A guest blog post by London Historians member the artist Liam O’Farrell who describes a London Historians tour of Smithfield Market in August this year.
The tour I attended was for Smithfield Market and St John’s. The St John’s Gate visit was just as interesting though for the sake of this blog I have just featured Smithfield Market, and the painting of Smithfield Market.
Arriving at Smithfield Market
The Market opens at 2am would you believe? This is far too early for a visit for even the most intrepid tourist that said we were all still mustered outside Barbican Station at 7.00. I am not a morning person at all though thankfully Peter Twist is, and got us all up and rolling in no time at all.
About Peter Twist (London Historians member)
Peter is a qualified as a City of London Guide since 2012. You may recognise him from the recent groundbreaking Channel 4 show, The Audience. He is a retired Metropolitan Police Senior Officer and brings a wealth of life experience and good humour to bear upon his guided walks.
About Smithfield Market
Once on site Peter took us over the history of the market. A livestock market occupied the area as early as the 10th century. That said, it was always a bit of a butchers’ yard as this was where London performed its most gruesome executions. Here in 1305 William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered after upsetting Edward I. Wat Tyler too met his end here in an equally revolting fashion after leading the ‘peasants revolt’. You can add to this the protestant martyrs and lord knows how many others.
Thankfully public executions have long since come to an end, and the site we have here today was opened in 1868. It was designed by The City Architect, Sir Horace Jones. In true Victorian style he saw the new meat market as a cathedral of meat complete with its own grand avenue. No expense was spared over its ornamental cast iron, glass, stone and red brick features. Time has proven that from did follow function though the form is certainly impressive.
Once the talk on the history and the outer buildings were complete we passed through the cast giant cast iron doors into the main part of the market. These doors weigh 15 tons each, yet they are so well balanced that you can open them with one finger.
The painting of Smithfield Market
As Peter took us around the market I busied myself in making written notes and drawings around the site, and inside too. The view I finally chose was the three quarter view showing the majestic sweep of Horace Jones’ design with the towers on each corner.
I produced a small watercolour on site to add to my notes and produced a larger one back in the studio. A print of Liam’s painting will be one of London Historians’ December prizes, see forthcoming newsletter for details.
Inside Smithfield Market
Once you are inside the market you can really see the advantages of a tour guide as opposed to a guide book. Over the years Peter has got to know many of the market traders and they are more than willing to share stories and traditions of the market.
The self-styled ‘Biffo’ is more than willing to hold court, and told us that if someone is getting married they are likely to be stripped and covered in flour below the market clock.
He recalled when he first joined workers would fight each other for the best jobs. It was a heavily unionised, hard man’s world. Not a place for a sensitive artist!
In the old days things could seriously get out of hand between the traders to such an extent that the market still has its own police station and police force too. The current police force no longer have powers of arrest, though they can occasionally still be called on to sort out disputes.
The traders and workers traditionally have almost all been white, male, Londoners. These days the market is much more cosmopolitan with even the occasional woman. Biffo said that without the foreign workers willing to do the punishing hours the market would simply die.
Peter took us around the whole site and despite the tough reputation of the market it has a very friendly atmosphere and all the traders were very willing to chat to you about their work and their families’ history of the market.
Visitors are often surprised to know that the market is not totally wholesale. There is no minimum spend and some real bargains can be had. It is not all traditional goods either, as on a few days a month even seagulls eggs can be purchased.
Once the tour was complete we were all pretty hungry and were ready for a big English breakfast at one of the traditional cafes on the square. I stuffed myself!
I can really recommend this tour. There is a real advantage in having someone on the inside to guide you around the real nooks and crannies of the market. It really made the tour work, and that’s coming from someone who hates mornings!
The City Guides offer a walking tour of Smithfield Market. Tours take place once a month, starting at 7am and lasting an hour and a half. Booking is essential.
Liam is an extremely talented painter and illustrator who specialises in landscape and cityscape scenes, many of which are on London subjects. His web site.