By the turn of the 19th century, over one million people lived and worked in London and its environs. The challenge in feeding so many people was no mean feat. Surrounding farms sent produce to London’s markets, and drovers brought sheep and cattle over deeply rutted and ancient roads from as far north as Scotland. Every September and October, enormous numbers of animals converged in Smithfield market, where they were sold and slaughtered for consumption. In Oliver Twist (1838), Charles Dickens described the filth of Smithfield Market, and the bellowing of frightened animals who had been forced to trudge from their peaceful pastures to what must have been a frightful, bewildering and nightmarish place.
It was market morning. The ground was covered nearly ankle deep with filth and mire; and a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney tops, hung heavily above … Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys , thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a dense mass: the whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of beasts, the bleating of sheep, and the grunting and squealing of pigs; the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, amd quarrelling on all sides, the ringing of bells, and the roar of voices that issued from every public house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng, rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene which quite confused the senses.’
Smithfield Market Days.-Monday for fat cattle and sheep. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, for hay and straw; Friday, cattle and sheep and much cows, and at 2 o’clock for scrub-horse and asses. All sales take place by commission. The customary commission for the sale of an ox of any value is 4s., and of a sheep 8d. The City receives a toll upon every beast exposed to sale of 1d. per head, and of sheep at 2d. per score, and for every pen 1s. The total produce to the Corporation is from 5000l. to 6000l. a-year. Smithfield salesmen estimate the weight of cattle by the eye, and from constant practice, approach so near exactness, that they are seldom out more than a few pounds. The sales are always for cash. No paper is passed, but when the bargain is struck, the buyer and seller shake hands and close the sale. Several millions, it is said, are annually paid away in this manner in the narrow area of Smithfield Market.
Quantities sold -The average weekly sale of beasts is said to be about 5000 ; and of sheep about 30,000 ; increased in the Christmas week to about 4000 beasts, and 47,000 sheep. As a sheep market, Smithfield has been constantly on the decrease within the last ten years. The following return shows the number of cattle and sheep annually sold in Smithfield during the following periods – Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850 – Victorian London Markets
Without refrigeration and cookstoves, food storage and preparation presented challenges to the housewife and innkeeper alike. Fortunately, salt needed for preservation was plentiful in England. Cattle were brought into the market towns in September and October. The beef was salted and then hung up in smoke to preserve it. Pork was likewise both salted and smoked to make bacon and ham. For poorer families, these were practically the only meats eaten during the winter months. – Merrye Olde England: Food
The preservation of meat turned out to be a relatively simple technique. The meat was salt cured, which meant preserving it with a mixture of salt and saltpetre. Flavorings could be added, such as honey, sugar, pepper, and juniper berries. The salt in the meat drew out moisture, reducing the weight of the meat by as much as 18%-25%, and preventing the meat from decomposing. The salted meat was hung to dry cure from a few months to a year. This process deepened the color of the meat and produced an intense flavor. Dried and cured, the meat was cut into thin slices and could be served at any time. – Historical Recipes: Dry Cured Ham
- The Drover’s Dogs
- Model Butcher Shops from the 19th Century, Museum of Childhood
- Modern Cattle Drive to Smithfield Market