Copenhagen Fields and the Metropolitan Cattle Market

Laura Godfrey, Guildhall Art Gallery

There has been much discussion of late regarding what makes the ideal city, one which will allow us to achieve that perfect work/life balance. Current thinking seems to suggest that we would be happier if everything we needed were available within a 15 minute walk or bike ride. Whilst this may be true, I suspect that there will always be some elements of city life which we would prefer remained at arm’s length, well away from our homes and offices.

As far back as 1850 the Victorians had come to the conclusion that herds of livestock and slaughter houses had no place in the heart of a modern city. Their solution was to banish London’s cattle market to the other side of the tracks.

The Metropolitan Cattle Market, Copenhagen Fields, London

William Henry Davis (1786-1865), Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The site chosen for the new Metropolitan Market was situated to the north of Kings Cross, between what is now the Caledonian Road and York Way. Named Copenhagen Fields, it was an expanse of heath and grassland used for recreation and sporting events. It was also the preferred site for protest meeting and anti-government rallies and in 1834 thousands gathered there to protest against the treatment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Locating the new market on Copenhagen Fields meant that livestock could arrive by train and be butchered in modern purpose-built abattoirs nearby. London’s ever-expanding population would be kept healthy and well fed and an area once synonymous with dissent and public disorder, would be transformed and rendered safe. In other words, two birds with one stone.

By 1855, the new market was up and running. Designed by architect James Bunstone Bunning, it covered an area of over 72 acres and cost over £300,000 to build.  With a magnificent Italianate clock tower at its centre, the site included abattoirs, six banks, three telegraph offices and a pub at each corner.  There were pens for over 36,000 sheep and 6,000 bullocks, as well as space for pigs, dairy cattle, mules and horses. When Smithfield Market was redeveloped in 1868, it was able to deal solely in carcasses and butchered meat, whilst the Metropolitan Market took care of all the livestock.

To begin with the Metropolitan Market thrived, but by the 1890’s advances in refrigeration meant that meat could be imported from as faraway as New Zealand, and the role played by the livestock market became less important.  For a while an all purpose general market co-existed alongside the sheep and cattle, but the Second World War put paid to this and by 1960 the site was in a state of decay. In December 1961, the last cow was sold, the abattoirs demolished and the area redeveloped for housing.

Most pictures and engravings of the Metropolitan Cattle Market have the Clock Tower as their focus. What’s interesting about William Henry Davis’ painting is that he has chosen to ignore it, concentrating instead on the interaction between the farmers and their animals. Livestock portraiture, as it was known, was Davis’ stock in trade and he was the ‘go to’ man, should you need a portrait of your prize sheep or cow.

Nowadays, few Londoners have heard of Copenhagen Fields, but next time you visit Granary Square or Platform 9¾, why not venture a little further north. You are unlikely to spot any cattle, but you may come across the splendid Cally Clock Tower, all that now remains of the once vibrant and bustling London Metropolitan Market.