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New Home For The Museum Of London

July 3, 2020
by the gentle author

In celebration of the granting of planning permission for the Museum of London to covert Smithfield General Market as its new home, here is my account of a visit to explore this cavernous site.

A train runs beneath Smithfield Market

As one of those who fought to save Smithfield General Market from demolition six years ago, I was delighted have the opportunity 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 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

33 Responses leave one →
  1. July 3, 2020

    Dear Gentle Author, thank you so much for sharing these images of Smithfield Market, I had no idea it was so cavernous. Your blog is deeply moving about its suitability for being the new home of the Museum of London. I can’t wait!

  2. Jamie permalink
    July 3, 2020

    Can’t wait for this to take shape – so exciting to see it before works start

  3. Annie S permalink
    July 3, 2020

    Amazing building, it’s going to make a great home for them.
    Looking forward to visiting in the future.

  4. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    July 3, 2020

    Love the brick arches and vaults. Will they save those spiral staircases for use elsewhere or sell them. Shame to scrap them!

  5. July 3, 2020

    Stunningly beautiful photographs of a charismatic piece of our social history. Thank you and all of those involved in rescuing this iconic structure.

  6. Vicki Fox permalink
    July 3, 2020

    It is haunting and quite the right place for the future Museum of London.

  7. Ann Marie Loveland permalink
    July 3, 2020

    How wonderful. Thank you for your evocative report. Can’t wait to visit.

  8. July 3, 2020

    What a fascinating posting to read this morning and how wonderful that this amazing site
    is not going to be turned into yet another blot on the landscape. We so need a dose of
    optimism and excitement in these troubled times. Thank you so much for highlighting
    the London I love.

  9. July 3, 2020

    I know exactly what you mean about the diabolical rumble, Thames link runs almost under our house, we experience this everyday. It’s a nightmare.
    Lovely space and beautiful atmospheric photographs as usual.
    Looking forward to seeing how they use the space.

  10. aubrey permalink
    July 3, 2020

    Having spent many years in structural engineering I’ve never come across the term ‘phoenix columns’. Special structures which, I would guess, took careful design. Fascinating photographs.

  11. Jane Manley permalink
    July 3, 2020

    I was supposed to be visiting this site last September as part of Open House London but I arrived to discover that the event had been cancelled at the last minute owing to threats from the Extinction Rebellion movement. So sorry I didn’t get to experience it for myself but your pictures make up for it. Looking forward to visiting once the museum opens.

  12. stella Herbert permalink
    July 3, 2020

    That is almost too wonderful for words! The tears of delight are trickling down my cheeks.
    Many congratulations to all who put their energies into saving the building and for such a wonderful new use.

  13. July 3, 2020

    This is a really heart warming piece in the current planning battlefield that is London. The ‘light touch’ approach to this is such a super thing about the plans for the museum. It is such a wonderfully interesting building, a true architectural treat for the eyes, equal to a cathedral in visual splendour.
    I believe both styles of architecture in the market are of equal importance. The poultry market is a modernist marvel and so rare now. The amazing dome is the widest unsupported dome in Europe and a thing of beauty. I hope that with any future renovation plans for this part of the market, it is retained and given as much respect as the Victorian part has been by the Museum of London. So much of our mid-century modernist architecture has been swept away, not seen as important as it is relatively new. So many wonderful, interesting and very beautiful concrete creations have been lost in recent times due to changes in fashion and lack of forethought.

  14. July 3, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the great pics of Smithfield Market as the way is prepared for its repurposing as the Museum of London. What an impressive site! I hope to visit there someday. I really enjoyed exploring Docklands Museum a few years back, also rich in the city’s history.

    Missing London today…

  15. July 3, 2020

    This place and these photos are absolutely stunning. Have just read Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going for a literature group and I felt again my reluctance to go inside churches – preferring just the exterior. This, however, felt to me very much like a “church” I’d love to go inside of – thanks for the glimpse.

  16. paul loften permalink
    July 3, 2020

    It is so appropriate in all ways and so much of it is down to the GA.

  17. Tanya Ambrose permalink
    July 3, 2020

    What will happen to the current Museum of London?

