A hop, skip and a jump around a corner of the City of London
If I were to mention “Smithfield” many people would automatically associate it to the iconic meat market, that is still in existence in London. And you’d be correct as there has been a livestock market on the same site since the 12th-century.
Main Avenue in Smithfield Meat Market
Back in the day, it was also used for jousting tournaments.
The unusual goings on...
However, this small Smithfield region of London has had a colourful past and on occasions quite sordid.
Just within a few streets and lanes of this area are some fascinating places to discover, incredibly interesting facts and memories of the past that should never be forgotten.
Red phone boxes in Smithfield Market
The ornate roof in Smithfield Market
Remember the early bird catches the worm here. The market opens at 2am and closes at 10am, the best time to arrive to see it in full swing is around 7am.
Catering Meats (Smithfield)
The after-work tipple
Due to the nature of the hours of the market porters, sometimes a refreshing pint was needed after a hard-long shift. To most people this was breakfast, but to these lads, it was a quick after work drink with your mates.
Due to how times have changed over the decades, there are now only a couple of pubs open early in the morning for these porters. They are the Art Nouveau “Fox & Anchor” on Charterhouse Street and “The Hope” on Cowcross Street.
I know it’s not the most healthiest of past-times; however, it’s a shame to see some of these old traditions ebb-away.
Fox & Anchor, Smithfield,
The Hope, Smithfield
Also close to the market is the Bishop's Finger, a pub owned by Shepherd Neame, Britain's oldest brewer.
Now this may keep regular hours but it's one to consider if you're in the area.
The Bishop's Finger, Smithfield
Want to discover more than about London?
We've a little book on our shelves that we sometimes delve into when we're about to hit an area of London. Packed full of historical facts, and broken down into the different regions of London, it's a great resource to help you see what's hidden in plain sight. Available in Kindle & Hardback editions, it's an excellent addition to anyone's collection who loves London.
There are a few things to look out for along Giltspur Street. The first is the church of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate on the corner with Holborn Viaduct. A church has been recorded on this site since c1137.
On the corner of the churchyard set in the railings, is London’s first ever drinking fountain dating from 1859. The cups are still there on chains.
London’s first drinking fountain
Heading along Giltspur Street, behind the church is a Watch House.
This was initially built in 1791; however, it was re-erected in 1962 due to WWII bombing.
It is said to have been built to protect the churchyard from body snatchers. With the close vicinity of St. Bartholomew’s hospital, surgeons would pay for the corpses to be stolen so they could be used for medical studies. Urgghhhh
The Watch House
A little further along, on the corner with Cock Lane is the “Golden Boy of Pye Corner”. This golden memorial was erected in memory of the Great Fire of London in 1666. It is ascribed to the Sin of Gluttony.
The Golden Boy once sat above the “Fortune of War” pub, which was pulled down in 1910.
The Golden Boy of Pye Corner
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St Bartholomew’s Hospital
Founded in 1123, England’s oldest continually running hospital “St. Barts”, can also be found here. Amazingly surviving the Great Fire of London and the Blitz.
The hospital was granted to the City of London in 1546 by Henry VIII.
If you pass through the so-named Henry VIII gate, you’ll notice a stone statue of the King above the entrance.
This is believed to be the only remaining statue of him in the City of London.
Henry VIII gate at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital
Once through the gate, you can stroll around the tranquil square.
Peace within St. Barts, Smithfield
As you head back out of the gate to the right, take a look at the stone wall arches. You’ll notice scars from First World War, these were created by Zeppelin raids on 8th September 1915 and on 7th July 1917.
Scars from the Great War, Smithfield
The Murkier side of Smithfield
Well now comes the darker side of Smithfield, the hangings, stabbings and its sordid past.
One of the most well-known executions here was that of Sir William Wallace.
After his trial in August 1305, Wallace was dragged naked by a horse across the city, then horrifically hung, drawn and quartered.
A plaque marking the spot near where Sir William Wallace was executed, stands very modest on the side of St. Barts wall.
William Wallace Memorial
On 15th June 1381, Wat Tyler the leader of the Great Rising (Peasants’ Revolt), believed he had come to an agreement with King Richard II to end the Rebellion.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, he was then stabbed and also beheaded near this spot, by the then Mayor of London.
Like William Wallace, Tyler’s severed head was displayed on top of a pole on London Bridge.
Wat Tyler and John Ball Memorial
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London’s oldest church
On a cheerier note, just opposite is London's oldest surviving church, St Bartholomew-the-Great, founded in 1123 AD. There is an incredible half-timbered gatehouse you pass through to arrive at the entrance of the church.
St Bartholomew-the-Great Gatehouse
St Bartholomew-the-Great church
Once inside you may recognise it from the films, Four Weddings and a Funeral & Shakespeare in Love.
Parallel with the church is “Cloth Fair”, another lane in London oozing with history. Formerly an area for the annual Bartholomew Fair. The fair was established in 1133 and became three days of merrymaking, which over the centuries became very debauched and drunken, with plenty of ne’er-do-wells, it was eventually closed in 1855.
No. 41 & 42 Cloth Fair
Cloth Fair, Smithfield
Along Cloth Fair, you’ll see numbers 41 and 42, these are the oldest residential buildings within the current boundaries of the City of London.
In no. 43 Cloth Fair, Sir John Betjeman the Poet Laureate lived for 20 years from 1954.
Sir John Betjeman the Poet Laureate – Blue Plaque
Alehouse for 500 years
A little further at the corner of Middle Street, you’ll arrive at The Hand & Shears public house. This pub was established in 1532, so, has been on this site for almost 500 years.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get the opportunity to pop in. At the bottom of the sign, it proudly states that this pub is the “Last Ales before Newgate Public Executions” handy to know!!!
The Hand & Shears Est. 1532
You’ll love it
Just on our little jaunt around Smithfield, covering hardly any distance at all, we discovered centuries and centuries of history. We love strolling around London, and Smithfield for a history buff just keeps on giving.
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Inspired to visit the Smithfield district?
Arrive early to experience an often-unseen community in London.
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