Ultimo aggiornamento:  10.05.2020 08.12
October 13, 2017

with dickens in the london markets

by  Lucio Rocco


Fairs, food festivals and markets have always had an irresistible fascination on people. Be it for the merry atmosphere that can be felt among the stalls each leaning one upon the other, or, be it for the calls of the sellers; be it for the pleasure of rummaging through the piled odds and ends, or perhaps, for the memory of times when trading was not easily in one’s reach as it is today. Whatever be the reason, it is able to create that special magical atmosphere which has always wielded an endearing seduction on the old and the young.

It is in one of the oldest markets in the world, started about 1000 years ago, near the ancient walls of London that our story takes place, and Charles Dickens gives us a less than flattering snapshot of its unusual scenario in GREAT EXPECTATIONS:

“When I told the clerk that I would take a turn in the air while I waited, he advised me to go round the corner and I should come into Smithfield. So, I came into Smithfield; and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me.”

It had been William Fitzstephen, who, in his biography of the  archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, described  a field known as ‘Smooth Field’ for the first time in 1147, which was situated next to the site where, fifty years earlier the ‘The Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great’ had been. To the word ‘Smooth’, which derives from the Saxon word ‘Smeth’, ancient Scottish glossaries gave the meaning of ’aequus planus’, therefore that place had been named ‘flat field’, or ‘Smithfield’.

Among rides, tournaments and duels, every Friday noblemen and cavaliers met to buy, sell and swap their refined breed horses. Not far away, a vegetable and meat market was held too.

Since 1133 the friars had organised Saint Bartholomew’s Fair lasting three days; the actual feast being on the 24th August. It was originally dedicated to the trading of fabrics and materials, therefore the best tailors and dressmakers of England took part in the fair. However, with the passing of time, it became an occasion of shows, dancing, overdrinking and terrible fights which led to  the suppression of the fair in 1855, after well 700 years.

However, Smithfield market was also used for executions and murders. On the 23rd August 1305, William Wallace, the Scottish hero was atrociously killed there. The mythical Braveheart from Mel Gibson’s film, was hung, drawn and quartered, which was the punishment then given to traitors and their heads were then transfixed onto a pole and displayed on London Bridge. In the same place, on the 15th June 1381, Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt was executed for treason. It was also there that, starting from 1555, Mary Tudor, Henry 8th's daughter, who was named ‘Bloody Mary’ by the protestants, sent almost 300 of her subjects to the stake in the effort to restore the Catholic faith.

From 1327, with Edward 3rd’s authority, Smithfield became a meat market, which was really important as the town was continuously increasing in size and at this time, meat could only be preserved by using salt. This tradition continued for over five centuries, until 1852, when, because of people’s protests, Parliament was forced to transfer the market to Islington.

The 19th century was a period of great economical and social transformations, of revolutionary scientific ideas and of great technological discoveries; however it was also a moment of deep contradictions. The result of these changes were not unambiguous, but rendered even worse the conditions of the numerous unemployed and poor people of the large urban centres. The Industrial Revolution had permitted Queen Victoria’s subjects to take  a great leap forward, but it had left behind a big slice of those who were too weak to take advantage of the new situation; a sort of court of miracles made to live on the edge of society; a degraded society which, in the modernized towns, wandered from market to infamous quarters.

Charles Dickens spent  most of his life in the streets of London and he was a very careful observer. In his novels he describes every street, every side-street and every tavern together with the hidden and dignified misery that survived them. In this passage, taken from his masterpiece Oliver Twist, he depicts what Smithfield market was probably like in the last years of its life:

“It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; 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. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim 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 confounded the senses.”