  18. Su C. permalink
    July 3, 2020

    “It is a natural home for a museum of London.” – Indeed.

    I think my favorite museum in London is the Museum of London. And placing it in this magnificent building will make the visit all the more enjoyable!

    What a lovely building – I can hear the thrum of the traders and buyers!

    Thank you again, GA, for your tireless efforts to keep a bit of the old London present.

  19. Robin permalink
    July 3, 2020

    Oh… fantastic! What a great outcome to all your and everyone’s efforts to save this magnificent building. So appropriate for the future home of the Museum of London. Also excellent news to hear that the City of London is having to make amends for its abject failure to maintain the original Smithfield General Market building.

  20. Alex Knisely permalink
    July 3, 2020


  21. Elizabeth Olson permalink
    July 4, 2020

    This awe-inspiring post has inexplicably served to strengthen my resolve to visit East London once again!

  22. Ann Gallagher permalink
    July 4, 2020

    Absolutely fascinating. So important this was preserved and so perfect for the Museum of London. Cannot wait to see….

  23. Ann Gallagher permalink
    July 4, 2020

    Absolutely fascinating. So important this structure was preserved, in all the phases of its history, and so perfect for the Museum of London. Cannot wait to see….

  24. Janet Clark permalink
    July 4, 2020

    Thank you for sharing your tour of this wonderful building. I’ve walked past it many times but never seen the inside. It’s great that it is being preserved for future generations, so much of the old City has been demolished to make way for bland boring architecture. I’m looking forward to being able to continue my walks around the City soon, there’s so much to see.

  25. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 4, 2020

    I love this blog and the stunning photos, and it is great news that the planning permission has gone through.

    And it is such good news that the original buildings are being re-purposed and haven’t fallen victim to the dreaded plague of ghastly façadism. Let’s hope the result will inspire developers to be more imaginative, creative and respectful of the past in future London projects.

    Looking forward to reading more progress reports…

  26. Ian Silverton permalink
    July 4, 2020

    Thanks GA, nice pictures all though sad site to see,for one who walked to school through that market in the 1050s and went on to work there many years later in life, can still smell the meat and blood dripping from the hooks,hearing the porters,bumerees, blue coats,white coats,shouting swearing,going for a pint at 4am with a full English to follow,great times for a young East End Boy,made me a man in many ways, keep safe and well UK

  27. July 4, 2020

    Thiz is good news indeed, Gentle Author. Lonon through and through.

  28. July 6, 2020

    Fantastic article thanks

  29. Federico Bonfanti permalink
    July 6, 2020

    Thank you for an ’emotional’ souvenir which I was fortunate to witness on several occasions before it was pulled down for the building of a worthy London museum…. Can wait to visit it when it’ll be ready!
    You made me feel a ‘Londoner’ once more…
    Warm thanks again, gentle GA.

  30. July 8, 2020

    Thank you so much for the role you played in bringing the Smithfield development to our attention and galvanising us in support of this opportunity!

  31. July 17, 2020

    Dear Gentle Author,

    How wonderful! Thank you for the photos and for fighting the good fight to save this amazing Market. I look forward to following its preservation and re-opening as the new site for the Museum of London.

  32. Russell Davidson permalink
    July 18, 2020

    As a young man I did my legal training close to this famous market and remember wandering through it occasionally, fascinated by the hurly-burly of activity, particularly in the early mornings. It was an unusual experience to go for a huge breakfast to the neighbouring “Fox and Anchor” pub which was always full of traders drinking beer and enjoying an enormous fry up at 8 am! I also remember thinking what poor accommodation the Museum of London had. The museum certainly did not have enough space to display all if it’s treasures or to tell the story of a great city to the best if its ability. Thank you for your efforts in helping save this iconic building and I can think of no better future use for this world-famous market. I do hope that as part of the development of the surrounding area, more can be done to illustrate the use of the surrounding fields for mediaeval gatherings and punishment. Although that is outside the ambit of an organisation that deals with Victorian interest, explaining the historical context of Spitalfields pre-meat market is something that is currently sadly lacking.

  33. Peter permalink
    July 31, 2020

    Decades ago I was lucky enough to film there for Bleak House- it was wonderful to see those arches filled with carriages, the breath of the horses.

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