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Underneath Smithfield Market

May 21, 2019
by the gentle author

A train runs beneath Smithfield Market

As one of those who fought to save Smithfield General Market from demolition five years ago, I was delighted have the opportunity last week of exploring the infinite dark recesses of this vast structure which extends deep underground. This was the first time I have been inside Horace Jones’ market building of 1868 and it was a heart-stopping experience to enter his soaring iron cathedral and walk beneath the vast dome at last.

If events had turned out differently in 2014, this magnificence would all have been destroyed with only the facade remaining upon the front of a steel office block. So it was gratifying to visit now as a guest of the Museum of London who are taking it over as their new home, adopting a policy of ‘light touch’ in their treatment of the old building.

In announcing the outcome of the Public Enquiry into the Smithfield Market proposals, the Secretary of State criticised the City of London for deliberately allowing Horace Jones’ beautiful market to fall into decay and disrepair. Readers will be pleased to learn the City of London is now paying for extensive and expensive repairs which are underway.

When I arrived, the traders’ pavilions that had accumulated to fill the market floor were being dismantled to reveal the open space for the first time since the nineteenth century – this majestic hall will be where all visitors enter the new museum. The only major architectural decision taken here regards the location of the staircase leading down to the subterranean galleries below. After some discussion of a central spiral staircase under the dome, permanently restricting the possibility of displays, a decision has been taken to cut a straight staircase along the north side of the building leaving the ground floor clear for exhibitions.

The great drama lies beneath. Here is an enormous black underground cavern, wider than the market above, with a vaulted roof of brick, grimy from steam trains. This was constructed as a railway station where trains from the London docks once brought meat which arrived from across the world. Deliveries were unloaded onto carts that drove up the ramp to the market above.

As you pause to contemplate the wonder of it, a diabolic rumble fills the darkness. It is a train coming! You stand in the darkness as a Thameslink train full of commuters rattles past, coming from Blackfriars on its way to Farringdon. The passengers sit preoccupied in their lit carriages, unaware of the watcher observing them from the darkness. One day, these commuters will peer out from their windows and discover they can see directly into the galleries of the Museum of London and, one day, visitors to the museum will be able to observe trains passing from a window in the gallery.

Beyond this empty hangar, lies another deep space with brick arches soaring overhead and dripping vaults receding into the velvet blackness of history. The moisture that permeates the structure evidences the presence of the River Fleet flowing below. You stand beneath London, between the underground trains and the subterranean river. You are at the heart of the city. It is dark. It is a space of infinite mutability. It is a place with soul, where the past lingers. It is a natural home for a museum of London.

This concrete dome was constructed post-war to replace the original destroyed in the Blitz

The rare ‘phoenix columns’ that support the roof are hollow, used in preference to cast iron, to minimise the weight of the structure which sits over a tube line

First floor pavilions added to the building as traders offices are currently being removed

A spiral staircase leads to an office that no longer exists

Hanging fireplaces attest to former first floor offices

Cast iron racks once supported rails for displaying meat

The agglomeration of traders pavilions on the ground floor was known as ‘the village’

Abandoned grinding wheel for sharpening knives

Ancient dripping brickwork indicates the vicinity of the River Fleet flowing beneath

Thameslink rails stored under the market

You may also like to read about

At The Smithfield Market Public Enquiry

Smithfield Market is Saved

34 Responses leave one →
  1. Judithhb permalink
    May 21, 2019

    What a fantastic experience

  2. Judithhb permalink
    May 21, 2019

    Thank you for sharing and for the photos. A whole different view of the market.

  3. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    May 21, 2019

    How exciting! Well done everyone who saved it

  4. Gilbert O'Brien permalink
    May 21, 2019


  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 21, 2019

    Absolutely brilliant… I went to a lecture about Horace Jones the architect last night but have learnt much more about structure of Smithfield from your blog!

    I’m so glad it has been saved for the Museum of London as it is going to be a fantastic space for them (shades of Tate Modern).

    Your photos of the tunnels would make fantastic abstract paintings. And I love the phrase “the velvet backness of history”… you were lucky to be able to experience it quite so viscerally!