This is how Smithfield market presented itself at 4a.m on the dot every morning, when Dickens’s city came back to life and animated itself with that humanity that was so dear to him and which populated the market place, moving tirelessly among every kind of animal. Next to the many extras who came from all parts of the kingdom, there were the drovers of Smithfield; the silent protagonists of that ancient representation, wearing their blue smocks on top of their velveteen jackets, their red handkerchieves knotted round their necks and with their soft, felt hats on their heads. Rough men with marked faces, images of fatigue and resignation; robust hands accustomed to working with animals rather than their likes. With them were their dogs, intelligent and faithful animals, that rendered possible a task that men alone could not do. Dogs that were able to guide a herd through hills and valleys; able to stop the animals in the London streets when a carriage was passing, and then continue a journey that they already knew and that the latest arrivals to the herd were learning once and for all. And each time they looked at their masters as if to get their approval. They would fix their eyes reddened by the dust and wind, as if to read a command, a desire, a thought.

Who were these dogs?

These dogs were called in various ways “The Smithfield Collies’’, “The Smithfield Sheep Dogs”, “The Smithfield Drovers’ Dogs’’, and  other similar names, however we know little about them. The descriptions that have reached us speak of a dog similar to a “Shepherd Dog”, as a Collie was known at that time, but it was bigger, stronger, fiercer, black and white, and it had pendulous ears, shaggy coat and a short tail, which was probably cut. They were rougher, noisier and more aggressive than a shepherd dog, and  they used biting in their work. For centuries they had travelled miles and miles guiding oxen, bulls, horses, sheep, pigs, turkeys and geese along Roman roads, to the London market, a task they carried out with humbleness and devotion, as if it were a mission.

However, drovers and shepherds’ lives underwent profound changes through the centuries. In 1852, the English Parliament issued the “Smithfield Market Removal Act”, which ordered the transferral of the market of live animals out of the city. London had become too modern a city to allow herds of irreverent beasts to cross its streets. Little by little, the role of those dogs became unnecessary, because the evolution of transport had made available, faster and newer means of transport to transfer the animals from far away farms to the local markets. The inevitable consequence was the disappearance of many dog breeds which progress had rendered useless.

Therefore, together with those tireless dogs, which had had a non marginal role in the nation’s whole economy, their industrious drovers vanished, faded in the London fog together with their romantic world in which even evil had its dignity and good was an unreachable peak to climb with effort. That world had inspired Charles Dickens’ stories. The same stories that nearly a century later, would have taught a boy, in a far off town, who was looking with awe at the illustrations in the book he was holding, the ability of what it was to be amazed and still today, prompt him to talk about his love for those men, their work and their dogs.

And like “Mr. Uncommercial’’ in the novel ‘’The Uncommercial Traveller’’, that boy who was reading Dickens went wandering here and there around the world, taking with him the nostalgia for that time learnt through the pages of a book, together with the passion for the humblest and the assiduous of Smithfield market frequent visitors, that dog that even Dickens had considered capable of “thinking”:

“At a small butcher’s, in a shy neighbourhood (there is no reason for suppressing the name; it is by Nottinghill, and gives upon the district called the Potteries), I know a shaggy black and white dog who keeps a drover. He is a dog of an easy disposition, and too frequently allows this drover to get drunk. On these occasions, it is the dog’s custom to sit outside the public house, keeping his eye on a few sheep, and thinking. I have seen him with six sheep, plainly casting up in his mind how many he began with when he left the market, and at what places he has left the rest. I have seen him perplexed by not being able to account to himself for certain particular sheep. A light has gradually broken on him, he has remembered at what butcher’s he left them, and in a burst of grave satisfaction has caught a fly off his nose, and shown himself much relieved. If I could at any time have doubted the fact that it was he who kept the drover, and not the drover who kept him, it would have been abundantly proved by his way of taking undivided charge of the six sheep, when the drover came out besmeared with red ochre and beer, and gave him wrong directions, which he calmly disregarded. He has taken the sheep entirely into his own hands, has merely remarked with respectful firmness, - 'That instruction would place them under an omnibus; you had better confine your attention to yourself - you will want it all;’ and has driven his charge away, with an intelligence of ears and tail, and a knowledge of business, that has left his lout of a man very, very far behind.”