Smithfield Market Is Saved!
It is my great pleasure to announce that – in a landmark victory for Conservation – Smithfield Market is saved thanks to the public campaign led by SAVE Britain’s Heritage. Yesterday Eric Pickles, Secretary of State, rejected the City of London’s plan to gut the market building for offices in favour of restoration and reuse. In celebration, I publish my interview with Joan Brown, the first woman to be permitted to work inside the Smithfield Central Market in 1945.
The Lion on the Holborn Viaduct looks down protectively upon the Smithfield Market
Joan Brown, the first woman to work in Smithfield Market, is delighted by the decision to save the Market buildings that she knew so well. At ninety-three years old, Joan is not given to protest – in fifty-seven years working as a Secretary at the 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 the City Corporation granted planning permission to Henderson Global Investments to replace it with three tower blocks, retaining only the facade of the original edifice, yesterday Eric Pickles, Secretary of State, announced the outcome of the Public Enquiry held this spring, ruling “the proposal to demolish important parts of significant market buildings, to the great detriment to the surrounding area, to be wholly unacceptable.”
Additionally, he criticised the City of London for “the history of deliberate neglect and that, in assessing the planning balance, less weight should therefore be given to the current condition of the buildings than to the consequent benefit of their repair.” He concluded that “it is important that they are repaired and put into a beneficial use.” The way is now open for these buildings to be restored and reopened, returning access to these magnificent structures to Londoners after a generation of neglect.
I visited Joan Brown 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.”
Joan Brown “When the cat can’t decide whether to go out, I say ‘Make up your Smithfield mind!’”
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
The vast dome at the heart of the Smithfield General Market
The magnificent roof span of an avenue in Horace Jones’ General Market
Horace Jones’ ingenious lightweight hollow “Phoenix columns” that support the roof span
A trading avenue within the General Market
Inside Horace Jones’ adjoining Fish Market
An avenue in the Fish Market
Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute