West Smithfield Area Enhancement Strategy 35
2.1 Historical Development
The West Smithﬁeld Area has a long established history and much of the fabric and street pattern
span nine centuries. In the Middle Ages Smithﬁeld was a broad grassy space known as Smooth
Field, just outside the city wall, on the eastern bank of the River Fleet. Due to the ﬂat nature of the
site ideal for grazing and easy access to water, it was used as the City’s main livestock market for
nearly 1000 years. Smithﬁeld was at the centre of a number of medieval routes which retain their
alignment to the present day in particular Long Lane, Giltspur Street and Little Britain. The space
now known as the Rotunda was a principal open market space and an important events space for
fairs and royal tournaments. The area escaped extensive destruction from The Great Fire and 2nd
World War and as a result has not been extensively redeveloped.
Early Developments *
The few traces of Roman occupation that have been found point to a largely agricultural character.
There seem to have been a good number of Roman burials on the site now occupied by St.
Bartholomew’s Hospital, as burials within the city walls were not allowed.
Far more important in terms of its above-ground physical legacy, therefore, was the twelfth
century, when a new layer of institutions was added to West Smithﬁeld, their location and
boundaries exerting an inﬂuence on the nascent street plan that remains visible today. Religious
houses needing large areas of land congregated here, able to ﬁnd unencumbered sites of a
size that did not exist within the City itself. St. Bartholomew’s Priory slotted between Long Lane,
Aldersgate Street, and Little Britain, the meandering line of which resulted from the adjacent city
wall. Together, these institutions effectively deﬁned the main block plan: development was drawn
along and between them. The roads between the religious houses were among the principal
routes north out of London.
To the south of Clerkenwell was the open area of ground known as Smithﬁeld, derived from
‘Smooth Field’. A three-day fair (Bartholomew Fair) was established by royal charter in 1133 and
held annually until 1855. Its vivid, at times bawdy nature was immortalised in Ben Jonson’s play of
1614. But it was the market for which Smithﬁeld became especially known. Horse trading became
associated with the area, and the tracks leading from the north to Smithﬁeld became a series of
Figure 03 An Artist View of Smithfield Market circa 18th Figure 04 Historic map of Smithfield - 1658
droveways along which stock was moved to market. The meat market developed particularly in
the fourteenth century, stimulated in part by a ban on slaughtering within the city walls in 1381.
Smithﬁeld also became known for tournaments, pageants, and executions. A diamond- shaped
space, it tapered to the south: this form is characteristic of market entrances. Improvements in
agriculture meant that, by the start of the eighteenth century, the market was open all year round.
The ﬁeld was paved and drained for the ﬁrst time in 1614.
Yet although Farringdon was in the medieval period dominated by its large institutions, the area
was in fact home to a varied mix of uses, at least some of which existed to support the market and
religious houses. St John Street, in existence by 1170, was the prime route for drovers bringing
animals to market, and its tenements provided accommodation for them. Between Smithﬁeld and
the City, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital survived the Dissolution of the medieval monastery (founded
in 1123) to which it had been attached. In 1546, both it and Bethlem Hospital were granted to the
City Corporation, and the hospital grew in both stature and physical presence.
Post Medieval Development*
Much post-medieval building was residential, initially at least, generally being conceived for the
middle classes, though many industries were attracted to the area as a result of the Fleet, the
proximity of the City, and the market.
Figure 05 An Artist’s Depiction of Bartholomew Fair by Rudolph
Ackerman 1808 Figure 06 Historic map of Smithfield - 1827
36 West Smithfield Area Enhancement Strategy
Figure 07 Historic map of Smithfield - 1746
Although the Fire of London progressed no further than the junction of Pye Street and Giltspur In the latter half of the twentieth century, continuity has been balanced with change. Continuity is
Street, the conﬂagration’s repercussions meant that housing laid out along subsequent new perhaps most evident in Hatton Garden, still the home of many small-scale jewellery workshops
routes such as Red Lion Street (aka. Britton Street, 1718-24) and Great Sutton Street (1680’s) and dealers, and around Smithﬁeld Market, now essentially consolidated into Jones’ original
was of brick: examples of late seventeenth- century date survive at Charterhouse Square. buildings refurbished in the late 1990’s. The Poultry Market, originally designed by Jones was
damaged by ﬁre and rebuilt by Thomas Bennett of Ove Arup in 1958 with an impressive concrete
By the middle of the century, the population density had reached some 230 persons per acre. shell vault, has become relatively little-used, while proposals to demolish the General Market,
Victorian missionaries wrote of crowding. Cloth Fair was the location of run-down post-Dissolution vacant since 1999 (at the western end of the site) have recently been rejected in favour of a
houses that were eventually cleared in the early twentieth century ‘conservation-led’ scheme.
