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Smithfield: markets and medicine

A GLIAS walk, revisited, by Susan and Daniel Hayton

Editor's note: As part of the GLIAS fiftieth anniversary celebrations, a short programme of evening walks was organised. This included one around Smithfield led by Dan Hayton based on a walk originally compiled in 1993 by Sue Hayton, a long-time member and Membership Secretary of GLIAS, who sadly died in 2018.


Smithfield has seen great changes over the 30 plus years that I've known it as a working area. Unlike the Barbican which suffered destruction by bombing and development it has retained much of its street plan although over the years the streetscape has altered. Now that centuries of links with the meat trade are about to come to an end it seems appropriate to look back on the earlier GLIAS walk. Changes and updates appear in italics.

Smithfield can claim to be one of London's oldest suburbs. It was here, just outside the City walls, that many industries grew up including the cattle market and the ancillary industries that are still important today.

The original 'smoothfield' where public executions, markets and fairs were held has disappeared to be covered by the Victorian Smithfield Market. Recent developments have meant that the future of the Market as well as that of Barts are in doubt. Whatever happens, this will remain a fascinating corner of lesser-known London.


☞ The walk covers about two miles and should take about two hours. It starts at Barbican Underground and finishes at Farringdon Underground.

From Barbican Underground Station turn right into Long Lane, left into Cloth Street and right into Middle Street and then Cloth Fair to Cloth Court (Figure 1).

Middle Street and East Passage alleyway show part of the original street plan

On the left at the top of Middle Street is the new building of Fletchers' & Farmers' Hall. The two Livery Companies share the hall. The Fletchers' Company was founded in 1371 and the Farmers' in 1955.1

Despite rebuilding this is one of the oldest areas of Smithfield with a mediaeval street plan and names recalling links with the textile industry. Cloth Fair itself was where many drapers and merchants lived; 41-2, much restored, is the only pre-Fire house left.

The Priory of St Bartholomew, founded in 1123, was closed in 1539 and its land confiscated. Only the chancel was kept as a church, now London's oldest and still to be seen from Cloth Fair. Other parts went into industrial use including part of the north transept which was a blacksmiths and the Lady Chapel which became a printers, where Benjamin Franklin was an apprentice.

☞ Retrace steps to Kinghorn Street on the right and follow it and then Bartholomew Close, passing post-war Barts' buildings (Figure 2).

The Hand and Shears on the right is on the corner of Cloth Fair and Bartholomew Close. Through the alleyway is part of the Old Red Cow on Long Lane

The Hand and Shears pub has been renovated but retains its original central serving bar divided into the traditional sections. The white glazed brick facings on the buildings in Newbury Street cast light into the narrow roadway. Bartholomew Close houses the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. Middlesex Passage, through the new developments, links the parts of Bartholomew Close

The Information Technologists are by no means the youngest livery company

87 Bartholomew Close is the Butchers' Company Hall, 1960, belonging to one of the oldest City Livery Companies, 1364. Note the animal heads at high level and the Latin tag, 'All sheep and cattle are under His feet' (Figure 4).

The latest rebuild of Butchers' Hall in Bartholomew Close

The Butchers' were somewhat unlucky; their previous premises were burnt down twice before the move to the present site in 1884/5 with their Hall being damaged in a WWI air raid and destroyed in WWII.

☞ Turn left to Little Britain and then go left along it, into King Edward Street to Postman's Park. Go into the Park and then turn left under the canopy.

Postman's Park, so called because of its nearness to the Post Office Buildings, was opened in 1880. G.F. Watts, noted Victorian artist, had the idea of using a wall as a national memorial to heroic men and women who lost their lives attempting to save others. The many ceramic plates tell their tragic stories.

The first plates were designed and produced by the De Morgan factory in Wandsworth and later ones were made at the Doulton factory.

☞ Return to King Edward Street and turn left into Angel Street.

Here we are surrounded by what were Post Office Buildings. To the left is the site of the General Post Office, established in St Martins-le-Grand in 1824 with a magnificent building by Smirke, 1829, demolished in 1912. As the Post Office grew, the site on Angel Road and King Edward Street was added, 1890-95, to the plans of Sir Henry Tanner. It was from the roof of this building that Marconi made the first public radio transmission in 1896.

On the other side of King Edward Street, on the site of Christ's Hospital, is the King Edward Building, 1905-1911, still a Post Office and former home of the National Postal Museum. Outside is a statue of Rowland Hill, letter in hand, originator of the penny post and the world's first adhesive postal stamp, by Onslow Ford, moved from its original site outside the Royal Exchange in 1923.

