The Shambles (York)

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We tend to associate the charm of cities with the architectural splendour of cathedrals, palaces, museums, monuments, or bridges. Few of us would mention the beauty of an abattoir. We pay attention to the face rather than the function of architecture. And yet, the nineteenth-century city is unthinkable without the introduction of the slaughterhouse.

Early maps of London show numerous stockyards in the periphery of the city where slaughter occurred in the open air. An obsolete term for such an open-air slaughterhouse and meat market is a shambles. Without adequate sanitary facilities or hygiene regulations, guts, offal, and blood were thrown into a runnel down the middle of the street where the butchering was carried out. By extension, any scene of disorganisation and mess is now referred to as ‘a shambles’. Several towns have preserved the street name Shambles or The Shambles. In York, the street was once known as The Great Flesh Shambles, derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Fleshammels’, a word used for the shelves on which butchers displayed their products. As recently as 1872 there were some twenty-five butcher shops in this well-preserved medieval cobbled street. Not a single one survives in what is now the most popular tourist destination of the city.

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A 1938 oil painting ‘York: The Shambles’ by Harry Tittensor provides a nostalgic image of a butcher standing outside his shop (with shelves) in conversation with two female customers. This was a type of escapist art aimed at those who see the past as a picture postcard. Although the butchers have vanished, some of the timber-framed shops still have meat-hooks hanging outside and, below them, shelves on which meat would have been displayed.

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Among the buildings of the Shambles is a shrine to Saint Margaret Clitherow, known to some as the Pearl of York. Born Margaret Middleton, she married butcher John Clitherow in 1571 and converted to Catholicism at the age of eighteen in 1574. Her husband remained a Protestant. She assisted the local Catholic population and held Masses in her home. In 1586, Margaret was arrested and executed by being crushed to death on Good Friday.

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Meat was a British obsession, a symbol of status and a measure of living standards. London butchers were, socially and politically, a powerful lobby. The Worshipful Company of Butchers is one of the oldest Livery Companies of the City of London. Its Charter of Incorporation was granted by James I in 1605. The first hall was the parsonage house of the medieval church of St Nicholas Shambles on the corner of Butcher Hall Lane (now King Edward Street) which was destroyed in the Great Fire. By Shakespeare’s day, dining out had become relatively commonplace in London. In Westminster cook shops (places where cooked food was sold to those on the move), were beginning to serve restaurant style meals to the general public by the mid-1370s, but it was not until about 1460 that this practice spread to the inns and taverns of the City itself. During the mid-sixteenth century such establishments offered one dish a day at a fixed time and price, served at a common table. The meal was called the ordinary. By the late 1600s, the beef-loving reputation of the English became slowly established.

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In his Memoirs and Observations of Travels over England (1719) French traveller Henri Misson, while staying in London in 1698, notes that ‘it is common practice, even among People of Good Substance, to have a huge Piece of Roast-Beef on Sundays, of which they stuff until they can swallow no more, and eat the rest cold, without any other Victuals, the other six Days of the Week’. With the increased consumption of meat, the urban shambles of public slaughter became an issue of concern. From the 1830s to the turn of the century reformers campaigned to abolish private London slaughterhouses operated by independent butchers in favour of municipal abattoirs.

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They argued that the congestion created by livestock in the city streets, the dirt and smell of refuse in residential areas, and the health concerns about diseased meat, made stricter control over the trade a necessity. However, such was the continuing power and muscle of the London butchers that they were able to defend their craft from any political or humanitarian interference.
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With the massive expansion of the capital, large volumes of livestock were handled in the heart of London. Much of the growth in business was accommodated by the railways. Euston became a major cattle handling terminal. Smithfield meat market was some two miles away from the station. By the middle of the century more than 100,000 cattle arriving at Smithfield were transported by train and hurded through the streets of inner London. No urban area had ever encountered such volume of animals that were prepared for slaughter in countless privately owned slaughterhouses.

