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At The Smithfield Market Public Enquiry

February 21, 2014
by the gentle author

Behold the winged lion on the Holborn Viaduct looking down protectively upon the Smithfield General Market, as – over at the Guildhall – the Public Enquiry that will decide the fate of this magnificent building designed by Horace Jones, the architect of Tower Bridge, reaches the end of its second week.

I went over yesterday as SAVE Britain’s Heritage began to outline their proposal which seeks the renovation of the building and its reopening as a retail market, in opposition to the plan by Henderson Global Investments which entails demolishing the structure and retaining only the facade as an apologia for three disproportionately-large office blocks that would sit behind it.

When I arrived, Chris Costelloe the Director of the Victorian Society, was championing the significance of the General Market as an integral part of the grandest procession of market buildings in Europe and its use as a market hall as intrinsic to the distinctive character of Smithfield, an area of cultural significance both within London and nationally. He gave no quarter to the developers’ advocates who maintained that retention of the old facades upon their new blocks was itself a form of conservation and were eager to refute the suggestion that the neglect of the building in recent years was in any sense deliberate upon their part.

“The public hasn’t been given enough information to envisage the potential of the market,” Clementine Cecil, the Director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, explained to me afterwards, “It’s a classic situation – a building is boarded up and thus its architectural and historical significance is concealed.”

Yet Clementine was able to supply me with the photographs below that reveal the beautiful forgotten interior of the last market structure designed by Horace Jones after he had designed Central Smithfield, Leadenhall and Billingsgate. He rose to the engineering challenges posed by this problematic site, suspended over a railway line and upon a slope, with ingenuity and flair, devising hollow “Phoenix columns” that were strong enough to support the vast open roof while minimising the weight of the edifice.

If you care about the future of Smithfield, I urge you to join the audience at the Enquiry and demonstrate by your presence the importance of preserving London’s oldest market. The Smithfield Market Public Enquiry is open to the public at the Basinghall Suite, accessed via the Art Gallery, at the Guildhall in the City of London from 10am daily. There are four days remaining for the enquiry, today Friday 21st February and next week, Tuesday 25th, Wednesday 26th and Friday 28th February – the latter being the culmination of the enquiry with final submissions.

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

About 40% of the Fish Market will be demolished as part of Henderson Global Investment’s plan

This part of the Fish Market could get demolished and reconstructed with an office block on top

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Joan Brown, Secretary at Smithfield Market

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30 Responses leave one →
  1. Molasses permalink
    February 21, 2014

    I do not live in the UK but I feel the pain of loss in heritage.

    The UK has a wonderful heritage to preserve for future generations – it is unfortunate that the powers to be are not an enthusiastic in sharing this vision.

  2. jeannette permalink
    February 21, 2014

    thank you for these photographs. sometimes what’s happening in the east end reminds me of the taliban blowing up the bamiyan buddhas — a kind of cultural genocide.

  3. February 21, 2014

    Tell the newspapers about it to attract more attention about this beautiful building being threatened please.

  4. February 21, 2014

    Every time I read about these buildings, which are part of our heritage, and the greed of those who who just want to destroy it and make money quickly, I am very sad. I hope that Smithfield Market can be saved for future generations. It reminded me of the Cree Indian Prophecy: ‘Only after the last tree has been cut down / Only after the last river has been poisoned / Only after the last fish has been caught / Then will you find that money cannot be eaten.’

  5. Victoria permalink
    February 21, 2014

    I hope the Henderson Global proposal is not successful.

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    February 21, 2014

    Given the examples of Covent Garden, Spitalfileds (only half-saved) & Borough … it is to be hoped that this is properly restored, as well.

  7. Roger Tiller permalink
    February 21, 2014


  8. Melissa permalink
    February 21, 2014

    a really key moment in the shaping of our future city for centuries to come – I’m hopeful that this beautiful building will be saved. No to making a quick buck – yes to careful maintenance of our heritage!

  9. February 21, 2014

    Old buildings are like old photographs. they remind us of our history and connection with the past. These are magnificant interiors, beautiful – outstanding.

  10. Robin Clark permalink
    February 21, 2014

    I thought lessons would have been learnt fro the 60s & 70s when this country went down the same route of demolishing historic buildings and communities and replacing them with souless concrete and glass structures which have become eye sores. But money and greed comes before community and enviromental needs,

  11. February 21, 2014

    Londoners in the world:

    Help to prevent the destruction of this world heritage. Preserve it for the coming generations!

    Love & Peace

  12. Alex permalink
    February 21, 2014

    You can sign a petition to get the building listed which would help protect it.

  13. Vanda Human permalink
    February 21, 2014

    So much of the British heritage is been lost due to greed. Very soon there will be nothing left that represents the “true” British. Get Prince Charles on your side. If anyone and save Smithfield Market it will be him.

  14. Vicky permalink
    February 21, 2014

    These buildings are glorious and deserve to be renovated and put to new use. I’m 100% behind SAVE and the Victorian Society and will do all I can to get to the Enquiry.

  15. February 21, 2014

    Lets hope this magnificent piece of our heritage is saved for future generations to enjoy!

  16. Katie permalink
    February 21, 2014

    It would be appalling if this wonderful slice of living history were sacrificed in the name of development. Remember Covent Garden, Borough Market… so vibrant and successful now. Please don’t destroy our heritage.

  17. Tracy Newall permalink
    February 21, 2014

    This is by far too beautiful and important a structure to allow it to go for demolition.
    Don’t they have any souls?

  18. aubrey permalink
    February 21, 2014

    A master class in Victorian structural engineering. From what I can see from the photographs, the columns are of cast iron; the main lattice beam shown would be made of wrought iron. The curved type of roof trusses appear to be in timber. It would be interesting to know whether the original design drawings still exist; and if so. where they are kept.

