Meat is murder...

but Smithfield is a place of wonder, says Jonathan Glancey. Photographs by Ken Griffiths
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The Independent Culture
"Lovely legs," observes Reg, a "shopman" (butcher, to you and me), as he cleaves expertly through the hindquarters of a gutted pig.

"Not much meat on them," adds Stan, a septuagenarian "bummaree" (or, porter; no one seems to know where the name comes from), trundling a ton of carcasses past Reg's chopping block.

The Cockney eyes of butcher and porter are not studying the stocky limbs of the slaughtered porker; they are following those of an early-morning, miniskirted secretary as she teeters along Charterhouse Street on click- clacking stilettos in the shadow of Smithfield, the world's largest meat market.

Honed to aerobic perfection in a City gym, perhaps these secretarial legs might well look good, sprigged with rosemary and teased with butter, on a cannibal's Sunday lunch table; yet, in Shopman's and Bummaree's eyes, they are hardly a patch on the brawny thews and haunches to be seen trussed and spreadeagled in their edible thousands along the buyers' walkway of the ten-acre meat market.

Mad Cow Disease or no, Reg, Stan and 1,500 brawny colleagues are connoisseurs of edible flesh. In the course of a long night and brief morning, they hang, draw and quarter the flesh of pigs, cows, bullocks, sheep, rabbits, poultry, ostriches and kangaroos. "Your public today will sink its falsies into anything that moves," says Stan.

In January alone, these white-hooded meatmen heaved and chopped 16,771,806 pounds of flesh, or 8 per cent of all meat eaten in Britain that month, in the glazed alleys of Smithfield Market. Last year, the market turned over pounds 250m; it is, by any standards, a hefty business.

"We used to sell a lot more than that," says Terry Murfet, the market's office manager, from his brand new, fluorescent-lit, EC-approved pigeonhole above the newly refurbished East Market building. "Peaked in the Sixties. Today, we've got the supermarkets buying direct from farmers and cutting us out; they account for 50 per cent of the meat sold in this country."

The BSE-Creutzfeldt-Jakob scare, which came to a head last week, will undoubtedly affect the market's trade, but the market's view is that, even if sales of beef collapse, sales and prices of other meatstuffs will rise, as shoppers (Tory MPs aside) switch from beef to pork and poultry.

"The trade's been hit by other health panics over the years," Murfet says. "There was the Argentinian foot-and-mouth scare in `68. Since then we've had the vegetarians on the rise, and now the Mad Cow Disease panics. Whatever the ins and outs of BSE, we've never sold anything but top quality meat at Smithfield. The market's never been sued, not since it started in 1868. Just take a look at this morning's bacon: lovely "back". I've just had some for breakfast."

The number of vegetarians in Britain doubled between 1984 and 1995: 4.5 per cent of adults now claim to be eating the sort of food cows and bullocks ate before someone had the bizarre idea of feeding them minced sheep's brains. There is, however, evidence from the Economic and Social Research Council that people tire of a vegetarian diet as they get older, and that a 40-year old man is more likely to choose a beef steak than a 30-year old.

Around the market, the latest beef scare appears to be on the catering trade's back burner: kitchens of early morning cafes sizzle, and the smell of sausages and bacon hangs heavy. In the Fox and Anchor, an Art Nouveau pub where pints are pulled before most alarm clocks ring, pinstriped City trenchermen wrestle with unfeasibly large breakfast plates laden down with all the local trimmings (black pudding, beef steak, lamb chops). Chefs from the fashionable Smithfield restaurant, St John's, sniff out choice offal and nourishing marrowbones to enrich a menu aimed at challenging the palette of the most committed meat and potatoes man.

Among the fleshpots of the world, Smithfield has no rival. For the past 125 years, the London Central Markets of Smithfield have traded here, on the north-west side of the world's most lucrative square mile. In 1990, impending EC health regulations threatened the market with closure. Smithfield, it seemed, would go the way of Covent Garden, Billingsgate and Spitalfields, its future a characterless warehouse sited on an arterial road a world away from the domain of caffs, pubs and teetering secretaries.

