Victorian London - Markets - Smithfield Market

‘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.’

 Charles Dickens Oliver Twist  1838

Smithfield Market - Smithfield has long been famous for the sale of oxen, sheep, lambs, calves, and pigs, on Mondays and Fridays, and upon the latter day for inferior horses. Hay and straw is also sold there three times a week. The number of animals annually consumed in London has been estimated at -  oxen, 110,000; calves, 50,000; sheep, 770,000; lambs, 250,000; pigs, 200,000; besides animals of other kinds. For the sale of all these Smithfield is the principal market; and the total value of butcher's meat annually sold there is stated at 8,000,000l.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

Smithfield Market Days.-Monday for fat cattle and sheep. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, for hay and straw; Friday, cattle and sheep and much cows, and at 2 o'clock for scrub-horse and asses. All sales take place by commission. The customary commission for the sale of an ox of any value is 4s., and of a sheep 8d. The City receives a toll upon every beast exposed to sale of 1d. per head, and of sheep at 2d. per score, and for every pen 1s. The total produce to the Corporation is from 5000l. to 6000l. a-year. Smithfield salesmen estimate the weight of cattle by the eye, and from constant practice, approach so near exactness, that they are seldom out more than a few pounds. The sales are always for cash. No paper is passed, but when the bargain is struck, the buyer and seller shake hands and close the sale. Several millions, it is said, are annually paid away in this manner in the narrow area of Smithfield Market. Quantities sold -The average weekly sale of beasts is said to be about 5000 ; and of sheep about 30,000 ; increased in the Christmas week to about 4000 beasts, and 47,000 sheep. As a sheep market, Smithfield has been constantly on the decrease within the last ten years. The following return shows the number of cattle and sheep annually sold in Smithfield during the following periods

Cattle /  Sheep.
1841  194,298 /  1,435,000
1842  210,723 /  1,655,370
1843  207,195 /  1,817,360
1844  216,848 /  1,604,850
1845  222,822 /  539,660
1846  210,757 /  1,518,510

In addition to this a quarter of a million pigs are annually sold. There are about 4000 butchers in the metropolis. The best time, indeed the only time that a stranger should attempt, to see Smithfield, is on a Monday morning before daylight, on the second week in December preparatory to the great cattle show. The scene by torch. light is extremely picturesque, but the visitor must harden his feelings to the scenes of cruelty, which he cannot fail to witness in seeing so many wild over-driven oxen forced into a narrow circle, with their heads concentrating in what is called the ring. The cruelties inflicted are "pething," hitting them over the horns, and "hocking." The drovers have stamped sticks. The market commences at 11 o'clock on Sunday night. Many attempts have been made to remove Smithfield Market to a less central situation and less crowded thoroughfare. The principal thoroughfare to the market is by St. John-street. A market, admirably adapted for the purposes for which it was intended, was built in the Lower-road, Islington, and opened April 18th, 1836, but such was the influence of custom in the name of Smithfield, and the associations attached to an old spot, that salesmen still continued through crowded streets to drive their cattle to the favourite locality of the London butchers. An Abattoir Company has since proved a failure, and as recently as the 8th of January, 1849, another attempt has been made (I hope successfully) establish a market for the sale of beasts at Islington. Nothing, I fear, but an act of Parliament will ever remove Smithfield Market. . To pen the cattle sent for sale at Smithfield, as they are pent at Poissy, near Paris, from seven to eight acres would be required; the present extent is, as we have seen, five acres and three quarters. The insufficiency of space has therefore led much cruel packing, and the closeness with which the animals are wedged together has not been untruly likened to the wedging of so many figs in a drum. The space is not capable of holding more than 4000 head of cattle and 30,000 sheep. 

