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Joan Brown, Secretary at Smithfield Market

December 9, 2013
by the gentle author

“When the cat can’t decide whether to go out, I say ‘Make up your Smithfield mind!’”

At ninety-three years old, Joan Brown is not given to protest. In fifty-seven years working as a Secretary at Smithfield Market, she mastered the art of operating through diplomacy and accommodation. Yet earlier this year, Joan was driven to write a letter of objection to the City of London Corporation when she learned of the proposed demolition of the General Market. “The bustle and excitement of Smithfield became part of my life until I finally retired at the age of seventy-four,” she wrote, “You will appreciate my feelings at the thought of even part of those lovely buildings being destroyed.”

The General Market of 1868, where Joan first began her career in West Smithfield, contains one of Europe’s grandest market parades beneath a vast glass dome, designed by Sir Horace Jones who was also responsible for Tower Bridge. Although proposals exist to refurbish the historic building and reopen it as a retail market, revitalising this part of London, the City Corporation has granted planning permission for the structure to be replaced by three tower blocks, retaining only the facade of the original edifice.

On 11th February next year, a David & Goliath battle commences at the Guildhall when SAVE Britain’s Heritage and The Victorian Society face the Corporation of the City of London, Henderson Global Investments and the Greater London Authority. Although, regrettably, Joan will not be attending due to her advanced years, the Enquiry is open to the Public and she hopes some readers might like to go along on her behalf.

Last week, I visited Joan in her tiny bucolic cottage situated among overgrown gardens in a quiet cul-de-sac in Peckham. Of sprightly demeanour and impeccable manners, Joan has good claim to be the first woman to work in Smithfield Market. Yet, even though she was conscientious not to absorb the colourful vocabulary for which which the Market is famous,“When the cat can’t decide whether to go out, I say ‘Make up your Smithfield mind!’” she confessed to me.

“I went to work at Smithfield Market in 1937 when I was seventeen years old. I was studying at a school for commercial typists and, at that time, there was a recession so it was hard to find work, but my shorthand teacher was asked by a neighbour who worked at Smithfield if he knew of anyone reliable – so I was offered the job.

My mum was horrified – all those men and that bad language! But my dad said, ‘We’ll sort this out,’ and he went to take a look and discovered the office was in West Smithfield, not in the Market itself. So I took the job. It was a family business and I worked for John Jenkins, the son, as his Private Secretary. We were agents for Argentine Frigorifico and we had a stall in the market selling Argentine Chilled Beef, it was not ‘refrigerated’ but ‘chilled.’

It was very well organised, a number of Argentine famers formed a group and a ship of their meat arrived in the London Docks once a week. It opened up on a Monday and so much beef – only beef – was brought over to the market in time for the five o’clock opening. That went on each day until the ship was emptied at the end of the week. Then another one arrived and it happened all over again.

I worked there until the war came, when everything changed and I was employed by the Ministry of Food. We were evacuated to North Wales and the Ministry organised these Buffer Depots in every village in the country and my job was to keep a record of it all. I had to co-ordinate the corned beef supplies. It was incredibly complicated and there were no computers, I had a large sheet of paper – we called them ‘B*gger Depots.’

After the war, I came back to my old employer but I discovered we didn’t have an office anymore, it had been bombed. So I said, ‘John, why don’t we use one of the spaces over the shop in the Central Market?’ He said, ‘But we can’t expect customers to walk through the Market to get to our office.’ Then I reminded him that there was a door onto Charterhouse St, so they didn’t have to walk through the Market. We moved into an octagonal office in one of the rotundas above the Market and that was when I became part of Smithfield proper.

Before the War, women couldn’t go into the Market but afterwards we were allowed in. I always remember walking through the Market for the first time, the Bummarees were perfectly respectful. I walked down Grand Avenue and they all moved out of the way, calling ‘Mind the Lady!’ The Bummarees delivered the meat, they wore long overalls and they used absolutely appalling language and were famous for that. But it wasn’t real, they didn’t mean anything by it.

I worked for John for more than fifty years and sometimes we had visitors from the Argentine. After John died, the business was sold and I was taken on by the new owners, Anglo-Dutch Meats. I became Private Secretary to their Director, Mohammed El Maggot. He was Egyptian though he had been to school in England. He was known as ‘Hamdi’ in the Market and I worked for him for several years. He was a very polite young man and his father was determined that he was going to work, that’s why he bought the company to occupy his son. Mohammed came to work every day at five o’clock in the morning and he settled in to work.

One day, he walked into the office and announced, ‘I want you to come to my wedding – in Cairo!’ When we came back, he and his wife took a flat in the Barbican and he said, ‘I want you to come over and teach Imam how to make a proper cup of tea.’

As far as I was concerned, that was the end of my life in Smithfield – I was seventy-four and it was time to retire. Mohammed was terribly upset but I said, ‘It’s no good Hamdi, I have to go!’ I thought, ‘That’s where I cut my connections, otherwise it will be, ‘Can you go to Harrods to buy the baby a bottle?” So I cut myself off completely from Smithfield Market in 1994. I never married, I was always working in the Market. When I was sent to North Wales, I left all my boyfriends behind in London and I was surrounded by a lot of middle-aged men.

