The following article was published in Charles Dickens’s own magazine Household Words, on 4 May, 1850. The work was co-written by Dickens and his then sub-editor W. H. Wills. The Heart of Mid-London is an attack on the Smithfield live cattle market that then stood in the heart of London.


IT was with singular pride that Mr. Thomas Bovington of Long Hornets, Bucks, viewed his first ‘lot’ of fat bullocks as they filed their way out of his stock-yard towards the nearest Station of the North Western Railway. They were so sleek, so well fed, and so well behaved, that they turned out of their stalls with the solemn sobriety of animals attending their own funeral. Except a few capers cut by a lively West Highlander, they sauntered along like beasts who had never had a care in their lives. For how were they to know that the tips of their horns pointed to that bourne from whence few bovine travellers return—Smithfield? Smithfield, the Heart of Mid-London, the flower of the capital—the true, original, London-Pride, always in full bloom! A merciful ignorance blinded them to the fact that, the master who had fed and pampered them with indulgent industry—who had administered their food out of the scientific dietaries of Liebig; who had built their sheds after the manner of Huxtable; who had stalled and herded them in imitation of Pusey; who had littered them out of ‘Stevens’s Book of the Farm ‘—was about, with equal care and attention to their comfort, to have them converted into cash, and then into beef.

This was Mr. Bovington’s first transaction in bullocks. Since his retirement from Northampton (where he made a small fortune by tanning the hides he now so assiduously filled out), he had devoted his time, his capital, and his energy to stock-farming. His sheep had always sold well; so well indeed, that he had out-stocked the local markets; and, on the previous morning, had driven off a threescore flock to the same destination and on the same tragic errand, as that of his oxen. His success in the production of mutton had given him courage: he had, therefore, soared to beef. Only the Thursday before a neighbouring farmer had pronounced of his herd to his face, that ‘ a primer lot of beasts he never see—nowheres.’

Mr. Bovington had several hours to spare before the passenger-train was due in which he intended to follow his cattle. Like a thrifty man he spent a part of it over his stock-book, to settle finally at what figure he could afford to sell. He was an admirable book-keeper; he could tell to an ounce how much oil-cake each ox had devoured, to a root how many beets; and, to a wisp, how much straw had been used for litter. The acreage of pasture was, also, minutely calculated. The result was, that Mr. Bovington could find in an instant the cost price of each stone of the flesh that had just departed of its own motion towards the shambles.

To a mercenary mind; to a man whose whole soul is ground down to considerations of mere profit (considerations which many profound politico-philosophers deplore as entering too largely into the agricultural mind) the result of Mr. Bovington’s comparison of the cost with the present market prices, would have been extremely unsatisfactory. What he had produced at about 3s. 9d. per stone, he found by the ‘Marklane Express’ was ‘dull at 3s. 6d., sinking the offal.’ Neither had the season been favourable for sheep—at least, not for his sheep—and by them, too, he would be a loser. But what of that? Mr. Bovington’s object was less profit than fame. As a beginner, he wanted to establish a first-class character in the market; and, that obtained, it would be time enough to turn his attention to the economics of feeding and breeding. With what pride would he hear the praises of those astute critics, the London butchers, as they walked round and round, pinching and punching each particular ox, enumerating his various good points, and contrasting it with the meaner, leaner stock of the mere practical graziers! With what confidence he could command the top price, and with what certainty he could maintain it for his ‘lots’ in future!

Mr. Bovington was as merciful as he was above immediate gain. He could not trust the stock he had nurtured and fed, to the uncontrolled dominion of drovers. Though hurried to their doom, he would take care that they should be killed ‘comfortably.’ He considered this as a sacred duty, else he— who was a pattern to the parish—would not have thus employed himself on a Sunday. As he took his ticket at the station, the chimes for evening service had just struck out. His conscience smote him. As his eye roved over the peaceful glades of Long Hornets, on which the evening sun was lowering his beams, he contrasted the holy Sabbath calm with the scene of excitement into which he was voluntarily plunging himself. As a kind of salve to his troubled mind, he determined to pay extra care and attention to the comfort of his cattle.

His consignment was to remain, till Smithfield market opened at eleven o’clock on the Sunday night, at the Islington lairs. Thither Mr. Bovington repaired—on landing at the Euston Station—in a very fast cab. On his way, he calculated what the cost would be of all the fodder, all the water, and all the attendance, which his sheep and oxen would have received during their temporary sojourn. The first question he put, therefore, to the drover on arriving at the lairs, was:

“What’s to pay?”

