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Joan Brown, The First Woman In Smithfield

February 28, 2014
by the gentle author

On the final day of the Smithfield Market Public Enquiry, I publish my interview with Joan Brown, the first woman to be permitted to work inside the Smithfield Central Market in 1945

“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 last 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 from SAVE Britain’s Heritage 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 to Henderson Global Investments to replace it with three tower blocks, retaining only the facade of the original edifice.

Today, Friday 28th February, is the final day of the Smithfield Public Enquiry with closing submissions and although, regrettably, Joan will not be attending due to her advanced years, she hopes some readers might like to go along on her behalf.

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.”

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

The Smithfield Market Public Enquiry concludes today, Friday 28th February, with final submissions from 10am at the Basinghall Suite (accessed through the Art Gallery) at the Guildhall in the City of London.

You may also like to take a look at

Sarah Ainslie at Smithfield Market

David Hoffman at Smithfield Market

At the Smithfield Market Public Enquiry

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Ali permalink
    February 28, 2014

    I enjoyed taking that stroll. Ms. Brown feels like an old friend after reading your lovely portrait

  2. Paul Kelly permalink
    February 28, 2014

    Joan Brown is a wonderful women!!!

  3. February 28, 2014

    A most fascinating life story of Joan Brown, the Secretary at Smithfield Market!

    And to preserve Smithfield Market: Why don’t anybody get His Royal Highness The Prince Charles of Wales involved? I believe he WOULD, SHOULD and COULD help in this case!!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  4. February 28, 2014

    Such a privilege to meet Joan, if only virtually. Wonderful post, want everyone to read it!

  5. February 28, 2014

    i second that, get Prince Charles to sort this out! and all best to Joan!

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