In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens makes Pip's sight of Smithfield Market one of his first experiences upon arriving in London. The market, which is located directly in the North West part of the city of London, has a rich and tumultuous history within the city. The Smithfield Meat Market is one of the oldest Markets in the world with an over 800 year history of trading meat and meat products. The area became a livestock area as early as the tenth century and continued to thrive as the population on London grew over the coming centuries. In the eighteenth century the Market was regarded as one of the most lucrative and organized meat markets in the world. Customers came from all over to trade and purchase its high-quality meat products.

By the mid nineteenth century, however, the population in London had greatly increased, and with this increase in population came an increase in demand for meat. In an effort to capitalize on the needs of the city, the Smithfield Meat market owners increased their stock of both cattle and sheep so that within a year the animal population grew to 220,000 cattle and 1,500,000 sheep within a mere 5 acres located in the middle of the city with extremely streets where many of the city's inhabitants had their homes. As the market area became increasingly overcrowded with livestock, city dwellers started to express concerns for their safety and sanitation. Londoners passed around pamphlets discussing everything from city safety issues to issues concerning cruelty to the livestock as well as the obvious sanitation hazards that the market presented within the city. A large number of Londoners organized a petition asking that the market to be moved out of the city entirely and placed in the outskirts of London.

However, the market owners and city government vehemently opposed moving the extreme profitable market from the city. In 1855 an article entitled “Smithfield Market and the Metropolitan Market” in the London Times reported the issues surrounding the controversy over the continued existence of the Smithfield Market. The article discusses the clear hazards of the market and the government’s clear disregard for the desires of the people as it reports the uninterest of the police in dealing with complaints. For example,

at 3 o’clock in the day a gentleman who was driving his gig was exposed to imminent risk of life by coming into contact with 100 head of cattle. No doubt the police were in the habit of dealing with such cases with all the skill that they could in their zeal and ability exercise. But what could be expected in the current state of things? While the the dispute was going on between the Government and the city about a market for the public the public were doomed to be the most wretched sufferers.

The public clearly expressed concern about the state of the market but were met with very little support form the governing authorities. According to The Times, the profitability of the market made the Government hesitate to take seriously the opinions and complaints of the people, and in fact “the moment a person opened his mouth to complain of so horrible a nuisance in the city of London he was met with a loud cry that Smithfield Market in its trade involved seven or eight millions of money! Than such a cry nothing could be more nonsensical.” The author of the article conceded that all the people can hope for is implementation of laws to regulate the hours in which the cattle travel trough London streets.

Among those who complained about the effects of Smithfield market dissenters was the famous writer Charles Dickens, who criticized it on 1851 essay “A Monument of French Foll ” as well as including it in his novel Great Expectations. To Dickens, the market represented the destruction of society by the desire for money and material possessions. He took it to represent the future of London unless the Government started listening to the wants and needs of the people. As Pip, enters London for the first time he encounters the filthy market and describes that he sees the market is “all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam.” Smithfield market foreshadows Pip's life of selfishness and greed in London. Dickens parallels the filth and greed of Smithfield market to the effect on Pip’s of selfish desire for social prominence and wealth.

Two views of the new Smithfield Market built in 1868, a few years after Great Expectations: Left: Photograph c. 1895. Right: Photograph of exterior taken in 2007. [Click on thumbnails for larger images and links to additional photographs.]

However, in the end just as in Pip eventually learns to treasure morality above material possession, the cries of the people in London were heard. In 1855 the new Metropolitan Cattle Market was opened outside of the city, and Smithfield was left as waste ground. A new market was not constructed in the area until a full decade later. The relocation of the market served as a democratic win for the people of London and reflected an ever growing influence of democracy within the city. Safety, cleanliness and voices of the people were effectively returned to the streets of London and despite the loss of the Smithfield market the city continued to economically flourish.


“Smithfield Market And The Metropolitan Market.” The London Times Issue 20760 (Thursday, Mar 27, 1851): 5col D.

“Smithfield, London.” Wikipedia. Web. 12 May 2010.

Last modified 16 May 2010