What follows is a mid-19th century description of The Great Day at Smithfield; that is, the Monday before Christmas, when the Christmas dinner was bought.
‘It presented an agitated sea of brute life. Drovers were scurrying hither and thither, carrying flaming torches in their hands, and arranging the cattle in rings and sheep in pens. The poor cattle, could not, from very want of room, be tied up in rows … In one place was a group of brown-coated Devons; in a second a group of bulky Herefords … a mass of black Scottish cattle diversified the picture in one spot; … a small number of rugged-coated monstrously horned Spanish cattle … Here, at one place, was an ox towering over all the rest, and having the reputation of weighing 300 stones; and there, at another spot, was a pig of 40 score, a weight at least equal to that of an average Smithfield ox. … The salesmen, drovers and butchers, many of them booted to the thighs, dashed in amongst the dense masses, and after incredible difficulties separated the animals sufficiently to enable the butchers to inspect them before purchasing. … Great cruelty was practised, the poor animals being goaded on the flanks and struck on the head before they could be marshalled in their proper places.‘ (Unsourced quote: I got it from Smithfield Past and Present, Forshaw and Bergstrom, Heinemann,1980.)
Thirty thousand animals, driven from all over the country (Highland cattle would have been on the road for three weeks), were crowded into a four acre space, beaten through narrow medieval streets by brutal City corporation drovers and lining the pavements with mud and shit. The fact that Smithfield was home to other trades besides butchery was a source of endless tension between the meat merchants and the other local shopkeepers, who bemoaned the mayhem of the cattle trade, the damage to their premises by rogue animals, and so on. Stray animals were constantly turning up in bizarre places, and were occasionally rescued from the Fleet or even the Thames. Contemporary newspapers covered the ‘accidents’ at Smithfield: in 1828 a woman looking in a jewellery shop window in Hatton Garden was killed by a bullock that had been goaded by a group of boys. Market days were great opportunities for pickpockets, who would sometimes attack the drovers and scare their animals, using the ensuing stampede as cover (and this is what the boys who scared that bullock may have been doing). On one day in the 1830s, there were reports of a gentleman gored by a bull in Kingsgate Street, a young lad trampled by a bullock in Long Lane, and of a rogue pig who got into a house in Turnmill Street and attempted to eat a baby. (Urban myth alert: there are other stories about a baby-eating pig that lived hereabouts, so I suggest that this latter item should be taken as a bit of period sensationalism.)
Apart from live animals causing disturbances, the chaotic conditions in which livestock was butchered lent a hellish, blood-spattered character to Smithfield’s streets. In Oliver Twist, Dickens describes the locale thus: ‘Through the filthy lanes and alleys no-one could pass without being butted by the dripping end of a quarter of beef, or smeared with the greasy carcase of a newly-slain sheep.’ An entire industry of slaughtering, flaying, rendering, dressing, tanning, soap making and tallow making was based in Smithfield, right up until the market was abolished in 1855. The district was peppered with slaughterhouses in basements, yards and even ordinary houses, unlicensed killing pits whose greasy entrances opened onto the street and into which pigs and sheep were flung to their doom. Cowcross St. was known for its knackers’ yards, each one of which would slaughter and boil down as many as sixty worn-out horses per day; this process was known in the trade as ‘melting’. Naturally, they weren’t just trading in old horses, as horse theft was endemic; a gentleman’s horse could be stolen, sold to a slaughterhouse and have its throat cut before its owner noticed it was gone. Sharp’s Alley, a meandering tributary of courts off Cowcross St., was home to Atcheler, ‘knacker to his Majesty’, alongside a ‘bladder-blower’, several cat-gut dealers, a manufacturer of cart-grease and various butchers of diseased cattle. There were furriers who specialised in rabbit and even cats’ fur, often taken from stolen cats, and who flayed the animals whilst still alive so as to preserve the quality of the pelt. Perhaps not coincidentally, the rats in Sharp’s Alley were said to be the biggest and fiercest in London.
Sarah Wise’s terrific book The Italian Boy includes a chapter on the character of Smithfield in the 1830s and mentions The Bear and Ragged Staff, a tavern that used to stand at the north-eastern side of the market, which functioned as a combination pub and slaughterhouse. Market inspectors reported finding a putrefying cow’s carcass hanging up in the doorway, prior to being transformed into the cheapest of cheap meat products: cattle feed. (Even in the 1830s there was concern that feeding any meat – let alone diseased meat – to herbivores was an outrageous practice, yet it wasn’t disallowed until after the BSE crisis in the 1980s.) The Italian Boy is the story of how ‘resurrection men’ ensured that the medical schools of early 19th-century London had a regular supply of fresh meat to work with. This loathsome trade in the dead was centred around Smithfield and the Fortune of War pub, which stood on Giltspur Street, handy for St. Bart’s hospital (and near Newgate Gaol, almost within sight of the public executions held outside the prison’s Debtors Door). Smithfield, a place of slaughter since the 1200s, had evolved its own shadow trade in human corpses. In Great Expectations, Pip calls Smithfield ‘the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam […]’; but, like any provincial market town, the area was well-served by pubs: the index to The Italian Boy also lists The George, The King of Denmark, The Bell, The Three Tuns … hostelries where traders in flesh of all kinds could take refreshment between deals and bloodshed. And, in August, Smithfield played host to Bartholomew’s Fair, an ancient cloth fair, est. circa 1180, which functioned as an annual Londoners’ holiday. The rowdiness of Bartholomew’s Fair was celebrated by Ben Jonson in his titular play, celebrating the event as a microcosm of English society. (But that’s for another post.)
Despite the distaste of Charles Dickens and the public at large, private interests kept the live market at Smithfield going until 1855, after which it was moved a much bigger site north of Islington. The noble Victorian City Corporation buildings that comprise today’s Smithfield market constitute a (successful) bid to sanitise the consumption of animal flesh. The City Corporation suppressed Bartholomew Fair at the same time as they closed the live market; but for those who seek contemporary excitement, there’s always the nightclub Fabric, opposite the Corporation market buildings on Charterhouse St., which hosts a distinctly 21st century bacchanalia.