Eating the Past

Meat and Museums

‘Smithfield might be one of the best and most unknown treasures in Argentina,’ writes avid golfer Javier Pinton in a review of Smithfield Golf Course in December 2022. Located 50 miles outside Buenos Aires, in Zárate, this golf course is an unlikely testament to the global history of London’s Smithfield market. The course was first established as a leisurely accessory to a British-owned factory and refrigeration works which shipped chilled beef from Argentina to London throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Established in 1903 by the Brewster family, the ‘Smithfield and Argentine Company’ was one of many British companies involved in the Argentine meat industry, forming a part of a global food system that supplied Britain with produce from its settler colonies and ‘zones of influence’ in the Southern Hemisphere.

As the naming of the factory suggests, the Brewsters had a long history at London’s Smithfield market and envisioned their Zárate ‘Smithfield Frigorifico’ as a direct satellite of its metropolitan namesake. When they were expelled from Argentina by Peron in the 1940s, the plantfunctioned under the same name although now under Argentine control.  The site continued to export meat over the coming decades before falling into disrepair and abandonment, finally closing its doors in 1990. In a remarkably timely parallel, both of these Smithfield’s are currently being converted into museums. In London, the market will soon close its gates for the final time: the city’s meat traders are being relocated to the urban fringe and the Museum of London will relocate into a derelict wing of the market building. Meanwhile, in Zárate, the Smithfield frigorifico is being converted into a ‘Museo de la Carne’.

Artistic Impression of the London Museum, General Market, West Smithfield. Reproduced with the permission of the Museum of London.

The significance of London’s Smithfield market goes beyond the national and municipal stories that will likely circulate as its final days beckon. In the British press, the market’s thousand-year history is often folded into one continuous collage of public executions, raucous fairs, and burly meat porters. As Peter Ackroyd put it in his BBC2 documentary in 2004, ‘Smithfield market has been feeding the London crowd since the twelfth century […] this place has always been heaving with flesh; with life and with death.’ Evocative as they are, these narratives tend to downplay the radical shifts in trade and technology that took place at Smithfield and made it such an important space in the emergence of modern London.  The closure of the ‘live cattle market’ and its re-opening as a ‘dead meat market’ in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, was a crucial moment in the history of urban food systems, spatially and architecturally uncoupling modern meat from its animal origins. Perhaps the most significant and overlooked era of Smithfield’s history, however, began a few decades later, when the market was re-invented as a global import market at the heart of the late British Empire. This era is the subject of my own doctoral research.

This part of Smithfield’s story begins in February 1880, following advances in technologies of mechanical refrigeration, when the first successful shipment of Australian frozen beef arrived in London. Over the next 30 years, Smithfield began a rapid transition from a market primarily trading in British meat to one orientated towards the reception of chilled and frozen supplies from Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina. By 1913, a staggering 75% of the meat traded at Smithfield originated abroad. When the Port of London Authority opened its cold storage warehouse on the edge of the market in 1914, there was already capacity for 2.75 million carcasses to be held in suspended animation across the city. As the market’s superintendent noted wryly, ‘the vast multitude of people contained in the Metropolis depended mainly upon the “South American Roast Beef of Old England”.’

The market had become a central node in what historian Chris Otter calls Imperial Britain’s ‘Diet for a Large Planet’. This was a food system that increased the calorific intake of British workers by importing vast quantities of ‘meat, wheat and sugar’ from across the globe. Over time, however, it also led to new health problems, environmental degradation, and climate change. At its peak in the 1930s, this food system was also having a detrimental impact on the agriculture sector at home: as a meat importer from the time recalls, ‘Smithfield nearly ruined British agriculture.’

By the 1960s, the rise of large supermarket chains and their expansion into the abattoir sector cut Smithfield out of the loop and the market began a slow and gradual decline. In the context of a dwindling empire and a struggling currency, Britain shifted back to a (slightly) more self-sufficient food system. In a narrative arc that troubles our linear assumptions about the globalisation of food systems, Smithfield’s global era was coming to a close.

Port of London Authority Cold Store, Smithfield Market. Wikimedia Commons.

The legacies of this early twentieth century empire of flesh are multiple and contradictory. Imperial London was the first city to rely to such an extent on distant lands and labours to produce its basic perishable foodstuffs; the first city to sit on top of such a stash of carcasses. Whilst the centre of gravity in the global food system shifted elsewhere, the dynamics of monoculture production and the ‘meatifcation’ of modern diets had been set in motion, shaping the development of agricultural industries across the globe. Back in Britain, Tim Lang argues that twenty-first century food policy continues to be hampered by a ‘neo-imperial hangover’ ; a lingering assumption that others will produce food to feed us.