  6. Jamie S permalink
    May 21, 2019

    Thank you for sharing TGA. I hope you are able to gain access at various stages of the build, so we all might see how it’s taking shape. Can’t wait for the Museum to open there…

  7. Lee Cooper permalink
    May 21, 2019

    What a truly amazing place the new Museum space will be, an awesome building to show the exhibits I wonder if you could gain access to the Cold Store next door I read an article about Geoffrey Pyke who invented “Pykecrete a mixture of sawdust and ice said to be as hard as concrete and would float it was going to be used as a huge floating island in the war for planes to land on the remains of “Habbakuk “ are at the bottom of Lake Patricia in Canada.

  8. mlaiuppa permalink
    May 21, 2019

    Wow. Just….Wow.

    A train runs through it. Still.

    That ironwork is just amazing. Structural but with some lovely details. Love the circular staircases. I hope they keep a few. The hanging fireplaces are also a lovely detail I hope are kept. Or even some platforms rebuilt in front of them just enough to be a meeting or display space.

    The brick work below is impressive. I am such a softy when it comes to brick. I love it. It’s not that common in my city, concrete and stucco being more prevalent. But I had brick walls and pathways built for my yard because I just love brick. Even though it is expensive. I truly love the brickmason’s art. They can do beautiful things laying brick.

    Thank you so much for this. I really needed a “win.”

  9. May 21, 2019

    Thanks to you GA and everyone involved in saving this wonderful place, the photographs are amazing.
    It will be an atmospheric and special new home for the Museum of London, can’t wait to see it’s transformation.

  10. chris permalink
    May 21, 2019

    I have followed your blog since day 1 and as someone who regularly walked through the market, I was amazed to see what lies below.

    Having lived in London all my life, your blog gives me an insight into the fantastic history that surrounds London.

    Thank you

  11. Annie permalink
    May 21, 2019

    I would have loved to look around.
    It’s going to be such a fitting place for the museum.

  12. aubrey permalink
    May 21, 2019

    I would imagine that, from looking at the photographs, quite complex structural engineering design was involved in the construction of the hollow columns.

  13. Mary permalink
    May 21, 2019

    What a wonderful and important set of photographs GA.
    After hearing about so much architectural destruction in London it is so good to hear of the exciting future of this building. Also that for once a government department has done the right thing in forcing the preservation of the building.

  14. May 21, 2019

    You are a lucky fellow to have the honour of going down there to see this historic structure . No one can say that you didn’t deserve it though. I wouldn’t mind if you got a knighthood for your services to London. Just think of it Sir Gentle Author or Sir Gentle . It has a certain ring to it, as though you would be sitting at the round table with King Arthur !
    Just joking . What a museum it will be and the site is so appropriate. you can picture the Victorian hustle and bustle with trains arriving unloading meat and the smell of it all with the steam making things barely visible . Porters wheeling it away to the waiting horse and carts . Yes it was meant as museum for London but only thanks to the GA and those others that worked to save it.

  15. May 21, 2019

    Just a minute I realized it could be a Lady Gentle but it still has the same resonance !

  16. Steve Hanscomb permalink
    May 21, 2019

    The concrete dome of the new poultry market was completed in 1963 and is supposed to be the biggest concrete shell structure ever made with the widest span for a dome. I’m not suer if it’s the widest in the world, but I read it was the widest in Europe.
    I hope when the market has been closed and is being re-purposed that the 1960’s part is recognised to be of great architectural importance as well as the victorian parts. This era of architecture is so, so often seen as worthless and ripe for demolition. One day, people will look back with horror at the post war architecture lost to short sighted councils citing ‘ugly concrete’ as an excuse to redevelop. Smithfield is such a wonderful place.

  17. Colin Lennon permalink
    May 21, 2019

    I realised they were going to move the Museum of London into the old Smithfields building, but I can now see what a task that is going to be. Thanks to your post, GA, I now know what is in the tunnel that I go through on Thameslink so often – you can see a little way from the train, but I never knew that the space extended so far. Also very interesting to know why the siding I can see exists – makes total sense now. Brilliant photos as always! Cheers for all that.

  18. Madeleine Acey permalink
    May 21, 2019

    This piece is of great value to me, thank you. My grandfather worked with the railway police at Smithfield during the Second World War to police black market meat trading. To get a glimpse of that world is fantastic. Learning of the blitz damage worries me. How he escaped the bombs at home, at work (totally destroyed), and in his railway duty, I don’t know.

  19. Leana Pooley permalink
    May 21, 2019

    It would be wonderful if we could walk on a vast glass floor over the River Fleet.

