The Builder reports as London rebuilds its 1,000-year-old meat market

Smithfield shutterstock

Horace Jones’ central market at Smithfield

London’s booming population in the mid-19th century caused a series of headaches for the City authorities. As more and more people flooded into the capital on the newly built railways, the capital’s infrastructure started to buckle. One unavoidable problem, which we covered in the last archive piece, was the sewer system. Another was Smithfield Market.

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Operating from the same site since the 10th century, Smithfield was one of the oldest markets in London and the most important place to buy and sell fresh meat. By the 1840s, however, Londoners had become appalled at the volume of livestock being driven daily through the City’s narrow streets, often violently and in terrible conditions. 

“Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed, there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights,” said one campaign poster calling for conditions to be improved.

In 1852, parliament relented and agreed to rebuild the market and connect it to railway lines to keep the streets free of livestock. Building such a vast structure, which is now set to become the new home of the Museum of London, above an excavated railway box was a major engineering challenge.

After a controversy over architectural competition in which no submitted design was chosen, the City Corporation chose its own architect, Horace Jones, who also designed Tower Bridge. Work started in 1866.

Below are a series of news items published in The Builder, the predecessor to Building Design’s sister title, Building, covering the start of construction, an accident involving the death of three workers and the market’s eventual opening in 1868.


News item, 19 March 1864 


“Going, going,” and soon, before the advance of improvement, the domestic edifices of Old London will be altogether “gone.” To preserve a record of some of them is desirable; and here we have a picturesque group of houses and shops which are vanishing before the railway invasion. The block fronts towards

Smithfield engraving 2

Engraving of old buildings at Smithfield set to be demolished to make way for the new market

Smithfield- bars,-a place of very old date. Along this road have often passed the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, when they, and their stately buildings near here, were in all their strength and magnificence. Now, however, the once handsome buildings which clustered round St. John’s-square have, with the exception of the venerable gateway, almost entirely disappeared.

Although altered, the group of houses engraved indicates considerable antiquity. The framework which remained until lately in some of the windows spoke of the reign of Henry VII. or Henry VIII. When these dwellings are removed, few will be left here older than the Great Fire of 1666.

Many changes have taken place in Smithfield, but none of them of more consequence than will be the advent of the “iron horse” on to the site of the once world-famed metropolitan cattle-market, and the completion of the spacious new markets.

In days far remote it was a dismal swamp, along one margin of which passed the city wall, branching from Newgate towards Cripplegate. Next came the gathering together of the multitude on the waste to assist Rahere in laying the foundation of his Norman church. Then was seen the gradual growth of the monastic buildings. Afterwards Henry II allowed the Black Canons of Bartholomew’s to establish a fair, to which, from all parts of England, crowded merchants and handicraftsmen.

At about this time the vacant ground became in parts covered with smiths’ shops. Plantagenet and Tudor kings and queens have come here with jousting and pageantry. Edward I and the Black Prince were in Smithfield in great state, after the battle of Cressy; and some years later, when the great King Edward had, as the chroniclers relate, fallen into his second childhood, being infatuated with the charms of Alice Pierce, he brought her to Smithfield in a splendid open car. Sitting by her side, and calling her the “Lady of the Sun,” he conducted her to the lists, followed by a train of knights, each leading by the bridle a beautiful palfry, mounted by a gaily-dressed damsel.

Barely to enumerate the chivalric displays which have been made here, the duels and trials by ordeal, and other events of the olden time, would occupy much space; for, up to the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and James I, this renowned site was the resort of the royalty and nobility of the land. Drake, Raleigh, and others have knelt here on the cloth of gold before the maiden sovereign; nor has Old Smithfield been wanting in the display of scenes of more tragic import.

Amongst these will be remembered the death of Wat Tyler, and the burning and the execution by other means of many who suffered for conscience’ sake. Bartholomew Leggate was, n 1611, condemned and executed in Smithfield as a dangerous heretic, and was the last person who perished at the stake in England or his religious opinions; but there were various terrible executions in Smithfield later, or charges of witchcraft, and other supposed offences.

The precincts of St. Bartholomew’s must have been a pleasant retreat, with its mulberry- garden and elm and fruit trees. Under the shade of these the scholars of the chief London schools were at seasons wont to assemble for the purpose of discussion and rivalry in the display of knowledge. Then the sale of sheep and oxen was but trifling, compared with the present demand, and the extent of the pens was proportionably small; but the ancient fair had not in Stow’s days ceased to be of almost national importance; and most picturesque groups must the London historian have seen in his wanderings here at fair-time. 

