Smithfield was originally the Smooth Field just outside the city walls and was used over the centuries as London's main livestock market. Smithfield was also the site of two monasteries - St Bartholomew the Great and Charterhouse - both of which were dissolved in the reformation but both of which have survived in part into the 21st century. St Bartholomew's Hospital was established by the monastery in an area adjacent to Smithfield in 1123.
From 1133 to 1855 Smithfield was the location of the Bartholomew Fair, one of London's preeminent summer fairs, opening each year on August 24th. At once a trading event for cloth and other goods and a pleasure fair, the four-day event drew crowds from all classes of English society. The fair was suppressed in 1855 by the City authorities for encouraging public disorder and Smithfield Market was built on the site.
As a large open space close to the City it was a favourite place for gatherings such as public executions and jousting. In 1374 Edward III held a seven-day tournament in Smithfield, for the amusement of his beloved Alice Perrers. Possibly the most famous tournament in medieval Smithfield was the one ordered in 1390 by Richard II. Jean Froissart, in the 4th book of his Chronicles, reports that sixty knights would come to London to tilt for two days, "accompanied by sixty noble ladies, richly ornamented and dressed". The tournament was proclaimed by heralds in England, Scotland, Hainault, Germany, Flanders, and France, to rival the jousts given by Charles of France into Paris a few years earlier, on the entry of his consort Isabeau de Bavière. Geoffrey Chaucer supervised the preparation of the tournament's works as clerk of the king.
Smithfield was for centuries the main site for the execution of heretics and dissidents. The Scottish patriot William Wallace was executed here in 1305. The market was used as a meeting place for the peasants in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the revolt's leader, Wat Tyler was struck by a dagger here on June 15, 1381. The king's men later removed Tyler from the hospital and beheaded him. About 50 Protestants, dissenters and other religious reformers, known as the Marian martyrs, were executed here under the reign of Mary I. Coin forgers were boiled in oil here during the 16th century.
In 1666 the Smithfield area was left mostly untouched by the Great Fire of London, that stopped near the Fortune of War tavern, at the junction of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, where the statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner is located. In the 17th century, several residents of Smithfield emigrated to the United States where they founded the town of Smithfield, Rhode Island and named it after their hometown in England.
Since the late 1990s, Smithfield has seen rapid growth in the number of bars, pubs and clubs locating in the area. Nightclubs such as Fabric and Turnmills were the pioneers of the nightlife in the area. On weekday nights, this nightlife is fed by the many workers based in nearby Holborn, Clerkenwell and the City; at weekends, the nightclubs and bars with late licenses draw people into the area on their own merit.
Until 2002 Smithfield hosted the midnight start of the annual Miglia Quadrato car rally, but with the increased nightclub activity around Smithfield the UHULMC (a motoring club) decided to move the event start to Finsbury Circus. Since 2007, Smithfield is the location of an annual event dedicated to bike racing known as Smithfield Nocturne.
a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold, and in another quarter are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk.Daniel Defoe refers to the market in 1726 as "without question, the greatest in the world". Charles Dickens criticized the location of a livestock market in the heart of the capital in his 1851 essay A Monument of French Folly and compared it to the French market outside Paris at Poissy:
Of a great Institution like Smithfield, [the French] are unable to form the least conception. A Beast Market in the heart of Paris would be regarded an impossible nuisance. Nor have they any notion of slaughter-houses in the midst of a city. One of these benighted frog-eaters would scarcely understand your meaning, if you told him of the existence of such a British bulwark.An Act of Parliament was passed in 1852, under the provisions of which a new cattle-market should be constructed in Copenhagen Fields, Islington. The new Metropolitan Cattle Market was opened in 1855, making West Smithfield waste ground for a few years.
The present Smithfield meat market on Charterhouse Street was established by an Act of Parliament: the 1860 Metropolitan Meat and Poultry Market Act. It is a large market with permanent buildings, designed by City architect Sir Horace Jones, who was also responsible for Billingsgate and Leadenhall Markets. Work on the Central Market, inspired by Italian architecture, began in 1866 and was completed in November 1868 at a cost of £993,816. The two wings (known as East and West Market) were separated by the Grand Avenue, a wide roadway roofed by an elliptical arch with decorations in cast iron. At the two ends of the arcade, four huge statues represent London, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Dublin and bronze dragons hold the City's coat of arms. At the corners of the market four octagonal pavilion towers were built, each with a dome and carved stone griffins.
