James Bunning, 1855

“…designing the Metropolitan Cattle Market for a growing city…”

City of London architect James Bunning built a modern livestock market here to replace Smithfield.

Show transcript

Look at that Clock Tower…isn’t it magnificent? Italianate styling, soaring to the heavens. And with a clock. Noble and convenient. My best work… if I say so myself.

James Bunstone Bunning – ex-chief architect to the City of London, which means I designed the new public buildings the city needed…the Coal Exchange in Thames Street, the new prison at Holloway, Billingsgate Market, Highgate Cemetery – alms houses, lunatic asylums… all built to reflect the monumental character of the City itself.

A splendid growing city, such as ours, may experience many challenges. London’s infrastructure was basically medieval. The river Thames was a sewer, for example, indescribably filthy. And our livestock market at Smithfield… It was fine for city of a few hundred thousand, but far too cramped and crowded for a proud city of a two and a half million, as counted in the census of 1851.

So the word went out (eventually), “Mr. Bunning, design us a new cattle market”. And I did. I found enough land here in Islington. It wasn’t cheap, but it meant we had space to design it properly…to make it work.

What makes proper design, you ask. Well, it’s two things. One part is practical…what activities need to happen in this place, what do people need to undertake their work. And the other part is artistic…does the result look attractive, does it reflect the high ideals of the City of London. And the two should work together hand in hand.

Look at the Clock Tower, for example. It was practical – a market needs a clock. So when designing the market we put a clock tower in the middle where everyone could see it, with a ring of bank buildings and railway offices around the base. But I think you’ll agree that this Clock Tower isn’t just functional, it’s also beautiful. We were all like that, a new breed of architects and engineers gracing London with the buildings it desperately needed. Cubitt’s Kings Cross Station, Barry’s new Parliament building, Bazalgette’s sewers, the younger Brunel with his railway …and Bunning’s livestock market…I think it deserved to be on that list.

Not that you can see it now. They turned my beautiful market into a ‘housing estate’ a hundred years later. I can’t say I was impressed with what they built…neither practical nor artistic. It looked like a lot of straight lines. At least I tried to give the drovers and the salesmen and the bankers’ clerks something splendid to look at. But they kept my Clock Tower. And on moonlit nights I come back here and stand in the shadows under the arches and look up at it, still telling the time for everyone to see.