As years passed on, the improvement of the roads, the altered character of manufactures, and other causes, led to the alteration of Bartholomew’s Fair from a great trade gathering to an assembly of Londoners for festive purposes and amusement. At length the sports and wonders of the fair, which were witnessed and Illustrated by Hogarth, declined, and that which had for many centuries been a valued institution became a scene of confusion and riotous and drunken disorder. Few, therefore, were sorry to hear the last proclamation of the ancient fair made by the City authorities; when the small group of fruit and cake sellers who had assembled according to old custom, were made to move on by the police. Bartholomew’s Fair had done its work; and, like the English crossbows, coats of armour, pack-horses, and a hundred other things, gave way before changed arrangements.

A few years afterwards we heard the last knell of the bell which closed for ever the old Smithfield Cattle-market: like the fair, time-honoured institution, but which, like the other, had become a nuisance, and unsuited for its purpose; and none regret the change who remember the scenes of confusion which reigned here on market-days, the loud lowing of oxen, the bleating of ill-used sheep, the barking of dogs, the hoarse voices of drovers, the want of water, and the other miseries of Old Smithfield.

For some years past this place has been in a disgraceful state of neglect; but we may hope now for improvement. Let us urge that in the course of it some thought be given to pent-up City lads, who, during the last three centuries, have been gradually robbed of their play-grounds.


Comment, 2 July 1864


It is to be hoped that the excavations which are about to be made at the north side of Smithfield, near the Charter-house, and towards the once splendid home of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, will be carefully watched, and with intelligence. It would be strange if no remnants of the times gone by show themselves here. The diggers should not be allowed to become the tools of dealers in spurious antiquities; nor should the men be allowed to remove from the premises articles which have been dug up and are of real value. No site in the whole of what was Old London has more historic interest than Smithfield; and every scrap of information which the proposed excavations may afford will prove of use. The strata of the soil observable, and other conditions, should be noted.

Smithfield engraving

Engraving of an unused design for the market by Knightley & Mew. A plan by Horace Jones, the City Corporation’s architect, was eventually chosen.

News item, 10 March 1866


In the latter part of the year 1864, the Corporation of the city of London advertised for designs for new meat and poultry markets, to be erected in Smithfield; and on the 1st of December of that year designs were sent in by several competitors, and were fully reviewed in our pages. Those submitted by Messrs. Knightley & Mew (one of which we have engraved) was selected for the chief premium of 300l. There was a condition that the Corporation reserved to itself the right of employing, if they thought fit, their own architect to carry out the work, a stipulation neither fair nor wise.

The site presented some difficulties, the space beneath being excavated for underground railways, which come in at various angles. Openings were to be arranged in the floors of the markets, to enable the meat, &c., to be lifted from the railways to the markets’ floors level: the position of these lift spaces interfered much with the groups of shops. Difficulties also arose in consequence of the wishes of the trade, some desiring long shops, others corner shops; a close market was the wish of many, and an open market the desire of the public. To meet these irreconcilable views, Messrs. Knightley & Mew prepared two designs; one having the shops arranged in groups of four around the outlines of the site, with spaces between, each group thus forming corner shops; and the other having shops arranged in long lines; thus deep shops were obtained.

The site is 625 ft. long by 240 ft. broad, and upon it 200 shops of various sizes were required. Each shop has on the ground-floor a small office, and a staircase leading to an upper office, with lavatory, &c. This upper compartment takes up one-half only of the area, consequently one-half of each shop has a height of 28 ft. The roofs are either flat or simple V roofs; the avenues between the shops have iron roofs covered with slates, glass louvres to the sides, and spring-blinds to run horizontally to keep out the heat. The outer walls, it was proposed, should be built of Portland stone, the penthouse roofs to be covered with lead and supported on iron brackets, the timbers arranged in deeply moulded panels. Penthouse roofs were suggested in preference to a colonnade, which would obstruct the public way. The large archway shown in the long side of the design, relieved with sculpture, spans the public roadway that crosses the market site. The central tower, in its lower stage, contains a refreshment-room; above, a clock; and again, above that, a bell. 

The architects guaranteed the carrying out of their design for 100,000l. The Corporation were a long time deciding upon plans, having taken years to determine the question of markets or no markets. The delay has given dissatisfaction; public meetings having been called, and the Secretary of State invoked to take the matter into his own hands.

A design by the City architect has been made since the selection of the one we have engraved, and is now before the Common Council.


News item, 22 December 1866


A serious accident, attended with the death of three persons, occurred to a train near the Aldersgate station of the Metropolitan Railway on Wednesday afternoon. It appears that a broad-gauge train from Kensington was approaching Aldersgate station at fourteen minutes to one o’clock, when an immense iron girder which was being put up across the line in connexion with the works for the Smithfield meat market, fell and crushed a second-class carriage, killing some of the occupants on the spot and injuring others. The carriage in question was the last of the train. The cause of the falling of the girder, and the consequent injury to the train, is believed to have been the giving way of the rope or chain of the gearing. The girder was not fixed: it had only been raised to its platform a very short time before the accident. Mr. Kelk is the contractor for the works.

