Sunday, 5 December 2010
Smithfield Market - wholesale heritage
Today's Observer, in 'This week in 1849', quotes an article from that year bemoaning the 'Smithfield nuisance': 'The Corporation of London seem resolved to stand by the Smithfield Market and uphold it in all their integrity of filth, disease and crime. More shame for them!'
The source of the problems at that time was livestock, which came here from the countryside for sale since at least the 10th century. Within a few years, the cattle market had been moved north to Islington - you can see the remnants off Market Road, opposite the Astroturf - and from then on it was carcases rather than live beasts that were brought here. Horace Jones' meat market buildings, still in use today, were built at Smithfield in the 1860s.
Filth, disease and crime are not apparent at Smithfield today (at least, not at the market) but you can still see porters with bits of carcase on their shoulders. One imagines there may be some amongst the tidy minded who would be happy to see this market disappear in turn. The City's planning policies support its retention, but not in very strong terms. All the other wholesale markets in central London have moved out - to see what we lost, watch Lindsay Anderson's 'Every Day except Christmas' (1957) and Hitchcock's 'Frenzy' (1972), for a mixed use nirvana of cheery cockney fruit and veg selling in Covent Garden.
Does it still make sense to have this market here today, serviced by particulate-belching articulated lorries, a short walk from the heart of the City? In the nineteenth century, meat came here directly by train, via sidings off the lines that run below the market (which are currently being upgraded for Thameslink) - the lost art of the integrated sustainable transport solution.
But the fact is that Smithfield still seems to work, lorries and all. Commuters wander to work through the Grand Avenue amongst the porters, pallets and forklifts, without apparent difficulty. Imagine the fuss if this was proposed as a new piece of planning today.
Michael Sorkin's marvellous 'Twenty Minutes in Manhattan' reminds us how conservationists so often miss the point in thinking that it is buildings rather than activity that mainly determine the character of an area. It is hard to imagine the present rich mix of the Smithfield / Clerkenwell area becoming yet richer if the meat market were to be replaced by 'tidier' uses. We can get scented candles elsewhere.
Today's causes are less visceral than those of the 1840s - most recently at Smithfield, the proposed redevelopment of the moribund General Market building, at the west end of the complex on Farringdon Road, was contended at a public inquiry. It is not much of a building, unused and depressingly consistent with much of Farringdon Road in the dead character of its frontages. If that building was replaced by a more useful one, there might be a bit of a 'heritage loss', but not much, and if done well there would be significant gains. The character of Smithfield would not change much. If the butchers went, that would be a different kettle of fish - they would not come back, and Smithfield would really become less 'locally distinctive', and more like everywhere else.