Victorian additions* Barts Hospital, after a period of piecemeal expansion across Little Britain in Bartholomew Close, Smithfield / St. Barts area is
The arrival in 1863 of the Metropolitan Railway at Farringdon Street, providing a City terminus for is now consolidating its activities on its original site. At ﬁrst glance, it might seem that Clerkenwell not defined as a district itself
has changed to a greater degree, and indeed its present appearance belies the substantial but included within the distinct
trains arriving from the west and north made Farringdon an important railway junction, not only ‘blue’ band to the north of ‘The
used by Metropolitan Railway services but also goods services that crossed London. After 1865, dereliction which had taken root by the end of the 1970’s. The 1950’s and 1960’s were marked by
City’. Sandwiched between
the line was extended east to Moorgate (and, later, beyond) and south to join with the London & a presumption that the area was to remain in industrial use: ‘use class’ restrictions were rigidly the City, Press / Fleet Street,
Chatham Railway’s termini at Blackfriars and Snow Hill. applied, and most new buildings of the 1950’s and 1960’s were for light industry and commerce. Finsbury and Shoreditch the
The easing of these restrictions in the 1970’s, the impact of ‘clean air’ legislation, plus the decline area formed a mix of general
Similar in its impact was new road building. The Victorian means of dealing with slum areas was business and industry.
in meat retailing/smoking and closure of the gin distillery behind Britton Street, have all promoted
often by means of clearance and road construction, and so another layer was added to Farringdon Figure 08 London’s social & functional analysis, Abercrombie
the recasting of Clerkenwell as a vibrant area much favoured by the design professions, the
as Holborn Viaduct (1865-9), Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road/Rosebery Avenue (1878) media, and the leisure/ entertainment sector. Nineteenth- century warehouses and cold stores,
were driven through some of the worst parts of the district. with ﬂexible ﬂoor-plates and low rents, have been put to imaginative new uses, while a number
of new buildings have made distinguished additions to the streetscape. Transport links have
Mid _Victorian Developments*
already improved dramatically: the creation of Thameslink in 1990 added a valuable new route at
The ﬁnal component of the mid- Victorian ‘layer’ of Farringdon was that of the new Smithﬁeld Farringdon, serving the new ofﬁce and leisure uses arriving in the area. The Thameslink upgrade
Market. Just as the new roads and railways were laid over the area, the buildings and their and Crossrail will continue this process, fully transforming Farringdon into an important destination
associated roads cut a swathe through Smithﬁeld. Horace Jones’ grand market halls (1864-8) in its own right.
took up much of the open ‘smooth ﬁeld’, serviced by such new roads as Charterhouse Street.
But what is notable about Farringdon in the years since 1945 is the extent to which the area has
They were soon supplemented by the Poultry and General Markets (1873-83). The new market
not only retained its historic street layout, but also a considerable number of its historic buildings:
was intended purely for the sale of butchered meat: the sale of live animals had been banished
churches, houses, and warehouse/industrial premises as a testament to its varied past. Although
north to Islington in 1852, and indeed as a London-based trade gradually declined in the face
numerous additions have been made to the area, these buildings have generally necessitated
of technological advances which allowed chilled meat to be rapidly transported to the capital by
smaller-scale interventions in the urban fabric than their Victorian predecessors. 1940’s proposals
railway. Thus the location of the new market at Smithﬁeld directly responded to the presence of
to drive multi- level new roads through the area on a scale even greater than those provided in
the railway. The railway permitted meat to be unloaded and taken straight to the market above
the 1860’s have remained largely unexecuted, while large-scale ofﬁce blocks have been largely
for sale. The two-level nature of the market is one of its most distinctive features, yet perhaps
conﬁned to the southern fringes of the area, around Snow Hill on the borders of the City. A
one of the least known. In the present day, the lower level is predominantly used for car parking:
local group successfully campaigned for the preservation of Clerkenwell Green, which the London Figure 09 Smithfield Market circa 1896
a partition divides the space from the railway tracks beyond, and a mezzanine level has been
County Council had long proposed to expand by demolishing the buildings along its northern side.
*extracted from The Farringdon Urban Design Study 2010
The presence of the market had a key effect on neighbouring streets, with butchers, bacon-smokers
and similar functions joining the publishers, gin distillery, furniture works and watchmakers that A.
had long occupied the area.
Functions associated with the departed live-meat market, such as horse- rendering, declined.
In this respect, the characteristic pattern of large institutional uses around which were clustered
smaller support functions was continued. In 1903, Charles Booth wrote of Clerkenwell that ‘almost
every front door in certain streets has its brass plate stating its owner’s special occupation. By the
A significant change was made
beginning of the twentieth century, the residential population of the area had declined dramatically, during the 19th Century in the
a trend which was to continue into the 1970s. D. Smithfield area:
A. Farringdon St. extended.
The decline and revival after 1945* B. Market buildings developed
removing the small streets.
