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Smithfield Market Is Saved!

July 9, 2014
by the gentle author

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

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

47 Responses leave one →
  1. Catherine permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Hurrah! This news made my day.

  2. July 9, 2014

    Great new. I hope this is a good omen for a victory over British Land! Valerie

  3. Caroline Berlyn permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Such good news, I can’t believe that your local governments are still able to put forward proposals to demolish significant heritage buildings. Well done.

    from a cold and wet Adelaide, South Australia

  4. Jenny Atins permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Reading this today where I am in Sydney in Oz, I am thrilled to bits to hear the wonderful news that Smithfield has been saved and will be re born! Well done to all those who made this happen. Having worked in Soho in the 1970’s I know how many historic buildings have been lost over the years to ruthless development. Either demolished completely or saving the facade which sometimes is almost worse. Thank goodness Eric Pickles listened to the voices of reason and sanity.

  5. July 9, 2014

    I could not be happier. Congratulations on your success! These photographs are a thrill in themselves.

  6. July 9, 2014

    that is the most wonderful news! I am smiling.

  7. July 9, 2014

    Congratulations — this struggle was worth it!!

    Love & Peace

  8. Susan permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Even though I don’t live in England, and even though I’ve never been to the Market, I say “YAY!!!” The last thing the world needs (especially our bland Western world) is another anonymous supermarket – and what it really needs are markets like this!

  9. July 9, 2014

    Well done, well done. What very excellent news. Well done

  10. July 9, 2014

    Great news. Well done everyone who campaigned so successfully.

  11. Bee permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Brilliant news! Let’s hang on to some of our heritage for goodness sake.

  12. Vicky permalink
    July 9, 2014

    This is such wonderful news! A magnificent campaign by all concerned

  13. Greg Tingey permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Wonderful news!
    Now, “they” will have to work out how to use this space properly, won’t they?

  14. Victoria permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Just wonderful and heart warming news! Shows there is hope and that campaigns can work. Look forward to visiting the market once it’s a going concern. Hope for a similar outcome for British Land proposals.

  15. July 9, 2014

    After so many efforts, Congrats!!!

  16. Milo Bell permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Excellent news!

  17. July 9, 2014

    Wonderful news! Well done!

  18. Celia permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Such wonderful news to wake up to. So thrilled the market is saved, it would have been a
    crime to destroy the interiors. Look forward to hearing about future plans for restoration.

    Well done!!

  19. Bev permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Wonderful news!

  20. July 9, 2014

    A fantastic! what brilliant news. Such a beautiful historic place just needs to stay.

  21. Susan Goldman permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Fantastic news and well done to everyone who fought so hard for this result. Excellent!

  22. Adrianne LeMan permalink
    July 9, 2014


  23. Peter Holford permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Great news. Now on to the battle with British Land! A never ending conveyor belt of planning applications which would trash our history if not opposed.

  24. Lesley permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Great news! My first job was in the offices of a company at the Central Meat Market in the early 1970’s. I went there from school in Spitalfields Market!
    It’s sad to see these buildings abandoned and neglected. Don’t let them destroy it!

  25. Juliet. Shipman permalink
    July 9, 2014

    A triumph for conservation and all who worked so hard at Save and other organisations. Let us hope that at last the government realises the value of it’s built heritage.

  26. July 9, 2014

    Excellent news! So honoured to have been asked by SAVE Britain’s Heritage to illustrate the General Market for their press release.

  27. July 9, 2014

    fantastic news!

  28. July 9, 2014

    David versus the big city Goliath !
    Well done Mr Pickles.

  29. Barbara permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Wonderful to save a bit of history. Smithfield is mentioned in “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” briefly – cattle being driven to the market, and small boys using pea shooters to annoy them etc in even earlier years. On a light note Mohammed el Maggot had a most inappropriate name for a meat merchant! Nice to hear about Joan Brown working there for so many years.

  30. sarah ainslie permalink
    July 9, 2014

    I was so thrilled to see the news yesterday evening especially as it holds a very special place in my heart since taking photographs there in the 1990’s. It is an amazing place with the people who worked there and its long history, well done everyone.

  31. Sarah C permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Great news.

  32. July 9, 2014

    This is great news! This has made my day. Finally someone in the government has a bit of sense when it comes to planning decisions in London.

  33. Patricia Taylor permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Thank you Mr. Pickles for this result. Let’s hope that work will now start
    in order to bring this wonderful building to its former glory. The next
    hurdle will be how to use it – certainly not a typical shopping mall full
    of chain shops!

  34. Richard King permalink
    July 9, 2014

    How could the City of London corporation even contemplate knocking this down.

    The Corporation has done more to destroy our heritage than the German’s did during the Blitz !!!!!

    Fantastic news that this has been saved.

    Long may common sense and a sense of history prevail.

  35. July 9, 2014

    Oh what brilliant news! Finally, a victory for Conservation! With a space as beautiful as that and the current trend for market food/street and urban food and food wit provenance I’m AMAZED that such a perfect venue rich with potential was ever in danger.

  36. July 9, 2014

    Although this is good news, I think it is premature to say that Smithfield is saved.

    What has to happen next is to ensure that the owners do not continue to neglect the buildings and to leave them empty.

    There is already a scheme on the table which takes a more regeneration as opposed to redevelopment type approach, so it will be interesting to see if the Mayor of London will use the CPO powers which are available if the currrent owner doesn’t not bring forward a new proposal pretty quickly.

    Steven Boxall
    Regeneration X

  37. Candice Lyons permalink
    July 9, 2014

    That is such wonderful news! If we keep demolishing old buildings, etc., we lose our history. This is great!

