Sound-worlds of old Billingsgate

A contribution to the Marine Lives Thames soundscape project in the form of a new site section. Here, historical resources are compiled to address how the old Billingsgate fish market might have sounded, and how people in the past thought it sounded.


Thomas Miller, Picturesque Sketches of London, Past and Present, 1849


From Chapter XVII of Pictureseque Sketches of London, Past and Present, as serialised in the Illustrated London News of 10 November 1849. Source: British Newspaper Archive.


It is on record that the old ports or quays of Billingsgate and Queenhithe were the cause of as many squabbles in ancient days as were ever witnessed in our own times by any two rival companies struggling for pre-eminence; for when the customs derviced from the latter furnished the Queen of Henry III with pin-money, a sharp look-out was kept on the river, and fines frequently inflicted on masters of vessels who landed their fish at Billingsgate instead of the Royal quay. But great London soon burst through all these restraints – the old merchants were proof even against Royal mandates – they objected to passing through the dangerous arches of the crazy old bridge – so at least obtained the privilege of landing goods at whichever quay they pleased.

Those ancient fishmongers must have been able to muster together a goodly company; for, on hearing of the victory Edward I had obtained over the Scots, they paraded the City with above a thousand horsemen; trumpets sounding, and banners streaming, on which were emblazoned their quaint old arms, and followed by all the pride of their honourable guild.

What a stir there must have been about Fish-street, and Fish-street-hill, and all along the line of what now forms Thames-street, when that famous fishmonger, Walworth, Lord Mayor of London, slew Wat Tyler in Smithfield, and thus at one blow cut off the “head and front” of the great rebellion. What a running to and fro, and shaking of hands, there must have been! What talking along the dusky quays about privileges which would be extended to their own company, and which none other would be allowed to share! And what disappointment must have been depicted on their countenances when they found that all the reward the City was to receive was an addition to its arms! If true, it was like giving the chaff to him that separated it from the wheat.

Those who were purveyors to the Court had, in former times, the first pickings of the market; not a single fish was allowed to be sold until they had been served. We can picture the swagger with which the officers of the Royal household entered the fish-market in those days, when a banquet was about to be given in the Tower. What pushing and cramming would there be to obtain a nod of recognition, now recommending the quality of some fish, then inquiring when the next execution would take place; their conversation shifting from the salmon to the scaffold – from oysters, which in those primitive times sold for twopence a bushel, to the means of obtaining the best place when the next nobleman was beheaded.

There was a struggle for free trade in those high narrow streets five hundred years ago; from Billingsgate to Queenhithe all was a scene of commotion, for the great fishmongers were aiming at monopoly, but the poor hawkers who picked up their living, as they do in our day, by crying fish in the streets, rose in a body, and so far carried the day that they were allowed to hawk fish, but not to keep a stall, nor stay in any of the streets a moment longer than while supplying their chance customers, for there was a strict police ever on the look-out after the poor hawkers, and the command of “Now then, move on there,” is nothing new. Nor were the fishmongers themselves free from “most biting laws;” for they were only allowed, at one period, to take a penny profit in every shilling, not to offer the same fish for sale (as fresh) a second day, nor to water their fish more than twice a-day. If they did, and were found out, there stood the stocks ever in readiness, and up went the beams, and in went their legs; and there they were compelled to sit out the given time, no doubt to the great merriment of many of the bystanders. Their stalls in these primitive times were only boards placed beside the pavement. From these they got to erecting little sheds, then shops and high houses. But the fronts of these were ordered to be left open, and the fish exposed. They would not allow sales to take place in dark and obscure spots; all must be done in the open noon of day, or heavy penalties be paid for offending against the laws.

In remote times, long before the Norman invasion, frequent mention is made of the English Fisheries. To three plough-lands in Kent, a fishery on the Thames is added. Ethelstan gave a piece of land for the use of taking fish, and 40 acres were given with fishing, on the condition of every year receiving 50 salmon. The rent of land was frequently paid in eels; and in Elphit’s dialogues, written for the instruction of the Saxon youths, we find that the implements used were nets, rods, lines, and baited hooks, which varied but little from those of the present times.