The urban spaces left behind in the restructuring of the meat industry have become popular sites for cultural ‘regeneration.’ Aesthetics of slaughter and butchery have become ‘a sub-genre of post-industrial development’ in cities such as New York, Rome, and Copenhagen. In London, the spaces produced by this late Imperial food system are now mainly used for other things. Rather than frozen carcasses, the cold storage vaults on the periphery of the market now host the nightclub Fabric and a high-tech urban powerplant. Round the corner, the influential St John restaurant serves ‘Nose-to-Tail’ meals from a converted smokehouse, a testament to the many subsidiary industries that once surrounded the market, converting its cheaper cuts and waste products into buttons, belts, and bacon. South of the river at Nine Elms, another cold store became a queer cruising ground and avant-garde musical instrument before its eventual destruction.

While Smithfield is transformed into a museum and its cold store functions as a night club, the work of feeding London continues in the city’s peripheral spaces – in the industrial warehouses of Park Royal, Greencore’s giant Bromley-by-Bow sandwich factory, or the speculative ‘mega-market’ of Dagenham Docks (where Smithfield’s current traders will soon be based). Like the outsourcing of food production to settler colonies in the imperial era, this urban geography functions as a spatial version of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Home office migrant raids and notoriously bad working conditions have become the norm in the food industry (especially the meat industry), developments which are only exacerbated by their geographically peripheral locations.

Porter poses with a pigs head at Smithfield Market, c. 1955. Photographer: Henry Grant. Reproduced with the permission of the Museum of London.

It seems telling that whilst Zárate’s Smithfield is being converted into ‘A Museum of Meat,’ it’s metropolitan namesake will become a ‘Museum of London.’  The outsourcing of the messy reality of animals and slaughter is reproduced as these two Smithfields enter their museum afterlives. In this sense, Smithfield achieved the nineteenth century modernist and capitalist ideals it was founded upon: it transformed distant lands and labours into a controllable and commodified fuel, alienating consumption from production, and giving rise to an urban culture that erased and evaded the means of its own construction.

The fragility of these myths becomes apparent when we shift our attentions to the places of production that supplied the metropolitan market. In Argentina, the meat industry’s legacy is both a contested political question and a troubling environmental one. The British orientated meat industry brought wealth to Argentine landowners, yet also played into a longer term ‘underdevelopment’, tethering the economy to intensive export agriculture. In Timaru on New Zealand’s South Island there is another ‘Smithfield’ freezing works, also set up in the boom of the chilled and frozen meat trade to supply London. The plant is still in operation and was fined $57,000 in 2022 for illegally discharging animal detritus into sea.

As Smithfield becomes the new ‘London Museum’, it’s important to recognise that the history of London is also the history of Timaru, Zárate, and countless other places that have played a role in feeding and fuelling the metropolis. The indigenous and settler communities who worked in the meat processing plants of these other Smithfields – as well as farmers across Britain and Ireland – deserve a place in this history alongside the meat porters who tend to dominate the imagery of twentieth-century Smithfield. Incorporating these stories into the history of Smithfield as it edges towards closure is one way of paying tribute to these lands and labours, and to combat the tendency to imagine urban lives as separate from the natural world. When we recognise that ‘cities are made of transformed nature’, spaces like Smithfield become central to the story of urbanisation, and global histories of food, ecology, and labour become the remit of urban museums.


  1. What a great article! I came across it randomly while on the HW site researching another unrelated topic, but was immediately drawn in by the title and subject. I live in Sydney (previously London), have an interest in museums, food markets (sadly Sydney’s central market is now a terrible jumble of bad tourist tat stalls and the main produce markets have moved out of the city), history and architecture. So you ticked a lot of boxes for me. Plus, just this week I happened to see a story on Landline (ABC TV program that focuses on regional/remote Aust communities, agriculture etc) about inventor/publisher James Harrison. He’s a forgotten figure here but apparently was instrumental in the development of refrigeration technology leading to the start of the importation of Aust meat to the UK. An odd but interesting story that seems to exactly dovetail in to that switch from local to imported meat that you outline. I remember when I lived in London in the 90s being surprised that all the lamb cutlets in the supermarket seemed to be from NZ and I could never bring myself to buy them. Aside from the cost, it seemed pointless to eat cutlets from about the furthest point away on Earth when the English countryside appeared to have plenty of sheep! And now years later, the environmental cost is far clearer too. Look forward to reading more…and will be very interested to see what the new MoL will be like, we were there about 7 years ago.

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