘ealth and safety’ by Biffo, I thought it was a nice throwback to the 13th century knight jousting that would’ve taken place here.
The ‘Good Old Days’
The heyday of Smithfield were the 1950s to 1980s. When the Union running the market was king and when every ounce of meat in London and South East England came through here. This came to an end with the modernising of the market, forced to comply with EU regulations and undergo updates like refrigerated containers.
The macho vibe of the market is palpable, despite the presence of some female staff, and the people we spoke to talked nostalgically about a time before the ‘pc brigade’ started changing things.
Given the chance, they’d welcome back the traditional ‘initiation’ of market porters; stripping them down to next to nothing and covering them in rotting offal with a good helping of flour. Biffo admits they haven’t had a chance to keep up this particular tradition for a few years, hinting that the youth of today perhaps can’t handle it anymore.
The Market Today
Nearly all the traders were friendly – or as cheerful as can you expect for that early in the morning. At the first stall (here since 1978) the saleswoman delightedly showed off her large spicy sausages (nudge, wink) to us.
The changing market is now home to far more pre-packaged goods too. You can now buy cheese and cured meats, even delicious-looking custard tarts, which was a bit bizarre.
But the more adventurous cuts of meat have seen a surge in popularity, mainly thanks to London’s diverse population. For example Oxtails – “a few years ago you couldn’t give ’em away!” – are now popular with small businesses catering to African and Asian cuisines.
And one stall specialises in sheep heads. Not a particularly welcome sight at 7am.
Moving swiftly on…
The Poultry Market
It was closed by the time we arrived but another huge extension for Smithfield was the Poultry Market. After a devastating fire in 1958 the new building was finished in 1963 and cost £2m. At the time, it was the largest clear spanning dome roof (and largest concrete shell) in Europe.
From this side of the market we began to encounter a new phase of development. The new Museum of London is leaving its Barbican site and will occupy the former General Market building, scheduled to be open in 2021.
Current interior of Smithfield General Market. Image from Museum of London
Time Running Out?
So I suppose the question is how long will this continue? The property is worth a fortune and with plans for a ‘Culture Mile’ between Barbican and the new Museum of London it seems like it’s a case of when, not if, Smithfield Market will eventually be pushed out of central London.
As of April 2019 the Evening Standard reported that City of London were planning to move Smithfield (along with Billingsgate and Spitalfields) out to a new site in Barking. Read more about the plans here.
The market is free to visit and members of the public are welcome, it’s open Monday – Friday until midmorning but they recommend you arrive around 7am to see it at its best. If you’d like to join a tour of the market, the latest dates and more information can be found here.
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