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Published April 17th 2013
Meat is sold whilst most Londoners ae still asleep in bed
Before the live cattle market moved to Islington in 1852, Smithfield could trace its history back to 1174 when horses and other livestock were regularly sold at the site on Fridays. In 1327 the City of London was granted a market charter for the sale of meat by Edward III and in 1860 construction of the buildings that we now know as Smithfield Market was begun. The works were completed in 1868 and were complemented by a poultry market that opened in 1875, destroyed by fire in 1958 and replaced four years later. Additional buildings were also added in 1883 and 1888. The current 44 market units only deal in the sale of meat and poultry for the wholesale butchers' trade.
Long after livestock ceased to be sold at the site, Smithfield was also a place of human execution: Wat Tyler, who led the Peasants' Revolt, was hung here in 1381, as was William Wallace, the Scottish revolutionary, who met his maker in 1305. Later, under the reign of Mary Tudor, around 200 Protestants were also burnt as heretics.
Smithfield Market's (the name derives from a corruption of 'smeth field', the Saxon for 'Smoothfield') Grade 2 listed buildings were renovated in the 1990s and are open to members of the public who wish to travel into the City of London at a time when many of us would still be in bed. Guided tours are organised monthly and conducted by City Guides who explain about the market's 800 year history, and give visitors an opportunity to meet the market traders.
The Guides also explain about the history of Bartholomew Fair, whose charter was granted by Henry I in 1133, and which took place every August until 1855 when it was suppressed by the City authorities, charged was promoting debauchery. If you would like to learn something of the flavour of the Fair, you should read Ben Jonson's satirical play of the same name. The tours start at Barbican Underground Station and finish approximately ninety minutes later at West Smithfield.
Once the tour has finished at around 8.30 you may wonder what you can do with yourself. You could pay a visit to the nearby Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, founded by Rahere, the same man to whom the king granted the charter for Bartholomew Fair.
After the relocations of Covent, Spitalfields and Billingsgate markets to other parts of London, Smithfield remains the last original wholesale food market in the City of London. If you want to experience the atmosphere of the place at first hand, why not visit on Christmas Eve when Harts run their famous turkey auctions, at which everything else is either sold off to the public, or just tossed into the crowds for those with the niftiest fingers? Now that's what I call a cattle market.