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Smithfield and a London pub's story

"Its a bit cloudy in London but people are already drinking out on the streets - God Bless the pubs." Guillermo del Toro

I'm not sure whether that quote really is all about weather rather than pubs, but it does almost fit my leading photograph, which is one that I took on a day back in 2010 in London's Smithfield. 'Almost' because it was actually a beautifully sunny day, not a cloudy one. Yes this is A Moment in Time post - I just randomly picked one of my Photos libraries and trawled through to find something that might inspire a post. This one fitted the bill - it's sort of foodie, there's a bit to write about that actual pub, its location and also memory - both of that day and also of the past.

It was my first trip back to London - well England for years and years and years. I cannot remember when I had been there last. At that time I had been spending a lot of time on researching family history and I had decided to tack on a couple of weeks in England to our 'usual' weeks in France and Italy. David went home to Australia and I went on to England. I stayed with my sister of course, and on one day we went into London to scout out various sites inhabited by my father's direct ancestors. I have to say that I was amazed at how London had changed in the years since I had been there last. So much emptier of traffic, and somehow more prosperous looking, although I will admit that most of our wanderings were around the City itself and the finance district with it's amazing array of modern buildings.

Smithfield is one of those family history sites, as one family lived there in the last years of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th - a time when it was the London live animal market and looked like this. Live animals were bought and sold and slaughtered here. It was a dreadful, poor, dirty, noisy place, of which Charles Dickens said in Oliver Twist:

"A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen ... The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place were the public-houses, and in them the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main."

Which is a far cry from the scene shown here, of prosperous office workers gathering in the square outside a trendy looking, flower bedecked pub for a lunchtime drink.

Back in the nineteenth century though it was dire place, and things did not improve much until a more modern meat market was built and the selling of the live animals was moved out to the suburbs. When I was constructing my family history website - still a work in progress I might say, and it will always be so - I wrote a page on Smithfield which included lots of pictures and some lengthy quotes about the awfulness of it all. It's a long and barbaric history that also includes public and gruesome executions. And here I should also note that it was originally called Smoothe Field - later corrupted to Smithfield. So nothing to do with any kind of smith - either an occupation or a surname. It was just a smooth field - so good for a cattle market I guess.

I should also note in passing that St Bartholomew's Hospital is also here - Bart's as it is known today, and that St. Bartholomew's Fair was celebrated here as well. It's one of central London's most interesting locations really - and behind the square is a maze of tiny alleyways and lanes, that nowadays are interesting places to explore, but which back then would have been dangerous to both health and life.

All of that gruesome history is a far cry from today. You can just see the modern - well Victorian - market at the rear of the picture above and below are a few pictures I took of its restored and rather lovely appearance.

The square itself has a small but pretty park in the middle, whose grass on that long ago sunny day, was covered by English office workers trying to catch the sun. And do I remember the entrance to a car park below the park dedicated to workers at one of England's spy factories? Or did I just invent that? Weird.

And what about the pub? In my piece on Smithfield I mentioned it - well I had those photos - and commented:

"The pub - the Butcher's Hook and Cleaver - is very probably original though, and maybe one of those referred to by Dickens."

Well I was completely wrong. In fact it was only opened in 1999 - from a couple of buildings - one an old Midlands Bank branch and the other a wholesale meat supply shop. But it certainly looks as if it has been there forever. As you stand outside you could be forgiven for thinking they are two separate pubs, whereas in fact I think one half is more pub than anything else, and the other is more for eating as well. I'm guessing the bits shown below were the old bank, although I'm not sure which of the two buildings this is. So yes it's an old building, but a new pub.

Fuller's Ale and Pies is part of the Fuller's empire and presumably the side that provides food. And pie is the thing, although you will find other pub staples such as fish and chips and a Ploughman's lunch on the menu too. I tried to find out if the pies were any good, but found customer reviews varied, as always, from fantastic, through ordinary to downright disgusting.

This modern painting of the market amply demonstrates the pub's name - aptly chosen to reflect the history of the area I guess. The pub, as you can see from my two photos is a Fuller's Ale and Pie House, so I looked up Fuller's. It's always interesting to see the origin stories of companies and this is one of them - from small things big things grow and all that.

You can read the story in full on the Fuller's website but here are the highlights.

From the time of Cromwell (interesting in itself considering this was the time of Puritan England), families brewed their own beer. In Chiswick in the 1600s one of these families gradually expanded their brewery and included a few pubs. There were a series of owners and managers through the centuries, one of whom acquired, in 1816, the griffin logo which is still featured on the Fuller's logo.

Skip forward to the early 1800s and a trio of men who invested and moved the company forward to bigger things.

The business continued to grow, brewing its own beer and buying more pubs. In the modern day their beer has won many awards, the number of pubs has grown to 400 and in 2019 it was bought by Asahi Europe - which I guess today, makes it Japanese. Such a common tale, but a fascinating one none the less.

I know this is an English tale - even a London tale - although Fuller's does now own country pubs as well. So what - an Australian might say. However, it's not quite the same kind of origin story for a company as you find here. There are no poor immigrants making good here. Although the story may have relatively humble beginnings in a household brewery, it was a relatively prosperous household, and those three men above were wealthy gentlemen investing in what they hoped would be a business that would make them money. Not like my family - the Smithfield inhabitants - who began as poor Norwich emigrés to London, became prosperous through hard work and achieved some business success, but whose fortunes declined somehow - most probably through being divided equally between the numerous children of the times.

London pubs are different from country pubs, although they too were community centres - for the men at least. Even in my youth in the 60s women were not welcome in a public bar - not if you wanted to keep your reputation intact anyway. And looking at those two photographs I took of the lunchtime drinkers I see that not much has changed - I counted six women in that photograph, three of whom seemed to be in one group of their own, and one of whom may have been a waitress. Who says women are equal in today's world? Probably more an indication of the local workforce - those financial offices are most probably male dominated. Well - same thing really.

So there you go - executions to meat pies, cattle markets to trendy pubs and riches to more riches as well. Not to mention women's lib. All from one photo.

"There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern." Samuel Johnson

For men anyway.

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