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

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Smithfield in 1852
p.179 from Thomas Miller, Picturesque Sketches of London Past and Present, 1852

Smithfield Market, the great area, the great mart of business for its purpose, and the great nuisance of the metropolis. It is situated near what may be called the heart of the city of London; it is bounded on the north by St. John Street, on the south by Giltspur Street, on the east by Long Lane, and the west by Cow Lane; these are leading streets in and out of this market, in this market the most lucrative and the largest business is transacted for the sale of all kinds of cattle, milch cows, pigs, horses, mules, asses, dogs, and goats in the world; hay and straw, &c are also sold largely.
    The salesmen of Smithfield market, of whom there are about 160, may be described as commission agents, to whom the farmers and others who fatten cattle consign their stock, of which they now transmit some portion by railway. They receive from 2s. 6d. to 4s. per head for the sale of oxen and cows; from 10s. to 15s. per score for sheep and lambs; and 1s. per head for calves. In Smithfield there are seven bankers, who are cither salesmen or butchers, and are generally connected with those trades. The principal supply of live cattle for the consumption of the metropolis is from the northern counties. Smithfield is not only the chief market for the supply of the inhabitants of the metropolis, but is a market of transit for the southern counties—the transactions amounting to the enormous extent of 7,000,000l. sterling, annually. In 1846, there were sold of beasts, 226,132; sheep and lambs, 1,593,270; calves, 26,356; pigs, 33,531. There are many slaughter-houses in the neighbourhood of this market, as well as in the surrounding neighbour hood, all of which are much complained of.

London Exhibited in 1852, 1852

see also London by Day and Night - click here

    London has always been celebrated for the excellence of its meat, and her sons do justice to it; at least, it has become the universal impression that they consume more, man for man, than any other town population in the world. The visitor accustomed to the markets of our large provincial towns would doubtless expect to find the emporium of the live-stock trade for so large a population of an imposing size. The foreigner, - after seeing the magnificence of our docks—the solidity and span of our bridges—might naturally look for a national exposition of our greatness in the chief market dedicated to that British beef which is the boast of John Bull. What they do see in reality, if they have courage to wend their way along any of the narrow tumble-down streets approaching to Smithfield, which the Great Fire unfortunately spared, is an irregular space bounded by dirty houses and the ragged party-walls of demolished habitations, which give it the appearance of the site of a recent conflagration—the whole space comprising just six acres, fifteen perches roads and public thoroughfares included.
    Into this narrow area, surrounded with slaughter-houses, triperies, bone-boiling houses, gut-scraperies, etc., the mutton-chops, scrags, saddles, legs, sirloins, and rounds, which grace the smiling boards of our noble imperial capital throughout the year, have, for the major part, been goaded and contused for the benefit of the civic corporation installed at Guildhall.
    The best time to see this enormous aggregation of edible quadrupeds ... is early in the morning—say, at one or two o’clock of the ‘great day’, as the last market before Christmas-day is called. On this occasion, not only the space—calculated to hold 4,100 oxen and 30,000 sheep, besides calves and pigs—is crammed, but the approaches around it overflow with live stock for many hundred feet...
    If the stranger can make his way through the crowd ... and can manage to raise himself a few feet above the general level, he sees before him in one direction, by the dim light of hundreds of torches, a writhing party-coloured mass, surmounted by twisting horns, some in rows, tied to rails which run along the whole length of the open space, some gathered in one struggling knot. In another quarter, the moving torches reveal to him, now and then, through the misty light, a couple of acres of living wool, or roods of pigs’ skins. If he ventures into this closely wedged and labouring mass, he is enabled to watch more narrowly the reason of the universal ferment among the beasts. The drover with his goad is forcing the cattle into the smallest possible compass, and a little further on half a dozen men are making desperate efforts to drag refractory oxen up to the rails with ropes ... The sheep, squeezed into hurdles like figs into a drum, lie down upon each other, ‘and make no sign’; the pigs, on the other hand, cry out before they are hurt.
    This scene, which has more the appearance of a hideous nightmare than a weekly exhibition in a civilized country, is accompanied by the barking of dogs, the bellowing of cattle, the cursing of men, and the dull blow of sticks ... The hubbub generally abates from 12 o’clock at night, the time of opening, to its close at 3 p.m. the next day, although during the whole period as fresh lots are ‘headed up’, individual acts of cruelty continue... Many of the drovers we doubt not are ruffians, but we believe the greater part of the cruelty is to be ascribed to the market­place itself which, considering the immense amount of business to be got through on Mondays and Fridays, is absurdly and disgracefully confined...