Under our feet is the pneumatic underground railway, 4ft by 4½ft bore, from Euston to the Post Office, built to speed the mails under London's congested streets and extended to the Post Office in 1865. Compressed air behind and a vacuum in front moved the driverless train through the tunnels. The line was abandoned after 1880 and is now used for cables. This is not to be confused with the Post Office Railway, 1927, with 9ft diameter tunnel, built to link the King Edward building with the main railway termini and the main sorting office at Mount Pleasant.

What remains of the Post Office Railway is now a 'visitor attraction' in the Museum at Mount Pleasant.

☞ Cross over and retrace your steps to Little Britain. At West Smithfield turn left and stop outside Barts Hospital.

Cattle markets were held here from the 11th century onwards and by the 17th were held several times a week. It is the largest and oldest wholesale meat market in Europe. Cattle, sheep, pigs and even poultry were driven here from all over the British Isles.

To the right of St Bartholomew's Gatehouse, 1599, one of London's few surviving Tudor buildings. In front is the circular ramp leading to huge underground basements and railway sidings underneath Smithfield. One of the advantages of the Victorian market, 1866-68, was that dead meat could be brought from all over the country by train, off-loaded without any road congestion and taken up to the market by hydraulic lift. The rail connection is now no longer used, as meat is brought by temperature-controlled lorry and basements are now used for car parking.

Behind is Barts Hospital, set up, with the Priory, by Rahere, the King's jester, 1123, after he had survived catching malaria on pilgrimage to Rome. This is the only London hospital still to occupy its mediaeval site. The main gateway was built, 1702, by Edward Strong and reconstructed in 1834. The statue on top of the gate is of Henry VIII who granted the hospital its charter in 1554. The hospital buildings behind this gate, by James Gibb 1730-1749, in Bath stone, surround a courtyard on four sides; the south side was rebuilt in 1935.

☞ Go left along West Smithfield and then left into Giltspur Street to Cock Lane, passing Edwardian extensions to the hospital.

On the modern block at the Cock Lane/Giltspur Street corner can be seen a little boy, recently re-gilded, marking the northernmost point reached by the Great Fire in 1666.

☞ Follow Giltspur Street to the junction at Holborn Viaduct and then turn right, cross Snow Hill and stop on the Viaduct itself.

From here we can look up the valley of the River Fleet, now one of the lost rivers of London. After the Fire the lower section was canalised with wharves on either side. In 1733 the river was arched over and used for Fleet Market which was relocated to Smithfield, 1826-30, allowing Farringdon Road to be built, 1845-6.

The idea of a viaduct was first mooted in the 1840s but not implemented until 1863 when it was built in cast iron to the designs of William Heywood, surveyor to the City Corporation. It is 1,400ft long and 80ft wide with four statues representing Commerce and Agriculture on the north side, Science and Fine Arts on the south. Originally the viaduct was flanked by Italianate buildings but only the south side remains.

The look of the original buildings has been restored by a modern replica on the North West corner. The representation of Science in the four sculptures holds a Watt Governor and leans on support which holds a battery with wires surrounding a globe (Figure 5).

The bronze of 'Science' is supported by a table with a globe encircled by wire from a battery

In 1883 Edison constructed the world's first power station at 57 Holborn Viaduct which supplied power and lighting for the Old Bailey and the Post Office until it closed in 1886.

☞ Cross the road, go down the steps at the SE corner of the Viaduct, turn right under the Viaduct, admiring the cast ironwork and the new steel and concrete decking, to Central Markets.

On either side of Central Markets are buildings, 1879 and 1886, intended for fruit and flowers, vegetables and fish which were to accommodate the old Fleet and Farringdon Street Markets. This accounts for dolphin and pineapple decoration on buildings now used to sell meat.

A stone commemorates the opening of the Markets by Sir Polydore de Keyser, the first Roman Catholic Lord Mayor of London since the Reformation (Figure 6).

The Central Markets are to be developed as the Museum of London utilising the space beneath as well as the street level buildings of the Central Markets and the Poultry Market.

Commemorating the opening by Sir Polydore de Keyser, the first Roman Catholic Lord Mayor since the Reformation Charterhouse Square retains gas lights

☞ Walk up Central Markets to East Poultry Avenue.

On the left is the Poultry Market, originally 1873 but replaced for the City Corporation by Sir Thomas Bennett in 1963 after a fire. It then had the largest clear span roof in Europe.

By 1852, the noise and mess caused by the live market was too much and it moved, in 1865, to Copenhagen Fields off the Caledonian Road. In 1863, the Metropolitan Line, the world's first underground railway, reached Farringdon and it was to link Smithfield with all parts of Great Britain.

