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.

John Badcock, Real Life in London, 1821


From Chapter XIX in John Badcock’s Real Life In London, Volumes I. and II. Or, The Rambles And Adventures Of Bob Tallyho, Esq., And His Cousin, The Hon. Tom Dashall, Through The Metropolis; Exhibiting A Living Picture Of Fashionable Characters, Manners, And Amusements In High And Low Life. London, 1821. Source: Project Gutenberg.


During this time, having turned to the right on leaving the Woolpack, instead of the left, they were pursuing their way down Gracechurch Street, in a line with London Bridge, without discovering their mistake; nor were they aware of the situation they were in till they reached the Monument.

“Zounds!” said Tom, “we are all wrong here.”

“All right,” said Merrywell—“all right, my boys—go it, my kidwhys.”

Bob hearing his Cousin’s exclamation, began to make enquiries.

“Never mind,” said Tom, “we shall get housed presently—I have it—I know the shop—it is but seldom I get out of the way, so come along—I dare say we shall see some more fun yet.”

Saying this, he led the way down Thames street and in a short time introduced them to the celebrated house in Dark-House Lane, kept open at all hours of the night for the accommodation of persons coming to market, and going off by the Gravesend boats and packets early in the morning.

On entering this house of nocturnal convenience, a wide field for observation was immediately opened to the mind of Dashall: he was no novice to the varieties of character generally to be found within its walls; and he anticipated an opportunity of imparting considerable information to his Cousin, though somewhat clogg’d by his companions; being known however at the bar, he found no difficulty in providing them with beds: which being accomplished,

“Now,” said Tom, “for a new scene in Real Life. Here we are situated at Billingsgate, on the banks of the Thames; in another hour it will be all alive—we will refresh ourselves with coffee, and then look around us; but while it is preparing, we will take a survey of the interior—button up—tie a silk handkerchief round your neck, and we may perhaps escape suspicion of being mere lookers on; by which means we shall be enabled to mingle with the customers in the tap-room, and no doubt you will see some rum ones.”

They now entered the tap or general room, which exhibited an appearance beyond the powers of description.

In one corner lay a Sailor fast asleep, having taken so much ballast on board as to prevent the possibility of any longer attending to the log, but with due precaution resting his head on a bundle which he intended to take on board his ship with him in the morning, and apparently well guarded by a female on each side; in another was a weather-beaten Fisherman in a Guernsey frock and a thick woollen night-cap, who, having just arrived with a cargo of fish, was toiling away time till the commencement of the market with a pipe and a pint, by whose side was seated a large Newfoundland dog, whose gravity of countenance formed an excellent contrast with that of a man who was entertaining the Fisherman with a history of his adventures through the day, and who in return was allowed to participate in the repeatedly filled pint—a Waterman in his coat and badge ready for a customer—and two women, each having a shallow basket for the purpose of supplying themselves with fish at the first market for the next day’s sale.

“Going to Gravesend, Gentlemen?” enquired the Waterman, as Tom and Bob took their seats near him.

“No,” was the reply.

“Beg pardon, Sir; thought as how you was going down, and mought want a boat, that’s all; hope no offence.”

“I vas down at the Frying Pan in Brick Lane yesterday, (said the communicative adventurer;) Snivelling Bill and Carrotty Poll was there in rum order—you know Carrotty? Poll? so Poll, (Good health to you) you knows how gallows lushy she gets—veil, as I vas saying, she had had a good day vith her fish, and bang she comes back to Bill—you knows she’s rather nutty upon Bill, and according to my thinking they manages things pretty veil together, only you see as how she is too many for him: so, vhen she comes back, b———t me if Bill vasn’t a playing at skittles, and hadn’t sold a dab all day; howsomdever he was a vinning the lush, so you know Bill didn’t care—but, my eyes! how she did blow him up vhen she com’d in and see’d him just a going to bowl and tip, she tipp’d him a vollopper right across the snout vhat made the skittles dance again, and bang goes the bowl at her sconce instead of the skittles: it vas lucky for her it did not hit her, for if it had, I’ll be d———d if ever she’d a cried Buy my live flounders any more—he vas at play vith Sam Stripe the tailor; so the flea-catcher he jumps in between ‘em, and being a piece-botcher, he thought he could be peace-maker, but it voudn’t do, tho’ he jump’d about like a parch’d pea in a frying-pan—Poll called him Stitch louse, bid him pick up his needles and be off—Bill vanted to get at Poll, Poll vanted to get at Bill—and between them the poor Tailor got more stripes upon his jacket than there is colours in a harlequin’s breeches at Bartlemy Fair—Here’s good health to you—it was a bodkin to a but of brandy poor Snip didn’t skip out of this here vorld into that ‘are?”

