Alec Forshaw, former conservation officer with London Borough of Islington, has a deep knowledge of buildings and the local area. He gave us a masterly overview of the history of Smithfield from the beginning of the meat market –described in 1174 as
“A smooth field where every Friday ….. are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with deep flanks and cows and oxen of immense bulk”
through the successful battle to prevent the demolition of the Western General Market for city offices, and continue the renewal of Smithfield by moving the Museum of London to this site.
The live meat market became an unmanageable nuisance as the population of London grew and in 1855 a Royal Commission required it to move, finding a new home in Copenhagen fields in the north of Islington. But it was railway development which truly secured the future of the new Central Market, designed by Horace Jones and opened in 1868. The glorious glass and iron extravaganza we see above ground is only the tip of the iceberg. Below ground vast excavations provided for underground railway sidings where meat was delivered from all parts of the country and raised to the market with powerful hydraulic lifts.
In 1945 one of the last V-2 rockets of the second world war to hit London landed at Harts corner destroying the iconic tower at the junction of Farringdon Road and Charterhouse Street.
The rebuilding after the war, and after the 1958 fire in the poultry market, was only a temporary reprieve in what appeared to be a gradual decline of the market and the surrounding neighbourhood.
In Alec Forshaw’s first (1980) edition of ‘Smithfield: past present and future’ he somewhat gloomily predicted that the market might die. His 2015 edition is more upbeat about the future. The Corporation of London completed a major modernization of the central market in 1997, but the outlying buildings including Horace Jones’ General Market, Fish Market and the Red House cold store were left to decay. Two public inquiries later and a massive amount of lobbying has saved the western markets for the future. This is a decision which challenges the hegemony of the financial market as sole solution, and endorses conservation led regeneration.