Seat of the Beast
From Haunch-of-Venison Yard to Shoulder-of-Mutton Alley, Praise the lord of the loin and the leg. See Hogarth’s beef with the burghers of Calais, In the place where he hobnobs with Bacon and Egg. Carve your way round the City of Lud, Past Poultry and in from the east. Dripping with history, dripping with blood, We arrive at the seat of the beast. Where gluttony’s blamed for branding the rump In the heart of the meaty metropolis, Enormous pink carcasses bummarees hump In a night at the living necropolis. War and Peace brokered the games. Death twisted artfully through. We gazed in wonder at the flames Back when the Old was the New. A fire lit under the poor plates of meat Of heretics done to a turn. Here, her Bloodiness, fowl she would eat; A butcher’s to see ’em all burn, Up north, a New Road eased the congestion. The natives (named after coquina?) Downsized the distance to death from digestion, Preferring the fat to the leaner. Cross Cow Cross Street and out to the west, And perhaps you’ll pay some regard To cannibal tales which some will attest As you pass by Bleeding Heart Yard. The henpecked husband of Holborn is one, Or that legendary enterprise: Turn south where the Hen and the Chicken run, And clean-shaven punters made pies.
Smithfield is a historic area north-west of the City. Several grim and violent events have taken place in the immediate environs, and in particular it is a place synonymous with blood, guts and death.
In the early medieval period, jousting tournaments were held here, when it was known as Smoothfield. Hence ‘Giltspur’ Street. In 1305, the Scottish rebel leader William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered here after capture. The northern edge became a plague pit for victims of the Black Death in 1348. The surviving Charterhouse monastery was built on the site in memory of those victims, some of whom were recently exhumed during the excavations for the Crossrail tunnel. If King Death ruled London, then surely Smithfield was the location of his throne. The climax of the great Peasants’ Revolt also took place here when mob leader Wat Tyler was stabbed to death by the Mayor of London at Smithfield in 1381.
In 1555, John Rogers, Protestant vicar of nearby St Sepulchre, was burnt to death here, the first of over 200 ‘Protestant martyrs’ executed at the site in the reign of Mary I. It is said that ‘Bloody Mary’ dined on chicken and wine as she watched the executions from a specially built watchtower near the twelfth-century church of St Bartholomew the Great, which has a history of its own. On the subject of execution, the punishment for poisoners in medieval London was to be put into a large cauldron filled with cold water, then slowly boiled alive. This punishment often took place in Smithfield. It took on average two hours to die.
St Bart’s hospital, too, has a history of its own. It was founded in 1123, and refounded in the 1540s by Henry VIII after the dissolution of the monasteries; the only statue in London of that infamous monarch stands above the main gate. In 1628, William Harvey published his pioneering theory on blood circulation at St Bart’s. He is buried at St Sepulchre across the road. In literature, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sets up the first meeting of Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes in the hospital, before they begin their first murder investigation together, A Study in Scarlet.
Cockneys – the nickname for native Londoners – traditionally had to be born within the sound of the Bow bells: the bells of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside. For many years, the only place where that was practically possible was the maternity unit at St Bart’s. Some claim the word cockney is derived from coquina, the Latin word for kitchen or cookery. Others believe cockney derives from the image of the strutting cockerel. Cock Street runs into Smithfield and the Cock tavern once stood in the market. Most words in traditional cockney rhyming slang are based on food, cooking and eating.
The eighteenth-century English painter William Hogarth was as true a cockney as any. He was born in Smithfield and baptised in St Bartholomew the Great. Two vast half-forgotten paintings by Hogarth decorate the Great Hall of neighbouring St Bart’s hospital. In 1748, Hogarth was arrested as a spy by local officials in Calais, France, while sketching the old city gate. In revenge, he painted the scathing Roast Beef of Old England as a comparison between the two nations. This painting hangs in the Tate Britain.
The corner of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street was once known as Pye Corner. Today it is marked by a statue of a golden boy. It represents the northerly limit of the Great Fire of London in 1666. When a more credible scapegoat could not be found, the fire was blamed on the sin of gluttony. After all, had the fire not started in Pudding Lane and ended on Pye Corner?
Bartholomew Fair was established at Smithfield in 1133. It was a four-day festival held around the saint’s day on 25 August. By the sixteenth century it had become London’s largest fair. An early seventeenth-century stage play, Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson, was devoted to the festivities, while eighteenth-century playwright George Alexander Stevens’s poem highlights ‘frying black-puddings’, ‘wild beasts all alive’, ‘fine sausages fried’ and a ‘nice pig at the fire’. The fair was closed down by the City authorities in 1855 because of disorder.
