The Metropolitan Meat-Market

Pages 491-496

Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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History of the Metropolitan Meat Market—Newgate Market and its Inconvenience—The Meat Market described—The Ceremony of Opening —A Roaring Trade—The Metropolitan Poultry Market—London Trade in Poultry and Game—French Geese and Irish Geese—Packed in Ice—Plover's Eggs for the Queen.

Before the establishment of the new meat and poultry market in Smithfield, London was behind every city of Europe in respect of public markets. For seven centuries, dating from 1150, Smithfield has been used as a market for live stock. Latterly, the dirt and crowd, and the rushes of horned beasts, had become intolerable, and after much opposition from vested interests, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1852, under the provisions of which a new and convenient cattle-market was constructed by the Corporation out to the quiet north, in Copenhagen Fields, once the resort of Cockney lovers, Cockney duellists, and Cockney agitators.

"At the opening of the Meat-market by the Prince Consort, in 1855," says the Times of November 25, 1868, "Smithfield became waste ground. The arrangements at Copenhagen Fields are about as good for their purpose as any that could have been desired; but since the time the market there was laid out there have been very great changes in respect of the supply of animal food for the population of the metropolis. Then most of the beasts and sheep converted into meat for sale in the shops of London butchers were brought to London alive and slaughtered by the retailers. With the development of our railway system, and the additions to the great main lines by extensions which brought them into the business parts of the metropolis, the dead meat traffic from the provinces exhibited year by year a heavier tonnage. But the Cattle Plague, and the consequent restrictions to the removal from one county to another of live stock which might communicate or become infected with the disease, brought about something like a revolution in our food supply; and at the present time not less than about 100,000 tons of dead meat are brought into the London market from all parts of the country. The centre to which all this immense quantity of meat has hitherto been consigned is Newgate Market. Here has been conducted an enormous wholesale trade between the salesmen, to whom the country dealers, nearly 300 in number, consign their meat, and retail butchers scattered all over London and its suburbs who do not slaughter for themselves. In addition, Newgate Market has been from time immemorial the principal retail meat market—a circumstance which may be attributed to the fact that it has the reputation of being cheaper than all others by 1d. or 2d. in the pound. Now, in modern London, it would be difficult to find any site more inconvenient for such a double trade than that of Newgate Market. The whole business has had to be done within the very limited space of which Paternoster Row, Ivy Lane, Newgate Street and the Old Bailey are the boundaries. Last Christmas week 800 tons of meat were brought to London for the Newgate Market by the Great Eastern, the Great Northern, and the Midland railways. This, and the consignments by all the other lines, had to be conveyed to the market from the railway stations in wagons and vans. These vehicles, and the butchers' carts, completely block up Giltspur Street, Newgate Street, and the Old Bailey on several days in the week, Mondays and Fridays especially."

Through the filthy lanes and alleys no one could pass without being either butted with the dripping end of a quarter of beef, or smeared by the greasy carcase of a newly-slain sheep. In many of the narrow lanes there was hardly room for two persons to pass abreast. Nevertheless, till the extension of the railway system, there was a difficulty in constructing a meat-market worthy of London, from the size of the great city. A good meat-market must be open to access from all quarters. Some years ago, when beef and mutton were far dearer in outlying shops than in Newgate Market itself, the inconvenient position, and the difficulty of reaching it, compelled persons of moderate means to be taxed elsewhere, rather than face the dirt and bustle of Newgate. The Corporation, therefore, at last resolved on providing a new market in Smithfield, in order to utilise a waste, and develop the meat trade throughout the kingdom.



In 1860 the Corporation obtained an Act for erecting market buildings on the site of Smithfield, and the following year procured another, giving them power to abolish Newgate Market. The Markets Improvement Committee then took the matter in hand, and Mr. Horace Jones, the City architect, prepared a fitting design. Their parliamentary powers enabled the committee to raise a sum of £235,000 for the purchase of property, and £200,000 for the erection of buildings. The Markets Improvement Committee concluded their contract with Messrs. Browne and Robinson for a sum within the estimated amount of £200,000. The chief element of the design was that the basement storey of the market was to be a "through" railway-station, with communication not only from all parts of the country, but also with all the suburban lines.

The tremendous excavations soon began on a Roman scale of grandeur. About 3,500,000 loads of earth, weighing about 172,000 tons, had to be loosened and removed. Twenty-one main girders, of Titanic strength, were carried across the entire width of the excavation, 240 feet, on wrought-iron stanchions. On these main girders cross girders were laid, 2 feet 6 inches deep, and 7 feet 6 inches apart. Between the latter brick arches were turned, and concrete and asphalte were set in stone, to form a roof for the railway, and a bedding for the wood pavement of the building.

In these foundations were five miles of iron girding, carried on no fewer than 180 wroughtiron stanchions, while substantial retaining walls rose all around.

