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Meat, Commerce and the City: The London Food Market, 1800-1855

Author(s):Metcalfe, Robyn S.
Reviewer(s):Perren, Richard

Published by EH.Net (October 2012)

Robyn S. Metcalfe, Meat, Commerce and the City: The London Food Market, 1800-1855. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012. xi + 248 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84893-291-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Richard Perren, Department of History, University of Aberdeen.

This book, which is volume 18 in the publisher?s series ?Perspectives in Economic History,? has an introduction (pp. 1-10), seven chapters (pp. 11-152) and an epilogue (pp. 153-160). The first chapter describes in vivid detail London?s meat provisioning system, which was centered on the Smithfield livestock market, and those who managed it during the period from 1800 to 1840. Chapter two switches attention to the consumer with a study of the nature of demand and preferences of the meat-eating public. Chapter three is an account of the petitions presented to the City, and the bills placed before Parliament, that endeavored to reform Smithfield before 1840. The next three chapters discuss what the author rightly sees as the three main issues to dominate the debate about Smithfield and make up the key aspects of the movement for reform. These were: space, public health and morality. Chapter four examines the debates about Smithfield as an adequate or inadequate market space, and finishes with a discussion titled ?The Iron Beast? that deals with the impact of the railway. Chapter five covers questions of sanitation and public health and the place that Smithfield took in the major debates on this topic. Chapter six includes areas of particular moral concern. Foremost among these was the cruelty to animals that was almost an integral feature of the market, and its effect on both those who worked there and those who either lived or worked nearby and could not avoid passing so close on their daily routine to avoid witnessing the recurrent barbarities of the place. The first six chapters set the scene for chapter 7 which covers the years from 1840 and the long debate which led to the passing of the bill in 1851, forcing the City of London to finally close Smithfield Market on June 11, 1855. In the ?Epilogue? the author discusses the transfer of London?s main livestock market to a new purpose-built site at Copenhagen Fields in Islington and, briefly, the establishment of the Metropolitan Meat Market on the old site at Smithfield. There are also over forty pages of footnotes (pp. 163-207), a bibliography (pp. 209-226), and an index (pp. 227-248), plus six contemporary plans and illustrations that are all very helpful in judging exactly what reform of the market involved (pp. 29, 61. 129, 138, 154, 161).

The state of London?s Smithfield Market that precipitated the long struggle for its reform vividly depicted in this book was commented on by various writers from the end of the eighteenth century. It was graphically described by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist where the reeking cattle, the noise, confusion and general mayhem were part of the great public nuisance that the market had become by 1837. In the 1840s Edwin Chadwick?s surveys of London featured many of the aspects of Smithfield, such as its poor drainage, accumulated heaps of animal dung, and the accompanying malodorous air which he and other sanitary reformers considered to be the agents of ill health and disease. Just a year before its closure Andrew Wynter referred to it as belonging more to ?a hideous nightmare than a ? civilised country? in his article on ?The London Commissariat? in the 1854 edition of the Quarterly Review. As the market had so outgrown its pre-medieval origins and become an unsuitable site for a city that in 1801 numbered just under a million people and grew to over 2.6 million by 1851, it may be wondered why it took so long to remove and relocate it. This is fully explained by the author in the discussion of the confused politics of the City of London that made up the debate between the various interested parties in the first half of the nineteenth century. In chapter two this process is also set within some of the discussion among historians today about the rise of consumer culture, living standards and food availability.

This book is a Ph.D. dissertation revised for publication and readily identifiable as a good choice for such. It is a specific topic, covering a limited time span and a subject that is supported by an accessible body of primary and secondary sources. And although given superficial mention by previous historians (including this reviewer) it has not until now been given the really close examination that it deserves. The author makes the best use of the comprehensive selection of manuscript and printed sources available, and this is apparent when one goes to the footnotes which also contain a large amount of interesting and relevant scholarly discussion. Whether more of this could also have been included in the text without serious disruption of the narrative is a matter of debate. The footnotes relating to before 1750 are best left where they are, but some of those relating to the nineteenth century could have been upgraded to the text without seriously disrupting the narrative.

Generally the author?s handling of the subject and sources displays a sure touch. It is therefore out of character when on page 133 the reader is given the impression that the decision to set up the 1849-50 Royal Commission ? to make inquiries relating to Smithfield Market, and the markets in the city of London for the sale of meat was taken by Queen Victoria alone. She may well have ?become impatient at the parade of select committees on this subject,? but she did not personally initiate the setting up of this or any other Royal Commission. In this case the decision was taken by the government of Lord John Russell. And on the subject of Select Committees and Royal Commissions, tedious though their lengthy titles are, the references to them on page 210 of the bibliography are rather terse and it would have been better to have them systematically listed in full somewhere in this section. Also at the end of chapter 6 (?Beef, Brutes and Women in Smithfield?) the last two pages which are about women sit rather uneasily with the rest of the discussion and give the impression that they have been included as a matter of form, as a topic that needs to be mentioned wherever possible as a matter of convention.

These, however, are minor matters. Overall, the author has provided a well-written, comprehensive and interesting account of this aspect of London?s food supply, and it constitutes the definitive work on the nineteenth-century Smithfield livestock market.

Richard Perren, is Emeritus Reader in Economic History, University of Aberdeen. He is the author of Taste, Trade and Technology: The Development of the International Meat Industry since 1840 (Ashgate, 2006) and ?Food Industries? in A. Fenton and K. Veitch, eds., Farming and the Land: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, volume 2 (John Donald, 2011). He is currently working on history of the growth of the Aberdeen meat industry, and the competition between butchers, farmers and salesmen to gain control of it.

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Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century