Smithfield engraving 5

Cross-section of the central arched roadway


News item, 5 January 1867


The inquest on the three persons killed by the fall of a girder from the Smithfield market works on the metropolitan railway has resulted in a verdict of manslaughter against the foreman, Wilmot, and the ganger, Chaney. It appears that no arrangement whatever existed for staying proceedings while a train was passing below, although the steam of the engine prevented the workmen from even seeing what they were about at the moment. From the evidence it seems clear that the girder was pulled, by a donkey engine, too far across the other girders, till it lost its balance and canted over; and there was not even a check rope to regulate the speed or the progress of the girder. It was admittedly improper to use the donkey engine at the moment of the misadventure, and it pulled the girder several feet forward at a time when it ought not to have gone more than one foot.


News item, 13 April 1867


The preparatory works for the new Meat Market in Smithfield have so far advanced that the “first stone” is to be laid almost immediately. Many of its brick arches, on iron girders and columns, which will form the floor of the market, are turned, and the basement walls for the four towers, at angles, are in course of execution.

At the close of our last volume we gave a view of the market externally, a section of the roadway, and descriptive particulars of the proposed building. We now add a view through the central roadway, which depends mainly for effect, as we before mentioned, on the screen of oak framing, filled in with cast-iron scroll-work, which is carried up to the spring of the roof- timbers, and on the dressing of the curved principals. Our readers may remember that the building is being erected under contract by Messrs. Browne & Robinson, under the superin- tendence of the City architect, Mr. Horace Jones.

The money has been raised by the issue of City Debenture Bonds at par, bearing 4 per cent. interest, and redeemable in 10 years, secured upon the rents of the markets, as well as upon the general estates and property of the Corporation.


News item, 29 December 1866


Many of our readers must have observed the labyrinth of hoarding which, for a considerable time past, has changed the appearance of Smithfield and its surroundings; and some may have been led to suppose, by the premature notices of the daily press, that these were connected with the proposed meat-markets. Such, however, is not the case, the works at present in progress being the extensive excavations for the railway depôt (scene of a recent sad accident), which will occupy the basement of the market buildings, and will have to be nearly completed before the market can be proceeded with. Much delay has already taken place on account of these railway operations, but they are now being pushed forward with more energy; and it is to be hoped that no further cause of delay may arise to prevent the corporation carrying out this very desirable work with all

Smithfield text

expedition. With the aid of the City architect, Mr. Horace Jones, we are enabled to present our readers thus early with the accompanying view of the exterior of the proposed building, and a section of the interior of the roadway which intersects it, from which its large extent and character may be judged of.

The suitableness of its arrangements will be best understood by the following description.

As we have already indicated, the market buildings will be constructed over the joint depôt of the Metropolitan and Great Western Railways, on the north side of old Smithfield market-place. The block of the buildings will be oblong, the greater length extending from east to west. The south front will be in the line of Long-lane and King-street, and a road will be formed in a line with the north front, to join Farringdon-road. A roadway, 50 ft. wide in the clear, will also pass transversely through the centre of the market-building, connecting Smithfield with the important thoroughfares of St. John-street and Cow Cross-street to the north.

The proposed building will be 631 ft. from east to west, and 246 ft. wide; the area enclosed will therefore be 155,226 ft. super., or somewhat more than three acres and a half.

The general plan shows a central avenue, 25 ft. wide, running east and west throughout the length of the building, with lateral passages branching off it. The shops, for the most part, front to these side passages, which, with the central avenue, are intended for foot-passengers only. Each shop consists of a front part, with stout open oak framing next the passages and adjoining shops. This portion of the shop is open above, and here the meat will be exposed during the hours of sale.

At night the stock will be carried into the back part of the shop, which can be enclosed by open sliding shutters. The remaining sides are formed of oak framing, filled in with slate panelling. Stairs conduct to a room above, which may be occupied either as a counting-room or retiring-room for the principal. A room of this sort has been much desiderated by the various parties consulted as to the details of arrangements. On the same floor are provided water-closets and washhand- basins.

Over this room is a platform roof, between which and the main roof of markets there is ample space for ventilation (over the whole area of the building). These shops occupy a space 30 ft. by 15 ft. The front shop, back shop, and room over the latter are each about 15 ft. by 15 ft.

At the four corners of the market are the refreshment-rooms, which are on the first floor. The towers forming the angle of the building, where not occupied by the accumulators required for working the hoists, are appropriated as bars for frequenters of the market.

