The Market

Today’s Smithfield Market is over 140 years old and has seen many changes yet continues to shift and evolve, with each stall meeting the latest regulations and adapting to changes in food fashions with the same efficiency, good humour and elegance it has shown throughout the centuries. For the market is not just a series of buildings but is about the people who bring it to life – the managers, the traders, the buyers and the visitors.


Smithfield’s livestock market grew in size and significance over the centuries until by the end of the Eighteenth Century the number of animals being brought into London from around the country was causing mayhem in the area and encroaching on the nearby streets and houses.

In 1852 the Smithfield Market Removal Act was passed, relocating the livestock market to a new open site north of Islington. Plans were immediately put into place to start a new market in the area which would specialise in cut meat.

The arrival of the railways had already brought about an amazing revolution in the movement of animals.  Before then fresh meat could only be transported on the hoof, which took time and was wasteful, as it was reckoned that each cow lost about 20 pounds in weight on a 100 mile walk. By 1849 almost one million of the animals sold at Smithfield came to London by rail.

So when plans for the new market were drawn up they also included an underground area where meat could be unloaded from the trains. However it needed an Act of Parliament to erect the new buildings. That was acquired by the City of London Corporation in 1860 and the City Architect, Sir Horace Jones, was charged with designing the new market.  Work began in 1866, the first stone was laid in 1867 and the whole project was completed a year later – a vast cathedral-like structure of ornamental cast iron, stone, Welsh slate and glass. It was a place full of light and air, consisting of two main buildings linked under a great roof and separated by a central arcade, the Grand Avenue.

The opening ceremony on 24 November 1868, headed by the Lord Mayor of London, was a grand ceremony and banquet attended by 1200 guests with music by the Grenadier Guards and lavish feasting on “boars’ heads and barons of beef”, while the toast was “tolls to the Corporation, cheap meat for the people and fair profits to salesmen.” Very soon afterwards, four more buildings were added. Of these, only the Poultry Market (originally opened in 1875) is still in use today.

By the next decade, the first imports of frozen meat began arriving from Australia, New Zealand and South America. Smithfield had established itself as the premier meat market which it still is to this day.

During the Second World War the market was closed for business. It was used mainly for storage and space for an army butchers’ school. Although there was bomb damage to some of the buildings, the majority remained unscathed.

However, the original Poultry Market building was destroyed by a major fire in 1958. A new building was commissioned and, at a cost of £2 million, was completed in 1963. While unremarkable from the outside, inside it is a feat of engineering: in 1963 its domed roof was the largest clear spanning dome roof in Europe – all 225 feet of it.

In the 1990s the market was modernised and upgraded to meet new EC regulations – this included the construction of new sealed loading bays, a new automated overhead meat rail system, new stalls and chiller rooms – all inside Grade II* Listed Buildings.  The underground area, no longer the railway sidings, became a car park.

Smithfield – or London Central Markets – is not just the largest EU approved wholesale meat market in the country, but the oldest too.

Originally known as Smoothfield, it was a large open space just outside the city boundaries on the edge of St Bartholomew’s Priory. (The name meant a smooth plain – but the word eventually became known as smith, a corruption of the Saxon word smeth, which meant smooth).

In the Twelfth Century it was used as a vast recreational area where jousts and tournaments took place. By the late Middle Ages the area had become the most famous livestock market in the country.

There was also a murkier side to the area, because from the early Thirteenth Century it was used as a place of execution for criminals. Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, was executed here, as was Scottish hero William Wallace and of course, it was the location of Bartholomew Fair – three days of merrymaking, dancing, selling and music which over the centuries became the most debauched and drunken holiday in the calendar. Even so, it lasted almost 700 years before it was eventually closed in 1855.

Read More


The Smithfield Market Tenants’ Association began life as the London Central Meat & Poultry Markets Association in 1869, the year after the new market buildings were opened.

The Association is governed by an elected Council made up of 20 senior Directors, on a voluntary basis. They represent different Companies and between them cover the complete range of commodities sold on the market. The Chairman is elected by the Council on an annual basis.

The aims of the Association are to protect the commercial and employment interests of its Members. However, it has always been keen to celebrate major milestones in the life of Smithfield Market. In 2004, there was a party in Smithfield to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of war-time rationing and in 2008 a Banquet was held in Grand Avenue, at the centre of the meat market, recreating (for the 140th anniversary) the opening celebrations of the new market buildings.

There have been many visitors to the market over the years, but the best loved must be HRH Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who was present at the Market Centenary Celebrations in 1968. She visited again in 1982 and 1986 at the Association’s invitation – and was serenaded by market workers singing If you were the only girl in the world. She also opened the refurbished East Market Building in June 1997. In more recent years, HRH The Princess Royal has carried on these visits, including the rededication of the Smithfield war memorial in 2005.

Read More


My working day begins in the dead of night. While much of London turns to sleep, Smithfield stirs into life.

By 10pm (9pm on Sundays) the deliveries begin to arrive in lorries the size of small barns, which queue up at the lock-ons, waiting for their cargo to be unloaded. This is as slick an operation as you can imagine with pitchers and staff from each of the traders ready and waiting to hook up their carcass orders and take them through to their designated stores.

There, the cutting and processing staff are waiting to begin work, so that by the time I arrive on the scene – anytime between one and one-thirty, the place is a hive of activity.  The cutters are already at work on the orders taken earlier that day, while I go to check any later orders from the office upstairs, where they will have come in via fax, email or telephone.

Sales staff on the floor are already selling by then and taking orders from early customers, many of whom have arrived straight from their restaurants, which have just closed for the night. Other clients are there to see what’s available for the next night’s business or to collect pre-ordered meats.  The big catering butchers are also among the early birds. These are the businesses who supply all the major restaurants, hotels and clubs and have a full night of deliveries ahead of them. The market is at its height between two and six am with everyone down on the floor selling – while at the same time upstairs, orders are still arriving for the following night, electronically.  And it’s not just the trade who are buying throughout the night – we get members of the public coming through at all times, although the majority arrive after six.

However to see the market’s great relationship with the general public, you need to be there in the week running up to Christmas. The last three days before the holiday, most of the trade have done their business, most of the parties and celebration dinners have been held, and so it’s just the public buying their Christmas feasts. It’s fantastic, if slightly manic.

It is a great feeling though, to see the market at work. Even regulars stop to admire the cutters who are incredibly skilled. Their precision in cutting meat is awesome, because they know how even the slightest mishap can ruin a carcass…and that in turn costs money.

Most of us traders know through a mix of experience and guesswork exactly how much meat we will need for a night’s business…and know that what is in the shop at the start of the night will be gone by morning. And although we are all highly competitive, we have a great camaraderie – but then many of us have been here for a long time, some even for generations.

It is interesting sometimes to reflect how business has changed over the last three decades. We are as competitive and as efficient as ever, much has been automated and the safety and hygiene laws are much more stringent. The market was completely modernised and upgraded in the 1990s to comply with EC regulations which included many amendments such as the new sealed loading bays, automatic moving hooklines as well as chiller rooms.

Even the way we do business not to mention our working hours has changed.  Twenty odd years ago I wouldn’t start work until five, and then would go to breakfast with colleagues or customers, at one of the local pubs around nine. After which it would be back to the floor for more selling and I wouldn’t really hit the office until lunchtime. Now by lunchtime it’s almost all over.  Selling mostly finishes around seven, although a few of us will carry on until about 10…and the last couple of hours are spent in the office collating and collecting orders.

So when most London workers are only half way through their day…I’m on my way home, hopefully satisfied with another successful day’s business at London’s oldest trading market.

Read More