Dating back to Saxon times, the infamous Newgate prison, already mentioned, sat on Smithfield’s southern edge. Ben Jonson himself had been imprisoned there for killing a man. It was rebuilt after being destroyed during the Gordon Riots in 1780, an episode that formed the backdrop to Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge: ‘While Newgate was burning on the previous night, Barnaby and his father, having been passed among the crowd from hand to hand, stood in Smithfield, on the outskirts of the mob, gazing at the flames.’ Dickens later had the fearsome Bill Sikes drag the unfortunate Oliver Twist past Newgate, and then described how the gang-master Fagin spent his last night within ‘Those dreadful walls’.
For centuries, a horse fair operated at Smithfield. ‘Earls, barons, knights and many citizens who are in town, come to see or buy,’ wrote William Fitzstephen in 1174. The horse fair still existed over 400 years later: ‘He’s gone into Smithfield to buy your worship a horse’ (Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2).
In more modern times, Smithfield was best known for its famous meat market which claimed to be the largest in the world. It was busiest through the early hours with ‘pitchers’ unloading and ‘bummarees’ reloading. It maintained its own police force and its own pub licensing hours. A slaughterhouse was first recorded here in the twelfth century and was probably in operation much earlier. Traders drove livestock from all over the country to the market. In 1830 a man was gored to death in a cattle stampede in High Holborn. Animals were slaughtered here right up to the 1850s. The cattle market closed in 1855. In 1868, the cold meat market opened. Designed by Horace Jones, who also designed Tower Bridge, it featured an underground refrigeration store. In 1945, 115 workers froze to death when they got trapped in the cold store during a World War Two bombing raid.
North, South, East and West
The Great North Road traditionally began at Smithfield and mileages were measured from here. In 1756, London’s first bypass, the New Road (now the A40 Marylebone–Euston Road), was built to bypass the growing shopping area of Oxford Street. The New Road marked the northern boundary of London, and today it marks the northern boundary of the London congestion charge.
Haunch-of-Venison Yard and Shoulder-of-Mutton Alley are actual street names in London. In addition, Bread Street, Milk Street, Poultry, Cornhill, Garlick Hill, Fish Street Hill, Oat Lane and Frying Pan Alley are all within a short walking distance to the east of Smithfield.
‘The henpecked husband of Holborn’ refers to a story in Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. As they are making their way west from Smithfield to Holborn, Sam Weller points out a meat factory to Mr Pickwick: ‘Wery nice pork-shop that ’ere, sir.’ However, he then relates the tale of its owner, the inventor of a huge and powerful sausage-making machine, who mysteriously disappears after constant nagging by his wife. A few months after he has gone missing, a customer turns up complaining of finding buttons in his sausages. The wife recognises the buttons as her husband’s, and in anguish tells the man her husband must have committed suicide in his own machine. The man promptly flees from the shop.
Bleeding Heart Yard in Holborn features in the Dickens novel Little Dorrit as the home of the Plornish family. The gruesome name is wrapped up in the seventeenth-century legend of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who became the Devil’s lover. She made the mistake of being unfaithful to the Prince of Darkness, and he took his brutal revenge. All that was found of her was a beating heart in the middle of the yard, still pumping blood over the cobblestones.
The ‘Hen and Chicken’ line refers to the legend of Sweeney Todd, also known as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which lies to the south-west of Smithfield. According to the tale, Todd would shave his customers in the shop he rented in Hen & Chicken Court, next to St Dunstan’s church on Fleet Street. Next, he placed a towel over their face and slit their throat. He then pulled a lever, and the victim fell through a trapdoor into a cellar connected by a tunnel to the church crypt. Todd descended to chop up the body. The head and bones he piled up in a burial vault. The flesh, heart, liver and kidneys he put into a box and took it to his lover and accomplice, a Mrs Lovett, who ran a bakery at nearby Bell Yard. Her meat pies were said to be highly regarded.
The legend spread through word of mouth, with the sensationalist ‘penny dreadfuls’ reporting Todd’s crimes, trial and execution as fact. They claimed Todd was born into an East End slum in 1756, apprenticed to a knife-maker, jailed for petty theft and sentenced to five years in Newgate. It was said he polished off at least 160 victims in a seventeen-year killing frenzy. His dastardly deeds were only discovered when churchgoers complained of the stench. In court, the jury found him guilty based on the evidence of the victims’ jewellery found in his shop. He was hanged, aged forty-five.
The legend really came to the fore in the twentieth century with Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical Sweeney Todd: ‘He kept a shop in London Town with fancy clients of good renown. And even though their souls weren’t saved, they met their maker impeccably shaved.’ A 1993 book by Peter Haining claimed the tale had some basis in fact.
As a final literary inspiration, it may be noted that the late poet laureate John Betjeman also lived in Smithfield. Today, the statue in the centre of West Smithfield Garden represents ‘peace’.
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