Changing London

On the trail of Islington’s drovers

Whatever time of day you emerge from Angel tube station in Islington, the surrounding streets always seem hectic. People rush from cafe to cafe to grab their morning coffee and then later on move from bar to bar as they unwind after work.

This area – like many others in London – is so busy these days that this hustle and bustle is now the accepted norm. But how would you react if, rather than pedestrians carrying lattes and cars whizzing along the main roads, all you instead saw was cattle?

Just a couple of hundred years ago witnessing this scene could have been a distinct possibility, when today’s Liverpool Road and Upper Street were key drover routes. From medieval times, farmers would have brought their cattle from as far afield as Scotland – a journey that could have taken three or four weeks – so they could eventually sell them at market in the capital.

I’ve been interested in the development of this fascinating trade for many years. The first office I worked in when I moved to London was just a stone’s throw from Smithfield Market and I became intrigued by its history – including how it was supplied before the advent of the railways in the 19th century.

To learn more about this heritage I went on a walk promoted by Open City, an architecture education organisation. Our guide Paul Lincoln, deputy CEO of the Landscape Institute took us on a fascinating trail from Angel to Smithfield via St John’s Street, the point where a number of drovers routes from the north of England met.

The first stop on our walk though was what is today the Business Design Centre on Liverpool Road. Built in 1862, the structure opened as The Agricultural Hall and in the December of that year hosted the Smithfield Club Cattle Show. The event attracted 134,669 people over five days who each paid one shilling for admission, according John Timbs, writing in 1867 the Curiosities of London. The venue was also later in the century used for the first Crufts dog show.

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Business Design Centre – formerly the The Agricultural Hall

Early on in the walk our guide was keen to point out that the exploration would be about much more than just studying how fresh meat reached the centre of London. The provision of clean water was a key theme as well, not least since our route to Smithfield also closely followed the New River (hardly new now given that it opened in 1613 and a place I’ve encountered before on my recent jaunt around the Capital Ring).

Before the New River – bringing water from Hertfordshire to Islington – was built,  Londoners relied on either the filthy Thames water or wells (including Sadler’s Wells, which we also passed on the walk and is today a popular arts centre) for clean water. The New River was therefore considered a huge breakthrough in improving sanitation in the capital.

Today, water only flows as far south as Stoke Newington, but you can still visit a spot called New River Head where it once ended up in a huge pool. There’s a viewing platform hidden away in Spa Green Estate that’s been installed by Thames Water, allowing you to read about its history and see many of the company’s historic buildings (including a pumping station and its former headquarters, the latter now apartments). The New River Company was a major landowner and it laid out numerous streets and squares in the Clerkenwell neighbourhood.

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Former headquarters of the New River Company

The construction of the New River benefitted many industries, including the leather trade. But on our walk we spent some time at the site of an old brewery – the Canon Brewery – accessed through an arch off St John’s Street. Architects have taken possession of the old brewery building itself while modern apartments have been built in the yard, next to the old Brewery Yard Offices (built in 1874 and incorporating a counting office).

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Former Canon Brewery building off St John’s Street

Originating with a brew house adjoining the Unicorn Inn, which was in existence by the early 1670s, the brewery grew to be the 12th largest brewery in London by 1759 and then produced 23,000 barrels a year.

We soon then finally arrived at Smithfield Market, a fascinating labyrinth of heritage buildings – much of them are still in use today by wholesale butchers who sell to hotels and restaurants. When you visit on a Saturday afternoon, it’s like a ghost town as the trading happens early in the morning when most people are still in bed.

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Smithfield on a Saturday afternoon

Smithfield has been a market since medieval times, with William Fitzstephen describing it in 1174 “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.” This is the market where the drovers who travelled on the routes that I walked would have sold their animals.

But as the volume of cattle using the market grew, so did the complaints (see my last blog on Smithfield for details of the campaigns by the like of Charles Dickens to have it shut down).

Eventually it was closed – through the passing of the 1852 Smithfield Market Removal Act – and London’s main livestock market was created The Metropolitan Cattle Market, now a peaceful park that I’ve written about before just off Caledonian Road.

After a gap of a few years following the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1860, Smithfield Market found a new role as a wholesale market for fresh meat in the wonderful cast iron, glass and stone buildings designed by Horace Jones that we can still see today.

This is an area I’ve also written about in some detail before, so I won’t repeat myself here. My last post on this topic described the various market structures that you can see today, including the derelict former General Market which was built in 1879 to 1883 to provide an area for fruit and vegetables to be sold.

When I last wrote about the building there was a campaign to stop it being turned into offices (the exterior who had been retained, but inside a completely new structure would be erected, leading campaigners to believe it would lose its original character).

That plan was halted and more recently the Museum of London has announced that it could move here. This latter scheme seems to have gone down better with heritage enthusiasts, but adapting the crumbling building for public use will still require many hurdles to be passed. If campaigners want the interior and exterior preserved, how can it be turned into a modern museum with all the technology now required to attract visitors?

Smithfield remains a fascinating place and I hope quick decisions can be made on the future of buildings like General Market before they deteriorate any further. It’s important that walks like the one I went on with Open City chart the important contribution that the area played in the past and allow visitors to explore exciting glimpses of heritage.

Paul was a well-informed informed guide who pointed out detail that I must have walked past many times before. Who would have thought that the raised, fenced-off pavements on Liverpool Road were built to protect pedestrians from cattle? Or that hidden away in an underground car park near Smithfield there was a disused section of underground railway – created on a junction between Kings Cross and Blackfriars – once used by the market?

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Entrance to former underground railway at Smithfield – now a car park

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