A Cut Above

With news that London’s historic meat market, Smithfield, is moving, Robbie Smith took a sentimental journey

By Robbie Smith

February 15 2023

It’s 4am when the alarm rings. Outside is dark and cold. I want to roll over and go back to sleep, but the meat market is calling. Not a sentence I ever expected to write. One triple-espresso later and I groggily leave the house, persuading myself it will be worth it. It is, after all, last-chance saloon for Smithfield, London’s last great food market. The other two, Billingsgate and Spitalfields, left the centre of town in the Eighties and Nineties. In March, the City of London Corporation secured planning approval to move all three to a new site in Dagenham. I’m determined to visit Smithfield while it’s still in Farringdon, as anyone can, for it’s not just for trade.

The Tube I’m on is empty and when I arrive the station is deserted. Most of those on night shifts are already working, and even early risers are still in bed. On the streets, the only people about wear hi-vis and heavy boots, not smart City suits.

I meet my friend Alex on a street corner by a café. Across the road there’s a steady hum of activity, coming from delivery vans and men in white coats. They push huge trolleys and trays with unidentified pinky-white slabs, wrapped in sheets of plastic. Later, up close, I realise this is meat, in bulk for wholesale. It’s enough to give a vegan a coronary.

Smithfield keeps different hours to the rest of us. It opens at 2am and shuts around 7. It also has a history as illustrious and longer than most noble families. Before Henry Tudor was even a glimmer in his father’s eye in the 1500s, traders had been hawking meat on this very spot for some 300 years.

The Christmas auction, when surplus stock is sold off cheaply for the holidays
The Christmas auction, when surplus stock is sold off cheaply for the holidays

Now, though, the curtain is closing on this chapter of British mercantile history as the market moves to East London. This is sensible: New digs mean better facilities and more space, while prime real estate in the heart of London’s commercial centre can finally have its value realised. There are plans for a new cultural centre at Smithfield. But sense means no room for sensibility. There’s no little melancholy in London losing touch with its past. In 1174, a contemporary clerk reported that you could buy “swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk”. In the same place, 846 years later, the same things are for sale.

As the City builds glass and steel towers faster than you can say “oxen of immense bulk”, the places with real history barely cling on. Most of those know which way the wind is blowing. That’s why Smithfield decided to go while it still could. An Act of Parliament is needed to finalise the move and the Dagenham centre won’t open for a few years, but everybody knows this institution is on its way out. The City Corp forecasts some whopping sums for the new site, hoping it will create nearly £3bn of spending across the UK each year. It reflects changing logistics. In short, our meat (or veg and fish in the case of New Spitalfields and Billingsgate respectively) doesn’t have to be prepared so close to our plates. Valuable land can be better used – the lorries and refrigeration units will pick up the slack. Such are the cold calculations of the modern age.

Original ironwork
Original ironwork

Maybe Smithfield will become like the Meatpacking District in New York, which lost its traditional trade in the Nineties to howls of despair. Gentrification led to a destination that is now thriving; where pedestrians used to pick their way past dripping carcasses to get to nearby Greenwich Village, now there are hipster boutiques and fashionable restaurants. What Smithfield won’t be, though, is the same. And that means an unbroken link to London’s deep past will at last be severed.

But Smithfield is more than its history – it’s a living, breathing market. It’s not a Disneyfied relic of the past. There aren’t men dressed up as town criers leading tour parties. There isn’t a visitor’s office. Instead there are butchers, chefs, hoteliers, and those looking for tonight’s meal, like Alex and me.

To approach, it’s a grand sight. Built in 1866 by architect Sir Horace Jones (who also designed Leadenhall and Billingsgate markets and Tower Bridge), the exterior is superlative. Dragons cap the arcades while griffins rest on octagonal pavilion towers and cast iron springs from elliptical arches. Inside, it’s more workaday. Push through the plastic curtains of the arcades and you find yourself among sellers’ stalls, with offices above. In the back rooms, the carcasses of animals are butchered and the gore is swept clear. The floor is wet; a gutter runs on each side of the path to catch the cleaning effluent. Joints hang and cuts are arranged, looking as seductive as raw meat can so early in the morning. But there’s also a strange lack of gore, for so much flesh on sight. The gobsmacking quantities of meat we see being ferried around are pale and tightly packaged. Hundreds and hundreds of kilos lie on trolleys or disappear down corridors. Almost every bit of every animal you would want to consume is on offer at good prices for the intrepid consumer.

The Farringdon site, built in 1866 by the architect behind Tower Bridge
The Farringdon site, built in 1866 by the architect behind Tower Bridge

As we browse, I learn that the traders don’t share any of my romantic notions about Smithfield. No surprise. It’s a workplace, not a film set. After we’ve bought our two kilos of pork shoulder for a barbecue that night, we bounce between stalls looking for our last purchase – tripe. No luck. We’re about to give up when we find one seller, who brings out a big white bucket from underneath his encounter.

He pulls out a slither of stomach lining. He holds it up then drops it. It lands with a wet slap on the counter. “Are you going to eat this?” he asks, voice cool but eyebrows in orbit. I’m yet to be convinced we should. Still, at £1 a piece, it’s cheap. My appetite does disappear as the seller explains how it must be blanched at least four times to stop it killing you. Alex buys it anyway.

With that, we’re done. Market seen, meat bought, history tasted. There’s one last thing, though, and it’s a sweet reward for day-trippers like us. Because of the market’s unorthodox hours, nearby watering holes respond accordingly. Though it’s just gone seven in the morning, it’s time to hit the pub!

Reflecting on the morning’s work over a pint of Guinness – it feels scandalous to drink so early, then almost obscenely luxurious – I think about our excursion. My hoary ideas about a charming market are thoroughly dispelled, but the sheer functionality of the whole experience leaves an impression. This is the living city, as unsentimental as it comes. I feel the briefest connection with London, past and present. Then I finish my Guinness, cram onto a rush-hour Tube, and the feeling is gone. There’s a lot of things you won’t get in Dagenham.