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In Paris, the situation was different. Initially, animals were slaughtered in butcher shops all over the city, but Parisians started to complain about the stench and continuous flow of blood in the streets. Reformers demanded that slaughterhouses be relocated to the outskirts of town. Nothing happened during the Ancien Régime because the guild of butchers opposed any intervention into their business. The French Revolution abolished all guilds to promote freedom of commerce. As a consequence, meat was sold anywhere and slaughter took place without supervision or inspection. Napoleon took action and ordered that five municipal abattoirs be built in a ring around the city. Work began in 1810, but became caught up in the financial havoc caused by the war effort. Construction continued during the Bourbon Restoration era. When they finally opened in 1818, these public abattoirs were the first of their kind in Europe. Operated by the municipality and located away from populated districts, they provided a model of slaughter that would be followed elsewhere. Public hygiene became a politically important issue. During the 1830s and 1840s, alongside prostitution, hospitals and sewers, abattoirs were a battleground in the struggle to improve the physical and moral hygiene of Paris. A major problem was the geographical separation of the livestock market and abattoir. Since they were located in different parts of the city, livestock herds continued to be a visible sight in the streets, adding to traffic congestion and street pollution. Rail transport offered a solution. The railways enabled the expansion of agriculture, but they also necessitated the greater concentration of markets in the city. In 1858, Haussmann proposed the building of new slaughterhouses combined with markets and connected to railroads. Construction began in 1860. The chosen site was located in one of the newly annexed districts in the northeastern corner of Paris where La Villette offered a site with ready connection to Paris’s railways. The market was completed in 1862, and the slaughterhouses opened in 1867 during the Paris World Exposition. It housed three market halls for the trade of livestock, numerous stables for cattle, sheep, and pigs, and several administrative buildings. The design of the grand halls followed that of Victor Baltard’s markets at Les Halles, combining stylish form with commercial function. The opening of Le Marché & Les Abattoirs de La Villette completed the centralization of slaughter and its exclusion from the inner-city. The abattoir was an architectural monument of industrial design based upon the application of iron and glass.

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The situation in the United States differed fundamentally from Europe. Chicago grew faster than any other city in the nineteenth century. Up to the early 1860s a small number of livestock dealers were able to satisfy local demand. With the arrival of railroads in the early 1860s, the city developed into a hub connecting East and West. In December 1865, the foundation of the Union Stockyards and Transit Company centralized the market and initiated the development of an industrial model of large-scale meat packing. Three decades later Chicago was the largest producer of meat in the United States. In nineteenth century Europe livestock was raised in small herds, while in America large herds grew with minimum effort on the prairie. Slaughter facilities had to match this capacity and more efficient technologies were in constant demand.
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The Union Stockyards illustrate how the pull of markets initiated unprecedented mechanization. One of the inventions was the two-story disassembly line. It consisted of an overhead rail system by which animals were hoisted and moved through thirteen compartmentalized workstations, where one man would slit the animal’s throat, another would tear off its hide, a third split the carcass, etc. With this process it took less than twenty-four hours from the moment an animal arrived until it was slaughtered, dressed, and shipped off as meat. Such mechanization was possible because Chicago was not entrenched in the traditions of butchering. Reforms in London or Paris constantly met with resistance by butchers who were intent on preserving their traditional habits. In Chicago the stockyards were built as a factory of meatpacking. They did not employ butchers, but a casual work force largely consisting of recent immigrants. By the turn of the century, the stockyards were surrounded by ethnic neighbourhoods that housed poor and underpaid workers and their families. Upton Sinclair captured their harsh existence in his 1906 novel The Jungle.

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The disassembly line gave Henry Ford his ideas of a prototype for the production of cars. In his autobiography My Life and Work (1922) he revealed that his inspiration for assembly-line production came from a visit he made as a young man to a Chicago slaughterhouse. In introducing their ideas on the division of labour, both Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson had warned of the potential dangers of mechanization and the brutalizing effect his system might have on workers. If labour was reduced to some purely mechanical manipulation, the worker himself would become an extension of the machine.

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In Chicago these warnings were ignored. Machines were used to speed along the process of mass slaughter, leaving men detached, reducing them to mere accomplices, forced to conform to the pace and requirements set by the assembly line itself. Killing was neutralized. To Theodor Adorno, it was but one step from the industrialized killing of American slaughterhouses to Nazi Germany’s assembly-line mass murder.