Dr Andrew Wynter, ‘The London Commissariat’, Quarterly Review, No. cxc, vol. xcv 1854

… 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. The child is buried on the following Sunday, when its parents are free from work; the man is taken to the apothecary’s shop close by, where the needful is done to his wound; the woman applies to some female quack for a plaister, and if she is in good luck she gets another plaister in the shape of a glass of gin from the owner of the cattle. The press takes notice of the accidents, people read the paragraph and are shocked; and the whole affair is forgotten even before the next market day.
    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. For self-government has its dark aides, commendable though it be as the basis of free institutions. It is to the self-government of every community, of every parish, and of every association, that England is indebted for her justly envied industrial, political, and commercial, greatness. But self-government is the cause of many great and useful under­takings proceeding but slowly; and, in many instances, suc­cumbing to the assaults of hostile and vested interests. The government, indeed, attempts to combat all nuisances by moot­ing and fostering a variety of agitations. In Germany, it wants but a line from a minister to eradicate small evils, or introduce signal improvements. In England the same matters must be dealt with in a tender and cautious manner; it takes a score or so of years of agitation, until parliament yielding to public opinion, passes its vote for the improvement, or against the nuisance. 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.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

The confined area of Smithfield produced so many nuisances, and so many accidents were caused by infuriated cattle being driven through the crowded streets of the City, that public opinion, after some years of contention, compelled the removal of the metropolitan cattle market to its present commodious habitat.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865 

see also W.J.Gordon in article 'The Feeding of London' - click here

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In form the Meat Market is a parallelogram. It is 631 feet long, and 246 feet wide. It covers 3½ acres of ground. The architectural style of the building is Italian. The external walls of the market are 32 feet high, and for the purposes for which it was erected it is both in appearance and arrangements a model market.
    A visitor to the market, almost any hour after midnight, and up to ten o'clock in the morning, will find salesmen, or salesmen's porters, busy at their laborious and not too pleasant work. There are a great number of Christian and Temperance men amongst the salesmen and porters; and at any time of the day when the market is open, visitors, whether they are buyers or mere sight-seers, may depend upon these persons giving respectful answers to reasonable inquiries, provided, of course, that they do not too far trespass upon their time. There are 162 shops in the market., each shop being about 36 feet by 15. Behind each shop there is a counting-house, and over every counting-house and shop there are private apartments. The temperature of the market is generally about ten degrees cooler than the temperature in the open atmosphere, and in almost all weathers the comparative sweetness of the air is a surprise to visitors.

John Fletcher Porter, London Pictorially Described, [1890]

MEAT, POULTRY, AND FISH MARKETS, SMITHFIELD .... These spacious buildings in the Renaissance style, from the designs of Horace Jones, were erected in 1868, and subsequently. They cover an area of nearly eight acres. Beneath the market buildings are extensive vaults, having railway connection with some of the principal lines.

Reynolds' Shilling Coloured Map of London, 1895

George Birch, The Descriptive Album of London, c.1896

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - In Smithfield Meat Market

In Smithfield Meat Market - photograph

Thousands of carcasses hung on hooks are scarcely pleasing to the aesthetic sense, but the red-brick exterior of the London Central Meat Market, designed by Sir Horace Jones in the Renaissance style, with a tower at each of the four corners, is admirably effective. The internal arrangements of the Market may be described as ideal. It is light, airy, and commodious, being 630 feet long, 245 feet broad, and 30 feet high, with a glass and iron roof. Altogether, three-and-a-half acres are occupied by the Market, into which large quantities of the meat are conveyed by means of lifts from a depot below connected with the underground railways. Smithfield is worth visiting, if only to see the characteristic types of humanity that are common here; but it is well not to choose a hot summer's day for the purpose.