Charles Dickens wrote profusely on social issues in London, and one of the most famous examples is his vehement opposition to Smithfield, a weekly meat market in east London that was notorious for its extremely poor hygiene and cruel treatments of its cattle. The horrors of the marketplace were described in sickening detail in Dickens’s now famous passage from Oliver Twist (1838), and pamphleteers campaigned furiously for it to be removed to outside the inner city walls. Dickens too was involved in the campaign against the cattle market: in 1851 The Times published his article “A Monument of French Folly” under the title “The Smithfield of Paris”, in which he draws comparison between this “reeking central abomination” of London and the Poissy abattoir on the outskirts of Paris. The market was not opposed simply because of practical reasons, but also because of how it violated Victorian concerns of public health, and the image of London as a polished, metropolitan Christian city. Dickens’s description of the vile conditions of English abattoirs, especially when in contrast with Poissy, uses similar stylistic devices to the passage in Oliver Twist to conjure the horrors of East London meat markets during the mid-Victorian period.
The famous passage in Oliver Twist comes from Chapter XXI, during Oliver’s trip through London to complete the ill-fated burglary. One of the most striking features of the passage is the visceral description, as shown in the first line — “…a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above.” The pungent sweat of the cattle mixing with the city air creates a close, physical atmosphere; the inhalation of animal waste is one of the repulsive images that occur throughout the passage. The idea of an all-encompassing physical atmosphere is also perpetuated by the first sentence: “It was market-morning.”(Dickens, p.171) The hyphenation of “market-morning” means that “market’ is being used as a modifier — it unites the two words as a single idea, suggesting that this morning in particular is devoted entirely to the meat market, and submerged in its hideousness. This is also suggested by the shortness of this sentence; the morning is characterised by nothing else. “Ankle-deep with filth and mire” (Dickens, p.171) also contributes to the visceral feeling of the passage, as the stresses on “deep”,”filth” and “mire” emphasise the abundance of animal waste in Smithfield. This sentence is also similar to a line of the article “A Monument to French Folly” describing East London on this market morning — “…you shall see the little children… trotting along up the alleys, mingled with troops of horribly busy pigs, up to their ankles in blood…”. Although the most grotesque part of this sentence is the coupling together of the children and the pigs through the choice verb of “trotting”, the foul image of streets running with blood is not one that should be forgotten quickly. Deeply evocative descriptive language is characteristic of Dickens, and the stylistics of each passage here capture the horrific conditions of Smithfield.
Dickens was concerned about how the market posed a danger to the public health of London — indeed, he cites his main reason for visiting Poissy as an inspection of the vastly better sanitary conditions of the Parisian abattoir — but he is also troubled by how the existence of this meat market in its current state undermines the refined image that the capital city posed to the world. 1851, the year when the article on Poissy was published, The Great Exhibition was unveiled by Queen Victoria: a showcase of the British Empire’s culture and industry, it attracted some 15,000 visitors. The existence of an ethical cess pit such as Whitechapel and Smithfield meat markets alongside a triumphant exhibition of all that the Empire had to offer is somewhat extraordinary, and the coexistence of the two encapsulates the deeply conflicting social elements of mid-Victorian London. One of the most troubling elements of Dickens’s descriptions here is how he depicts the people of the meat market as base and immoral— people are bestialised in both descriptions, and both passages produce Boschian images not only of the animals about to be slaughtered, but of the people whose livelihood was the market. The area of Smithfield has a rich history of violence and crime — in medieval London it was a sight for public execution, and was where the Peasant’s Revolt gathered to meet in 1381 — and its reputation as an area of prostitution, rape and murder continued into Dickens’s era. In the Oliver Twist passage, he lists the elements that make up the cacophony of the market: “ … the bellowing and plunging of beasts, the bleating of sheep, and the grunting and squealing of pigs; the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides…” Dickens creates a hierarchy through this list; the cursing of the hawkers placement low down the list suggests that this unrefined behaviour is on par with, if not lower, than the bellowing cattle. By having the actions of the people immersed in a list of animal noises Dickens highlights the lack of refinement, and perhaps lack of self respect as a human being, of taking part in such an event.
One of the reasons the meat market is so troubling is because it reflects back to the refined middle classes of London, every market morning, that which they choose to ignore — the bestial and brutal side of our own species, and the way in which the people of the market have adapted to that. In the journal, the ‘othering’ of the people of the meat market occurs in relation to the French, not just through straightforward comparison, but mainly by the deliberately comical tone of delusion that Dickens takes up as an English narrator: “One of these benighted frog-eaters would scarcely understand your meaning, if you told him of the existence of such a British bulwark [i.e. the existence of Smithfield]”. In every instant he remarks upon the practicality of the French abattoirs, Dickens takes care to remind us “of a Great Institution like Smithfield”, which is of course deeply ironic. The style in which Dickens writes of London meat markets is engrossing, not just in how it sensationalises the appalling nature of these places for public consumption, but also in how we can pick apart the different ways in which meat markets are troubling to the Victorian urban conscience through the treatment of each issue; the darkly comic address of English delusion and baseness is far more perturbing than the bickering over the practicalities of the markets, and the images of historic Smithfield as a gothic entity continue to reside in the public conscience today.