B5 - Grid reference SP073864
First record c1817
Smithfield was the name of the wholesale market site in the town centre from 1817. Laid out on the site of the former manor house, it was at first simply an open space where livestock and greengrocery were traded. In 1880 a large wholesale market hall was built here which lasted until the new Bull Ring developments c1965.
From 1801 the Birmingham Streets' Commissioners began to demolish the houses and shops which had gradually encroached on the open space around St Martin's Church, and to regularise all market activity here. Within ten years the area had been cleared. The aim was to move the wholesale markets elsewhere and to concentrate the retail markets in the Bull Ring.
Prior to the opening of Smithfield Market in 1817 there was no large space where markets and fairs could be held. Because of dramatic population growth during the 18th century the markets had outgrown their original locations. These were probably first close to the manor house and later outside St Martin's-in the Bull Ring. Livestock and other farm produce was sold in various streets around the town.
From the 18th century cattle were sold along the High Street, in 1769 in Dale End and from 1776 in Deritend. Pigs and sheep were sold in New Street. Horses were sold at the Horsefair on Bristol Street. The traditional market for corn, the Corn Cheaping was part of the Bull Ring; it was moved to a new wholesale Corn Exchange in Carrs Lane in 1848.
In 1851 the fish market was removed from Dale End to the Market Hall, but this proved to be insufficient and a separate market was opened in 1870 in Bell Street . The hides and skins market formerly took place in the open on the site of Smithfield, but a special market for them and for tallow opened in 1850; the same building was used as a wool market from 1851. The wholesale vegetable market, which was formerly held in the Bull Ring, was also moved into Smithfield in 1883.
Smithfield Market was set up by the Streets Commissioners on the site of the demolished Birmingham manor house, now the site of Moat Lane car park, deliberately to concentrate the town's various markets in one place and away from the streets of the town centre. Initially just an open space, a grand wholesale market building was constructed here from 1880.
This grand neo-classical building was designed by Charles Edge, one of the architects of the Town Hall. A wide roadway led through the main entrance, which was some 5m wide by 8m high and built of stone and elaborate terracotta.
Above the arch were two figures of Flora and Pomona, the Roman goddesses of flowers and fruit. Two massive wrought-iron gates filled the arch. In addition there were two side entrances with even higher arched gateways to allow for the passage of tall wagons.
In 1897 the Smithfield pig market moved to Montague Street in nearby Bordesley, conveniently close to Curzon Street station, and the cattle market followed in 1898. Smithfield was closed in the 1970s when the City Council began clearing the site for the construction for the Inner Ring Road, the Bull Ring indoor shopping centre and the new Wholesale Market which opened on Pershore Street in 1974. The new wholesale market retained the name of Smithfield.
The market moved to new premises on the Hub industrial estate in Witton in 2018 (See Holford).
In December 2020 Birmingham City Council agreed to a redevelopment plan for the 17ha site which will comprise a new site for the Bull Ring Markets, leisure and cultural facilities and a public square as well as housing.
Images below of the old Wholesale Market from Birmingham food photographer, Jack Spicer Adams' website.
Origin of the name
The origin of the name is unknown. However, it it probably a London import. By the 19th century London's Smithfield Market had become established as the largest meat market in the country. Known to have been existence by 1174, the origin of the London name is not clear either. However, in the introduction to the biography of Thomas à Becket written after 1174 by William Fitzstephen, one of his clerks, the author gives a description of contemporary London in which he describes Smithfield Market:
Est ibi extra unam portarum, statim in suburbio, quidam planus campus re et nomine.
'There is outside one of the gates, immediately in the suburbs, a certain field, smooth field in fact and in name.'
Smethe is the Old English word for 'smooth', although it has been put forward that the name of the field in London relates to blacksmiths. In 1868 a large iron and glass market hall was built there which still stands.
See also The Bull Ring.
William Dargue 08.03.2009/ 29.12.2020
For 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps of Birmingham go to British History Online.