To accommodate sidings under the new market building, 172,000 tons of earth were removed. 20 girders each 240ft long were carried across the width of the hole supported on 180 wrought iron stanchions. Cross girders were then laid and the gaps covered with brick arching. It was not until 1867 that the first stone was laid of the present building designed by Horace Jones, the City Architect, and built by Brown and Robinson. The completed building, 630ft long by 240ft wide, properly known as the London Central Market, was opened in 1868 by the Lord Mayor.

☞ Continue up the side of the market, noting the market sundriesmen, to Grand Avenue.

One of the major changes has been in the use of the shops; where you could once buy scales, knives and plastic parsley there are now mini supermarkets and barbering schools. The firm Herbert & Sons, once at 6 & 7 West Smithfield is still in business in Haverhill.2

The Grand Arcade cuts the Market in two and is shut off from the rest of the market by huge screens 14ft high which still carry the old gas lamp brackets. The statues on top of the Arcade are of London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Liverpool.

On the corners of Grand Avenue were the banks that served the market traders, only one remains. The K2 and K6 telephone boxes are listed.

IA on view. Postal districts were introduced in 1856 with the addition of numbers in 1917; Finsbury disappeared in 1964

☞ Continue to Lindsey Street, turn left, then right into Charterhouse Square.

A sad loss: at the corner of Lindsey Street and West Smithfield stood an art deco tiled building of 'Tripe and Offal Merchants'. At the other end of Lindsey Street Crossrail has taken over the corner site.

The square was used as a plague pit during the Black Death, 1348-9 and has never been built on. The memorial chapel for the plague victims was the nucleus for the Charterhouse monastery. In 1611 it became both a charitable school and hospice for military pensioners. Although the school moved out in 1872, it was replaced by the Merchant Taylors' School until 1933 when Barts' Medical School, founded in 1900, took over the site. The remaining hospice buildings have been restored but the Medical School is post-war.

The square is altered in use, and slightly in look. The Nurses' Home is now a hotel and Charterhouse has opened up to the Square by removing the wall which bordered the Northern Side. The Art Deco flats, Florin Court, will be be familiar to fans of Poirot on the TV. They were designed in 1936 by Guy Morgan and Partners and use bricks specially made in Stamford, Lincolnshire.

☞ Leave the square by the north west gate and continue to Fox and Knot Street.

The Fox and Anchor, 1898, is a splendid example of an 'art nouveau' building covered in coloured faïence and tiles. Next door, in contrast, is a cold store by Arthur Mackmurdo, 1900, in red brick with white and swags of fruit.

Once one of the pubs where a 'Full English' could be had early in the morning, the Fox and Anchor now includes a boutique hotel. In spite of re-modelling it retains some of its features such as the decorated ceiling. The decorative front was designed by W.J. Neatby and manufactured by Doulton & Co. of Lambeth (Figure 9).

Detail of the Art Nouveau decoration on the Fox and Anchor

☞ Follow Charterhouse Street to the Market, cross St John and Cowcross Streets and walk down to West Poultry Avenue, noting the cold stores on the right.

It was in the 1880s that frozen meat was first brought to Britain from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. 79-83 is the City Public Health Department; note the animals marching to market across the façade, male on one side, female on the other. The London Central Markets Cold Store was built, 1892, as a power station for lighting the market and later converted; next door is the cold store of the P.L.A. (Port of London Authority).

As the use of the Market changed many related building have become restaurants and clubs with a combined heat and power station occupying one of the cold stores.

☞ Return to Cowcross Street and turn left to Farringdon Station.

The buildings on Cowcross Street have undergone many changes but signs can still be seen. In the gates on the right hand side can be seen DBC (Danish Bacon Company). The grease from the bacon stoves, one of a number of sites in the area, raised problems when cleaning the grime from nearby buildings: strong 'washing-up liquid' was the answer.

Denmark House retains the DBC (Danish Bacon Company) initials in the gate

Farringdon Station, now in sparkling white faïence tiles, was the original terminus for the Metropolitan Railway. The line was an instant success carrying 12 million passengers in its first year of operation 1863-4 and it is here that our walk ends.

Farringdon Road station, opened in 1863 Thameslink/Elizabeth Line station

The advent of the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) has created a new pedestrian area between Turnmill Street and Farringdon Road with the modern Thameslink/Elizabeth Line station opposite the refurbished façade.

Notes and References

1. List of livery companies

2. Herbert & Sons history can be found at

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  • GLIAS walk 12: Smithfield (1993)

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