BILLINGSGATE GREW from its beginnings as a general goods market to become a fish market by the 16th century. In 1698 it was formerly recognised as such by an Act of Parliament. By then, the market had built up its reputation as a noisy place. Ned Ward described the speech of Billingsgate’s fish-wives in The London Spy, published around 1700:
. . . we turn’d into the crowd of thumb-ringed flat-caps, from the age of seven to seventy, who sat snarling and grunting at one another over their sprats and whitings, like a pack of dogs over the cook-maid’s kindness. The angry surges of a tempestuous tittle-tattle ran mountains high, dashing into my ears on every side.
‘Billingsgate’ also survives to the present day in American English as a noun meaning ‘coarsely abusive, foul, or profane language’. So it was perhaps with caution that the BBC set out in 1935 to record at the fish market as part of Dinner is Served, a series of broadcasts on food production in Britain.
This recording (BBC library number 1066) was made or broadcast on 17 October 1935 and it consists mostly of scripted interviews with a brief and intriguing excerpt of market traders singing a sales cry in unison. The disc label describes the contents as Selling herrings and kippers. Cries. Porters’ work carrying weights.
The interviews sound as if they involve at least one actor alongside actual market porters reading the lines written for them. In the case of the latter, the men may have been interviewed off-air to begin with and their speech transcribed and edited for them to read to the microphone.
Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.