Second World War bombing and rocket attacks caused particular devastation around Holborn
C. West Smithfield extended.
Viaduct and Aldersgate and to a lesser extent at the markets. E.
D. New road at Snow Hill.
Figure 10 Map of London’s street improvements in the 19th E. Widening of Skinner St.
38 West Smithfield Area Enhancement Strategy
A significant change has been seen in the land use of the wider region however within the Smithfield
/ St. Barts area the dominant land use of the Smithfield Market and Barts Hospital remain:
- Change from Warehouses and Wharves to Commercial
- Development of the Barbican Centre in place of industrial and warehouses
- Introduction greater service industries
- Redevelopment of the General Post office to commercial offices
Figure 11 City of London Land Use Survey - 1936
West Smithfield Area Enhancement Strategy 39
2.2 The River Fleet
There are two springs on Hampstead Heath, directed into two 18th century reservoirs (Highgate
and Hampstead Ponds) thereafter combine to form London’s largest underground river. The upper
reaches were known as the hollow stream (‘Holborn’ in Anglo-Saxon, hence the name of that
London area), its lower reaches as the Fleet (from Anglo-Saxon for ‘estuary’). The Fleet Àows
under King’s Cross, which was originally known as Battle Bridge, after a place where Queen
Boudicca is reputed to have fought the Romans. It ends in the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.
The river gave its name to Fleet Street, which in turn became a collective term for the British
press, as most newspapers had their of¿ces there. It almost gave its name to a tube line, but
since its opening coincided with the Queen’s silver jubilee, the Fleet Line was named the Jubilee
Line. On a quiet moment in front of the Coach and Horses pub in Ray Street, Farringdon, you can
still hear the Fleet’s Àow through the grating. Another slightly more dangerous location for Fleet-
spotting is the grid in the centre of Charterhouse Street where it joins Farringdon Road.
2.2.1 The Course and Geography of the River Fleet
The Fleet wriggles its way south, west of Clerkenwell, and along the Farringdon Road. Another
tributary runs underground from near the Barbican, through Smith¿eld Market (meat and butchery)
to join the Fleet at the south of Farringdon Road.
The Fleet’s river valley is quite deep here, a real descent from Snow Hill in the east and Holborn in
the west. The Victorian Holborn Viaduct crosses the river valley. At the bottom of the valley, over
the now-buried river, is the main road going south to Blackfriars.
The River Fleet emerges today, as it has done for centuries, near Blackfriars.
Figure 12 The Course of the Fleet River
Figure 13 The Fleet River in Relation to The Study Area Figure 14 Fleet River Shown on the Map of 1658
40 West Smithfield Area Enhancement Strategy
2.3 The Great Fire of London
The buildings in West Smithﬁeld survived The Great Fire of London due to their proximity to the
city wall which acted as a shield and a change in the direction of the wind. The ﬁre stopped at
the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, known as Pye Corner, and is marked by a small
gilded statue known as the Fat Boy or the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, a reference to the theory
expounded by a nonconformist preacher who said that had the cause of the ﬁre been lewdness
it would have started at Drury Lane, or had it been lying it would have been at Westminster, but
since it started in Pudding Lane, it was caused by gluttony.
Set high-up on the 1st ﬂoor of the building at the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, the
statue of the Golden Boy marks the spot where the Great Fire of London (1666) ﬁnished. The
Golden Boy, who hugs his belly, symbolises the sin of gluttony. He stands as a warning to future
Previous to the ﬁre, The Fortune of War tavern stood here, where the sign of the magpie stood and
it was from this bird that this corner became known as Pie Corner.
H E F IR
T OF T
X IM AT
Figure 15 The Golden Boy Statue Figure 16 The Approximate Extent of the Great Fire within West Smithfield
Figure 17 The Extent of the Great Fire of London
West Smithfield Area Enhancement Strategy 41
‘It was market morning. The ground was covered nearly ankle deep
with ﬁlth and mire; and a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking
bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest
upon the chimney tops, hung heavily above ... Countrymen, butchers,
drovers, hawkers, boys , thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low
grade, were mingled together in a dense mass: the whistling of drovers,
the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of beasts, the bleating
of sheep, and the grunting and squealing of pigs; the cries of hawkers,
the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides, the ringing of bells, and
the roar of voices that issued from every public house; the crowding,
pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and
discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market; and the
unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty ﬁgures constantly running to
and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng, rendered it a stunning
and bewildering scene which quite confused the senses.’
Charles Dickens Oliver Twist 1838
42 West Smithfield Area Enhancement Strategy