Despite the romance of all those Dickensian Christmas scenes we're seeing right now, 19th-century London stank. And the biggest stink of all arose from the Smithfield live cattle market, right smack in the City of London, where each year more than 200,000 cows and 1.5 million sheep clomped through on their way to slaughter.
The idea of so many live animals in the center of the biggest city in the world seems ridiculous today. It struck many 19th-century Londoners the same way. As University of Texas historian Robyn Metcalfe explains, in 1855, after decades of debate, Parliament passed a bill evicting the market to the suburb of Islington. The move presaged the removal of livestock markets from industrializing cities around the world.
Smithfield had been a dense, smelly mess since the Middle Ages, and by the 19th century, the squalor had begun to clash with London’s modernizing sensibilities. Metcalfe cites a number of factors that led to the end of the market. These included an emerging utilitarian approach to urban planning that preferred straight lines to the market’s cramped, winding corridors; public health worries in the wake of two cholera epidemics; and the development of a railroad that could convey meat quickly into the city center.
By the early-20th century urban agriculture had become a contradiction in Europe and the United States as municipalities passed zoning laws that banned the raising of livestock within city limits. But all good things come back around. Just this month the Detroit City Council approved development of a gargantuan 140-acre urban farm (though no cows or sheep are intended just yet); and last year locavores in Oakland agitated for the right to raise and slaughter animals in their backyards.
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