‘Our own little congregation’: the people of London’s soon-to-close Smithfield market

At midnight while Londoners sleep, work is just beginning for the traders at Smithfield market. As the trading day gets under way, punctuated by the crashing of pallets, the screeching of vans and the smell of raw meat, the complex is an island of hustle and bustle in an otherwise still city centre.

Traders dressed all in white – save for the red splatters of blood on their fronts – carry animal carcasses into the historic buildings to be sliced and diced throughout the night until dawn breaks over a part of the capital better known these days for its nightlife and financial services.

Smithfield meat market
Smithfield meat market
Smithfield meat market
Smithfield meat market

But the clearout has begun. On 31 August its poultry market will pull down the shutters for the last time, while its salespeople are living on borrowed time – in just five years the last of them will leave for good.

The site has been home to generations of traders dating back more than 800 years, although the buildings recognisable today are mainly from the Victorian era. But by 2028, Smithfield’s remaining 28 businesses will all have been relocated – along with Billingsgate fish market and, eventually, Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market – to a new purpose-built facility at Dagenham Dock in the capital’s eastern outskirts.

Smithfield meat market

However, by then many of its structures will already be serving a very different use as the new home of the Museum of London, hosting galleries, event spaces and a restaurant. The general market building on the west side has already closed and conversion has begun for a 2026 opening, while the poultry market – built in 1963 after its older predecessor was destroyed by fire – will become part of the museum after 2027.

Trevor Hussey and Adrian ‘Nobby’ Stiles

With the poultry building already partially closed, most of its eight businesses operate from the back, trading almost entirely to wholesalers. Adrian Stiles – better known to his colleagues as Nobby – works for one of them, James Burden Ltd.

“This poultry shop is a very busy business, so we’re going to try to move it into our other four shops, share it around a bit,” the 56-year-old says. “I’ve been at Smithfield for 12 years, buying and selling the poultry in the market. It’s not for everybody. We start at about 11pm and work until we finish around 7am or 8am.”

The camaraderie among the workers is what makes market life so compelling, according to Stiles. “We’ve got our own little lingo, our own little language. Most of it is rude and probably not publishable,” he says, while his colleagues jeer him as he poses for a picture. “But once it’s in your blood, it’s a job for life. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

Smithfield Cafe
Ferrari’s cafe at Smithfield meat market
Smithfield meat market
Smithfield meat market
Smithfield meat market
Smithfield meat market

  • A trader’s desk, ‘Corn-fed chickens, four for £10’ and workers in the poultry market, which will relocate to Dagenham at the end of the month

He is soon joined by Burden’s managing director of almost four decades, Trevor Hussey, 68, who insists the business will adapt to the imminent closure. “We’ve acquired further space in the east market building and will be shuffling our business around,” he says.

Like Stiles and Hussey, many of the workers travel into Smithfield every day from Essex or Kent. With the majority of London’s market traders having been priced out of the city centre, the new Dagenham Dock facility means, for many, no longer having to worry about beating the congestion charge’s 7am start time at the end of the working day.

Smithfield meat market
Smithfield meat market

But for others, the history associated with the site is enough reason to want to stay put. The poultry building’s imminent closure serves as a sobering reminder to the rest of the market of the years of mothballing ahead.

James Oatley

James Oatley, of BJ Meats, has been working at the market since he was a boy, more than 50 years ago. He now runs his specialist lamb (“and a bit of pork”) business with his son.

“We fought it for so many years and it’s got to the point where they really don’t want us here, unfortunately,” he says. “My son will have to go there [Dagenham Dock] because he’s young. But it will be sad, because it’s just a great building to be in. I was here when the sawdust was on the floor, it was wonderful and the banter was amazing.”

He bemoans being one of the oldest still working the market floor, with many of his peers now in offices or having left the trade altogether, but says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love it because it’s real trading with people day to day. You’re here from beginning to end, you do your profit-and-loss at the end of the day and it’s real business. But you’ve got to move with the times, unfortunately. Nothing stands still for ever, does it?”

Davina Wilkes. Smithfield meat market

Davina Wilkes, from Bexleyheath, has worked as a cashier for poultry and meat traders the Peter Thompson Group for eight years, jobsharing with her aunt. “I think it’s really sad, actually,” she says. “It’s been what it is for so long. My uncle used to work here as a porter years and years ago and now me and my aunt work here.”

For Aaron Casswell, head salesperson at Channel Meats, the new location won’t be an issue; he lives just up the road. “I used to live in Hornchurch and am about 10 minutes from Dagenham, so I don’t mind too much,” the 30-year-old grins. “I work for a good guvnor, I’m happy in my job and wherever we go, we go, don’t we?”

Aaron Casswell

  • Aaron Casswell: ‘I’m happy in my job, I work for a good guvnor, and wherever we go, we go’

He adds: “It’s not the easiest of lifestyles, to be honest, but we are our own little congregation up here, I suppose. We’re very old school, if you know what I mean. It’s nice, we have a good laugh as well.”

One of Smithfield’s unsung heroes is Sue Gossedge, the first woman to join the market’s constabulary in its 137-year history. “We had one after me who lasted two weeks,” she recalls. “It wasn’t for her. It takes a certain kind of woman in this environment.” Over almost two decades, she has dealt with meat thefts, as well as keeping workers on their toes by dishing out fines for smoking or littering.

Looking down onto the Poultry market at Smithfield meat market

“The building is amazing,” she says. “I think I was about four the first time I came here with my grandfather. It was the iconic buildings and atmosphere that attracted me to the job. The atmosphere here is amazing. Once you start work and find your place, earn your respect, it’s like one big community where everyone helps everyone. Although I’m doing enforcement, I still know they’ve got my back.”

Sue Gossedge

It’s not just forklift spot checks and chasing down cyclists that will live long in Gossedge’s memory once the market is gone. “I had someone naked walk up to me and ask me if I knew where their clothes were. It turns out they’d just got drunk at Fabric,” she laughs. The legendary Farringdon nightclub faces the market, with its punters keeping similar hours to the traders.

Luan Kumaraku from La Forchetta Cafe

She says: “We had filming here once for a video game. They hired a couple of shops and put up big signs displaying the ‘meat’ on sale. They had human arms, human legs, all sorts of human body parts. People were coming through the avenue and they were like, ‘They’re selling human bodies in there!’”

The winding down of Smithfield will not just have an impact on the lives of its workers. Luan Kumaraku, 38, has managed the nearby 24-hour cafe La Forchetta for the past seven years and is worried about what will happen to his business in the future.

“More than half of our trade comes from the market,” he says. “We’re not too sure what we will do, to be honest. We might have to close it down during the night.”

Smithfield meat market


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