Every day I walk past the clock tower in the photograph above. Every day I cast an admiring glance at it (there’s not much else to look at on North Road). It’s being surrounded by new blocks of “luxury” flats at the moment although I’ll hopefully have the same view of it. If you’re wondering where it is, it’s in the borough of Islington, London, lying north of King’s Cross Station.
The history of the clock tower is fascinating. It was once part of Caledonian Market – so named because it was set just off the Caledonian Road. The market began life as the Metropolitan Cattle Market, opened by Prince Albert in 1855 as an alternative to Smithfield market which was becoming more difficult to drive cattle to. The impressive 30 acre area was chosen as it wasn’t too far from the goods yards at King’s Cross Station.
Here are Charles Dickens’ comments on the layout of the place in Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1879 (thanks VictorianLondon.org):
The market is of immense size, but large as it is, it is insufficient to contain the animals sent up for the Christmas markets. In the centre is a clock tower, round which are the offices of the market clerk and other officials. On one side is the cattle-market, upon the other the sheep-pens. The calves are for the most part under roofs with open sides, and the pigs have also their own portion of the market. The number of cattle and sheep sold here weekly is prodigious, and the arrangements are excellent both as regards regularity, and, as far as possible, the comfort of the animals.
Four pubs were to be found at each of the four corners of the market, three of which, along with the clock tower, are now listed structures.
The market transformed along with the decline in the trade of live animals to become a popular antiques and bric-a-brac selling place at the beginning of the twentieth century.
It closed during the Second World War and the buildings were flattened by aerial bombardment in 1940. It re-opened some time afterwards, however, in its new Bermondsey location. As a result it’s now known as New Caledonian Market or Bermondsey Market and still going strong.
Interestingly, a mediaeval law known as marché ouvert meant that items sourced on the never never could quite legally be purchased, as long as they were bought in good faith between sunrise and sunset. The market therefore had quite a dodgy reputation in both locations. The law wasn’t repealed until 1994.
Read some personal experiences of the market at Up the Cally: History and Recollections of London’s Old Caledonian Market or watch this Pathé video from 1967, taken just before redevelopment of the grounds.
It’s interesting to see how the memory of the market survives in the street and building names to this day – there’s a Market Road, Drovers Way, Shepherd House, Penfields House, Market House and there’s even an Age UK day centre called the Drovers Centre.
The area is now split into Caledonian Park, sports pitches and housing areas such as Market Estate, and overlooking all these is the stately 151ft clock tower. It’s one of those unexpected sights in London that make it the unceasingly fascinating place it is.