Smithfield Market — Horace Jones' 'cathedral of meat' — continues to operate from its opulent Victorian shell, while everything around it changes. Here are five things you might not know about one of the city's finest markets.
1. A unique welcome
Soon to be married male 'bumarees' (that's Smithfield porters) are likely to suffer the ignominious tradition of being stripped to their birthday suit, then covered from head to toe in flour below the market clock. That's according to Smithfield veteran, Biffo, anyway. We thought the story should be taken with a pinch of salt (or flour), until we came across something similar on a BBC documentary featuring a messy initiation ceremony for new market boys. Here, newbies are carried into a stock trolley, stripped naked, pelted with eggs, flour, offal and any other rotten matter the others can get their hands on. The poor newbie is then left in the trolley for a while to be gawped at by the general public. Welcome to Smithfield.
2. Birds (but not of a feather)
A change in clientele at some of Smithfield's watering holes has occurred lately. Bleary eyed and bloody attired market workers are being replaced by high flying city types whose pockets are more resistant to rising prices. The market's own Cock Tavern, a favourite haunt of bumarees in the past, closed in 2010, and is now an exotic cocktail bar called Oriole, where you can purchase fancy mixes such as the Makassar Strait or the Nanjing Cooler for £14. For comparison, The Cock used to do an all you can eat breakfast buffet for £5.99. Well, at least they've retained the bird theme.
3. The market has its own police station... sort of
It's not always just the meat that's been butchered at Smithfield. In its era as a livestock market, the atmosphere could get very tense. In 1853 Max Schlesinger described in his book, Saunterings in and about London, that the surrounding streets were hotbeds of poverty and crime: "On market-days the passengers are in danger of being run over, trampled down, or tossed up by the drivers or "beasts"; at night, rapine and murder prowl in the lanes and alleys in the vicinity." Things sometimes got so out of hand, the market was provided with its own police force and police station. They still exist today — well, sort of. The station has a reception and a control room but none of the other features of your average nick. The market also has a constabulary — as does Billingsgate and New Spitalfields.
4. Smithfield's concrete dome was the largest in Europe
The market experienced significant damage during the Blitz. However, it was after the war in 1958, that the original Poultry Market building was destroyed by a major fire. £2m was put aside for a new building, which was completed in 1963. At the time, the roof of the building was the largest clear spanning dome roof in Europe — not to mention the largest shell concrete structure in Europe. It's also oddly beautiful to look at — like the ceilings of one of those ancient Turkish baths. (You can't really see the dome from outside.) Sometimes, you'll find that, although closed, the doors of the market are open in the evening, and you can walk underneath it, and admire in eerie silence.
5. Iceberg wars
Smithfield may not have been in operation as a meat market during the second world war, but it was still being put to good use. Cold stores underneath Smithfield were used in an intriguing attempt to construct an aircraft carrier made out of ice. Landing strips for war planes were sorely needed in the Atlantic, and high command thought it would be wise to commandeer icebergs for the task. It must have occurred to somebody that this scheme was ambitious to say the least, and they opted for the much more sensible idea of creating their own icebergs — which is where Smithfield came in. Plans melted away when it was discovered that the refrigerating plant for the berg would have required the same amount as steel as a non-ice aircraft carrier.