Smithfield, centre of the universe

How a single market shaped an entire city

This weekend I learned something new about Smithfield Market, that Victorian beauty situated between the Old Bailey and Farringdon Tube station. It's always been one of my London favourites, and not just because you can get a drink there at five in the morning (its pubs are allowed to open at that time because the market workers have been up all night). There are the traditional red phone boxes in its central section (including some K2s, the early versions made especially tall so that men in top hats could use them). And, of course, there are the first-rate fry-ups to be had in the neighbouring cafes. But above all, I love the way the market - which has taken place there for over 800 years - is linked to just about every part of London, and has left its stamp on the entire city.

Smithfield, centre of the universe

The naming fun starts with Smithfield itself - the market got the title because it was held on a ‘smooth field'. But the monikers derived from the place spread far and wide. Everything from nearby Cowcross Street - it was where said animals traversed the Fleet river - to Holloway Road up in the north of the city, so-called because the beasts walking to Smithfield would hollow it out. Then there's Rotherhithe, which literally means ‘the place where cattle are shipped' - those from Kent would be brought there by boat on the Thames, completing the rest of the journey on foot. And of course Shepherd's Bush, the last overnight resting place for sheep coming from the west.

Until listening to the ever-excellent Simon Hughes on Test Match Special, though, I'd never known about Smithfield's connection with another of my favourite London places, Lord's cricket ground. Speaking in the lunch break as Stuart Broad and James Anderson took a not-very-necessary rest from demolishing the Kiwis, Hughes spoke about the home of cricket as it was in the 19th century. No beautiful green swathes then - the ground was in a terrible state. This was due largely to the fact that scythes weren't allowed. Today's head groundsman (the legendary Mick Hunt - honestly, some parents just shouldn't be allowed to name their children) had not one but 400 equivalents back then: the flock of sheep that kept the grass short by eating it. On match days they were kept penned up in the north-east corner of the ground (ie where the Compton stand is now). On Saturdays they were driven on to the ground on their way to the Monday market at Smithfield.

And to think that Henry Blofeld gets excited about pigeons on the pitch ...


Oliver Levy
Posts: 3
Re: How a single market shaped an entire city
Reply #1 on : Mon May 20, 2013, 16:08:22
So Holloway is named after the Holloway Road, not vice-versa? That must be a rarity.

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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.