The first stone of this well-planned market was laid on the 5th of June, 1867, by Mr. Lowman Taylor, the chairman of the committee. In March the central area was given up to the contractors. The market is a huge parallelogram, 631 feet long and 246 feet wide, and covers three and a half acres. It is not over-beautiful, but then its necessities were peculiar and imperative. The style would probably be called Italian, but it resembles more the Renaissance of France, that style which mediævalists shudder at, but which is more elastic in the architect's hands than the Gothic. The prevailing feature of the style is a series of arcaded recesses between Doric pilasters, fluted on the upper two triads, and elevated on pedestals. The entablature is returned and ornamented over the pilasters, with vase-like finials. The external wall is 32 feet high. Between the Portland stone pilasters are recesses of red brickwork. The semi-circular heads of the arches are filled in with rich iron scrolls, which let in the light and air freely.

The keystones of the arches are richly carved, especially those over the twelve side entrances. Under the iron openings are windows, with stone sills, trusses, architraves, and cornices. At the angles of the building rise four handsome towers of Portland stone. The lower storey of each octagonal tower is a square, with double pilasters at the corners, and a carved pediment on each face. Above this height the towers are octagonal. The square and the octagonal portions are joined by the huge couchant stone griffins of the City arms. On each side of the octagon are windows, with carved friezes. The dome of each tower is pierced on four sides by dormer windows, and above is a lantern, surrounded by an ornamental railing. The finest coup d'æil of the building, architectural critics think, are the two façades of the fine public roadway which runs across the market, and divides it into equal parts. The roadway is 50 feet wide between the double piers, which carry a richly-moulded elliptical arch and cast-iron pediment, and over each double pier is an emblematic figure in Portland stone, representing one of the four principal cities of the United Kingdom. At the south front London and Edinburgh stand confessed, and on the north are Dublin and Liverpool. The sides of the outer roadway are shut off from the market by an elaborate open iron-work screen, 14 feet high, and at the intersection of the central avenue, east and west, the market is closed by ornamented iron gates, with iron spandrils and semi-circular heads, similar to those in the arcade. Towards the north a gate gives access, by a double staircase, to the railway department below. The gates at the east and west entrances (the chief) are 25 feet high, and 19 feet wide, and each pair weighs 15 tons. They are formed of wrought ironwork, elaborately scrolled. The central avenue, a large inner street, is 27 feet wide, and has six side avenues. The shops are ranged on either side of this great thoroughfare. There is one bay at the east end of the market for game and poultry, but no fish or vegetables can be sold. The shops are of cast-iron, with light columns and lattice girders, and which, by brackets, serve to carry the rails and meat-hooks. There are about 162 shops in the market, each about 36 feet by 15 feet, and behind every shop is an enclosed counting-house, with private apartments overhead. To secure light and air the Mansard roof has been used. The broad glass louvres of this system let in the air and keep out the sun; the result is that the interior of the building is generally ten degrees cooler than the temperature in the shade outside. There are twelve hydrants on the floor-level. It was planned that when the meat which arrived by rail reached the depôt underneath the market, it should be raised to the level of the floorway by powerful hydraulic lifts. The Metropolitan, the Midland, the London, Chatham, and Dover, and the Great Western Railways have direct communication with the depôt. The passenger trains of the Metropolitan, Great Northern, Midland, and Chatham and Dover Companies rush through every two minutes, and the Great Western Company have an extensive receiving-store there. It was thought that if it were deemed desirable there would be no difficulty in making a passenger station right under the market.

For the ceremony of opening, in November, 1868, a raised daïs was erected in the eastern nave, and the public roadway dividing the market was fitted up as a magnificent banqueting-room. On both sides and at either end streamed rich scarlet draperies, and within the gate there were paintings and ornaments in white and gold-work. The temporary entrance was at the end of the eastern avenue. Opposite it was a scarlet sideboard, glowing with gold plate, and crowned with a trophy of lances. A table for the Lord Mayor and chief guests was placed in front of the sideboard, and twenty-four other tables, on which there were flowers and fruit, and covers for 1,200 people, ran in a transverse direction from the Lord Mayor's seat. Over the entrance was an orchestra for the band of the Grenadier Guards, led by that enthusiast of good time, Mr. Dan Godfrey. Jets of gas were carried along the elliptical roof girders, in simple lines, and in arches over the screen of open ironwork that shuts off the market from the roadway. Three thousand yards of gas-piping fed a number of candelabra and a centre star-light. There were four carvers, in Guildhall dignity, who, mounted on high pedestals, carved barons of beef and boars' heads. The Lord Mayor's footmen shone in gold lace, and the City trumpeter and toastmaster also dignified the feast by their attendance. The ceremony of opening the market was simple enough. The Lord Mayor arrived in state from the Mansion House, and was received by Mr. H. Lowman Taylor and the Markets Improvement Committee, at the east end of the building, and conducted to the daïs, where his lordship received a number of provincial mayors, members of Parliament, &c. The speakers at the banquet congratulated each other on the rapidity with which the market had been built, and hoped it would bring tolls to the Corporation, cheap meat to the people, and fair profits to the salesmen. Mr. Lowman Taylor considered the old market well replaced by the new building, with its ample thoroughfares, and trusted that the new rents and tolls would bring the Corporation exchequer a fair return for the £200,000 which the new building had cost. It was designed to supply 3,000,000 with food.