  38. Jane B permalink
    July 9, 2014

    “Henderson, Hands off our Heritage!”

    — but we also now need them to hand it over :-/ And to hold their hands up, otherwise as owners of a 999-year lease, as they’ve already threatened — in the manner of a spoilt child! — the buildings will continue to be neglected to the point that restoration is truly not viable.

    9 July 2014 — “Smithfield developer vows to keep site”

    With English Heritage ‘on side’ (shamefully theirs rather than those of us fighting demolition :-/ ) we can presume that any moves to fully include the market buildings on EH’s ‘At Risk’ register will not necessarily happen quickly enough.

    So yes, there’s much work still to do. But yesterday’s news really is the best possible outcome at this stage 🙂 …and the best kind of precedent, giving hope to many other heritage sites where all that’s standing between a building and its demolition — literally standing, strong, firm, together and tall — is the pro-bono services of concerned heritage experts and the community of whatever scale, worldwide if The Gentle Author has anything to do with it!

    ‘We’ stood in the way, and our protest stood out as something special. As a City resident — and a concerned individual who sees the planet as a whole as home 🙂 — I really can’t thank enough, those who presented such eloquent and compelling submissions to the Public Enquiry, amongst others Christopher Costelloe for the Victorian Society, John Burrell (Burrell Foley Fischer LLP), Jennifer Freeman, Alec Forshaw, Eric Reynolds (Urban Space Management), Roger Hepher (Director, Savills), and indeed the whole SAVE-Victorian Society ‘grouping’, whose fine words and detailed understanding of the issues more than equalled those of the City and the developer, who might otherwise have thought that technical correctness was enough when in fact it was technical brilliance, in the use/application of the facts and the law, with the added ‘value’ of being ‘human, that was going to win out!

    And so as that ‘wider community’ we can all now consider ourselves invited to still be involved, in fact more involved than ever, as this was both a ruling against inappropriate development and in favour of the conservation-centred alternative. Expectations and trust are now focused on and invested in those who have put their names to the alternative and their shoulder to the wheel. We have our own precedent to deliver in terms of making these plans a reality and making the plan work by making heritage management work. And I have this feeling that ‘the people’ and the experts that guide them shall! …even though we’ll need to presume something less than the full co-operation of the site’s current owners!

    I even have reason to hope that Mr Pickles’ decision is one that before long Peter Wynn Rees — who in March left his post as THE City Planning Officer (Head/Chief) after 29 years at the City of London Corporation — and who’s final “hoorah” was his presentation in support of the developers at the Public Enquiry, may yet come to accept as ‘appropriate’, at least in part, not least given his professional background in heritage conservation, and the fact that he remains a City resident, this being his local market!…

    “His previous jobs include periods with the Historic Buildings Division of the Greater London Council and in private practice with Gordon Cullen. While at the Department of the Environment, he advised local authorities across England on the conservation and planning of historic towns. As Assistant Chief Planning Officer to the London Borough of Lambeth, from 1979-85, he led the production of the borough’s conservation strategy and the regeneration of Brixton and Vauxhall.

    Meanwhile, and always, the greatest respect and immeasurable gratitude to The Gentle Author. Hello and thank you too to Joan Brown — I’m supposing, from us all 🙂

    BACKGROUND READING — for those so inclined…

    “Proposed development at Smithfield Market turned down”

    “Welcome to the Smithfield Market Public Inquiry Website”…

    Campaign ‘hub’

  39. Ros permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Absolutely delighted to read of this win. After my visit yesterday to the British Land show about their proposed Blossom Street development, I fear death to our heritage by tweeness almost as much as by gigantism!

  40. Janet M permalink
    July 9, 2014

    Well Done GA! You are a one person army.

  41. July 10, 2014

    What a relief. I heard the news on Radio London and couldn’t quite believe it. It’s so refreshing to hear that mega-powerful wealthy developers can be stopped in their tracks by reasoned argument and passionate enthusiasm. First The Marquis of Lansdowne and now this. Keep up the good work, Gentle Author.

  42. Marion Ogier permalink
    July 10, 2014

    Fantastic news. Industrial beauty saved. From the other side of the world in earthquake hit Christchurch where so many lovely buildings have been needlessly smashed down here is some inspiration for Smithfield – The Tannery – small but perfectly formed

  43. July 10, 2014

    Never thought I’d say this but, today, Eric Pickles rocks!

  44. sprite permalink
    July 10, 2014

    So glad to read this!

  45. Marianne Butler permalink
    July 10, 2014

    Hooray! Well done to all those involved.

    Marianne Butler author ‘London Architecture’.

  46. July 11, 2014

    Smart, smart move! Hooray! Not only is this the right thing to do, but I’m sure time will prove that it will be the best move for people and business.

    In Seattle, where I live, they kept trying to bulldoze the Pike Place Market (the oldest public market in America still running). But the opposition failed and now it is unthinkable to have Seattle without the market.

    It is THE place that everyone goes when they first get to town. I’m sure much of that same community pride will stick to the Smithfield market. They don’t make them like that any more. Congratualtions!

  47. July 15, 2014

    My mother used to make deliveries to and from Smithfield Market during the Second World War when she drove a team of horses to and from Aldgate Depot.

    I also remember the market well as a kid. I used to go to cubs close by and we were occasionally taken there by the troop leader. I remember the St. George’s Day parades made by scouts, guides, cubs and brownies too that passed close by.

    Each time I visit London, I always make a point of visiting the Market and the Viaduct. Both are amazing architectural wonders and both have a long history. I am glad to see that the Market is saved. Now, let us hope that it and the stairs from the Viaduct can be restored to their former glory. This should not be too hard to do.

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