“Wot for?”

“Why,” replied the amateur grazier, ” for the feed of my sheep since last night!”

“Feed! ” repeated the man with staring wonder, ” Who ever heerd of feedin’ markit sheep? Why, they’ll be killed on Monday or Tuesday, won’t they?”

“If sold.”

“Well they’ll never want no more wittles, will they?”

“But they have had nothing since Saturday!”

“What on it! Sheep as comes to Smithfield never has no feed, has they?”

“Nor water either?” said Mr. Bovington.

“I should think not!” replied the drover.

As he spoke, he drove the point of his goad into the backs of each of a shorn flock that happened to be passing. He had no business with them, but it was a way he had.

With sorrowful eyes, Mr. Bovington sought out his own sheep. Poor things! They lay closely packed, with their tongues out, panting for suction; for they were too weak to bleat. He would have given any money to relieve them; but relief no money could buy.

Mr. Bovington was glad to find his bullocks in better plight. To them, fodder and drink had been sparingly supplied, but they were wedged in so tightly that they had hardly room to breathe. Their good looks—which had cost him so much expenditure of oil-cake, and anxiety, and for which he had expected so much praise from buyers—would be quite gone before they got to Smithfield.

“It aint o’ no use a fretting,” said the master drover, “your’n aint no worse off nor t’others. What you’ve got to do, is, to git to bed, and meet me in the markit at four.” Naming a certain corner.

“Well,” said Mr. Bovington, seeing there was no help for it, ” let it be so; but I trust you will take care to get my lots driven down by humane drovers.”

Mr. Whelter—that was the master-drover’s name—assented, in a manner that showed he had not the remotest idea what a humane driver was, or where the article was to be found.

Mr. Bovington could get no rest, and went his way towards the market, long before the time appointed. Before he came within sight of Smithfield, a din as of a noisy Pandemonium filled his ears. The shouting of some of the drovers, the shrill whistle of others, the barking of dogs, the bleating of sheep, and the lowing of cattle, were the natural expressions of a crowded market; but, added to these, were other sounds, which made Mr. Bovington shudder—something between the pattering of a tremendous hailstorm, and the noise of ten thousand games of single stick played, all at once, in sanguinary earnest.

He was not a particularly nervous man, and did not shudder without reason. When he came into the market, he saw at a glance enough to know that. He stood looking about him in positive horror.

To get the bullocks into their allotted stands, an incessant punishing and torturing of the miserable animals—a sticking of prongs into the tender part of their feet, and a twisting of their tails to make the whole spine teem with pain — was going on: and this seemed as much a part of the market, as the stones in its pavement. Across their horns, across their hocks, across their haunches, Mr. Bovington saw the heavy blows rain thick and fast, let him look where he would. Obdurate heads of oxen, bent down in mute agony; bellowing heads of oxen lifted up, snorting out smoke and slaver; ferocious men, cursing and swearing, and belabouring oxen; made the place a panorama of cruelty and suffering. By every avenue of access to the market, more oxen were pouring in: bellowing, in the confusion, and under the falling blows, as if all the church-organs in the world were wretched instruments —all there—and all being tuned together. Mixed up with these oxen, were great flocks of sheep, whose respective drovers were in agonies of mind to prevent their being intermingled in the dire confusion; and who raved, shouted, screamed, swore, whooped, whistled, danced like savages; and, brandishing their cudgels, laid about them most remorselessly. All this was being done, in a deep red glare of burning torches, which were in themselves a strong addition to the horrors of the scene; for the men who were arranging the sheep and lambs in their miserably confined pens, and forcing them to their destination through alleys of the most preposterously small dimensions, constantly dropped gouts of the blazing pitch upon the miserable creatures’ backs; and to smell the singeing and burning, and to see the poor things shrinking from this roasting, inspired a sickness, a disgust, a pity and an indignation, almost insupportable. To reflect that the gate of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital was in the midst of this devilry, and that such a monument of years of sympathy for human pain should stand there, jostling this disgraceful record of years of disregard of brute endurance—to look up at the faint lights in the windows of the houses where the people were asleep, and to think that some of them had been to Public Prayers that Sunday, and had typified the Divine love and gentleness, by the panting, footsore creature, burnt, beaten, and needlessly tormented there, that night, by thousands— suggested truths so inconsistent and so shocking, that the Market of the Capital of the World seemed a ghastly and blasphemous Nightmare.

