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Smithfield’s Bloody Past

September 6, 2016
by Gillian Tindall

Novelist & Historian of London Gillian Tindall takes over as guest author this week in celebration of the publication of her new book, A Tunnel Through Time, A New Route for an Old London Journey by Chatto & Windus.

As Crossrail advances from Farringdon towards Moorgate and Liverpool St, it crosses one of the oldest of London’s play-spaces. Smithfield means ‘smooth field’ and, though the Romans called it by a different name, they recognised that this green expanse was too useful to be covered in houses.

By the twelfth century, there was a fair held on Smithfield every Friday for the buying and selling of horses, and a growing market for oxen, cows and – by-and-by – sheep as well. An annual fair was held every August around St Bartholmew’s Day, in front of Bartholomew’s Hospital which had been founded in 1123. This open ground was also much in demand for tournaments – sometimes involving royalty – as well as jousts and other sports, demonstrations, riots, and public entertainments, including executions.

Some of these uses survived into the nineteenth century, long after the walls enclosing the City were reduced to isolated fragments and London itself had swelled and swelled, crossing the river Fleet, covering Holborn, St Giles and Soho with streets, running up through Clerkenwell and swallowing Islington. Moo-ing, snorting and baa-ing herds were still driven on the hoof by men and dogs through these busy streets towards Smithfield, sometimes from hundred of miles away. Similarly, geese and ducks were hustled along in great flocks, their delicate feet encased in cloth for protection. They were all going to their deaths, though they did not know it – till the stench of blood and the sounds of other animals inspired noisy fear in them, as they were driven across the bridges over the Fleet and along lanes whose names already marked their destiny – Cow Lane, Cowcross, Chick Lane and Cock Lane. For seven hundred years, Smithfield was a place of open-air slaughter, ankle deep each market-day in mud, manure and blood. In Great Expectations (written in the eighteen-sixties but set back in time to Dickens’ youth in the eighteen-twenties) young Pip comes across the market and refers to it as ‘the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam [which] seemed to stick to me.’

Others besides Dickens were aware, by the early decades of the century, that this chaotic  scene was out of place in up-to-date, heart-of-the-Empire, Victorian London. People wrote pamphlets, raised the matter in Parliament and wheels began to turn. By the eighteen-fifties, a modern slaughterhouse was established on one of the last remaining bits of open land between Kentish Town and Islington, and Smithfield was reconstructed as a wholesale meat depot of covered pavilions in iron and glass. This is the Market that is still in use today. Recently, an attempt by the Corporation of London to redevelop the Smithfield General Market for high-rise offices was fought off, successfully making the point that, with the new Farringdon Crossrail station just around the corner, a far livelier use is appropriate. Small shops, workshops and cafés are planned, and the Museum of London is going to be moved there to a much more suitable location than its present ill-designed roundabout.

Yet it was not just beasts who were driven to their deaths in old London. For hundreds of years, until the late eighteenth century, London’s main place of execution was Tyburn, a lonely crossroads along the Oxford road, approximately where Marble Arch is today. At times, the cart carrying its load of manacled prisoners out to these gallows must have crossed paths with unruly crowds of cattle coming in. The main difference was that, unlike the beasts, the men and women in the cart knew what their journey’s end would be.

Long before it was decided to hold hangings in an isolated spot, the obvious place had always been Smithfield, with lots of room for crowds to watch the spectacle and learn the message that disobedience did not pay. One of the first to be made an example in Smithfield was the Scotsman William Wallace, who was hung, drawn and quartered there in 1305, before he was sent north in bits to be exhibited as if he were, indeed, meat from the market. Subsequently, Wallace has been elevated, on shaky evidence, into a national hero and a plangent memorial stands today in front of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Later in the same century, Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt marched his men to Smithfield to parley with the king, but after a quarrel he was stabbed and then decapitated.

