Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Leadenhall Market, EC3V

At one time England's most important meat market, Leadenhall Market is today a monument to Victorian retail, with some great places to eat and drink, one remaining butcher, some good shops and some tepid, unremarkable ones – Cards Galore, Pizza Express etc, I'm looking at you.

However, they all strive to blend in with the Victorian scheme, and the building is a thing of beauty, all iron, glass and timber, hemmed in by red brick and Portland stone, sitting snugly in the City of London.

The site has a retail history stretching far beyond Leadenhall, as a Roman basilica and forum were built here in AD70. The forum contained shops, banks and offices, around a market place. The basilica housed the town hall and law courts.

Leadenhall Market – Ledenehalle originally, as it was conducted in the courtyard of a lead-roofed mansion – was first recorded in 1309, and in 1345 Edward III designated it as a place where non-Londoners could sell poultry (the market in the street called Poultry was for Londoners only), which he hoped would weaken the black market for the meat. It came under the control of City authorities in 1411 and was rebuilt between 1439 and 1455.

By the 17th century it was famous for its meat. An oft-quoted story tells how Charles II took the Spanish ambassador, Don Petro de Rouquillo, to visit. The ambassador was impressed: "There's more meat sold daily in your market than in all the kingdom of Spain," he said.

Samuel Pepys recorded a visit in his diary. It was a rare sojourn, as it was usually the job of a maidservant to shop in the markets, and not the done thing for gentlefolk. But Pepys was without a maidservant at the time and, to avoid embarrassment, went after dark. "Thence to my wife, and calling at both Exchanges, buying stockings for her and myself, and also at Leadenhall, there she and I, it being candlelight, bought meat for tomorrow, having never a mayde to do it, and I myself bought, while my wife was gone to another shop, a leg of beef, a good one, for six pense, and my wife says it worth my money. So walked home with a woman carrying our things."

The below image of the old market is from the The Illustrated London News of December 27, 1845.

The market in Pepys' time had three courts: one for beef, one for veal, mutton and lamb, and the middle taken up by fishmongers, which also took up the south and west sides. More fishmongers, poultry and cheese shops filled the passages penetrating outwards into the City.

Although damaged during the Great Fire in 1666, the market survived and was rebuilt as a covered structure split into the Beef Market, the Green Yard and the Herb Market.

This map of the market shows the area in 1772 – there is a Flesh Market, Fish Market and a Herb Market on the eastern side – and also an illustration of the front of the old market:

And so the market continued, through the 18th and most of the 19th century. Newspaper archives recount thefts of meat, selling of meat unfit for human consumption, retailers breaking The Game Act of 1831 by selling out of season (The Times of March 3, 1855 reported that 10 of the market's biggest traders were summoned to court for this), but otherwise business boomed, with vast varieties of poultry. In 1809 a new breed of duck was discovered on sale – named the ring-necked duck, a live one wasn't recorded in the UK until 1955, after it had been discovered to be native to North America.

By the late 19th century, the Victorian vigour for sweeping away the clutter and dirt of history meant the old market's days were numbered. In 1880-81 the current structure was built, designed by Sir Horace Jones (also responsible for Billingsgate Fish Market, and the Central Meat Market and General Market in Smithfield). It was influenced by the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II in Milan, although somewhat smaller. It opened in December 1881, just in time for Christmas trading. Here's a picture from the The Illustrated London News of December 24, 1881, of the newly opened market:

The ornate cast-iron and glass structure has a classical look, with ionic columns and a timber and glass dome as the centrepiece where the footways meet. The cruciform plan isn't straight, due to the need to preserve ancient rights of way – it's always open to wandering Londoners through day and night.

Higher rents kept some of the old market's traders out of the redeveloped building, meaning the class of trader went up, although it was still primarily a wholesale market. Not that the poor didn't shop there too: "Just over London Bridge there was Leadenhall Market. Go over there in the afternoons, cos there was no fridges then so the fish that was left – you could get a bagful for 3d – we'd get the best of the fish, where they [artisans]'d be the buying the cheapest." (from Loaves and Fishes, History Workshop Journal, no 41, spring 1996)

The success of the redevelopment meant the market continued through the 20th century. A restoration in 1990-91 accentuated the internal colour scheme, and shop tenants have since been encouraged by the City of London Corporation to base their shop fronts on Sir Horace Jones's original tripartite pattern, including the decorative cast-iron ventilation grilles. Some shops still have wrought-iron hooks outside, which were used to display poultry.

There are offices above the shops, and today it is mostly City workers who bring money to Leadenhall. Looking at them in their expensive suits and crisp shirts, it all seems a long way from the blood and stink of the meat market.

As with any high street or market, the relentless tide of clone stores and decline of independent retailers have impacted on Leadenhall, meaning many of its 101 retail units are occupied by chain stores or restaurants. But it's had to diversify to survive, and its survival should be celebrated.

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