“And how did they settle it?” enquired the Fisherman.

“I’ll tell you all about it: I never see’d such a b———dy lark in all my life; poor Sam is at all times as thin as a thread-paper, and being but the ninth part of a man, he stood no chance between a man and a voman—Bill vas bleeding at the konk like a half-killed hog, and Carrotty Moll, full of fire and fury, vas defending herself vith her fish-basket—Billy vas a snivelling, Poll a stoearing, and the poor Tailor in a funk—thinks I to myself, this here vont never do—so up I goes to Poll—Poll, says I———’ To the devil I pitch you,’ says she—only you know I knows Poll veil enough—she tried to sneak it over me, but she found as how I know’d better—Poll, says I, hold your luff—give us no more patter about this here rum rig—I’ll give cost price for the fish, and you shall have the money; and while I was bargaining with her, d———n me if Bill and the Tailor vasn’t a milling avay in good style, till Stripe’s wife comes in, gives Snivelling Billy a cross-buttock and bolted off vith her fancy, like as the song says, The devil took the tailor vith the broad cloth under his arm.”

I never laugh’d so in all my life; I thought I should———’

At this moment a nod from the Landlord informed Tom his coffee was ready, when they were ushered into the parlour.

Bob, who had during the conversation in the other room, (which had occasionally been interrupted by the snores of the sleepy Sailor, the giggling of the Girls who appeared to have him in charge, and a growl from the dog,) been particularly attentive to the narration of this adventure, remarked that there was a peculiarity of dialect introduced, which, to a person coming out of the country, would have been wholly unintelligible.

“Yes,” replied Tom, “almost every trade and every calling of which the numerous inhabitants of this overgrown town is composed, has a language of its own, differing as widely from each other as those of provincials. Nor is this less observable in high life, where every one seems at times to aim at rendering himself conspicuous for some extraordinary mode of expression. But come, I perceive the morning is shedding its rays upon us, and we shall be able to take a survey of the more general visitors to this place of extensive utility and resort—already you may hear the rumbling of carts in Thames Street, and the shrill voice of the Fishwives, who are preparing for a day’s work, which they will nearly finish before two-thirds of the population leave their pillows. This market, which is principally supplied by fishing smacks and boats coming from the sea up the river Thames, and partly by land carriage from every distance within the limits of England, and part of Wales, is open every morning at day-light, and supplies the retailers for some miles round the Metropolis. The regular shop-keepers come here in carts, to purchase of what is called the Fish Salesman, who stands as it were between the Fisherman who brings his cargo to market and the Retailer; but there are innumerable hawkers of fish through the streets, who come and purchase for themselves at first hand, particularly of mackarel, herrings, sprats, lobsters, shrimps, flounders, soles, &c. and also of cod and salmon when in season, and at a moderate rate, composing an heterogeneous group of persons and characters, not easily to be met with elsewhere.” “Then,” said Bob, “there is a certainty of high and exalted entertainment;—I should suppose the supply of fish is very considerable.”

“The quantity of fish consumed,” replied Tom, “in London is comparatively small, fish being excessively dear in general: and this is perhaps the most culpable defect in the supply of the capital, considering that the rivers of Great Britain and the seas round her coast teem with that food.—There are on an average about 2500 cargoes of fish, of 40 tons each, brought to Billingsgate, and about 20,000 tons by land carriage, making a total of about 120,000 tons; and the street venders form a sample of low life in all its situations.

“————In such indexes, although small
To their subsequent volumes, there is seen
The baby figure of the giant mass
Of things to come at large.”

And the language you have already heard forms a part of what may be termed Cockneyism.”

“Cockneyism,” said Bob, with an inquisitiveness in his countenance.

“Yes,” continued Tom, “Cockney is universally known to be the contemptuous appellation given to an uneducated native of London, brought into life within the sound of Bow bell—pert and conceited, yet truly ignorant, they generally discover themselves by their mode of speech, notwithstanding they have frequent opportunities of hearing the best language; the cause, I apprehend, is a carelessness of every thing but the accumulation of money, which is considered so important with them—that they seem at all times to be in eager pursuit of it.

“O Plutus, god of gold! thine aid impart,
Teach me to catch the money-catching art;
Or, sly Mercurius!  pilfering god of old,
Thy lesser mysteries at least unfold.”

You will hear these gentry frequently deliver themselves in something like the following manner:

“My eyes, Jim, vat slippy valking ‘tis this here morning—I should ave fell’d right down if so be as how I adn’t cotch’d ould of a postis—vere does you thinks I ave been? vy all the vay to Vapping Vail, an a top o Tower Hill—I seed a voman pillar’d—such scrouging and squeeging, and peltin vith heggs—ow funny!