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He insisted that Auschwitz had begun at the slaughterhouse. In J. M. Coetzee’s novel The Lives of Animals, the protagonist Elizabeth Costello tells her audience that ‘it was from the Chicago stockyards that the Nazis learned how to process bodies’. There is a parallel connection in this barbaric context. The lethal chamber first emerged during the Victorian era as a humane means of killing stray dogs and cats. Benjamin Ward Richardson was a distinguished medical specialist and reformer. In the 1884 volume of The Asclepiad (a quarterly book of original research and observation), Richardson relates a proposal he had made in 1869 to the RSPCA to build a lethal chamber for the humane slaughtering of animals. He constructed a trial model in 1878.
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Richardson’s original blueprints show a large panelled chamber serviced by a tall slender tank for carbonic acid gas and a heating apparatus. In 1884 the Battersea Dogs Home – set up in London’s Holloway in 1860 by Mary Tealby before it moved to Battersea a decade later – became the first institution to install the device. In the 1880s and 1890s, it took in some 40,000 stray dogs in a single year (underlining the canine problem in the big cities). Richardson introduced the concept of the lethal chamber at a meeting of the Royal Society of Arts in December 1884, and in March 1885 he published a paper in the American journal The Popular Science Monthly with the title of ‘The painless extinction of life’. By the turn of the century a number of charitable animal institutions were using the chamber. This solution for unwanted pets was almost immediately contemplated as a solution for criminals, the feeble-minded social misfits. The concept of the ‘lethal chamber’ was in common vernacular by the turn of the century.

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When the phrase was mentioned, it needed no explanation. Everyone understood what it meant. George Bernard Shaw, in his preface to Major Barbara (written and premiered in 1905, first published in 1907), represents a point of view which any social Darwinst would have applauded. If, he argues, ‘a dog delights to bark and bite, it goes to the lethal chamber. That seems to me sensible. To allow the dog to expiate his bite by a period of torment, and then let him loose in a much more savage condition (for the chain makes a dog savage) to bite again and expiate again, having meanwhile spent a great deal of human life and happiness in the task of chaining and feeding and tormenting him, seems to me idiotic and superstitious. Yet that is what we do to men who bark and bite and steal. It would be far more sensible to put up with their vices, as we put up with their illnesses, until they give more trouble than they are worth, at which point we should, with many apologies and expressions of sympathy, and some generosity in complying with their last wishes, then, place them in the lethal chamber and get rid of them’.

When it comes to social engineering English eugenicists introduced some extreme ideas into the socio-cultural discourse, but even by that standard the notion of the lethal chamber is shocking. The reference to the lethal chamber appears in eugenicist literature during the last decennium of the nineteenth century. Where did the term originate from? There is a clear link to fiction in this case. Novels and plays of the period, such as Shaw’s Man and Superman (1905), or H.G. Wells’s The New Machiavellian (1911), are suffused with the language of de-vitalization and regeneration. In 1914 Richard Austin Freeman published his novel A Silent Witness of which chapter five is entitled ‘A lethal chamber’. In 1921, the novelist took part in the degeneration discussion with the publication of his Social Decay and Regeneration. There is however an earlier literary source. The King in Yellow is a collection of loosely related fin-de-siècle horror stories by Robert Chambers, written in 1895. They have the common setting of an imagined future in America and Paris during the 1920s.

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Yellow is a colour indicative of the decadent and aesthetic attitudes fashionable at the end of the nineteenth century. Yellow also suggests quarantine, decay, and (mental) illness. The most representative story in the collection is ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ which is set in a militaristic New York City, circa 1925, where immigration is controlled and suicide legalized with the introduction of ‘Government Lethal Chambers’. The juxtaposition of the degeneration theme with a regime of regeneration must have made considerable impact at the time. The lethal chamber became a metaphor used in connection with eugenicist thinking in England and America, before the gas chamber became the most horrific symbol of the holocaust during the Nazi rule of terror.
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Butchering and skinning animals were practices that civilized society found hard to endure. At the same time, slaughterhouses held great fascination. Visitors flocked to slaughterhouses in order to quench their thirst for thrills derived from horror. When the World Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893, more visitors went to the stockyards than to any of the Exposition’s own attractions. In turn-of-the-century Berlin a call at the slaughterhouse was on the tourist trail. German Expressionists had introduced the abattoir into art. In 1892, Lovis Corinth painted a series of slaughterhouse scenes with provocative depictions of men labouring amongst flesh, blood, and animal suffering. With brushwork of lush smears and thick glops of paint blood and guts seem to drip from the painting onto the floor. The brutalizing effect of the slaughter of animals had struck Thomas More. It is unlikely that he was a vegetarian, but the author of Utopia expressed aversion from the coarseness and cruelty of the shambles. The Utopians, he wrote, ‘feel that slaughtering our fellow creatures gradually destroys the sense of compassion, which is the finest sentiment of which our human nature is capable’. The barbaric history of the first half of the twentieh century has proved him right. Unfortunately, Thomas More did not banish burchering from his ideal commonwealth, but devolved it upon a pariah class of slaves and criminals. That, one could argue, is exactly what the Nazis did.

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