Common criminals were routinely hanged at Smithfield, a little further to the west ‘under the elms,’ but the best remembered executions are of those who were burned alive for heresy in the Reformation. These are usually called the ‘Marian burnings’, since the great number were Protestants targeted by Queen Mary, the fervently Catholic daughter of Henry VIII’s first discarded wife. But, even before Mary came to the throne and started her crusade to return England to the Old Faith, a few paid the extreme penalty under Henry VIII and his son Edward VI for being too Protestant.

One of these was Joan Bocher, a devout Annabaptist from Kent, who was sent to the stake in Smithfield in 1550. The Vicar of nearby St Sepulcre church was one John Rogers, who was himself a follower of William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English. Nevertheless, he found Bocher and several others too fanatical for his taste, condoning their burning by order of Edward with the remark that it was a punishment ‘sufficiently mild, for heresy.’ One wonders if he felt the same, five years later, when he was summarily rounded up and sent to the stake for preaching what the new Queen Mary thought was heresy. It is recorded that he went ‘almost gaily’ to his fate, accompanied on his way by his wife and ten children, one a babe in arms. The literal belief, held by almost all such victims of every religious persuasion, that heaven was very near and that their moment of extreme suffering would assure them a privileged place, was clearly an effective morale-booster – as it appears to be for suicide bombers in the our own time.

Burning alive as a punishment for having the wrong ideas died out early in the seventeenth century and the exact location of these deaths at Smithfield was forgotten until one day in March 1849, when a new sewer was being dug across the market not far from the church of St Bartholomew the Great. About three feet down, the workmen discovered stones blackened by fire, ashes, and fragments of charred human bones. Passersby gathered and some took away bits of bone as relics or mementoes, but quickly the site was covered and forgotten again in the reigning spirit of Victorian modernity and what was generally known as Progress.

Progress had its effect upon hangings, which were now restricted to murderers and moved from Tyburn back to the City, outside Newgate Gaol. On hanging days, the bell of St Sepulcre (‘the bell of Old Bailey’ in the traditional song) would toll and the condemned man or woman would be brought out to a crowd of spectators. But, by the mid-century, a number including Charles Dickens – who made sure of seeing several executions himself – declared that the spectacle was degrading and did not act as a deterrent. From 1868, a dozen years after the slaughter of animals had been moved off to the new premises in Islington, hangings took place only within Newgate. The riotous Bartholomew Fair was already a thing of the past and Smithfield’s centuries of bloody history were at an end too.

A burning at Smithfield

Archbishop Cranmer remonstrates with Joan Bocher, subsequently burnt at Smithfield for heresy

Momument to William Wallace outside Bart’s Hospital

Gateway to St Bartholomew the Great, once the entrance to the Augustinian priory

Poor box at Bart’s Hospital

Henry VIII gate to Bart’s Hospital

Golden boy on the corner of Cock Lane

Cupola at Smithfield Market by Horace Jones 1866

Arcade at Smithfield Market by Horace Jones 1866

Smithfield General Market of 1868 was recently saved from demolition

Bartholomew Fair by Augustus Pugin &  Thomas Rowlandson, courtesy Bishopsgate Institute (Click to enlarge this image)

On Thursday 15th September at 8pm, Gillian Tindall discusses her work and reads from ‘The Tunnel Through Time’ at Libreria, 65 Hanbury St, E1 5JP, which is positioned – appropriately enough – directly over a Crossrail tunnel. In her new book, Gillian explores the history of the new Crossrail route which turns out to be only the latest scheme to traverse an ancient path across London’s buried secrets and former fields. Click here to book your free ticket

You may also like to read about

Smithfield Christmas Eve Meat Auction

At Bartholomew the Great

Joan Brown, Secretary at Smithfield Market

Jonathon Green in Smithfield

3 Responses leave one →
  1. September 6, 2016

    Fascinating report and photos. Valerie

  2. September 6, 2016

    More fascinating history, very nicely told.
    Had never thought abotu the phrase ‘on the hoof’ before
    thanks 🙂

  3. Eastendbutcher permalink
    September 8, 2016

    A place I love and know well and yet you still managed to suprise me. Great stuff!

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