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.

Ned Ward, The London Spy, Part III, 1699


From Part III of Ned Ward’s The London Spy. London, 1699. Source: British Library, shelfmark 74/816.m.19 [1-91].


We now turn’d down to the Thames-side, where the frightful roaring of the Bridge Water-falls so astonish’d my Eyes, and terrifi’d my Ears, That, like Roger in his Mill, or the Inhabitants near the Cataracts of the Nile, I could hear no Voice softer than a Speaking-Trumpet, or the audable Organ of a Scolding Fish-woman. After I had feasted my Intellects with this surprising Novelty, we tun’d towards Billingsgate; where a parcel of Fellows came running upon us in a great fury, crying out (as I thought) Schollars, Schollars, will you have any Whores? Lord Bless me, said I to my Friend, what a wicked place is this, that a Man in a Black Coat cannot pass about his business without being ask’d in publick such an abominable Question? Hauling and pulling him about by his Arms, as if they would force him to commit Fornication in spight of his Teeth: Notwithstanding I told ‘em we wanted no Whores, or would we have any, yet they would scarce be satisfied. My Friend laugh’d heartily at my innocent Mistake, and undeceiv’d my Ignorance; telling me they were Watermen, who distinguish’d themselves by the Titles of Oares and Scullers; which made me Blush at my Error like a Bashful Lady that has drop’d her Garter, or a Modest Man who cripples his Jest by a forgetful Hesitation.

After we had loos’d our selves, with much difficulty, from the unparallell’d Insolency of Charon‘s Progeny, we turn’d into a croud of Thumb-Ring’d 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 Domestick Dogs over the Cook-maids kindness, or a parcel of hungry Sows at a Trough of Hogwash; every one looking as sharp as a strolling Fortuneteller, that I fear’d they would have pick’d my Pocket with their Eyes, or have brought me under an ill-Tongue before I could have shot this dangerous Gulph, where the Surgesof a Tempestuous Tittle-Tattle run Mountain-high, dashing into my Ears on every side, that I was as glad when I had weather’d this Storm of Verbosity, as an Insolent Creditor who has slip’d the Villanous gripes of a gang of Protection-Cadgers.

Having thus happily quitted the stink of Sprats, and the untunable Clamours of the Rangling Society, we pas’d round the Dock, where some Salt-water Slaves, according to their well-bred Custom, were pelting of Sons of Whores at one another, about the Birth of their Oyster-Boats. One unhappily being acquainted how to touch the other in his tenderest Part, gaul’d his impatient Adversary with the provoking Name of Cuck old; which intolerable Indignity so fermented the Choler of the little Snail-catcher, that he resolved to shew himself a Champion in defences of his Wives Virtues; and leaping into the others Boat, there, like a true-bred Cock, made a vigorous assault upon his Enemies Dunghill. But a sad Disaster attended the poor Combatants, for in their Scuffle both fell Overboard: But the Tide being half spent, the Water was not high enough to cool their Courage: For notwithstanding they maintain’d an Amphibious Fight, and Battled, like Ducks and Drakes, in two Elements at once, till the Cuck old had bravely subdued his Antagonist, and made his poor Victim (half Drown’d and half knock’d o’th Head) Publickly acknowledge the unspotted Reputation of the Victors Dutchess; who at the end of the Fray, having receiv’d Intelligence of her Lord and Masters Engagement, came down to the Dock-side Crown’d with an Oyster-Basket; and there, with an audable Voice, set up a passionate Justification of her own Honesty, to the great Diversion of the whole Auditory. Her Leviathan-Shape was a good testimony of her Virtues, for had our first She-Parent been but half so Homely, the Devil would have been damn’d nine times deeper into the Infernal Abyss, before he would have Robb’d her of her Innocence, or frustrated Adam in the Blessings of his Help-mate.

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