A ‘food history’ walk around inner London reveals little hints that animal welfare and food safety concerns are not just a modern issue, but go back to the 19th century. Back then, the good and bad of food production was ‘in your face’ – in contrast to today where most city-dwellers know only supermarkets and have little contact with farms or even food-preparation factories and industrial bakeries.
In the early 1800s Islington was a mustering point for beef cattle before they driven through the streets to Smithfield Market. ‘Urban dairies’ also abounded, where cows were often kept in filthy sheds and fed brewers’ waste grains. Milk was also sold straight from the cow in places like St James’s Park.
It’s this mix of Victorian squalor and urban livestock keeping that caused health scares, but at the same time may have helped bring improvements to animal welfare.
In 1861 an agricultural hall was built in Islington by the Royal Smithfield Club. “The society, which included members such as Sir Joseph Banks and the Duke of Bedford, wanted to improve the life of cattle.” says Rob Smith, a guide whose research on Islington’s food history has him calling it ‘London’s larder’. Smith adds that the hall was built to hold agricultural shows that would showcase best practice in breeding and rearing livestock.
The area was also something of a milk hub, with two of London’s biggest dairies, including Richard Laycock’s, which had 400–700 cows at its height in the early 1800s. According to Smith, Laycock wanted to improve the health of his cattle, albeit to increase milk yields. He is noted for providing the cows with a more diverse diet: mangel wurzel, ruta baga and hay on top of the brewers’ grains, as well as letting the cows outdoors to roam in the yards and fields. Laycock also made money from holding cattle on his property before their trip to Smithfield.
So began the process of separating of food production and metropolitan consumers. But also as London grew, the land such as that occupied by the Islington dairy farms naturally gave way to housing. And as demand increased production had to expand and move further afield.
It would take another 150 years for things to come full circle, and belatedly London’s first farmers’ market arrived – fittingly again in Islington, in 1999. In some ways it’s a pity that the farmers who attend don’t arrive with live chickens, sheep and cows to be slaughtered in central London again. Farmers’ markets are still one of the most assured places to buy well-reared meat or humanely produced milk. But arguably there’s nothing that urges interest in good welfare more than seeing the live animal itself.
Rob Smith’s walk ‘Islington – London’s Larder’ runs next on 26 February 2012 at 11am. http://footprintsoflondon.com/larder
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