  20. Helen Breen permalink
    May 21, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank you for sharing “the velvet blackness of history” of Smithfield Market in all its complexity. You must be proud of your part in preserving this property to be developed into a new Museum of London. Good work!

    No doubt the new institution will be as interesting as its sister, the Docklands repurposed from the rotting warehouses on the Thames and opened in 2003.

  21. Harry Harrison permalink
    May 21, 2019

    It is wonderful that this building has been saved, I walked through it everyday for 10 years when I worked in Cowcross Street and hopefully will be a stunning new home to the Museum of London.

  22. May 21, 2019

    Amazing! So many masterful touches here in these photos. How about that tiny PIN hole of red
    light in the top photo, in the midst of all the glowering black/grey? Like a red signature chop added to an Asian scroll. Seriously. And, oh boy, that bright green secret spiral staircase — its like a dangling bracelet.

    I enjoyed this post for many reasons. Mostly, I felt so lucky to be “along for the ride” as you explored this amazing space.

    Promise to keep us informed as this remarkable location is re-envisioned.
    Preservation!!!! Huzzah and hurrah.

  23. Anne Scott permalink
    May 21, 2019

    How nice to read about something that has been saved – thank you for the underground photos.
    (As when tenements were being pulled down in Glasgow, I’m always fascinated by fireplaces in walls where there are no floors!)

  24. Robert permalink
    May 21, 2019

    I’m credibly excited by this project. I hope the light touch approach to redevelopment leaves the patina behind of its former history for future visitors to ponder on. The possibility of being in a train seeing this museum above me is a unique selling point for tourists. Great post. Love it.

  25. Marnie Sweet permalink
    May 21, 2019

    “…the velvet blackness of history…” What an enchanting phrase. Great title for a book. Gentle Author, thank you for all your wonderful, kind stories–Mr. Pussy, the happy hops gatherers, the Viscountess, the mulberry trees, the paintings and photos of people and places forever remembered. London luckily has an invaluable champion in you.

    Akron, OH

  26. Gayle Thorsen permalink
    May 21, 2019

    The London Museum is one of my favorites! I’m thrilled to hear that it will be housed in this wonderful historic structure. Brilliant reuse of the site. Thanks for sharing this news and your subterraean views with us across the pond.

  27. marilyn permalink
    May 21, 2019

    Reading from across pond it’s shocking this was allowed to fall into such disrepair. I remember visiting and photographing early mornings back in the 80s and it was magnificent.
    Glad that the MOL will be invigorating it once again, but sad for the neglect

  28. May 21, 2019

    It is going to be wonderful and so pleased that the CoL is paying up for previous bad behaviour.
    I had read about the possibility of looking into train windows a while back but thought it was an E-W line.

  29. Betsy Brewer permalink
    May 21, 2019

    Wow, this made me sit up. So much here I didn’t know. Really looking forward to the new Museum of London. When we used to take the kids in the 80s it was empty apart from us, as was the whole city at weekends. A bit busier now, and this restored Smithfield will make a magnificent home.
    Well done conservationists.

  30. eastendbutcher permalink
    May 21, 2019

    Absolutely loved this TGA. I’ll be there on Thursday morning, I’ll try my best to see if I can get myself a look underground as well.

  31. May 22, 2019

    Superb images. I hear that the meat market is to be moved out of town and away from the site it has occupied at Smithfield for the last 800 years. This would be another blow for London as a place of diverse activities. It would be interesting to know more about these plans, and about what the traders make of them.

  32. Robin permalink
    May 23, 2019

    Fantastic! Wonderful news about the Museum of London moving into this gorgeous space. Thank you GA, and everyone who has made this possible.

  33. Carolyn Badcock permalink
    July 2, 2019

    Oh, gentle author!! How good you are to us!

    I’ve sat here in Australia, looking at each of your beautiful shots and said quietly (try not to talk to talk to myself) “Oh, my God……..Oh, wow…………Oh…….”

    So huge thanks for your wonderful efforts.

  34. Paul Sturdy permalink
    November 25, 2021

    I am so pleased that the buildings of the old Smithfield market are going to be home to the London museum.
    I can see the buildings left and right of Central Avenue will be used but will the building to the south called the New Market be used ? ( this block had a magnificent single span ceiling)
    As a postman too the Market in the 80’s the history and spectical of the area is saved .thank you

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