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.

Maps and distant views, 1561-1827

BILLINGSGATE APPEARS in the Wyngaerde panorama dating to 1543 or 1544. It’s one of the earliest drawn depictions of London. Billingsgate appears in the panorama as an unexceptional inlet harbouring three ships abreast. High buildings appear to flank it on all three sides and there’s a suggestion of tiny human figures on the eastern quayside. The panorama can be viewed in its entirety on the Panorama of the Thames website.

The Civitas Londinum, commonly but wrongly ascribed to the cartographer Ralph Agas, was originally produced in 1560–61. The oldest surviving examples are copies made in 1633. Buildings enclose the inlet on the west and east sides, but open to the north to form the junction with Thames Street, where a small solitary building is depicted. Perhaps it fulfilled the role as a similar building shown in Horwood’s Plan of 1799 and a number of street-level drawings. Smart’s Quay on the east side shows a more open space marked symbolically with three large tuns. Wherries, one with a waterman inside, lie close by Billingsgate Stairs to the west.

An extract centred on Billingsgate from the Visscher panorama of 1616. This work was not drawn from life, but from an assemblage of existing maps and drawings. Note the similarities between the large building immediately to the west of the inlet, facing the Thames, and its representations in the Agas and Wyngaerde images above. Individual sections of the panorama can be inspected on the British Museum website.

Wenceslas Hollar’s Long View of London from Bankside, etched in 1647, is a fascinating resource. A very large (28,661 x 5,560 pixels) scan of it can be downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. The extract below is centred on Billingsgate and it shows how the individual buildings have changed since earlier depictions, whilst the general sense of a tightly-hedged dock remains. All this, of course, would be obliterated by the Great Fire of 1666. Of interest is the cluster of wherries around Billingsgate Stairs. No other point along the Thames in the Long View has such a profusion of small boats.

The speed of reconstruction following the Great Fire is shown in Ogilby and Morgan’s Large Scale Map of the City As Rebuilt By 1676. Ships have returned to Billingsgate dock, as has the cluster of wherries at Billingsgate Stairs. The plan of the adjoining buildings and alleyways would remain substantially the same until the fire of 1814 which destroyed the Custom House. The whole map can be seen at British History Online.

John Strype’s 1720 updating of Stow’s Survey of London shows much the same layout as the Ogilby and Morgan map, with the addition of some quay and alley names. This extract shows the position of London Bridge relative to Billingsgate, a distance of around 175 meters.

John Horwood’s Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster was completed in 1799 and extract below shows the dock looking slightly more truncated than in Strype’s map. Individual properties along Thames Street are numbered and names given to the nearby alleys of Dark House Lane and Smart’s Quay. Their close proximity suggests they were bound up in the social and economic life of the fish market: one of Gustave Doré‘s 1872 London illustrations shows the premises of George Stevenson, Billingsgate salesman ‘of Dark House Lane’. The small building at the junction with Thames Street, first seen in the Agas map, has returned, and the general plan is essentially the same as in 1676, although the name of Smart’s Quay appears to have shifted eastwards to another alley or passage.

The fire which destroyed the Custom House in 1814, along with some neighbouring buildings, provided the impetus to build a larger replacement more suited to the growing volume of trade. John and Christopher Greenwood’s map of 1827 shows the extent of the new Custom House with what looks like a wall or some other barrier separating it from the domain of Billingsgate market. Gone are the warehouses and passages which once lay immediately to its east.

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