Victorian LondonWalking Tour: Smithfield Market and Saffron Hill in Dickens’ Oliver Twist

On today’s Victorian London Walking Tour, we visited many sites featured in novels by Charles Dickens. Dickens’ description of Smithfield Market in Oliver Twist stood out since we were walking in the rain and mist of a Sunday morning. The market has existed since the 10th century and is close to the oldest the church of St. Bartholomew the Great, which was founded in 1123. The area of Smithfield has been witness to executions such as Sir William Wallace and Wat Tyler – Tyler being significant to my study of late 14th century medieval religious reform and the Peasants Revolt of 1381. Today’s mist reminded me of Dickens’ description of “thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle,” and the dirty chimney tops of the surrounding buildings. He speaks of the “thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade… mingled together in a dense mass,” but the area was empty and quiet. The modern market showed no sign of the daily mass slaughtering of sheep and pigs, no cries of the hawkers or the roar of voices from the pubic houses – the pubs were empty and closed. Though Oliver Twist was published in 1838, the area is still dirty and smells of flesh as one passes through the center. We also learned that the Museum of London will be relocating from its Barbican site to the General Market Building in the future.

We also passed through Saffron Hill where Fagin’s associate, Jack Dawkins (Artful Dodger) takes Oliver. Oliver was dragged through Saffron Hill, a place Dickens described as a dirtier and place of more wretchedness than he had ever seen. He spoke of the narrow, muddy streets and the stench in the air. I found it ironic that we entered what is now known as the diamond district just beyond the border of Saffron Hill, the idea that an area once know to thieves and pickpockets was still filled with small shops – now with expensive jewelry instead of small children crawling at the doors and heard screaming from the inside. The shops and public houses were closed and quiet as we passed by them, though one could still feel the dark, cold chill of Bill Sikes presence in the shadows.

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