Smithfield and its market was founded in 1137. The ancient parish of St Sepulchre extended north to Turnmill Street, to St Paul’s Cathedral and Ludgate Hill in the south, and along the east bank of the Fleet (now the route of Farringdon Street). St Sepulchre’s Tower contains the twelve ’bells of Old Bailey’, referred to in the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”. Traditionally, the Great Bell was rung to announce the execution of a prisoner at Newgate.
A livestock market was in the area as early as the 10th century.
As a large open space close to the City, Smithfield was a popular place for public gatherings. In 1374 Edward III held a seven-day tournament at Smithfield. Possibly the most famous medieval tournament at Smithfield was that commanded in 1390 by Richard II.
The Priory of St Bartholomew had long treated the sick. After the Reformation it was left with neither income nor monastic occupants but, following a petition by the City Corporation, Henry VIII refounded it in December 1546, as the ’House of the Poore in West Smithfield in the suburbs of the City of London of Henry VIII’s Foundation’. This became St Bartholomew’s (Barts) Hospital in time. The King Henry VIII Gate, which opens onto West Smithfield, was completed in 1702 and remains the hospital’s main entrance.
The Smithfield area emerged largely unscathed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, which was abated near the Fortune of War Tavern, at the junction of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane. In the late 17th century several residents of Smithfield emigrated to North America, where they founded the town of Smithfield, Rhode Island.
Until the 19th century the area included boundary markers known as the West Smithfield Bars. These marked the northern boundary of the City of London and were placed at a point approximating to where modern Charterhouse Street meets St John Street, which was historically the first stretch of the Great North Road. The Bars were on the route of the former Fagswell Brook, a tributary of the Fleet, which marked the City’s northern boundary in the area. The Bars were a site of public executions.
Between 1740 and 1750 the average yearly sales at Smithfield were reported to be around 74 000 cattle and 570 000 sheep. The volume of cattle driven daily to Smithfield started to raise major concerns.
In the Victorian period, pamphlets started circulating in favour of the removal of the livestock market and its relocation outside of the City, due to its extremely poor conditions and the brutal treatment of the cattle. The conditions at the market in the first half of the 19th century were often described as a major threat to public health.
An Act of Parliament was passed in 1852, under the provisions of which a new cattle market should be constructed at Copenhagen Fields, Islington. The Metropolitan Cattle Market opened in 1855, leaving West Smithfield as waste ground for about ten years during the construction of the new market.
An extension of Smithfield’s meat market took place between 1873 and 1876 with the construction of the Poultry Market immediately west of the Central Market. A rotunda was built at the centre of the old Market Field (now West Smithfield), comprising gardens, a fountain and a ramped carriageway to the station beneath the market building.
West Smithfield now comprises the market as its central feature, surrounded by many old buildings on three sides and a public open space (or Rotunda Garden) beneath which there is a public car park.