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Taking Smithfield market as a case study, this is a paper about the importance of narratives and storytelling in the functioning of modern food systems. As many historians have shown, the space between producer and consumer became larger and more complex through the 19th and 20th century. This emerging gulf between “farm and fork” required a proliferating infrastructure of distribution: wholesale markets and cold stores; institutions and regulations; new forms of labour and labelling. In this talk I examine an overlooked aspect of this modern food infrastructure: narratives. From didactic tales of the nation’s food supply to the myths and rumours of the wholesale market, stories proliferated in the physical and imaginative spaces of modern food distribution. 

Built in the 1860s-1870s on the site of the old live cattle market, London Central Markets (Smithfield) was an archetype of the modern food system’s infrastructures of distribution. Incorporating an underground railway, hydraulic lifts, and a vast network of “commodious cellarage”, the market was designed to supply and feed the imperial metropolis. But these physical structures didn’t circulate meat of their own accord; food infrastructures are also made-up of people and stories. Over the next 150 years various forms of narrative – from the cockney rhymes of the “Bummaree” to the paranoid reports of the Market Superintendent – turned, oiled and tinkered the cogs of the Smithfield Machine. In the context of the market’s imminent relocation and the site’s renovation into the new London Museum, this paper explores the importance of storytelling to the very functioning of the food system Smithfield was once central to.


All welcome - This event is free, but booking is required.