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Smithfield fair

Smithfield was the area beyond the Alders Gate, on the other side of Aldersgate Street and Goswell Road. (“Goswell” was originally “God’s well”, so named by early Christian priests in an effort to stamp out the pagan practice of worshipping wells). Rahere, one of Henry I’s courtiers, founded a church and hospital there, dedicated to St Bartholomew. The church is the oldest in London. The hospital, St Bartholomew’s – “Bart’s” for short – is still operating.

By the 12th century, there was a horse fair in Smithfield every week, beginning its history as the capital’s livestock market. According to Jonathan Swift, “a Smithfield bargain” became the proverbial phrase for a sharp deal. There was an annual Cloth Fair, which became the biggest commercial fair for cloth in England. It was also known as Bartholomew Fair, because its tolls went to support Bart's Hospital. Ben Jonson wrote a play called Bartholomew Fair (1614) which suggested that, by his time, entertainment rather than commerce was the main attraction with “raree-shows and low farces”. (For a contemporary complaint, click Bartholomew Fair). Cloth Fair had one tradition which has survived it: the fair was officially opened by the Lord Mayor ceremonially cutting a piece of cloth – a tradition which has been extended to new public buildings everywhere. (“Cloth Fair” remains as the name of a road behind Long Lane).

Between markets and fairs, Smithfield was convenient for public executions. William Wallace was executed there in 1305. Tournaments were held there also. On a darker note, thousands of victims of the Black Death were buried in a huge mass grave under Charterhouse Square.