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.

Charles Dickens, Dickens's dictionary of the Thames, 1885


The entry for Billingsgate Market from Charles Dickens, Dickens’s dictionary of the Thames, from its source to the Nore, 1885: an unconventional handbook. London, 1885. Source: Internet Archive and Victorian London.


Billingsgate Market, in Thames-street, is about 300 yards east of London Bridge, and adjoins the west side of the Custom House. The derivation of its name is matter of dispute. All that is certainly known is that the appropriation of the site to the purpose of a fish-market took place in the year 1699 A.D., and that a fish-market it has remained ever since.

On the 27th of October, 1874, the first stone was laid of the handsome building which was to supersede the “elegant Italian structure” of Mr. Bunning, which, with its tall campanile, had long been one of the most conspicuous shore marks of the river below bridge. The construction presented considerable difficulties, both from the necessity of carrying it out without disturbance of the daily business of the market, and from the nature of the ground on which it had to be built, and which required an immense amount of preparation in the way of a platform of solid concrete, 15 feet in thickness. In 1877, however, the building was completed, and on the 20th of July of that year formally opened for business. Its river facade still adheres more or less to the Italian Gothic legend, but the campamile has disappeared, and the building now presents a uniform frontage of two lofty storeys, the centre portion being thrown a little back. The wings, which are, perhaps, artistically speaking, somewhat small in proportion to the central block, are occupied by taverns, at each of which is a daily fish ordinary.

All along the front runs a broad floating stage, alongside of which come the smaller craft by which the water-borne fish are brought up the river, and which vary in size and rig from the specially built steamer of more than 200 tons register, whose cargo has been collected from the smacks of the North Sea, to the little open barge in which cod or salmon has been lightered from the big sea-going ships in the docks of Victoria or Millwall.

The landing process begins every morning, summer and winter, at 5 a.m., when the tolling of the big bell announces the opening of the market, and a rush takes place to secure the earliest sale.

The great hall in which the sales take place, and which occupies the whole ground-floor of the centre building, is let off in 140 “stands” at a rate per week, which, by the bye-laws of the market, sanctioned by the Board of Trade, is not to exceed 9d. per superficial foot. The total weekly supply of the market averages by water 800 to 850 tons, and by land as nearly as possible double that amount, and the whole of this enormous mass has to be carried on men’s shoulders from ship or machine to salesman’s stall, there to be disposed of in some four hours or so, more or less. The market is at its height from 5 a.m. to about 9, which which time the greater part of the morning supply has been cleared off; but the market remains nominally open until 3 p.m.

Meanwhile, in the great dungeon-like basement below the market, a somewhat similar scene to that above is being enacted with the day’s supply of shell-fish.

The staff of the market includes about eleven hundred licensed porters, besides constables, detectives, clerks, &c.; and the business, rough and riotous as it is, is conducted, so far as the official personnel is concerned, with machine-like precision and punctuality. The utmost care, too, is taken to ensure the most scrupulous cleanliness throughout the building.

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