History Hunters


Paul Hockie

A bird's eye view of Smithfield Market.

Smithfield was originally named “Smoothfield”, a grassy area just outside the City walls on the bank of the river Fleet. In 1123, the priory and hospital of St Bartholomew was founded here and by 1173, horses were traded on the field every Friday. The trade in livestock expanded over time, due to the access to water and grass, and included sheep, pigs, poultry and cattle. In 1305 an ox sold for 27.5p!

As can be seen from the picture, Smithfield was an open air market. Animals were driven through the streets of London, even on a Sunday, straying into shops, houses and churches, leaving the streets covered in manure. Cattle wandering around Smithfield may have been the origin of the saying “like a bull in a china shop”.

The coming of the railway and efficient refrigeration in the 19th Century meant meat could be delivered direct to the market and work began on the covered market seen today. The original buildings were completed in November 1868 at a cost of £993,816.

The covered market.

As well as the livestock market, Smithfield was used for public gatherings, including jousting and Trial by Combat. The cost of a joust staged by Edward IV was the equivalent of the cost of building a castle!

The priory and hospital at Smithfield were founded by Henry I’s Jester, Rahere in 1123. Rahere was taken ill with malaria on a pilgrimage to Rome and imagined he was being attacked by demons. He believed God and St Bartholomew had saved him from the demons and vowed to found a priory and hospital on his return to England. On his return, Rahere kept his vow and built the priory where the church of St Bartholomew the Great stands today, and the hospital was founded on the site of the current St Bart’s Hospital.

As well as the land, Rahere was given a charter to hold a fair every St Bartholomew’s Day (24th August) to provide money to run the hospital. A medieval fair not only included games and entertainment but also was a place where people could sell their wares or find a job. The fair ended in 1855 when it was closed by the Corporation of London, as it was considered indecent and dangerous.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to its Sights, 1844

Bartholomew Fair…continues for three days, to the great annoyance of all the respectable inhabitants of Smithfield, the proprietors of public-houses and gin palaces alone excepted. ….Bartholomew Fair presents a …scene of boisterous exuberance chiefly consisting of low apprentices, servant maids, the working classes of the lowest order, a very small sprinkling of decent people, few and far between, together with an innumerable herd of thieves, vagabonds, prostitutes, and pickpockets.

Following the Reformation, Henry VIII intended to sell both the priory and the church to raise revenue but was petitioned to keep the hospital for the poor of London. Most of the priory was sold to become shops and workshops, only leaving a small part that has become the current parish church of St Bartholomew the Great. Rahere tomb lies in the church. The Tudor House built over the prior gate was hidden for many years by a much later facing and was only rediscovered when the cladding started to fall away. Cladding was a common way of modernising the appearance of buildings without rebuilding the interior. The priory also built a number of chapels to serve the hospital of which only one remains, St Bartholomew the Less which can be found inside the current hospital grounds next to the Bart’s Museum.

The statue of Henry VIII which can be seen over what was the main gate of the hospital is in honour of Henry saving the hospital for the people of London.

Henry VIII overlooking Smithfield. (Lucy Grimshaw)

The original hospital of Rahere consisted of a Master, 8 Brothers and 4 Augustine nuns whose duty was to tend the sick. In 1549, 3 surgeons were appointed and the nuns increased to 12, one of whom was one of the first Matrons. The surgeons planted an herb garden to provide medicines. By 1700 the hospital was training student doctors and the surgeons were paid 33p for every amputation the performed. In 1722 a dissecting room was provided and hot and cold baths but there was no anaesthetist until 1875. In 1744 patients who did not go to church on Sundays were not allowed any dinner.

One of the most famous events that took place in Smithfield was the death of Wat Tyler, the leader of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, a protest against the Poll Tax raised to pay for wars in Europe. The peasant army reached London and stormed the Tower of London. The King, Richard II, accompanied by William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London arranged to meet the rebels at Smithfield. In the arguments that followed weapons were drawn and Walworth struck Tyler with his sword, fatally wounding him. Leaderless, the peasants returned home and the revolt was over.
Smithfield was also a place of execution. Witches such as Margery Jourdemayne, who plotted to kill King Henry IV, and Margery Goodman, the Witch of Eye, who made love potions, were burned at Smithfield. Murderers such as John Roose, who poisoned 17 people, were boiled in oil.

When Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII restored the Catholic faith in the 1550s the “Smithfield Fires” were the scene of execution of dissenting Protestants. One of these was John Rogers who was the Protestant vicar of St Sepulchre (St Pulchers) who preached against the Catholic Religion at St Pauls Cathedral.

William Wallace, (played by actor Mel Gibson in the film “Braveheart”) was executed in Smithfield. He had been found guilty of three crimes; treason, for which he was dragged through the streets of London to Smithfield; murder and robbery, for which he was hanged; and violation of abbeys, for which his body was quartered and taken around the country as a warning to others.

History Hunters’ photos from Smithfield: