As Smithfield market faces redevelopment, another London tradition passes
One of the reasons why London is the best city in the world is that its store of secrets and quirks never runs dry. One such secret, steeped in centuries of history is Smithfield market’s annual Christmas Eve meat auction. Greg Lawrence of Harts Burtchers has been hosting the event for the last 30 years out of Hart’s premises on the west end of Charterhouse street. Lawrence says “50 or 60 years ago there used to be three or four auctions on the market, but now we’re the only ones left.” Lawrence is resplendent in his role as auctioneer, keeping his eager crowd entertained and in high spirits as he sells off the last of the year’s produce. Lawrence loves doing the Christmas Eve meat action and says he “wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
On the morning of Christmas Eve, around 9.30am a hundred or so people are gathered outside Hearts as Lawrence opens the auction by explaining the bidding rules. The meat is held up by the butchers who call for a price to be set, leading to punter cries of “tenna”, “twen’y” or other appropriate multiples of ten pound notes. No coins, no credit cards and no fancy packaging.
The bidding soon gets under way starting with turkeys and geese followed by loins of lamb, ribs of beef, pork bellies, racks of lamb, steaks and gammon. The crowd push and thrust their pound notes high up in the air. When an owner for any haunch of meat is established, fistfulls of notes are passed forward and the butchers throw the meat into the hands of its winner.
Seasoned buyers make the most of the auction, turning up in teams with friends and family, designating one of the group to squeeze to the front to do the buying, and then pass back the meaty prizes to be piled up high on the tarmac.
Sacks of flesh and blood line the road between the crowd’s feet as the bidding continues. Some stay to watch the auction unfolding, having already acquired their Christmas dinner while others continue to bid making long term provisions for their freezers.
The prices are more than fair – an entire turkey or a loin of pork can be had for £20 and quality cuts disappear for what must be not far above their cost price.
The auction ends with a ritual of coin tossing – the butcher tosses a coin for heads or tails while the punters bet him for the meat. The rules of this game are simple: if you guess heads or tails correctly you take home the said piece of meat for free, if you guess incorrectly, you must pay the butcher his asking price. The crowed cheers for each correct guess and booes for each wrong one. One elderly lady is unlucky in her guess but in true christmas spirit Lawrence decides to give her the turkey anyway. The crowd approves.
Sadly, this is one London tradition which is about to disappear. This Christmas Eve auction was the last because of the proposed redevelopment of the market area by Henderson Global Investors who are planning to demolish most of the Smithfiled Market site and its stunning Annex building and build two large office blocks in their place.
In February (11th – 28th) there will be a public equiry into the future of the market site which will determine its future fate. SAVE Britain’s Heritage and the Victorian Society are fighting hard to preserve and restore the market (and by extension Harts’ Christmas eve meat auction) and have submitted an alternative proposal which involves no demolition and is based on a business plan from Urban Space Management, who transformed Camden Lock and Spitalfields Market into thriving, vibrant cultural destinations.
Time will show if their efforts can save the market but for now, it seems that with the final auction, another old London tradition passes.