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A Monument of French Folly

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Cross-genre i
Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Report i
Subjects Agriculture; Fishing; Forestry; Gardening; Horticulture
Great Britain—Commerce
National Characteristics; Nationalism
Other Details
Printed : 8/3/1851
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume II
Magazine : No. 50
Office Book Notes
Memowell-mannered cattlemarket and abattoir
Views : 1781

Dickens here continues his vigorous support of the public pressure on the City of London's governing body, the Court of Common Council, to accept the 1849 Royal Commission on Smithfield's recommendation that the market be relocated in a less central and densely populated part of London. The Council's extreme reluctance to adopt this course was hardly surprising given that the City was, according to A. Forshaw and T. Bergström (Smithfield Past and Present, 2nd edn, [1990], p. 57) raking in a net profit of almost £10,000 a year from tolls imposed on Smithfield traders (one old penny per head per beast and one shilling per score of sheep – W. Thornbury, Old and New London [6 vols, 1879–85], Vol. 2 [n. d.], p. 350).

      This 'reeking central abomination', as a correspondent of The Times called it (31 January 1851, p. 6, col. 4), had been the subject of attack for many years, one of the most memorable depictions of its horrors being Dickens's own in Oliver Twist (Ch. 21). Dickens had also collaborated with Wills on an early HW article, 'The Heart of Mid-London' (Vol. I, 4 May 1850), containing harrowing descriptions of the suffering inflicted on the animals at Smithfield (see Stone, Vol. I, pp. 101–11); and published (Vol.1, 29 June 1850) an even more horrifying account, 'The Cattle-road to Ruin' by R. H. Horne, describing how livestock was got to Smithfield and the appalling conditions obtaining in London slaughterhouses. Horne also contributed some verses on the subject, 'The Smithfield Bull to his Cousin of Nineveh', to the 15 March issue of HW [Vol. II]. In 'Lively Turtle' [HW, Vol. II, 26 October 1850] Dickens had mocked a fatuous pro-Smithfield speech by Councilman Henry Taylor and he recalls it in the first paragraph of this piece.
      The distinguished scientist Sir Richard Owen was a member of the Royal Commission (in his speech Taylor had raised a laugh by objecting to this on the grounds that Owen 'had some crotchets in his head about sanitary reform) and a vigorous proponent of the idea of moving the livestock market to a healthier site. Parliament eventually passed the Smithfield Market Removal Bill in 1852 and the last market was held on the old site in 1855, the new one being located in Copenhagen Fields, north of Islington.
     For this article Dickens made a special trip (10–15 February) to Paris to inspect the Poissy market and the city abattoirs ('they will make a decent description, I think,' he wrote to Wills [Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p. 290]. Napoleon had issued regulations concerning the long-established livestock market at Poissy and ordered the construction of five clean new slaughterhouses in Paris 'outside the populated areas to replace the old abattoirs in the heart of the city which were real hives of infection' (M. Guerrini, Napoleon and Paris [1970], p. 177). These slaughterhouses, one of which was at Montmartre, were all put into use in 1818.
     The reference to James Bruce concerns his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768, 1769 [etc] (5 vols, Edinburgh, 1790). In Abyssinia Bruce found that the corpses of criminals slain for treason, murder, and violence, on the high-way at certain times, were seldom buried: 'the streets of Gondar are strewed with piece of their carcases, which bring the wild beasts in multitudes into the city as soon as it becomes dark....The dogs used to bring pieces of human bodies into the house and court-yard, to eat them in greater security' (Vol. III, p. 288).
      The Times, which campaigned relentlessly against the continuance of Smithfield Market, reprinted Dickens's description of Poissy under the heading of 'The Smithfield of Paris' (6 March 1851, p. 4, col. 5).
      There are two characteristically Dickensian language-games in this piece: the rendering of idiomatic French into the literal rather than the idiomatic English equivalent ('brave infants' instead of 'lads', etc.); and the periphrastic avoidance of swear words (p. 335: 'Damn your eyes!' was a common nineteenth-century oath).

Literary allusions

  • 'all who run...may read': John Keble's Christian Year [1827], 'There is a book, who runs may read';
  • 'the roast beef of England': Fielding's Grub Street Opera [1731], Act 3, Sc. 3;
  • 'prunes are ill for a green wound': Shakespeare, Henry IV Part Two, Act 2, Sc. 1 (the correct reading is 'prawns');
  • 'Britons never, never': James Thomson's 'Rule, Britannia', Alfred, Act 2, scene the last (1740);
  • 'potent, grave and common counselling Signors': adapted from Shakespeare, Othello, Act 1, Sc. 3.

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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