  19. Sarah Davis permalink
    February 21, 2014

    Sensitive restoration which respects the building must surely be the way forward. This building with its interior is unique and the architecture and craftsmanship should be valued. I cannot understand why the powers that be are not proud of this market. I am sure that if lovingly restored, it would be a magnet for tourists and Londoners alike. I can understand buildings destroyed in wars but cannot understand needless and senseless obliteration and it does not even make commercial sense as there are many empty office blocks in the area. The Henderson initiative with its proposed office blocks will not complement the existing structures but will look awkward and incongruous. If it goes ahead, it will be a drastic mistake which sadly would be irreversible.

  20. Hilary permalink
    February 21, 2014

    I cannot believe that this wonderful building might be lost.

    In Singapore there is an amazing Victorian market (Lau Pa Sat) built in 1894 with cast iron shipped from Glasgow; it is in the middle of the financial district and is now full of food stalls open from lunchtime and through the night.It was awarded National Monument status in 1973. Maybe something similar could be done at Smithfield.

  21. Karen permalink
    February 21, 2014

    Isn’t St Pancras just the most amazing building? It must be the envy of rail companies all over the world. Didn’t someone want to pull it down in the 1960s? Do we never learn?

  22. February 21, 2014

    I live near Toulouse, a magnificent and beautiful city. In the 1960s the city decided to destroy all except one of its wonderful 19th century markets, which records show resemble Smithfields, in order to provide multi-storey car parks. It’s too late for them now to rectify this dreadful mistake. The 1960s carparks are generally regarded as concrete monsters that in no way complement the surrounding architecture, and there are few people who wouldn’t turn back the clock if they could. Can’t London learn from these and similar experiences throughout Europe?

  23. Cherub permalink
    February 21, 2014

    The only place I have seen this done well was in Madrid about 10 years ago, purely because the office blocks behind were well hidden and did not intrude on the skyline. They built part of a college in my town behind the facade of an old Victorian factory and it is horrible, it looks forbidding and is a blot on the landscape down near the harbour. I don’t understand why anyone would want to ruin a historic area of London like Smithfield.

    Sadly a listed linoleum factory in my area that was featured on BBC2’s Restoration years ago is about to be demolished because nobody wants it and it is now beyond saving. They finish taking out the asbestos this weekend then it will be taken apart and will no doubt become another housing development. At the time it was championed by Michael Portillo whose maternal grandparents were from this town and we all thought it would be a great asset to the community if it was turned into a swimming pool and other well needed facilities. The council dithered, spent millions on consultants and ended up siting a new pool yards from the old one which nobody is happy about. Everyone is furious at the loss of a magnificent industrial building that formed part of our once great linoleum industry which was world famous. When I was young if your dad wasn’t a miner he worked for the Nairn company – my dad did both in his lifetime. The company’s offices on the other side of the street were turned into luxury flats years ago. Very sad as the Nairn family were great philanthropists who built the beautiful war memorial, central library, museum and art gallery here. They are an asset to a town that is struggling at the moment.

    I sincerely hope Smithfield will be saved.

  24. Clare Stevens permalink
    February 22, 2014

    I’ve been supporting this campaign all along but until you posted these photos I had no idea how wonderful the interior of the general market actually is. It MUST be saved! There are too many monstrosities around London and in other cities where historic facades have been kept as a sop to conservationists but their proportions and integrity destroyed by the construction of modern office blocks around or inside them. I can’t get to the hearings but passionately hope Smithfield can be preserved and restored and the plans for a new retail market put into action.

  25. Stephen Barker permalink
    February 23, 2014

    I hope the market buildings can be saved and imaginatively developed. I have memories of the market from the late 1970’s when I was a student at the nearby City University and can remember the market in action and using the cafes that catered to the market during the night.

    The developers proposal to retain the outer walls with office blocks inside seems the worst possible option. It as if the developers do not have the courage of their own convictions. Either build something better as a symbol of our age or leave what already there and adapt it to new uses, something on the lines of Covent Garden, Spitalfields etc

  26. Charles permalink
    February 23, 2014

    It’s very sad to see the photos of it so empty. Many years ago I worked a 24 hour shift on a traffic survey around the market noting the big artics delivering the meat during the early hours, the arrival of an army of white vans from 6am onwards, and then a bustle of small buyers throughout the day picking up cuts for their restaurants. It really was a part of London that never slept.

    Hopefully the idea of a retail market can take hold as Spitalfields has shown that small trader activity prevents an area becoming a corporate ghost town.

  27. February 25, 2014

    This could look truly amazing if restored properly and become a destination in itself. Instead, the developers and the Corporation of London want this interior ripped out with soulless office space inserted and a token facade. Even worse, the Corporation is propagandizing their ‘vision’ through their arts and culture newsletter! I urge everybody who is able and disagrees with this vandalism to make their feelings known to the enquiry.

  28. Sheila Beskine permalink
    February 27, 2014

    and just yesterday, reading the so-appreciative comments, by local people, in the Shuffle Festival book in the old
    Boardroom at St Clement’s Hospital, for what’s left of this beautiful building, being won for community use now.. But still happening all around us all the time , and how keep up?
    Thankyou Gentle Author, for yet another so needed report…

  29. February 27, 2014

    thanks for the great photo’s , I was a butcher in the 50s in Roman road Bow ,and went to Smithfi eld almost daily,I am now 85, Ido hope that all the London markets are allowed to remain I think enough of our History and heritage have gone, lets not take the rest away for the sake of more office space , there is too much already, all being done to make more millionaire the expense of job loss to all the market workers.

  30. March 3, 2014

    the removal of any this property’s historic fabric is an outrage.

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