On either side of the gateways at the external ends of the central avenue, public urinals and water-closets are provided on the first floor. The position of the buildings, with reference to the railways, affords great facilities for the direct transfer of the meat from the railway- wagons to the market by means of hoists, which are provided at various points as conveniently situated as possible for ready communication with the shops. A staircase communicating with the railway below is placed in the covered roadway; special ventilation being provided over these hoists with a view to prevent any effluvia from the railway-station entering the market.

The general arrangement of the architect’s design has been necessarily accommodated to the somewhat peculiar circumstances. The whole area of the market and roadway being carried on a system of brick arching, wrought- iron girders and columns, rendered it impossible, or at least inadvisable, to construct any central feature, such as a tower or dome, which might have been desirable. This difficulty has been met by the importance given to the four towers hereafter described, the frontispiece of covered roadway, and the louvre which is placed at the intersection of the main roofs.

The style adopted is Italian, treated with some slight feeling of Renaissance or Cinque-cento. The enclosing walls present a series of arcaded recesses, with Doric pilasters, which are fluted in the upper two-thirds and raised on pedestals; the entablature being returned and ornamented over the pilasters, and finished with ornamental vases. The height of the main portion of the front elevation is 31 ft. 6 in. The heads of the arches between the pilasters are filled in with light open ironwork. In the recess of the arches. are windows filled with ironwork of plainer design.

Smithfield engraving 3

View down the central roadway

The principal feature in the longer fronts is the roadway, the frontispiece of which has an arch of cast iron, abutting on clustered pilasters, surmounted by large sitting statues. The elevations are terminated, as we have said, by towers at the angles, 90 ft. high, square on the lower half, with coupled pilasters at angles, and octagonal above, finished with domical roofs. The offset from the octagon to the square is managed by introducing griffins (the City supporters), holding shields charged with the arms of the City. The end elevations have the gateways leading to the central avenue as their principal feature. These gateways, the openings of which are 26 ft. 9 in. by 19 ft., are flanked by coupled pilasters, with an elliptical arch filled in with the arms of the City, and an enriched pediment over the openings. The cast-iron gates for these are 20 ft. high by 19 ft. wide, very elaborate. The twelve side entrances to passage which occur in the longer fronts, are completely filled with the same sort of ironwork.

Internally one of the principal architectural effects will be the roadway, of which we may hereafter give a view, with its wrought-iron curved principals, louvred roof for light, the oak framing of the side shops ornamented with light iron scroll-work, and the iron gates of avenue which occur in the centre. The central avenue depends principally for its architectural appearance on the screen of oak framing filled in with cast-iron scroll-work, which is carried up to the spring of roof timbers, and the dressing of the curved principals, and promises to be effective.

The arrangements for lighting and ventilation are of so much importance in a work of this kind that it is satisfactory to hear that much attention has been bestowed on them.

The roofs of the market, which run east and west, and are in nine bays in the breadth, are an adaptation of the mansard roof, the lower portion filled in with glass louvres, contrived with the view of admitting light and air with- out the direct rays of the sun. There are also louvred dormers in the upper portion of roof.

The markets and roadway will be lighted with gas, with handsome pendant globe-light in the central avenue, and large scroll brackets in the roadway. Messrs. Browne & Robinson are the contractors for the works, at a sum of 134,460l. The whole building, it is expected, will be finished in fifteen or eighteen months.


Smithfield engraving 4

Horace Jones’ design for the market

News item, 12 October 1867


The large depôt of the Great Western Railway Company, beneath the site of the Smithfield Market, has been opened for goods. It is intended to supply the place of the warehouses at the Bull and Mouth, which are shortly to be pulled down. The rails are not yet laid down which are to connect the depôt with the Great Western system, so that the yard will as yet be merely used as a receiving station for goods to be transported by the company’s wagons to Paddington. This will ultimately form the largest and most important goods station of the company. The road into the depôt is a spiral one, occupying the centre of the old Smithfield Market, and descending at a gradient of one in twenty-five. At the end of the descent are three large arches of skew brickwork, which carry the road above, and through these is the passage to the yard, where temporary platforms and offices have been erected for the receiving and delivery of merchandise.


News item, 31 October 1868


At the last Court of Common Council, Mr. H. L. Taylor announced that the formal opening of the new market would, in all probability, take place on the 14th of November, and that an application had been made to the Prince of Wales to be present and perform the ceremony. His Royal Highness, in reply, however, had expressed his regret that he was unable to do so, having made all his arrangements for leaving England previous to that date. The matter, Mr. Taylor added, would therefore be left in the hands of the Lord Mayor for the time being and the corporation.

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