The first extension of the meat market took place between 1873 and 1876 with the construction of the Poultry Market located immediately west of the Central Market. A rotunda was built at the centre of the old market field, with gardens, a fountain and a ramped carriageway to the station beneath the market building. Further buildings were added to the market in later years. The General Market, built between 1879 and 1883, was intended to replace the old Farringdon Market located nearby and established for the sale of fruit and vegetables when the earlier Fleet Market was cleared to enable the laying out of Farringdon Street in 1826–30. A further block (also known as Annexe Market or Triangular Block) consisting of two separate structures (the Fish Market and the Red House) was built between 1886 and 1899. The Fish Market was completed in 1888, one year after Horace Jones' death . The Red House, with its imposing red brick and Portland stone façade, was built between 1898 and 1899 for the London Central Markets Cold Storage Co. Ltd.. It was one of London's first cold stores to be built outside the London docks and continued to serve Smithfield until the mid-1970s.
During World War II, a large underground cold store at Smithfield was the theatre of secret experiments led by Max Perutz on pykrete, a mixture of ice and woodpulp, alleged to be tougher than steel. Perutz's work, inspired by Geoffrey Pyke and part of Project Habakkuk, was meant to test the viability of pykrete as a material to construct floating airstrips in the Atlantic to allow refuelling of cargo planes in support of Lord Louis Mountbatten's operations. The experiments were carried by Perutz and his collaborators in a refrigerated meat locker in a Smithfield Market butcher's basement, behind a protective screen of frozen animal carcasses. These experiments became obsolete with the development of longer range aircraft and the project was soon abandoned.
At the end of World War II, a V2 rocket struck at the north side of Charterhouse Street, near the junction with Farringdon Road (1945). The explosion caused massive damage to the market buildings, extending into the railway tunnel below, and over 110 casualties.
Horace Jones' original Poultry Market was destroyed by fire in 1958. The replacement building was designed by Sir Thomas Bennett in 1962–1963, incorporating a dome roof of .
Instead, Smithfield market has been modernised on its existing site; for instance, its imposing Victorian buildings have had access points added for lorry loading and unloading purposes. The buildings sit on top of a warren of tunnels: initially, live animals were brought to the market on foot (from the mid-19th Century onwards they arrived by rail) and were slaughtered on site. This no longer takes place and the former railway tunnels are now used for storage, parking and as basements. An impressive cobbled ramp spirals down round the public park now known as West Smithfield, on the south side of the market, to give access to part of this area. Some of the buildings on Charterhouse Street on the north side have access into the tunnels from their basements.
Some of the buildings formerly associated with the meat market have now been put to other uses. For example, the former Central Cold Store is now, most unusually, a city centre power station operated by Citigen. Another former cold store now houses the nightclub Fabric.
The public park comprises the centre of the only part of Smithfield which is still open space — this is in effect a large square with the market forming one side and mostly older buildings the other three. The south side is occupied by St Bartholomew's Hospital (frequently known as Barts), and part of the east side by the church of St Bartholomew the Great. The church of St Bartholomew the Less is just inside the hospital's main gate.
Since 2005, the General Market (1883) and the adjacent Fish Market and Red House buildings (1898), part of the Victorian complex of the Smithfield Market, have been facing a threat of demolition. Their owner, the City of London Corporation intends to replace them with office blocks. Property developers Thornfield Properties plan to demolish the historic site and build a seven-storey office block, offering of office space with a retail outlet on the ground floor. Several campaigns, promoted by English Heritage and Save Britain's Heritage among others, are being run to raise public awareness on this important part of London's Victorian heritage. In March 2005, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell announced the decision to give listed building protection to the Red House Cold Store building, on the basis of new historical evidence qualifying the complex as "the earliest existing example of a purpose-built powered cold store". The destiny of the adjoining buildings, in particular the General Market, remains unclear. Development plans have been postponed after Government planning minister Ruth Kelly decided to call a major public inquiry to be held in 2007. The Public Inquiry for the demolition and redevelopment of the General Market Building took place between November 6 2007 and January 25 2008.. In August 2008, Communities Secretary Hazel Blears announced that planning permission for the General Market development had been refused, stating that the threatened buildings made "a significant contribution" to the character and appearance of Farringdon and the surrounding area.
Some of the buildings on Lindsey Street opposite the West Market are likely to be demolished to allow the construction of the new Crossrail station at Farringdon. The buildings to be demolished include Smithfield House (an unlisted early 20th century Hennebique concrete building) the Edmund Martin Ltd. shop (an earlier building with alterations dating to the 1930s) and two Victorian warehouses behind them.