Market Day

In the last post I wrote about Clare Market an area of London that from the 1600s was synonymous with Butchers and Greengrocers. So today I thought I’d look at a few of the other markets that once drew in the punters.

The largest and probably best known of all of London’s markets was Cheapside. Cheapside, the word chepe indicating in Old English that it was a place for trading, also referred to as West Cheap, was a street and market dating back to the late ninth century. It was one of two great markets that may have been established during King Alfred’s reign (871-899).

 Cheapside was a general market situated in the west of the medieval city. Beginning at the Great Conduit at the base of Old Jewry Street and running westward to a smaller conduit northeast of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. A few significant points from east to west included St. Mary-le-Bow church, the Cheapside Cross (pictured below), and St. Peter’s Church. Along the street and side streets of Cheapside, shopkeepers and merchants traded their wares, often indicating their storefronts or stalls with signs designed to quickly attract attention from the public. Members of merchant and craft guilds set up shop in designated spots in Cheapside. While some men worked independently at their crafts in stalls set up in the market, craft guilds and more dominant merchant guilds began to largely control trade. The trading influence of some of the larger guilds can be seen in the names of the side streets surrounding Cheapside. Some of these streets included Iremonger Lane (Ironmongers), Mylke Street (Dairymen), and Bread Street (Bakers). Cheapside was also used for royal and civic processions through the City.

Cheapside in the 1600s

The other Saxon market was Eastcheap, situated in the East of the City. In medieval times, Eastcheap was the main meat market in the City of London, with butchers’ stalls lining both sides of the street. It is also notable as the former location of Falstaff’s Boar’s Head Inn, featured in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2.

A later, but just as well known market was Billingsgate. Billingsgate Wharf, close to Lower Thames Street and just east of London Bridge, became the centre of a fish market during the 16th and 17th centuries but did not become formally established until an Act of Parliament in 1699.

During the early 1850s, the market consisted of shed like buildings with the open space on the north of Billingsgate Dock dotted with low booths and sheds. There was a range of wooden houses with a piazza in front of them on the west side of the dock , which served the salesmen and fishmongers as a shelter, and for the purposes of carrying out trade between them. In the mid 1850s these sheds were swept away and the market was rebuilt to a design by J. B. Bunning, who was the City architect at that time. However Bunning’s building was soon found to be insufficient for the increased trade that the market was enjoying, so in 1872 a new building was constructed to a design by the then City architect Horace Jones.

Horace Jones’ Billingsgate
An Oyster Wife

The infamously coarse language of London fishmongers made “Billingsgate” a byword for crude or vulgar language. One of its earliest uses can be seen in a 1577 chronicle by Raphael Holinshed, where the writer makes reference to the foul tongues of Billingsgate oyster-wives. The market stayed at this site for 107 years when in 1982 it relocated to Canary Wharf.

Another market with a long history that is still in use today is Smithfield. A livestock market has existed on the site since the 10th century. A cleric writing in 1145 described Smithfield as ” a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be traded, and in another quarter are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk“.

The livestock market expanded over the centuries to meet demand from the growing population of the City. In 1710, the market was surrounded by a wooden fence containing the livestock within the market. The writer Daniel Defoe referred to the livestock market in 1726 as being “without question, the greatest in the world“.

By the middle of the 19th century, in the course of a single year 220,000 head of cattle and 1,500,000 sheep would be through the narrowest and most crowded streets and lanes of the City and the volume of cattle driven daily to Smithfield started to raise major concerns.

Smithfield Market 1885

During the reign of Queen Victoria pamphlets started circulating in favour of the removal of the livestock market and its relocation outside of the City, due to its extremely poor hygienic conditions. The conditions at the market in the first half of the 19th century were often described as a major threat to public health.

An act of Parliament passed in 1852 gave provision for the building of a new covered market and in 1855 The Metropolitan Cattle Market was opened in Islington, leaving the site at Smithfield left as waste ground for about ten years. In 1868 the current Smithfield market was opened, built to the design of Horace Jones the architect of Billingsgate.

Smithfield Meat Market

Mr Jones seems to have specialised in market buildings, as he is the architect of another of London’s remaining markets. Leadenhall Market dates from around the end of the 1st century after the the Roman occupation of Britain had finished. Built on the site of a Roman Basilica (Courts) and Forum (Market), Leadenhall was the largest market north of the Alps and occupied an area bigger than that of Trafalgar Square. 

The name comes from a large building that previously occupied the site. The house or hall was owned in the early 1300s by Sir Hugh Neville. Apparently this hall had a roof made of lead sheeting, hence the name Leadenhall. By 1321, the area around Leadenhall Manor was a known meeting place for poulterers. They were joined, in 1397, by cheesemongers. 

In 1408 the former Lord Mayor Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington acquired the lease of the building, and acquired the site in 1411, gifting it to the City. It quickly became one of the best places in London to buy meat, game, poultry and fish. The meat and fish market occupied a series of courts behind the grand lead-roofed mansion of Leadenhall Market on Leadenhall Street. The site grew in importance as a granary and a chapel were built to service those coming to the market. 

In 1463, the beam for the Tronage (royal tax upon wool) and weighing of wool was fixed at Leadenhall Market, signifying its importance as a centre for commerce. In 1488, it was decided that leather for Londoners was only allowed to be sold from Leadenhall Market. The Leather Market later moved to Bermondsey. 1400 – 1500.

The inclusion of a school and chapel suggests that it was much more than simply a space to buy and sell goods. During the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart Monarchs, it was used as a venue for shows and festivals. 

The demolition of the market buildings in 1812

The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed parts of the market. When it was rebuilt not long after, it became a covered structure for the first time and was divided into the Beef Market, the Green Yard and the Herb Market. This format lasted until 1812 when most of the buildings were demolished and the market reverted to an open air site until the building of Horace Jones design 1881.


By endean0

Hi, I'm Steve, a London tour guide and owner of A London Miscellany Tours, a guided walking tour company who specialise in small number tours of the greatest city in the world!

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