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The Last Days Of Smithfield Market

July 23, 2023
by the gentle author

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As London’s oldest market prepares to move out of the City, Photographer Orlando Gili has been down at Smithfield, documenting the last generation of butchers to work at this ancient site

Greg Lawrence Junior and Greg Lawrence Junior Junior, Owners of G Lawrence Wholesale Meat


‘I arrived at Smithfield in the dead of night to photograph London’s renowned meat market which is set for permanent closure. The last pubs had long closed and it was a few hours before tube station shutters were wrenched open.

Walking towards the market, you are met by a wave of sound, beeps and wheels dragged over tarmac, bearing the weighty chunks of meat wrapped in plastic. Emitting at a different frequency is the grumble from a line of white lorries and vans, punctuated by shouts and low pitched chatter. Smithfield is very much alive and in full operational mode at this time. Within minutes of arriving, I am dressed in white overalls and deep inside the bowels of the market, photographing blood splattered butchers, and dodging lines of dead animals hanging from hooks.

Experiencing Smithfield at night is to uncover a secret parallel world that operates in the shadows while the rest of London sleeps. There is a sense of frenetic energy and unpredictability. Forklifts whizz past men in long jackets hunched over neatly stacked boxes, punching numbers into calculators and fielding phone calls. Inside the tall Victorian halls, behind large glass windows, carcasses are hacked into pieces at literally breakneck speed. It is a physical analogue space with a masculine atmosphere. There is a strong sense of camaraderie and familial spirit, many of the businesses are family run.

I returned on early mornings in winter to develop a portrait series that celebrates the people behind the market. Night workers provide an under-appreciated role in modern cities. They risk significant damage to their health to meet the demands of the 24/7 city. According to a long-term US study of nurses, night shift workers are up to 11% more likely to die early compared to those who work day shifts.

The historic market will soon relocate to a £1 billion high-tech behemoth in Dagenham. The closure of Smithfield ends over 800 years of trading meat in Central London as part of a wider trend to sanitise inner cities with less palatable aspects of urban life kept out of sight.’

Orlando Gili


Mark, Chicken Salesman

Horatio, Driver

Moro, Butcher

Harry, Shopman

Simon, Salesman

Ian, Chicken Salesman

Greg, Beef Salesman and Sean, Cashier

Jonny, Butcher

Elijah, Salesman

Tony, Retired Boxer, Trader and Restaurant Distributor

Roger, Fork Lift Operator

Dave, Salesman

‘Pig Ear Tony’, Pig Meat Salesman

Charlie, Salesman

Aaron, Butcher, Marcus, Salesman and Mark, Shopman

Luca, Production

Adam, Butcher

Kye, Unloader

Pav, Butcher

Russel, Butcher

James, Sales Manager

Grant, Butcher

Photographs copyright © Orlando Gili

You may also like to read about

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

Joan Brown, The First Woman at Smithfield Market

Sarah Ainslie at Smithfield Market

David Hoffman at Smithfield Market

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Lucy permalink
    July 23, 2023

    It’s such a disgrace that the market is moving out. Having a central location is much more efficient and saves fuel. Whatever they say, the Corporation of London simply wants the land for more offices, as property development is the Corporation’s only real interest.

  2. July 23, 2023

    I am always grateful when you publish photos of people in the midst of their professions. This series was especially atmospheric, as we toured the historic marketplace and specialized areas.
    Wonderful descriptive photos by Orlando Gili!

    My husband grew up in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, and his Italian grandfather owned a produce store in that West Side neighborhood. John still recalls the excitement of middle-of-the-night excursions to the Washington Market (in Lower Manhattan), accompanying his ebullient grandfather to the various outdoor stalls, loading docks, and sidewalk kiosks. He recalls: “There was garbage everywhere! People cooking things on outdoor fires! Joking, hollering, barking! It was magnificent!”. PS — Many decades later, we bought our loft in the same region of the City; back when Urban Pioneering was “a thing”. (1978-1988) Although the City did not regard the area (not allocating Sanitation or sufficient Police and Fire……) artists flocked to it and reclaimed it. And, best of all, we assured that the region became Landmarked. Nowadays it is one of the most prized sections of Manhattan real estate, and the historic buildings have been protected for the ages. (all due to the visionary, diligent residents) We’ve all moved along and now live elsewhere, but I feel that we were good stewards of that neighborhood. The old marketplace bustled, then made way for the artists, and now we have stepped aside and made way for others (with deeper pockets). But, the stalwart architecture and narrow cobbled streets abide. God willing, they will always be part of Lower Manhattan.

  3. July 23, 2023

    As pretty much a lifelong vegetarian, I’ll never quite get my head around people who decide to work among the blood and guts of the meat trade. However, I accept that my lifestyle choices are personal ones and not widely shared. The great London markets are historically significant and therefore, need to be preserved. One of my 2x great grandfathers lived in nearby Cow Cross where the poor animals made their final journeys.

    These portraits are very evocative. So many of the markets have moved/ gone in recent years, it must impact massively on those who have worked there for a considerable amount of time. Mr Gili has perfectly captured the expressions of men at work.

  4. July 23, 2023

    These are stunning portraits. They are evocative of two-hundred-plus years ago, when ship’s captains were painted with their ship, or a battle they fought, behind them; or when an architect’s portrait displayed the tools of his trade, with the subject portrayed front of one of his buildings.

    It is a shame that Smithfield, which has been associated with meat for centuries, is losing its history to developers.

  5. Fatai Lawal permalink
    July 23, 2023

    I love shopping at Smithfield market. I will miss it. Very sad to hear that it is closing down. Waoooo

  6. Susan Martin permalink
    July 23, 2023

    I’m glad it’s gone. Horrible place. Poor animals. I wouldn’t want to live there for free if they are turning it into housing.

  7. Darius Bazargan permalink
    July 23, 2023

    What a wonderful selection of photographs, really evocative portraits of these men. It’sa shame the market is closing.

  8. William Sovie permalink
    July 24, 2023

    No! No! No!
    Why is this happening?!

  9. Cherub permalink
    July 24, 2023

    The end of an era now that Smithfield is moving out to Dagenham, which seems very far away.

    Back in the early 90s the bank I worked for moved from Monument up to beyond St Paul’s, not far from Bart’s Hospital. One day some of us decided to go out to explore and ended up round by Smithfield looking for somewhere to eat lunch. The pavement around the market was quite slippery (due to grease) and I went flying, landing on my bottom with my knees together, legs akimbo. My colleagues weren’t aware I’d slipped as they were chatting and were away along the street without me, 2 had to come back as I couldn’t get up from the position I’d landed in!

    I still laugh about it now. It will be a terrible shame if the area is redeveloped into housing locals can’t afford, but that’s London for you.

  10. Zoe Salbsh permalink
    April 5, 2024

    I’m so sad this place is closing, it’s a beautiful ,ornate structure and I cant stand the thought of it being turned into yet another soulless and sanitised space. London is losing all the historic places that made it worth visiting. Good luck to everyone who has/ is working here..

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