Infrastructure Narratives: Smithfield and the changing place of the wholesale market in twentieth century London
CDA in collaboration with Queen Mary University of London and Museum of London
Britain’s largest wholesale meat market is edging towards permanent closure. As plans are made to relocate this node of the capital’s “meat infrastructure” to Barking and Dagenham, the Smithfield site is being transformed into a marketplace for stories – the new London Museum. Taking this compelling urban transformation as a starting point, my research explores Smithfield’s 20thC history through two seemingly disparate concepts: infrastructure and narrative.
For decades, Smithfield’s infrastructure of urban meat distribution was unrivalled; at the hight of its sheer distributive powers in the 1920s, 500,000 tonnes of meat from across the globe passed through Smithfield each year. I take a people-and-story centred approach to the history of this vast meat infrastructure, emphasising the role of individual relationships, rumours, myths and narratives in the everyday functioning, administration and utilisation of “the Smithfield system”. Drawing on Abdou Simone’s work on urbanism in the Global South, I emphasise the importance of “people as infrastructure” within this system, and the important urban work market’s do as “story-making machines”.
Drawing on multiple archival collections, oral history interviews and popular culture, I identify a number of recurring “story-lines” (decentralisation / cleaning up) that have animated Smithfield, lubricated its social infrastructure, and helped those in and around the market to make sense of their position in a drastically changing city. Throughout the 20thC, Smithfield was woven into broader national, (post)Imperial and urban narratives.
I’m primarily interested in the ways urban infrastructures both rely upon and help to produce stories of the city.