"The interior of the market," says a writer at the time of the opening, "has been of necessity even more subservient to the purposes of the building than the exterior. One of the leading features in the arrangements is that for securing light without sunshine, and free ventilation without exposure to rain. During the excessive heat of last summer the effect was tested by thermometers placed in various parts of the building, and the result found to be highly satisfactory. The upper parts of the roof all over the building are of wood, and communicate with other portions of the fabric, which are also of wood. In the event of fire it would probably spread with terrific rapidity through the building. The wooden portions of the roof have also the effect of throwing the avenues somewhat into shade. The shops are arranged on each side of the side avenues which cross the market from north to south, and intersect the central avenue. The latter is 27 feet wide, and the six side avenues 18 feet wide each. The backs of the shops are closed in, but at the sides are screened by light ironwork to ensure ventilation. The floor of the market is paved with blocks. Twelve hydrants, always at high pressure, will supply ample means of washing out the market avenues and stalls, and could be used in case of fire."

This great market has proved a decided success. An official report issued this year (1874) shows that the total amount of toll paid for all descriptions of produce brought into the market has risen from £14,220 3s. 6½d. in 1869 to £16,818 10s. 10½d. in 1873. The total receipts for both tolls and rentals were £51,165 18s. 1½d. in 1873 as against £51,089 1s. 3d. during 1872. There is a large and increasing demand for accommodation; so much so, indeed, that whenever there is a vacant shop, it is besieged by twenty or thirty tradesmen, eager to become tenants, and a place in the market is considered quite a prize amongst salesmen. It is anticipated that there will soon be a farther demand on the space at Smithfield, in consequence of the Act prohibiting private slaughter-houses coming into operation, as many of the Whitechapel butchers will then desire to come here. This being the case, it was some time since resolved to erect a new market immediately west of the Meat Market, to be devoted to the poultry, game, and cognate trades.

This new structure which the Fathers of the City propose to bestow upon their children is rapidly approaching completion. It is, as regards architecture, in harmony with the Meat Market, and that it will be as successful as regards trade can hardly be doubted. The traffic in London in poultry and game possesses many features of interest, and a few facts respecting the business done at Smithfield in these luxuries of the table may be worth noting. The following newspaper account may be rescued, on account of its merits, from that oblivion which so generally attends most of the ephemeral productions of the press:—"The 'foreign' branch of the poultry and game business is the most curious. The greater part of the eatable ornithology of Smithfield, in this department, is derived from Ireland and France. The Belgian pig, as an eatable subject, has lately been beating his Irish brother, and it may be made another subject for an Irish grievance that the French goose has of late years become a formidable rival of his fellow-geese from the Emerald Isle. Formerly there was a prejudice against French geese; the trade would not look at them, and the public would not eat them. But gastronomical prejudices are short-lived. Whether it is due to the soothing influence of sage and onions or to the quality of the noble bird itself, it is certain now that the French goose is very popular on this side of the Channel, for the poulterers say that they sell large numbers of them at good prices. Indeed, so successful is the French goose, that large numbers of his race are imported into England in an attenuated condition during the summer, and are sent into the country to be fattened for the London market at Michaelmas. But remoter lands than France supply us with birds for the table. We get an abundance of prairie hens and canvas-back ducks from the United States. These are frozen by machinery on the other side of the Atlantic, packed in barrels, and brought over in capital condition. From Norway we receive ptarmigan, black-cock, and that eatable eagle, the capercailzie. They are sent over in the winter, frozen naturally, in cases containing from eighty to a hundred each, being shipped at Christiansund, landed at Hull, and brought up to town by rail. Holland is good enough to send us, sometimes by forty or fifty baskets of two hundred each in one steamer, her delicious wild ducks, and those curious little birds called ruffs and rees, which are about the size of godwits, and the male of which has most wonderful plumage, with a pretty crown of grey feathers on his head, given him to make him look handsome at courting time. But our most curious importation is the quail from Egypt, which feeds us to this day, as it fed the Israelites in the desert, and is brought over alive, in consignments of from thirty to fifty thousand. These birds are shipped at Alexandria, and are sent to Marseilles in charge of a native attendant to minister to their bodily wants. Thence they are 'railed' across France in cages, lodged for a time in Smithfield, and then dispersed to all parts of the kingdom. So carefully are they transported, that not more than seven per cent. of them perish by the way. From birds it is a natural transition to eggs, and there is an enormous market for plovers' eggs at Smithfield. They come chiefly from Holland—the home produce being very small—and they are received during the spring and summer from March to June. The first plovers' eggs of the season invariably go to the Queen's poulterer, for Her Majesty's table, and fetch from seven to ten shillings apiece.

"Besides all this foreign produce, there is, of course, an immense home trade, and of the English poultry, which comes principally from Surrey, Devonshire, Lincolnshire, and Suffolk, much might be said. No wonder the poulterers are getting crowded out of their small corner of Smithfield Market, and are eager for a market of their own where they will have some scope for the development of their business. The trade generally is favourable to removal, and it is likely to act as a severe drain on Leadenhall, if not to shut it up altogether, although it is said there is a knot of very conservative poulterers who vow that they will never desert the old place, come what may."