Leadenhall Market

Leadenhall Market, City of London

Leadenhall Market is a sumptuous architectural surprise at the very heart and centre of the City of London.

It’s built over parts of the forum and basilica of Roman Londinium, from which in 1803 a mosaic was excavated on the premises of the East India Company.  This artefact was not well treated and clumsily restored, but eventually found its way to the British Museum in 1880.

In the early Middle Ages a market for poultry, cheese and butter grew around Gracechurch Street as an overflow from the main market at Cheapside, and in 1411 Richard Whittington (c1354-1423), famed in his day as a wealthy philanthropist and latterly as a figure in folk-tales and pantomimes, gave the lead-roofed Leaden Hall to the City of London, which still owns the site.

It remained a popular food market for centuries, and in the fifteenth century dealt in wool and leather.  In the early seventeenth century Leadenhall Market had a local monopoly for the sale of cutlery.

The market buildings were damaged in the Great Fire of 1666, yet the irregular medieval street layout was undisturbed when in 1880-81 the City authorities decided to clear away the scruffy and smelly meat and hide market in favour of a “respectable arcade” for a poultry market. 

This was designed by the City Architect, Sir Horace Jones (1819-1887), who had already designed Billingsgate (1874-78) and Smithfield (1866-83) markets.  His final and most famous commission, which he did not live to see complete, was the architectural treatment of Tower Bridge, designed in 1884 and completed in 1894.

His model for Leadenhall Market was the impressive and technically advanced Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (1877) in Milan, designed by Giuseppe Mengoni (1829-1877).

Like his Italian counterpart Sir Horace Jones made full use of iron and glass in an eclectic design which Sir Nikolaus Pevsner applauded:  “…as gloriously commercial as a circus poster”.  The building bristles with silver dragons which recall the supporters of the City coat of arms.  Its richly coloured interiors were vigorously restored in 1990-91, and it’s a welcome bravura contrast to the sober architecture of much of the City.

After centuries of commercial enterprise it now also has cultural fame as the location, in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2000-01), of Diagon Alley and the Leaky Cauldron pub.

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