Most visitors to Leadenhall Market, in the center of The City of London, (the formal name for London's financial district and the oldest part of the city), are impressed with its giant, cast-iron-framed glass skylights — the ornate Victorian decoration of its two story shopping arcades. But what is really impressive is the history of these market halls, with roots going back to Roman Britain and perhaps even earlier.
Leadenhall Market Buildings
Leadenhall today is a large expanse of glass covered market streets with vehicle entry on three sides. The main entrance is on Gracechurch Street; there is vehicle entry to its cobbled pavements from Whittington Street and Lime Street, and pedestrian entry through several ancient passages.
The current Grade-II-Listed buildings are late Victorian, dating from 1881. They were designed by Sir Horace Jones, who also designed Smithfield Market , London's central meat market, and the original Billingsgate Market on Lower Thames Street. Today they house a variety of independent retailers, service providers, cafes and bars, serving city workers. For visitors, their primary interest isn't just the shopping and dining, but the market's 2,000 years of history and its colorful maroon, cream and green — super Instagrammable — arcades.
Ancient History of the Market
Leadenhall sits near the Bank of England, slightly east of the center of The City. In Roman times, this was the geographic center of Londinium, the Roman capital of Britain. In A.D. 70, the Romans built a forum in and a basilica (not a religious building in Roman times but a meeting place, a law court and a marketplace) on this spot. It was the largest Roman forum and market north of the Alps and was in use throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries. In the year 300, however, they destroyed it to punish Londoners for siding with a rogue emperor in a rebellion.
And that was it until the late 19th century when, during excavations for the current building, a Roman wall and arch support were discovered under what is now the market's hairdressing salon. It's still there, beneath the unisex salon, Nicholson and Griffin but it's very unlikely that you'll be invited to descend into the depths of their cellar to see it.
In 1987, when the current market buildings were being restored, more of the Roman forum was discovered under 21 Lime Street, several hundred yards from the first find.You need to visit the Museum of London to see what Roman archaeology they found because most of it is now under the construction of London's newest skyscrapers.
Leadenhall in the Middle Ages
The Romans left London in ruins, but throughout the early Middle Ages, there are mentions of the Leadenhall area being an important market center, a meeting place for poulterers and cheesemongers.
Then, in the early 15th century, one of early London's most important and colorful characters enters the scene. Between 1408 and 1411, Dick Whittington, by then retired Lord Mayor of London and inspiration for the English folktale Dick Whittington and his Cat,, acquired the property and set about turning it into the best place to buy quality meat, fish, poultry and vegetables in London. It became a place for dealers to weigh and sell wool, the only place in London to trade in leather and eventually, in the 17th century, the cutlery center of the city.
How to Find Leadenhall Market
The Market's main entrance is on Gracechurch Street. It is easiest to reach by London Underground and is a five to seven minute walk from either Bank Station (on the Central, Northern, or Waterloo & City lines) or Monument Station (on the District and Circle Lines).
Things to Do Nearby
The City of London is the oldest part of London and if you are interested in historic landmarks, there's plenty to do here within a 5 to 15 minute walk.
- Visit the Bank of England Museum On Bartholomew Lane, EC2R 8 AH. This little known museum is full of fascinating information about money throughout history and, in particular, the history of money since the foundation of the Bank in 1694. There are five different galleries, some interactive displays. The museum is free and open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5p.m.
- The Tower of London is about a 15 minute walk away. William the Conqueror's White Tower is actually London's Castle. The Tower has been the scene of many a beheading. It's also the place to see the Crown Jewels, items from the Royal Armouries and, of course, the Beefeaters, guards of the Tower.
- Tower Bridge - Go inside London's iconic bridge to see the amazing 19th century machinery that opens the drawbridge. Then take the lift to the upper galleries to walk along the new glass floored high walkways. It's 15 to 20 minutes away on foot.
- All Hallow by the Tower - Build in 675 - so 300 years older than the Tower of London - this often overlooked little church has a museum in the Undercroft and fascinating links to early American history. Admiral Penn, father of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, helped to save the church when the Great Fire of London began in Pudding Lane, just a few hundred yards away. He and diarist Samuel Pepys watched the fire rage from the bell tower of this church. Later, William Penn was baptised here. In 1797, John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States, married Louisa Johnson, daughter of the American Counsel to London, here. She was the first American first lady to be born outside the United States or the original 13 colonies.
- Old Spitalfields Market - Once you've visited a market building, you may want to try a traditional market. Shop for food, clothes, antiques, vintage vinyl and more at Old Spitalfields,just a 15 minute walk away.