“Does this happen every Monday morning?” asked the horror-stricken denizen of Long Hornets, of a respectable-looking man.

“This?” repeated the stranger. “Bless you! This is nothing to what it is sometimes.” He then turned to a passing drover, who was vainly trying to get some fifty sheep through a pen-alley calculated for the easy passage of twenty. ” How many are spoke for to-night, Ned?”

“How many? Why five-and-twenty-thousand sheep, and forty-one-hundred beasts.”

“Ah! no more than an ordinary market, Sir,” said Mr. Bovington’s new friend; ” yet you see and hear what’s now going on to
wedge these numbers in. And it stands to reason, if you ‘ve got to jam together a fourth more animals than there is space for, there must be cruelty.”

“How much legitimate accommodation is there? ” asked Mr. Bovington.

“There are pens for two-and-twenty-thousand sheep and they can tie up twenty-seven-hundred beasts. Well! you hear; room has already been ‘spoke for,’ or bespoken, for three-thousand more sheep and fourteen-hundred more cattle than there is proper space for.”

“What becomes of the surplus?”

“The beasts are formed, in the thoroughfares and in the outskirts of the market, into what we call ‘ off droves; ‘ and the sheep wait outside, anywhere, till they can get in.”

Here the conversation was interrupted by a sudden increase in the demoniacal noises. Opposite the speakers, was a row of panting oxen, each fastened by a slip-noose to a rail, as closely as their heads could be jammed together. Some more were being tied up, and one creature had just escaped. Instantly a dozen hoarse voices yelled:

“Out! out! out!”

The cry was echoed by a dozen others. “Out! out! out!”

A wild hunt followed, and then a shower of blows on the back, horns and sides, of the luckless truant. The concentrated punishment of two dozen drovers’ sticks made the bull too glad to resume its original station. It was then tied up, so tightly, that the swelled tongue protruded. That the poor brute should be rendered powerless for motion for some time to come, it was ‘ hocked; ‘ — that is to say, tremendous blows were inflicted on its hind legs till it was completely hobbled.

Mr. Bovington was glad it was not one of his bullocks. ” Are many strangled by these tight nooses? ” he asked.

“A good many in the course of the year, I should say. All the rails are full now, and the off-droves are beginning.”

The battle raged faster and more furious than ever. In order to make the most of the room, they were forming ‘ring-droves;’ that is, punishing the animals till a certain number had turned all their heads together so as to form the inside of a circle— which at last they did, to avoid the blows inflicted on them. Mr. Bovington’s blood ran cold as he witnessed the cruelty necessary for this evolution. After every imaginable torment had been practised, to get them into the right position, a stray head would occasionally protrude— where a tail should be — on the outside of the ring. Tremendous blows were then repeated on the nose, neck, and horns, till the tortured animal could turn; and when he succeeded, the goad was ‘ jobbed ‘ into his flanks till he could wedge himself in, so as to form his own proper radius of the dense circle.

“I have often seen their haunches streaming with blood,” said Mr. Bovington’s companion, “before they could get into the ring. Why, a friend of mine, a tanner at Kenilworth, was actually obliged to leave off buying hides that came out of this market, because they were covered with holes that had been bored in the live animals by the Smithfield drovers. He called these skins Smithfield Cullanders.”

“Cruel wretches!”

“Well,” said the stranger, thoughtfully, ” I can’t blame them, I have known them forty years——”

“You are a salesman?”

“I was; but they worried me out of the market, for trying to get it removed, and for giving evidence against it before Parliament.”

Mr. Brumpton (that was the name of the ousted salesman) did a little fattening, now, on a few acres near London; and came occasionally to Smithfield to buy and sell in a small way,—just, in fact, as Mr. Bovington had begun to do.

“Well,” he continued, ” I can’t lay all the blame on the drovers. What can they do? If they have got one hundred beasts to wedge into a space only big enough for seventy, they must be cruel. Even the labour their cruelty costs themselves is terrible. I have often seen drovers’ men lying on the steps of doors, quite exhausted. None of them ever live long.”

“How many are there?”

“About nine-hundred-and-fifty—licensed.”

