Butchers claim Royal Charter to stay in the City of London
But traders are fighting back and have invoked the power of the Queen to defend their interests.
In negotiations with the City Corporation, the Smithfield Market Tenants’ Association is insisting a Royal Charter protects the market’s status and its members still have years left on their leases. To force them out, the City would need to convince MPs to pass an act of Parliament.
The row has exposed divisions over plans for the Square Mile’s future, as the Corporation prepares for a post-pandemic world of fewer workers frequenting London’s center, meaning more tourists must be drawn in to keep businesses afloat.
But, alongside other Smithfield traders, Barber worries being moved to Dagenham could disrupt his business and put it miles away from clients including caterers, hotels and restaurants.
“The meat market has been there for 900 years and is a very central location – we have built our business around it,” he says.
“At Dagenham it is gridlocked at 6am but that is a prime time for us. It’s when we get lorries out and deliver to our customers. We would love to have spanking new infrastructure, but why not just upgrade the existing markets? ”
The Smithfield Market Tenants’ Association has accused the City of “bully boy” tactics, having been locked in negotiations for more than three years.
Greg Lawrence, the group’s chairman, told the Islington Tribune last year: “It’s wrong what the City is doing. It’s so wrong. They are trying to come in here and bully us and we will not stand for it.
“We will go to whatever lengths, legally, we have to. They have a fight on their hands.
“There will not be any MP who wants to get their fingers burned on this – make no mistake about that.” He could not be reached for comment.
Smithfield is steeped in history, with Daniel Defoe calling the market “without question, the greatest in the world” in the 18th century.
It was described by Charles Dickens, in Oliver Twist, as a place where “countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass”.
Sir Horace Jones, the architect behind Tower Bridge, Billingsgate Market and Leadenhall Market, designed the current buildings – the first of his to be completed – although they have been altered several times since then.
During the Second World War it was badly damaged by a V-2 rocket and, to support the war effort, was forced to switch from its customary midnight opening time to 6am while rationing was in place.
In 1953 the general market’s distinctive concrete dome was installed, while the poultry section had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed by a fire in 1958.
Plans for the new Museum of London would utilize both of these buildings, with the general market turned into a “sociable place” featuring temporary exhibitions, a cafe, London-themed bookshop, event space and a permanent exhibition in its basement.
This promises to showcase “human drama over more than 10,000 years”, drawn from a collection spanning seven million items, from skeletons to clothes, vehicles, art and photography. It will include the Cheapside Hoard, considered the greatest single collection of Elizabethan and Stuart jewelery in the world.
Meanwhile, the poultry market would house more temporary exhibition spaces, underground galleries, a restaurant, shop and learning center.
The new site, next to Farringdon station on the soon to be completed Elizabeth Line, will be “a perfect home” when it opens in 2026, the museum has said, in “very special market structures grounded in the working and trading history of the city. ”
Supporters say the shake-up will finally give Britain’s capital a museum worthy of its name, and that moving wholesale meat sellers further out is in line with the policies of other big cities.
Peter Murray, founder of New London Architecture, believes the rejuvenation of Smithfield will be essential if the City is to thrive following the rise of working from home.
“Before Covid, the City wanted more people, but now it really needs them,” he says. “At the moment to get into the Barbican site you need to navigate a roundabout, which for a public building is kind of crazy.
“Smithfield would be a much, much better location for the museum – it will raise its game a lot.”
He argues that moving the wholesale markets to Dagenham could deliver a huge boost to the local borough of Barking and Dagenham, creating jobs and helping rejuvenate the area.
“Barking is well connected but it is London’s poorest borough”, Murray adds. “I actually think it’s great that one of the richest boroughs is supporting the poorest in this way.”