It was fairly brisk at 6.15am on 17 May as the Hon. Treasurer and I arrived at Barbican tube station to await the arrival of the other stalwarts for the guided tour of the Market and the surrounding area. An extra layer of clothing would not have gone amiss! Our guide, Jane Samsworth, arrived promptly at 6.30, looking very smart and more sensibly attired with a market traders coat over her fleece.
We set off along the maze of narrow streets that lead to the market with Jane explaining the history of the market from it mediaeval origins, the activities that took place there and how it was regulated. We learnt about the drapers and passed the site on aptly named Cloth Fair, where they held their court where traders were fined if they were found to be cheating their customers during the 3 day Bartholomew’s Fair held around the Saint’s day on 24 August; we saw a pair of early 17th century merchants’ houses which survived the Great Fire and were almost demolished in the 20th century but again survived and in 2000 won a City Heritage award for their refurbishment; we saw John Betjeman’s lodgings and heard how St Bartholomew’s the Great was founded by Rahere, a courtier and favourite of King Henry I, who became ill and prayed for life vowing to set up a hospital for the poor in London if he was spared. The church was reduced in size following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and is now accessed through a gateway above which is a half-timbered Tudor building, one of only 20 Tudor buildings in London. The hospital itself remains.
We then moved on to admire the Market buildings. The main wings (East and West Market) are separated by the Grand Avenue, a wide roadway with decorations in cast iron. At the two ends of the arcade, four huge statues represent London, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Dublin and bronze dragons hold the City’s coat of arms. At the corners of the market there are four octagonal pavilion towers each with a dome and carved stone griffins. Jane then took us inside where there were still some traders in evidence and introduced us to one of them, who had worked in the market all his life. We then moved on to the building which houses the poultry market where sadly many of the shops are empty. The Market was severely damaged by a fire in January 1958 which lasted for three days and in which two firefighters died and many others were injured due to smoke inhalation.
We finished the tour by going to the site where the Museum of London is being relocated and which was conveniently close to Smiths of Smithfield where we enjoyed a hearty breakfast washed down with mugs of steaming tea and coffee.
There are photos of the event on the website, so do take a moment to have a look.