A deafening hullabaloo arose again. A new ring-drove was being begun, close by. Bovington threw up his hands in horror, when he saw that some of his cherished cattle were to become members of it. The lively West Highlander was struggling fiercely against his fate; but in vain: he was goaded, beaten, and worried with dogs, till forced into the ring.

Bovington hastened to the appointed corner, to expostulate with Mr. Whelter. “How can I help it! ” was that individual’s consolation. ” I spoke for all your beasts; but there was only room for seven on ’em to be tied up; so the rest on ’em is in off-droves. Where else can they be?” “And my sheep?”

“Couldn’t get none on ’em in. They ‘re a waiting in the ‘Ram’ Yard, till the sales empties some of the pens. You ‘ll find ’em in the first floor.”

“What! Up stairs?”

“Ah, in the one-pair back.” Mr. Bovington elbowed his way to the Ram Inn, to confirm by his eyes what he could not believe with his ears. Sure enough he found his favourite ‘New Leicesters’ a whole flight of stairs above ground. How they had ever  were ever to be got down, surpassed his ingenuity to conjecture.

At length there was pen-room; and sorely were Mr. Bovington’s feelings tried. When his little flock were got into the market, they met, and were mixed with, the sold flocks that were going out. Confusion was now worse confounded. The beating, the goading, the bustling, the shouting; the bleating of the sheep; the short, sharp, snarling of the dogs; above all, the stentorian oaths and imprecations of the drovers,—no human imagination, unaided by the reality, could conceive. Several flocks were intermixed, in a manner that made correct separation seem impossible; but while Mr. Bovington shuddered at all this cruelty and wickedness—SOLELY PRODUCED BY WANT OF SPACE, AND BY THE PREVIOUS DRIVING THROUGH THE STREETS—he could not help admiring the instinct of the dogs, and the ingenuity of the men, in lessening the confusion—the former watching intently their masters’ faces for orders, and flying over the backs of the moving floor of wool, to execute them. “Go for ’em, Bob!”

Like lightning the dog belonging to the drover of Bovington’s sheep, dashed over their backs, and he beheld the ear of a favourite wether between its teeth. By some magic, however, this significant style of ear-wigging directed the sheep into the alley that led to the empty pens; and the others were pushed, punched, goaded, and thrashed, till each score was jammed into the small enclosures, as tight as figs in a drum.

“They seem a nice lot,” said Mr. Brumpton, who had followed the new seller; ” but how is it possible for the best butcher in London to tell what they are, in a wedge like this. Can he know how they will cut up, after the punishment they have had? Impossible: and what’s the consequence? Why, he will deduct ten or fifteen per cent. from your price for bruised meat. It is the same with bullocks.”

Mr. Bovington, at this hint, reverted to his herd of cattle with a fresh pang. Crammed, rammed, and jammed as they were between raw-boned Lincolnshires and half-fed Herefords—a narrow bristling grove of gaunt shoeing-horns—how could his customers see and appreciate the fine ‘ points ‘ of his fancy stock? He had worked for Fame; yet, however loud her blast, who could hear it above the crushing din of Smithfield?

Mr. Bovington, having returned to the rendezvous, leaned against a cutler’s door-post—where there was an old grindstone outside (which the market-people, by much sharpening of their knives upon it, had worn away, like an old cheese)- in profound rumination. He was at a dead lock. He could not sell all his stock, and he could not withdraw it; for it was so fearfully deteriorated from the treatment it had got, that he felt sure the recovery of many of his sheep and oxen would be very doubtful. The best thing he could wish for them was speedy death: and, for himself, sales at any price.

His reflections were interrupted by the pleasing information, that although some of his beasts that were tied up had been sold at the top price, only a few of those in the off-droves could find customers at the second, because the butchers could not get to see them. “And you see they will have the pull of the market, if they can get it.”

Mr. Bovington looked unutterable despair, and told the salesman emphatically to sell.

“It don’t matter to him,” said Brumpton, who was again at poor Bovington’s elbow, “what the animals fetch. Sold for much or little, the salesman’s profit don’t vary—4s. a head for beasts, and from 10s. to 13s. a score for sheep, at whatever price he sells. That’s the system here, and it don’t improve the profits of the grazier. Why should he care what you get, or lose?”