I was always happy to be in the Market, I was part of the Market. To look down from my office window upon the Grand Avenue and see everything going on. That was my life.”

On Holborn Viaduct, the winged lion watches protectively over the Smithfield General Market currently under threat of demolition.

Smithfield Market as Joan Brown first knew it in the nineteen-thirties

Entrance to the General Market on Charterhouse St, completed 1881

Entrance to the underground store at the General Market

South-east corner of the General Market

North- east corner of the General Market

War Memorial in Grand Avenue in Central Market

The Central Meat Market

Joan Brown worked in an office in one of the rotundas at Smithfield’s Central Market

The Central Meat Market at Smithfield

Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

This Wednesday 11th December, SAVE Britain’s Heritage have organised a live theatre event at Smithfield from 5-7pm, telling the story of the Market. Locations will be on Holborn Viaduct, outside The Hope on Cowcross St and in the Market Grand Avenue.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. marianne isaacs permalink
    December 9, 2013

    I cant believs this . I am a resident of Melbourne where our local Victoria Market is a treasured part of the city . Any attempt to pull it down would end up with blood on the streets I think. I am coming to london next September . One of the reasons I am coming apprt from visiting my son is to see the history and the buildins . That the city could consider pulling this wonderful building down beggars belief .You Londoners MUST stop this .If you need outraged emails from the “colonies” let me know !!!

  2. December 9, 2013

    11th February is in the diary, looking forward to getting more details. The proposed developments for this area are shameful. Well done GA for creating a mouthpiece. C’mon everybody!

  3. Greg Tingey permalink
    December 9, 2013

    Just for once, The Corporation have got it wrong.
    We need these buildings – so, we have another struggle against the wreckers.
    I do like the (presumably Burmese) cat – they are temperamental, even by cat standards!

  4. 'liza Hardy permalink
    December 9, 2013

    Once again it appears that the authorities are happily stamping over the wonderful history of London. I Wish I could be there and help to fight these appalling attempts at destruction. I can only send my fervent prayers that these buildings can be saved.

  5. December 9, 2013

    Very nice. In my opinion this is a place worth preserving. I love such buildings!
    ACHIM :-)

  6. Marian permalink
    December 9, 2013

    Unbelievable! Wonder why they don’t also knock down Leadenhall, the Guildhall, St Paul’s…

  7. Patricia Taylor permalink
    December 9, 2013

    Talk about killing the fatted calf!! This area of Smithfield is a joy to visit and to
    think that the proposal is to demolish and put up tower blocks is beyond believe.
    Lets get marching with our placards and stop this lunacy.

  8. December 9, 2013

    I wonder if the people who want to destroy our history and heritage have anything in their brains apart from greed? This is really shameful. Valerie

  9. December 9, 2013

    From a far-away fan of Spitalfields Life, I loved this interview with Joan Brown and the accompanying photos of Smithfield Market. Recording and preserving these oral histories are as important as saving the buildings. The Gentle Author does a great job! I look forward to your blog every day, and hope to visit Spitalfields in the future.

  10. December 9, 2013

    So interesting, these life stories. Thank you Joan & GA! Lovely photographs, too.

  11. Peter Holford permalink
    December 10, 2013

    If I’m not mistaken the final word on this development will rest with Boris Johnson. With his track record for walking all over local democracy (viz. Deptford) this will need a very strong, co-ordinated protest. He is even willing to risk Westminster’s World Heritage Site status in the pursuit of Chinese money to raise tower blocks along the Thames!

  12. December 12, 2013

    We love your site and were very happy to read Joan’s story. Hope its okay we used her image on our site with link to yours. Here: http://ballarateast.net/spitalfields-life/

    We are rallying our community around issues of sustainable development. Good luck with your fight. Erin

  13. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    December 13, 2013

    Gentle Author – this is a magnificent post to your blog! The photography is to be treasured and as for Joan Brown – her story is simply wonderful! She surely has lived her life superbly.

  14. Roger Tiller permalink
    February 21, 2014

    Please please don’t knock it down

  15. Peter Martinelli MBE permalink
    June 11, 2014

    I got a job with AJPoels the Company headed by John Jenkins in June 1954 just before the Market re-opened after WW11. The interview would have been at the West Smithfield Office and no doubt this wonderful lady was there. I was a mere 24 and thrilled to get the job.

    The Company had several Smithfield Stalls including “Dean and Hatton” – “Packing House Products” – and the ‘Griffin Meat Company.” I began as a deputy cashier and progressed to a junior salesman when owing to a vacancy became the offal trader at “Packing House Products”

    I spent some 9 years with the Company before moving to “Ridpath” and then went onto a junior partnership with John Silver. Later I branched out on my own and through a series of events my Son Paul is now MD at P.j.Martinelli Ltd still trading at Smithfield.

    Please convey my very best regards.

    Peter J Martinelli MBE sub editor Smithfield Gazette.

  16. Eric,wicker permalink
    November 7, 2015

    I worked with Joan 1964/5. M.D. John Garton Jenkins and Co. Secretary Chris Kubler before I transferred to Luton abbattoir for Associated meats. Joan was totally loyal and honest, a lovely lady. I was only 18 but hope she remembers me. Trust she is still well.

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