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Sarah Ainslie At Smithfield Market

February 25, 2014
by the gentle author

For six months during the winter and into the spring of 1994, Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie visited Smithfield Market one night each week from two or three until six or seven in the morning, and these are a selection of her pictures. This was the Horace Jones’ Central Market prior to restoration, in the days when all the meat was still out in the open, before the building was altered and the meat put behind glass in refrigerators. “It was like going into a subterranean world and I loved it,” Sarah admitted to me, “You could walk right through the market and see everything.”

“I feel a huge respect for what they do at Smithfield and I find it beautiful to see the animals hanging up”

“There’s a strong camaraderie amongst the guys and a lot of banter”

“I grew fascinated by it, this thing that operated at night and closed when everyone else woke up”

“Smithfield Market is different from everything else in London because it’s so functional, and people aren’t used to seeing that, especially in the midst of the city. Now it’s become a taboo, something that people are more comfortable to have hidden away.”

“I was drawn to the visceral quality of the environment with its smell of meat and people running around carrying big pieces of meat, there’s such drama to see these people in the midst of it all.”

“We tend to forget where meat comes from, when you go to a supermarket you don’t see the origin”

“I never found it disgusting but people used to ask me, ‘Don’t you find it horrible?’ Yet, coming from a farming background, I had seen cows and pigs brought up and sent off to feed people.”

“Sometimes, I used to go into the cafe and take photos and, one morning, these guys who were sitting there covered in blood, who had been cutting up meat all night, they started having a philosophical discussion about God…”

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

The Smithfield Market Public Enquiry runs today (25th February) from 10am – 5pm  at the Basinghall Suite (accessed through the Art Gallery) at the Guildhall in the City of London. and on Wednesday 26th and Friday 28th February – the latter being the culmination of the enquiry with final submissions.

You might also like to take a look at

At the Smithfield Market Public Enquiry

Sarah Ainslie’s Brick Lane

8 Responses leave one →
  1. February 25, 2014

    Wonderful photos, though I don’t think I would have coped as positively as Sarah did with the smells and the blood.

  2. February 25, 2014

    It’s a taboo today to show it, but it is STILL PRESENT — we have to realize that!

    Love & Peace

  3. Roger Tiller permalink
    February 25, 2014

    Wonderful photos really captured the place, can’t wait now to take some pictures myself.
    My father used to play in the tunnels underneath the market in the early 1920s, he told me that goods trains bringing in the meat used to run underneath there.

  4. Nicky permalink
    February 25, 2014

    It’s great to see these photos – thank you for posting. I’ve been a fan of Sarah’s photography since the mid 80s when I knew her a bit – she did a lot of theatre work then. And when I first came to London I lived next to Smithfields market, and have always loved it. In those days, we’d go to the pub at 7am for breakfast with the meat porters! All best – Nicky

  5. Gary Arber permalink
    February 25, 2014

    Fantastic photos Sarah. Thank you for sharing them.

  6. John Garton permalink
    February 25, 2014

    Seeing those pictures reminds of the many years working for the Daily Mirror, not far from Smithfield. A few of us were regular lunchers at the subterranean Cock Tavern, which served great meals. On one occasion we were entertaining some visitors and we told them that this was where the surgeons from nearby Barts Hospital came to lunch. We announced their arrival…it was a group of Smithfield “bumarees” dressed in their extremely blood-stained smocks! They almost believed us…..

  7. Ros permalink
    February 25, 2014

    Not only very good photos but very good and thoughtful commentary from Sarah. Thank you.

  8. Nick permalink
    February 28, 2014

    Fantastic. I worked (As did all the men in my family) in the market from 1982-1986. I loved every second of it. So many bonds were forged there that exist to this day.
    I must get down there and take shots myself.
    Thanks for the memories

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