Towards the close of the market, Mr. Bovington perceived, that if it cost the animals intense torture to be got into their allotted places, it took unmitigated brutality to get them out again. The breaking up of a ringdrove might have made a treat for Nero; but honest Mr. Bovington had had enough. He retired from the arena of innumerable bull-fights in a state of mind in which disgust very much preponderated over personal disappointment. “And mentioning bull-fights,” thought he to himself, “Upon my life! I don’t think we are so much better than those people in Spain after all, while we stand this sort of thing, and eat our dinners, and make our wills.”

Mr. Brumpton and he determined to breakfast together, at the ‘Catherine Wheel,’ in St. John Street.

“What remedy do you propose for these horrors? ” asked our dejected friend.

“A market in the suburbs,” was the answer.

“But look at the rapidity with which London spreads. How long will you guarantee that any site you may select will remain ‘out of Town?'”

“Ah, that’s the difficulty,” said Brumpton. “In 1808, it was proposed to remove the market to the ‘open fields’—Clerkenwellfields; but, twenty years afterwards, there was not a blade of grass to be seen near the place. It was covered with bricks and mortar. Rahere-street—in the midst of a dense neighbourhood—now stands on the very spot that was suggested. Again, only last year a field between Camden-town and Holloway was proposed; but since then, houses have been built up to the very hedge that incloses it.”

“Islington market seems not to answer.”

“No; I think it lies too low. They can’t drain it properly.”

“What is to be done, then?”

“I ‘ll tell you what I think would be best. Let a good site be fixed upon; and don’t rest contented with that. Fence off, also, a certain space around it with appropriate approaches. Let these be kept sacred from innovating bricks. Deal with a new cattle-market as the Board of Health proposes to deal with cemeteries. Isolate it. Allow of no buildings, except for market purposes—of no encroachments whatever—either upon the area itself or its new approaches.”

Mr. Bovington was about to hazard a remark about abattoirs, when deafening cries again arose in the street.

“Mad bull! mad bull! mad bull!” resounded from Smithfield-bars.

“Mad bull! mad bull! ” was echoed from the uttermost ends of St. John Street.

Bovington looked out of window. A fine black ox was tearing furiously along the pavement. Women were screaming and rushing into shops, children scrambling out of the road, men hiding themselves in doorways, boys in ecstacies of rapture, drovers as mad as the bull tearing after him, sheep getting under the wheels of hackney-coaches, dogs half choking themselves with worrying the wool off their backs, pigs obstinately connecting themselves with a hearse and funeral, other oxen looking into public-houses—everybody and everything disorganised, no sort of animal able to go where it wanted or was wanted; nothing in its right place; everything wrong everywhere; all the town in a brain fever because of this infernal market!

The mad bull was Mr. Bovington’s West Highlander. He was quite prepared for it. When he saw him going round the corner, and at the same moment beheld a nursemaid, a baby, and a baked potato-can, fly into the air in opposite directions, he was horrified, but not surprised. He followed his West Highlander. He followed the crowd tearing after his West Highlander, down St. John Street, through Jerusalem-passage, along Clerkenwell Green, up a hill, and down an alley. He passed two disabled apple-women, a fractured shop-front, an old man being put into a cab and taken to the hospital. At last, he traced the favourite of his herds into a back parlour in Liquorpond Street, into which he had violently intruded through a tripe-shop, and where he was being slaughtered for his own peace and for the safety of the neighbourhood; but not at all to the satisfaction of an invalid who had leaped out of a turn-up bedstead, into the little yard behind. The carcass of the West Highlander was sold to a butcher for a sum which paid about half of what was demanded, from its owner, for compensation to the different victims of its fury.

Mr. Bovington returned to Long Hornets a ‘wiser,’ though certainly not—commercially speaking—a ‘better’ man. His adventures in Smithfield had made a large hole in a 50l. note.

Some of his oxen were returned unsold. Two came back with the ‘ foot disease,’ and the rest did not recover their value for six months.

Mr. Bovington has never tried Smithfield again. He regards it as a place accursed. In distant Reigns, he says, it was an odious spot, associated with cruelty, fanaticism, wickedness and torture; and in these later days it is worthy of its ancient reputation. It is a doomed, but a proper and consistent stronghold (according to Mr. Bovington) of prejudice, ignorance, cupidity, and stupidity:—

On some fond breast its parting soul relies, Some pious alderman its fame admires; Ev’n from its tomb, the voice of Suff’ring cries, Ev’n in its ashes live its wonted Fires!