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At Smithfield On Christmas Eve

December 23, 2015
by the gentle author

The eager carnivores of London converge upon the ancient Smithfield Market every year for the annual Christmas Eve meat auction at 11am staged by Harts the Butcher

At ten in the morning, the rainy streets were almost empty yet, as I came through Smithfield, butchers in white overalls were wheeling precarious trolleys top-heavy with meat and fowls over to the site of the auction where an expectant crowd of around a hundred had gathered, anxiously clutching wads of banknotes in one hand and bags to carry off their prospective haul in the other.

Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien met me there. He grew up half a mile away in Clerkenwell during the nineteen forties and, although it was his first time at the auction, he remembered his father walking down to Smithfield to get a cheap turkey on Christmas Eve more than sixty years ago. Overhearing this reminiscence, a robust woman standing next to us in the crowd struck up a conversation as a means to relieve the growing tension before the start of the auction which is the highlight of the entire year for many of stalwarts that have been coming for decades.

“You can almost guarantee getting a turkey,” she reassured us with the authority of experience, revealing she had been in attendance for fifteen successive years. Then, growing visibly excited as a thought came into her mind, “Last year, I got thirty kilos of sirloin steak for free – I tossed for it!”, she confided to us, turning unexpectedly flirtatious. Colin and I stood in silent wonder at her good fortune with meat.“We start preparing in October by eating all the meat in the freezer,” she explained, to clarify the situation. “Last night we had steak,” she continued, rubbing her hands in gleeful anticipation, “and steak again tonight.”

Yet our acquaintance was terminated as quickly as it began when the caller appeared in a blood-stained white coat and red tie to introduce the auction. A stubby bullet-headed man, he raised his hands graciously to quell the crowd. “This is a proper English tradition,” he announced, “it has been going on for the last five hundred years. And I’m going to make sure everybody goes away with something and I’m here to take your money.”

His words drew an appreciative roar from the crowd as dozens of eager hands were thrust in the air waving banknotes, indicative of the collective blood lust that gripped the assembly. Standing there in the midst of the excitement, I realised that the sound I could hear was an echo. It was a reverberation of the famously uproarious Bartholomew Fair which flourished upon this site from the twelfth century until it was suppressed for public disorder in 1855. Yesterday, the simple word “Hush!” from the caller was enough to suppress the mob as he queried, “What are we going to start with?”

The answer to his question became manifest when several bright pink loins of pork appeared as if by magic in the hatch beside him, held by butchers beneath, and dancing jauntily above the heads of the delighted audience like hand puppets. These English loins of pork were soon dispatched into the crowd at twenty pounds each as the curtain warmer to the pantomime that was to come, followed by joints of beef for a tenner preceding the star attraction of day – the turkeys! – greeted with festive cheers by the hungry revellers. “Mind your heads, turkeys coming over…” warned the butcher as the turkeys in their red wrappers set out crowd-surfing to their grateful prospective owners as the cash was passed hand to hand back to the stand.

It would not be an understatement to say that mass hysteria had overtaken the crowd, yet there was another element to add to the chaos of the day. As the crowd had enlarged, it spilled over into the road with cars and vans weaving their through the overwrought gathering. “I love coming for the adventure of it,” declared one gentleman with hair awry, embracing a side of beef protectively as if it was the love of his life, “Everyone helps one another out here. You pass the money over and there’s no pickpockets.”

After the turkeys came the geese, the loins of lamb, the ribs of beef, the pork bellies, the racks of lamb, the fillet steaks and the green gammon to complete the bill of fare. As the energy rose, butchers began to throw pieces of red meat into the crowd to be caught by their purchasers and it was surreal to watch legs of lamb and even suckling pigs go flying into the tumultuous mass of people. Finally, came tossing for meat where customers had the chance of getting their steaks for free if they guessed the toss correctly, and each winning guess was greeted with an exultant cheer because by then the butchers and the crowd were as one, fellow participants in a boisterous party game.

Just ninety minutes after it began, the auction wrapped up, leaving the crowd to consolidate their proud purchases, tucking the meat and fowls up snugly in suitcases and backpacks to keep them safe until they could be stowed away in the freezer at home. In the disorder, I saw piles of bloody meat stacked on the muddy pavement where people were tripping over them. Yet a sense of fulfilment prevailed, everyone had stocked up for another year – their carnivorous appetites satiated – and they were going home to eat meat.

As I walked back through the narrow City streets, I contemplated the spectacle of the morning. It resembled a Bacchanale or some ancient pagan celebration in which people  were liberated to pursue their animal instincts. But then I realised that my thinking was too complicated – it was Christmas I had witnessed.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

You might also like to read

Joe Lawrence, Butcher & Writer

Peter Sargent, Butcher

Mick Hardie, Butcher

Joan Brown,  Secretary at Smithfield Market

Sarah Ainslie at Smithfield Market

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    December 23, 2015

    Geez, I love England. (They’d never allow that in Canada, “for sanitary reasons”… *sigh*)

  2. Shawdian permalink
    December 23, 2015

    I think it says it all with the poor pigs foot sticking out of the bag in the last picture. I am not a vegetarian. It is just full of symbolism. Not sure these photos are a good representation for a Christmas Eve, not mine anyway. Still, at least the market is doing what it has always done & the people look happy with their lot, but all how sad.

  3. December 23, 2015

    Since my local butcher passed away, I discovered how pricey fresh Turkeys at other butchers’ were and headed back to Bolton Market, where I had bought poultry in my youth. What bargains! I could buy organic turkey for a third of the price. I know shopkeepers have to make a living but market traders are so incredibly competitive and knock spots off supermarkets when it comes to poultry.
    If it was up to me we’d be tucking into goose but, outvoted by my unadventurous son and husband, Turkey it is. So it’s off to the market today for Turkey, small sausage and streaky bacon.

  4. Stephen Foster permalink
    December 23, 2015

    I’m almost in tears reading this. A tradition that Elf and Safety, the PC Brigade or the Vegetarian Nazis haven’t got their mitts into, and long may it reign.
    It’s traditions like this that keep London, London.
    Thanks for shedding some light on it.

  5. Roger Carr permalink
    December 23, 2015

    The bags of blood . One man’s meat . . . . !

  6. December 23, 2015

    Loved this! Thank you for sharing this story–I wish we had something like that over here! :)

  7. William permalink
    December 23, 2015

    Like an earlier poster, I’m afraid I find these pictures somewhat disturbing. The sight of these red body parts are disgusting. I just wonder what sort of life these animals had and the suffering and distress they must have endured just to satisfy the gluttony of these people.

  8. Katya permalink
    December 23, 2015

    raucous funny sad disgusting wonderful rowdy goofy base joyful worrying fantastic sickening depressing uplifting awesome. just like London.

  9. December 24, 2015

    London at it’s best

  10. Eastendbutcher permalink
    January 6, 2016

    This year was the busiest and most succesful yet. Well done to Gregg Lawrence for another great Smithfield Christmas Eve Auction. Long may it continue!

  11. February 2, 2016

    Oh thats strange I watched christmas auction, last night on video recording I did last year , was a documentary on smithfield,

  12. February 2, 2016

    Just think years ago all the animals were walked to london

  13. Sam Saunders (nee Clark) permalink
    February 3, 2017

    My grandad was a City of London policeman and regularly worked at Smithfield night shifts security – used to know all the butchers and bring home some bargains!! That was during 60′s to the 80′s until he retired. Must go one Christmas Eve. Great photos and happy memories

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