In 1850 London was the epicentre of the British Empire and bursting with confidence. The coffers were full of money to invest in grand civic projects that would make a statement to world about the primacy of British values, vision and technology. From Trafalgar Square to Crystal Palace via the London Underground, London was alive with awe-inspiring architectural and engineering projects.
Almost any project – no matter how utilitarian – was an opportunity to create something splendid. Today we have lost our stomach for the seamy side of our taste for meat, but in the 19th Century a cattle market and slaughterhouse complex was just another chance to showcase British ambition.
The Metropolitan Cattle Market was the crowning achievement of James Bunstone Bunning. Having impressed as architect of the first (we are now on the third) Billingsgate Market in 1853, Bunning was immediately re-engaged by the Corporation of London to masterplan a new cattle market on Caledonian Road.
The market received a £400,000 budget (around £41m in today’s money), with which Bunning set about creating a spacious, modern, hygienic, and relatively humane cattle market. Scaling the heights of Victorian attention to detail, he commissioned the eminent sculptor John Bell to produce sculptures of sheep, the ox and pig heads. These were used to mark the central rail of each livestock pen.
The calf and pig markets were covered, the iron supporting columns doubling as drainpipes. This aspect of his design received a mixed press; some considered it a forced marriage between technology and classical architecture, while others praised his innovation as a demonstration of British ingenuity.
As well as providing the animals with particularly roomy pens, Bunning brought in the newly devised kick-bar to prevent penned cattle from hurting their neighbours. In one of its very earliest outings as a paving material, Bunning specified vitrified brick from the Staffordshire potteries. This non-absorbent material was easily sluiced down to keep the market free of ordure, which must have made the Metropolitan a considerably nicer place to work than nearby Smithfield.
When Prince Albert opened the market in 1855, the sheen of vitrified brick must have shimmered like marble – especially when viewed from above. Such a vista was made possible by the viewing gallery at the top of Bunning’s seven-storey clock tower, which he placed at the market’s centre. The Caledonian Clock Tower, as it is known today, was the largest turret clock in the London at the time. At a soaring 46.5 metres it is nearly as tall as Big Ben (or correctly, the Elizabeth Tower), and its viewing platform was and still is open to the public.
The clock tower was ringed around at its base by the ‘Bank Buildings’, and the tower itself housed some of the world’s most advanced telegraph machines to connect the market’s dealings with the City. The electricity for the machines also lit the tower’s four clock faces, while bells housed in the campanile-style tower would strike to mark the start and end of the market day.
The market was defined on three sides by substantial wrought iron railings designed to withstand a bull stampede. The piers were decorated with more of John Bell’s animal heads, and every third pier also held a gas lamp. Research by English Heritage has found that the railings were originally painted oxblood red, the signature colour of the City of London Corporation.
Another of Bunning’s extravagances was the building of large taverns around the market’s perimeter. There were five in total – designed in Italiante style – serving refreshments to the farmers, drovers, salesmen and clerks who worked the market. It is easy to imagine how rowdy these pubs must have got at the end of the market day.
The Metropolitan Cattle Market closed in 1954, just one year off its centenary, in response to the declining trade in live animals. London County Council redeveloped the site, building the Market and York Way estates there, yet many of the salient aspects of Bunning’s design remain.
At the northwest corner of the market, on the junction of North Road and York Way, stands a handsome, detached Italianate Victorian pub – converted into flats called ‘Lion Apartments’. This was The Lion, one of Bunning’s four identical hostelries positioned sentry-like at each corner of the main part of the market.
Further east up North Road is The Lamb, which closed in 2004, and remains boarded up. The White Horse at the southeast gate (nearest the site of LGA’s new mixed-use development) has fared better, having been converted into a smart apartment development called The Gin Palace. It has retained what appears to be an original, wrought iron first floor balcony, over a freshly-painted cream stuccoed ground floor. The only pub that did not survive was the Black Bull, which was the same as the others in design and had stood at the south west gate. This was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for the York Way Estate.
Residents are rightly proud of local landmark, Bunning’s grade II* listed, Italianate Caledonian Clock Tower. Today the tower soars over Caledonian Park, which was carved out from part of the old market in 1972. The din of animals and traders has been replaced by the sounds of children enjoying the playground at the tower’s base.
Caledonian Park’s mature planting is fenced on two sides by Bunning’s yet-standing grade II listed iron railings, which are on Historic England’s at-risk register. The gas lanterns were removed in the 1930s, and John Bell’s animal heads stolen soon after the end of the second world war. Happily, the original moulds survive and are kept at the Museum of London, with replicas cast from these moulds on show at the Islington Museum.
The clock tower is also on Historic England’s at-risk register, but there are ambitious plans for its full restoration and construction of a new visitor centre. The clock has retained its original mechanism, which is in full working order.
The other green space carved from the cattle market is Market Road Gardens, which possesses some beautiful trees. As well as birdsong, you can hear the clanging and hammering of LGA’s construction site. The architects have designed a major new affordable residential and commercial development on the eastern edge of Market Road Gardens. The Caledonian Road scheme – winner of the 2017 Planning Award for best mixed-use development – has been carefully designed to bring significant improvements to the public real, including a new public space.