Those who have once reached the Monument, may “smell” their way to Billingsgate; for there is an old monastic odour about the shops, recalling Lent and stock fish, and telling you that you are hemmed in with smoked haddock and salted herrings - which, when nothing else could be had, it might have been a heavy penance to have lived upon, and caused the poor sinner to have made many a wry face while devouring such dry and thirsty food. Once in Thames-street, and you are in a land of danger. You come in contact with big men, bending beneath bulky boxes; huge hogsheads swing high above you, and make you tremble as you look up, while treading the slippery pavement; and you know that if the crane-chain were to slip, or the hooks to which the ponderous packages are affixed give way, you must be crushed like an egg which an elephant tramples upon; for danger ever dangles in the air about Billingsgate. The pavement is often blocked up by barrels of oranges and herrings, and hampers of dried sprats, the latter crammed together as close as white-bait in the stomach of an Alderman when he has just dined at Lovegrove’s. Sometimes the atmosphere is so impregnated with the smell of shrimps, that you almost fancy it has been raining shrimp sauce. You are now, as it were, in the very manufactory, where fish are brought and emptied out to be sold, where there is no attempt at show; but, rough and shining as when they flapped about on the ocean sand or were thrown from the first hand ashore, so do you see them here in the early morning – rough and fresh as potatoes just dug out of the mould. There is none that clean blue twilight-look which gleams and plays about the shops of the West-end fishmongers, and is sometimes enlivened by the sunny flash of the gold-fishes that float about the silver-looking globes, which give such a picturesque appearance to the shops in that more refined neighbourhood. Here all is of “the fish fishy.”

To this “rough and ready” market, those who wish to see how matters are managed must come early; for a minute or two before five o’clock the wholesale dealers are seated in their stalls, or recesses; while at the end of the market, nearest the river, the porters are drawn up in a row, each ready with his first load of fish – each standing within the allotted line, like hounds eager to spring from the leash. The clock strikes, and off they rush, helter-skelter, every man Jack putting his best leg foremost, each eager to be the first to reach the stall of his employer. Slap goes the skate out of the baskets - they shoot out cod like coke, pitching the plaice wherever they can find room, and off they run for another load, at the same rapid pace, nor cease until the salesman has received the whole of his stock.

Then the sale commences, the seller fixing his price, and the buyer offering what he considers to be the value; sometimes they “meet each other half way,” as it is called, one lowering and the other advancing. The fish are generally sold in lots, without being weighed, and it requires good judgment on both sides to reach the right mark. Although there are so many salesmen, and generally such ample choice, the prices vary much, as fish brought from one part of the coast are often superior to what come from another.

But the fun of the market commences with the hawkers, when they come in to see what has been left by the large retail dealers; then you may hear a little of what is called “Billingsgate;” though, instead of the old renowned blackguardism, it is generally most good-natured “chaff.”

“Fresh do you call these?” says one, who finds the price too high for him. “Look how they rolls up the whites of their eyes, as if they vanted a little rain. I should say they has’nt had a blessed smell of water for this week past.”

“Think I’ve been robbing somebody,” says another. “Vy, bless you, all the whole bilin’ of my customers hasn’t got so much amongst them as would buy the lot – no, not if they sold their toothpicks.”

Billingsgate is more like a wholesale warehouse than a fish-market, although you may purchase a single mackerel in it. The hundreds of carts which are drawn up in Thames-street, proclaim how far and wide the produce of river and ocean is dispersed. From the next street to the most remote suburb are the loads of fish borne, to be washed and laid out temptingly in the thousands of shops which abound in London and the surrounding suburbs. Nor is the supply limited to this circle: the rapid trains carry off tons of fish to the distance towns, where they arrive in time enough for dinner; thus sending into the country the turbot and salmon as fresh as we receive it in the metropolis; for what are a hundred miles on the great railways?

Old Billingsgate will soon be pulled down; the muddy dock, where so many fishing-smacks have been harboured, will be filled up; and instead of the old-fashioned market, which illustrates this article, a pile will be erected more befitting the greatest city in the world – more like the noble edifice which graced our columns last week, when the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal partook of our “City fare.”

