Updated: Mar 25, 2020
In the Middle Ages, Smithfield - or the Smooth Field - sat just outside the City walls, on the east bank of the Fleet River tributary to the Thames (the Fleet that gives its name to Fleet Street). With grazing enough for the livestock arriving to feed the city, it was an obvious place to set a market. Cattle were herded to the capital along the droving roads (from as faraway as Scotland), for slaughter and butchered on the spot. It began the Smooth Field’s long association with the sights, sounds and smells of spilled entrails. And not only of livestock. Perhaps by natural extension of the daily butchery, perhaps just because it could fit in a crowd, Smithfield became London’s outdoor arena for rubbernecking at a man hung by the neck, cut down while he still breathed, had his insides eviscerated, his body hacked in quarters and his head slashed off for completeness. Heretic or traitor, Protestant or Catholic, swindler, forger, think of a transgression - public executions made fine spectator sport and imagination was the name of the game. Martyrs burned alive. Others boiled in oil or spit-roasted. The variations on fast or slow killing were ingenious; until, in the sixteenth century, the spectacle moved west to Tyburn and Smithfield settled to the dullness of being the city’s meat market again. That is, except for Christmastime 1947, when a gunshot execution sparks the story of SHAMUS DUST.