“A female Fruit-seller will say to a Lady Oyster-dealer—Law, my dear Mrs. Melton, how ar you this cowld morning, Mem.?—the streets vil be nice and dirty—vel, for my part, I always likes dry vether—do your usband vork at Foxall still?—I likes to warm my cowld nose vith a pinch of your snuff—ow wery obliging—But come, I hear the bustle of Billingsgate, and you shall have a peep at the people. By this time they are all alive.”

Bob laughed at his Cousin’s specimens of cockney language, and they sallied forth, to make further observations.

It was now a fine morning, the Sun shone with resplendent lustre upon all around them, and danced in playful dimples on the sportive Thames; there was however but little opportunity at the moment for them to contemplate subjects of this sort, their eyes and ears being wholly attracted by the passing and repassing of the persons desirous to sell or supply themselves with fish; Thames Street was almost blocked up with carts, and the hallooing and bawling of the different drivers, loading or unloading, formed an occasional symphony to the continual hum of those who were moving in all directions to and from the market.

“By yer leaf” said a sturdy built fellow, sweating under a load of fish which appeared to press him almost down—“what the devil do you stand in the way for?”

Bob, in stepping on one side to make room for this man to pass, unfortunately trod upon the toe of an Hibernian lady, who was bearing away a large basket of shrimps alive, and at the same time gave her arm so forcible a jerk with his elbow, as disengaged her hand from the load; by which means the whole cargo was overturned smack into the bosom of a smartly dressed youth in white ducks, who was conducting some Ladies on board one of the Gravesend boats. The confusion that followed is scarcely to be conceived—the agitation of Talt who at hearing the vociferated lamentations of the Irish woman—the spluttering of the disconcerted Dandy—the declaration of the owner of the shrimps, “that so help her God he should pay for her property”—the loud laughter of those around them, who appeared to enjoy the embarrassment of the whole party—and the shrimps hopping and jumping about amid the dirt and slush of the pavement, while the Ladies were hunting those which had fallen into the bosom of their conductor—formed a scene altogether, which, in spite of the confusion of his Cousin, almost convulsed the Hon. Tom Dashall with laughter, and which served but to increase the rancour of the owner of the shrimps, and the poor toe-suffering Irishwoman, the execrations of the Dandy Gentleman and his Ladies, and the miseries of poor Bob; to escape from which, he gave the Hibernian and her employer enough to purchase plaster for the one, and a fresh cargo for the other, and seizing Tom by the arm, dragged him away from the scene of his misfortunes in fishery.

Their progress however was presently impeded by a sudden scream, which appeared to come from a female, and .drew together almost all the people on the spot, it seemed as if it had been a preconcerted signal for a general muster, and it was quickly ascertained that fisty-cuffs were the order of the day, by the vociferations of the spectators, and the loud acclamations of “Go it, Poll—pitch it into her—mill her snitcher—veil done, Sail—all pluck—game to the back-bone—peppermint her upper-story, and grapple her knowledge-box—D———n my eyes, but that vas a good one, it has altered her weather-cock and shifted her wind—There’s your dairies—stand out of the way—Upon my sole you have overturned all my flounders—D———n you and your dabbs too.”

Tom and Bob took up a favourable position for observation at the corner of a fish-stall, where they could quietly witness the combatants, and take a general survey of the proceedings.

“Now,” said Tom, “here is a lark for you, a female fight.”

“Fine salmon, or cod, Gentlemen,” said an elderly woman—“I wish I could tempt you to be customers.”

“Well,” said Bob, “they are at it in good earnest.”

“O yes,” said the woman, “we always have it in real earnest, no sham—I wish Poll may sarve her out, for Sall is a d———d saucy b———h at all times.”

“And what have they quarrelled about?” inquired Dashall.

“Jealousy, Sir, nothing else; that there man in the night-cap, with the red ruff round his neck, is Sail’s fancy man, and he sometimes lets her have a cargo of fish for services done and performed, you understand—and so Sail she comes down this morning, and she finds Poll having a phililoo with him, that’s all; but I wish they would go and have it out somewhere else, for it spoils all business—Nance, go and get us a quartern of Jacky, that I may ax these Gentlemen to drink, for its a cold morning, and perhaps they are not used to be up so early.”

Tom saw the drift of this in a moment, and taking the hint, supplied the needful to Nance, who was dispatched for the heart-cheering beverage, which they could perceive was in high reputation by those around them. The effluvia of the fish, the fumes of tobacco, and the reviving scent of the gin-bottle, rendered their olfactory salutations truly delightful. Nor could they escape the Fish-wife without becoming participators in the half pint of blue ruin.

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