Changing London

Smithfield’s battle to remain as traditional market

Battle lines have been drawn at Smithfield Market, on the fringes of the City, as developers have submitted plans to transform derelict Victorian buildings into a new area of restaurants, shops and offices.

The Smithfield Quarter Scheme, backed by fund management group Henderson Global Property Investors, would see structures known as General Market, Fish Market and Red House bustling again. So far, so good.

But campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage opposes the proposal because it would mean that office blocks being built inside the Victorian structures in what are being called “pavilions”. They say the brick buildings will lose character if the plans go ahead, something I have to agree with:

“The rendered image of the remodelled interior by McAslan is beguiling but plays fast and loose with the building’s historic glass roofed market halls, which, if restored and re-glazed, would be as handsome as those in the main meat market or old Billingsgate Market, or the acclaimed former vegetable markets in Covent Garden.”

Visiting the site today, it’s clear that something needs to be done to re-develop the buildings. The ageing structures, designed by former City surveyor Horace Jones, have been threatened with demolition for more than a decade and are now eye sores.

Henderson says the only way to bring the site back into “proper, long-term, sustainable use” is to include offices.

Save Britain’s Heritage is preparing to put forward an alternative, “office-less” plan featuring traditional markets and an underground exhibition space.

If this rival proposal can work financially then this surely has to be the best way forward for a site that has been home to markets for over 800 years. After all, preserving the nation’s past should be as much about retaining character as it about protecting the external structures.

The first reference to a market at Smithfield market comes from William Fitzstephen in 1174, where he described “a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold, and in another quarter are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk.”

Drovers travelled for weeks bringing cattle down from as far as Scotland and the north of England, heading into London along what is now Holloway Road, Upper Street and St John’s Street. They’d stop at inns along the way, particularly around Angel where the animals were left to graze so they could be fattened up before being sold off at Smithfield.

But as the livestock market grew in size and significance, bringing animals along the built-up streets caused much disruption and drew complaints from residents. Daniel Defoe referred to the livestock market in 1726 as “without question, the greatest in the world.” Between 1740 and 1750 the average yearly sales at Smithfield were reported to be around 74,000 cattle and 570,000 sheep.

Charles Dickens criticised the location of a livestock market in the heart of the capital in his 1851 essay, A Monument of French Folly, comparing it to the French market outside Paris at Poissy:

“Of a great Institution like Smithfield, [the French] are unable to form the least conception. A Beast Market in the heart of Paris would be regarded an impossible nuisance. Nor have they any notion of slaughter-houses in the midst of a city. One of these benighted frog-eaters would scarcely understand your meaning, if you told him of the existence of such a British bulwark.”

Open air Smithfield Market in 1855 – just before it was moved to Caledonian Road

Following the complaints, 1852 Smithfield Market Removal Act was passed and London’s main livestock was market to an area off Caledonian Road (The Metropolitan Cattle Market), to the north of Smithfield.

But Smithfield didn’t completely lose its links with supplying food to the capital as a wholesale market for cut meat was established in new buildings, permission being granted through an Act of Parliament in 1860. Designed by City Architect, Sir Horace Jones, work was carried out between 1866 and 1868 to create a vast cathedral-like structure of ornamental cast iron, stone, Welsh slate and glass.

The Grade II listed main wings (still known as East and West Market) were separated by the Grand Avenue, a wide roadway roofed by an elliptical arch with decorations in cast iron. It’s through this passage I used to walk from Farringdon Tube station to work every day, often having to step over discarded chicken wings and streams of blood from other off cuts of meat.

Central Market is still a bustling meat market, trading between 4am and 12 noon every weekday. Walking through this area at 8am in the morning, as I often did, can be quite a surreal experience – with hard core night clubbers from Fabric (housed in a former cold store, incidentally) drinking alongside butchers wearing their blood-stained whites in pubs that keep strange hours to cater for the market workers.


Central Market – still bustling on weekday mornings

But while Central Market is itself threatened with closure and re-development given the impracticalities of delivery lorries driving into grid-locked central London, the Henderson proposal that Save Britain’s Heritage opposes is immediately to the west of the still-used meat market.

The General Market was built between 1879 and 1883 for the sale of fruit and vegetables. And, later, a further block consisting of two separate structures, the Fish Market and the Red House (one of the first cold stores to be built outside the London docks and remained in use until the 1970s), was built between 1886 and 1899.


The Red House – pioneering cold store used to the 1970s


General Market – left to the elements

These buildings may look tatty at the moment because they’ve been left to the elements, but in my opinion they are just as splendid as Central Market and should be saved.

Being so near to the Crossrail development, you can see why keen Henderson is keen to develop the area – once this important rail link is complete, office prices will go through the roof and they will make a small fortune from tenants.

The proposal looks set to come before City planners this summer, so the fight is not over yet. If the scheme from Save Britain’s Heritage is financially viable, then it should be given a fair hearing – it could be the only way to save this important part of Britain’s market heritage.

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