The Metropolitan Meat Market at Smithfield
The City of London actively policed the market at Smithfield so as to protect the citizens of the capital from the ill effects of diseased meat. Prosecutions were brought to the Guildhall Police court by the Commissioners of Sewers who used inspectors backed up by doctors from the Medical Board of Health. Those caught selling or supplying meat deemed unfit for human consumption could expect hefty fines.
The process means that we get a rare chance to see how the meat trade operated in the late nineteenth century when of course nearly all animals were farmed outside of London (as it true today). In the earlier part of the century farmers would have driven their cattle into London to be sold at Smithfield and then slaughtered in the East End but drovers were increasingly being prevented from driving cattle and sheep though the crowded city streets, which were dominated by pedestrians, omnibuses, and cabs by 1889.
There were two prosecutions at Guildhall on the 19 June 1889 when Alderman Phillips was in the magistrate’s chair.
The first was John Stafford, a butcher from Wharf Street in Leicester who had sent four pieces of beef to the market on the 16 may that year. These had been inspected and found to be unfit. Stafford pleaded his innocence saying the meat was fine when he’d dispatched it but Dr Sedgewick of the Board of Health disagreed. He testified that he’d seen the meat and it was:
‘wet and emaciated, was very dark, and had a very offensive odour. It had’, he added, ‘the appearance of coming from an animal that had been ill for some time’.
The butcher had been brought south by an officer from the Leicestershire constabulary, detective-sergeant George Crisp, who had been asked to make inquiries by the Commissioners in London. Stafford said he’d bought the animal at a local fair then had killed it, and prepared the cuts himself. The alderman was convinced the butcher had known the meat was bad and fined him a huge sum – £60 (£15 for each piece) – and added 3 guineas costs on top.
The next defendant was also from the east midlands. Francis Height was a butcher who gave his address as Polebrook in Northamptonshire. He was accompanied by Dennis Andrews, an police inspector in the Northants constabulary.
Height had sent a sheep to the market for sale and this had been seized by one of the market inspectors. Dr Saunders, for the Board, said the animal suffered from a lung disease and the meat was not fit to be eaten by people. The Northampton man admitted sending the sheep but again declared that he thought the meat was fine when he let it go. It was no defense and he was fined £20 and costs.
So that day the Commissioners of Sewers and the Guildhall court pulled in £80 in fines, a whopping £6,500 in today’s money. That would have bought you eight cows in 1889 so those butchers had a very expensive trip to the ‘smoke’ that week.
[from The Standard, Thursday, June 20, 1889]