Smithfield, the last of the old central London markets, has hung on. More than that, its owner, the Corporation of London, has just finished spending pounds 71 million of its own money on refurbishing the East Market building to the highest modern standards.

Cast-iron columns have been stripped of 17 layers of sooty paint. Startling new coats of magenta, viridian and violet have been applied in their stead. Portland stone pediments have been patched, red Kentish bricks blasted clean with grit and water, and the tongues of heraldic dragons dipped into pots of blood-red paint. The roof has been re-lined with 43 miles of softwood boarding, and capped with 150 tons of Arthur Daley-teasing lead and 170,000 tiles shipped from Spain. Smithfield Market is here to stay.

Despite this loving attention to detail, Smithfield will never be quite the same again. The revamped market stalls, butchers' blocks and storerooms are steely and antiseptically clinical. Gone are the wood-block floors, rivulets of blood and sawdust of the old West Market building. Robotic arms will now transfer cadavers of pigs and cows from juggernaut to temperature- controlled cold store.

The dictates of Brussels have spelt the end of Victorian Smithfield. They spell the end, too, for Stan and other septuagenarian self-employed "bummarees". The Corporation of London insists that pitchers, pullers back, porters, shopmen, salesmen and bummarees must now retire at 65. The oldest bloke working in the market today is an 81-year-old bummaree; he refers to his 60-year-old mate as his "lad".

"Pitchers", by the way, are the white-hooded musclemen who pitch carcasses from refrigerated lorries on to market trolleys. "Pullers back" are the blood-stained heavies who pull carcasses to the backs of refrigerated lorries. The others you have met, except for salesmen who, for once, do exactly what their name suggests.

The Market begins work at midnight on weekdays (ten o'clock on Sundays), when the articulated lorries bringing meat negotiate their bulk through the deserted City streets. The noise upsets few people: local residents are as rare, to date, as choice cuts of alligator tail.

With the chiming of the big clock which hangs above the centre of Grand Avenue (separating East and West Markets), trading begins. From all over London (including the Ritz, the Savoy and Buckingham Palace), buyers barter with salesmen. The pace is fast and furious. Bellies are slit, prices rise; heads are severed, prices fall. By half-nine, nearly every cut of meat has vanished from the disturbing hooks which swing from the market's voluminous timber roof.

As the last trotter is chopped, the long chore of cleaning begins. To date, this has been done with the aid of sawdust, hand-held hoses, mops and buckets. From next month, the process will be automated.

Yet, though increasingly penned in by computer-driven offices and chic warehouse flats, Smithfield will continue to connect the modern city dweller to an increasingly distant dimension of swine and pasture, blood and slaughter. As such, Smithfield will stay true to its roots. Since the first market was founded here in the 12th century (it was granted a charter in 1400), these ten acres of "smooth field" have witnessed scenes of memorable butchery. Smithfield drew baying mobs for popular public executions over a period of 400 years. The menu here was live human flesh, boiled, burned or roasted. Butchers from the market were employed to "draw" entrails from the condemned before "quartering" them with knives normally used on sheep and cattle.

In one four-year orgy, Queen Mary had 200 Protestants burned at the stake. The last burning was in 1652. When the executions stopped, the mob were still able to enjoy Bartholomew Fair, the medieval cloth fair that evolved into a funfair and was celebrated by Ben Jonson, the playwright, before the City closed it in 1855 and commissioned the architect Horace Jones to design, at the colossal expense of pounds 2m, the market buildings that stand today. In the course of building works, pounds 774 7s 11d was spent on removing charred and dismembered corpses from beneath Smithfield's cobbles.

From then on, blood no longer flowed through City streets, and drunken herdsmen, from as far afield as the Highlands, were stopped from driving their terrified herds through polite Sunday congregations.

In its latest incarnation, Smithfield Market will be a less sensational, less spooky place. Brussels will have robbed it of much of its Victorian charm, and chicken breasts will never be as dramatic as the sides of cattle. Yet, on a brisk spring morning, you will encounter a remarkable city survivor, a meat market three times the size of St Paul's cathedral, with its very own police force, pub (The Cock), porters, shopmen and septuagenarian, leg-fancying bummarees