This fish market started life as a general market where coal, salt and other goods were traded, but seems to have become an exclusive fish market in the 17th century. The second part of the name suggests that it all started as a watergate, possibly as early as Roman times and it was certainly used as a small port by the Saxons. Where the first part came from is not entirely certain. It may have been that a man named Billing, Byllins or even Blynes owned the land or the right of the watergate where the fish were brought on land. Another – albeit very unlikely – suggestion is that the name comes from Belin or Belinus, a mythical British king. Whatever the origin of the name, up to the 15th century, fish was brought further upstream to Queenhithe (hithe means small port), but that meant navigating under London Bridge and over time, Billingsgate, to the east of the bridge, became more popular.
In 1698/9, an Act of Parliament (10 & 11 William III, c.24) was passed to make Billingsgate “a free and open market for all sorts of fish whatsoever” as a reaction to extortionate practices by fishmongers who would not allow the itinerant fish sellers to buy their wares directly from the fishermen but only from them – at inflated prices of course. The Act installed quality controls, regulated the tolls that could be asked from fishermen offloading their cargo and also made sure that fish bought at the market could be sold elsewhere. For the protection of the English fishermen, no foreign vessel was allowed to offer fish to the market, with one exception: live eels could be sold by Dutch fishermen. Please note that the Act does not speak of fish caught by foreigners, just of fish brought on land by foreigners, which allowed for so-called carriers or hatch-boats to collect fish from any fishermen, for instance at Gravesend or Dover, and bring it to the market. In 1840 the Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction (volume 36) alleged that one third of fish brought to Billingsgate was actually caught by foreigners.
At first, the market stalls were individual wooden sheds or booths which stood haphazardly in the area of the dock, but by the middle of the 19th century, a grander scheme was envisioned. The first purpose-built building, designed by John Jay, was erected in the 1850 and stood between Lower Thames Street and the riverside. The building quickly proved to be too small and was replaced in 1876 by the arcaded market hall designed by the City Architect Sir Horace Jones.
The ever increasing trade not only required a larger building, but also better access roads away from the City centre. In 1883, Punch already ridiculed the traffic congestion near the market by publishing a puzzle listing four problems of which numbers one and two sum up to problem nicely: 1. How to get into the market; 2. How to get out of the market. But it took until 1982 for the market to be moved to its present location in the Docklands area. The traders, especially the women, of the market were known for their coarse language and swearing; opprobrious and foul-mouth language is called ‘Billingsgate discourse’ according to Benjamin Martin’s Lingua Britannica Reformata of 1754. But the market also made a great subject for depiction by artists such as William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson.
Billingsgate came in for a lot of negative reactions from travellers. Nathaniel Hawthorne visited the market in 1857 and commented that it was “a dirty, evil-smelling, crowded precinct, thronged with people carrying fish on their heads, and lined with fish-shops and fish-stalls, and pervaded with a fishy odour. The footwalk was narrow, —as indeed was the whole street,— and filthy to travel upon”.(1) Warnings on what to wear were also in order, “Let the visitor beware how he enters the market in a good coat, for, as sure as he goes in in broad cloth, he will come out in scale armour. They are not polite at Billingsgate, as all the world knows, and ‘by your leave’ is only a preliminary to your hat being knocked off your head by a bushel of oysters or a basket of crabs”.(2) Have a look here for more lively descriptions of the market.
Did you know that George Orwell worked at Billingsgate for a while? “When a porter is having trouble to get his barrow up, he shouts ‘Up the ‘ill!’ and you spring forward (there is fierce competition for the jobs, of course) and shove the barrow behind. The payment is ‘twopence an up’. They take on about one shover-up for four hundredweight, and the work knocks it out of your thighs and elbows, but you don’t get enough jobs to tire you out. Standing there from five till nearly midday, I never made more than 1/6d”.(3) He used his knowledge in Keep the Aspidistra Flying where Gordon Comstock tries his hand at the barrow-pushing game, but he did not last long and had to fall back on the charity of his sister.(4)
Old Billingsgate Market, the 1877 building that is, has fortunately not fallen foul of the demolition hammer and is now a hospitality and events venue. The weathervanes on top of the building can still be admired. If you want to have a look at the new market at Canary Wharf, you will have to get up early as it is only open between 4am and 9.30am.(5)
(1) Nathaniel Hawthorne , The English Note-Books, 15 Nov. 1857.
(2) Dr. Andrew Wynter, ‘The London Commissariat’, Quarterly Review, No. cxc, vol. xcv 1854.
(3) George Orwell, Diary, 19 Sept. to 8 Oct. 1931. Quote is taken from hoppicking.wordpress.com.
(4) George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, (London, Penguin Books), 2000, p. 54.
(5) Official site can be found here.
You may also like to read the post on the Billingsgate Christian Mission.