Eels cannot be brought to Billingsgate in such perfection as they formerly were. We have now before us a Parliamentary Report, given in about twenty-one years ago, complaining of the poisonous state of the Thames. The following evidence of Mr. Butcher, a fish-salesman, and agent for Dutch vessels, will be interesting at this moment:–

“Eight Dutch vessels arrived at Gravesend with full cargoes of healthy eels, in July, 1827, and the following is the state in which they reached the London market:–

First 15,000 lb. . . Reached market alive . . 4000 lb.
Second 14,000 lb. . . ” . . 4000 lb.
Third 13,000 lb. . . ” . . 3000 lb.
Fourth 14,000 lb. . . ” . . 4000 lb.

And so on, in proportion – but little more than a fourth of the cargo being marketed alive.”

Mr Butcher stated to the commissioners, that, in 1815 (or twelve years before), “one of these vessels seldom lost more than thirty pounds weight of eels in a night in coming up the river; but that the water had become so bad, that, as it flowed through the wells in the bottom of the vessels, it poisoned the eels, and the quantity which died was more than three times the quantity marketed.”

Another witness (James Newland, master of a vessel, and sixteen years in the trade) says:– “Eels have not lived in Thames water as they did formerly. First observed the difference five or six years ago (before 1827), and finds it get worse every summer. Other fish are also affected by bad water, and will endeavour to get out of it on to pieces of floating wood.”

Another witness says, “An hour after high water, eels will die in so short a time that I have had 3000 lb. weight dead in half an hour.”
“I have seen flounders,” says Thomas Hatherill, “put up their heads above the water, and if there was a bundle of weeds in the river they would get on it out of the water.”

Mr. John Goldham, the yeoman of Billingsgate, deposed, that, “As clerk of the market, it was his business to ascertain the quality of fish, and seize and condemn that which was bad; that, twenty-five years ago (1802), above and below London-bridge, between Deptford and Richmond, 400 fishermen, each having a boy and boat, gained their livelihood by fishing in the river; that he had known them 3000 smelt and ten salmon in one haul: the Thames salmon were then the best, and frequently sold for 3s. or 4s. a pound; now, the fishery is gone.”

The further evidence of Mr. John Goldham is at this time so important, that we have given it in a note below, only adding that Sir Francis Burdett presided at the meeting, held in Westminster, which was the cause of the Commission being appointed.

As early as 1307, the Earl of Lincoln complained before Parliament that the river of Wells (Walbrook, Clement’s Well, Skinner’s Well, Clerk’s Well, Holy Well, &c.), running into the Thames, was obstructed by “filth of the tanners, and such others.” On this complaint being made, the river was ordered to be cleaned.

Honest old Stowe says of the Thames in his day, “What should I speak of the fat and sweet salmons daily taken in this stream, and that in such plenty (after the time of smelt is past) as no river in Europe is able to exceed it? But what store also of barbels, trouts, chevens, perches, smelts, breams, roaches, daces, gudgeons, flounders, shrimps, eeels, &c.,  are commonly to be had therein? I refer me to them that know by experience better than I,. by reason of their daily trade of fishing in the same. And albeit it seemeth from time to time to be as it were defrauded in sundry wise of these her large commodities, by the insatiable avarice of fishermen, yet this famous river complaineth commonly of no want, but the more it loseth at one time it gaineth at another.”

The immense traffic carried on in the winding Thames will never allow of its being stored with “fat sweet” fish as in Stowe’s time, but still we hope the great changes that are in progress will, at least, turn this mighty common sewer into something more like the ancient “silver Thames” which our old poets sang about, and prevent so many dead and dying eels being baked up into pies, and devoured by the poor purchasers of these dangerous dainties, as there now are.

Mr. Simon’s annual report to the City Commissioners of Sewers will, if we mistake not, do more towards arousing the inhabitants of London to agitate for pure air and sweet water, than any other remonstrance has hitherto done. It is clearly, ably, and powerfully drawn up; and done in such terse and simple language, that a child can understand it.