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 II, 1699


From Part II of Ned Ward’s The London Spy compleat, in eighteen Parts. London, 1709. Source: British Library, shelfmark G.14062,63.


By this time we were come to Billingsgate; and in a narrow Lane, as dark as a Burying Vault, which stunk of stale Sprats, Piss, and Sir-reverence, we groped about, like a couple of Thieves, in a Cole hole, to find the Entrance of that Nocturnal Theatre, in whose delightful Scenes we propos’d to terminate the Nights felicity. At last we stumbled upon the Threshold of a Gloomy Cavern; where, at a distance, we saw Lights burning like Candles in a Haunted Cave, where Ghosts and Goblins keep their Midnight Revels.

We no sooner enter’d, but heard such a number of Female Tongues, so Promiscuously engag’d in a Mess of Tittle-Tattle, That had a Water-man knock’d down his Wife with his Stretcher, and been trying for the Fact by a Parliament of Fish-Women, they could not have exercis’d their nimble Instruments with more Impatience.

We e’en turn’d our selves into the Smoaky Boozing Ken amongst them; where, round the Fire, sat a tatter’d Assembly of Fat Motherly Flat-caps, with their Fish-Baskets hanging upon their Heads instead of Riding-Hoods, with every one her Nipperkin of warm Ale and Brandy; and as many Rings upon their Thumbs as belongs to a suit of Bed-Curtains. Every one as slender in the Waste as a Dutch Skipper in the Buttocks; and look’d together, like a Litter of Squab Elephants. Their Noses were as sharp as the Gnomon of a Dial, and look’d as blew as if they had been Frost-nip’d. Their Cheeks, were as plump as an Infants Buttocks, but adorn’d with as many Crimson Carnossities as the Face of a Noblemans Butler, who has liv’d Forty Years in the Family; and plainly proved by the depth of their Colour, that Brandy is a Nobler Die than Claret Their Tongues were as loud as the Temple-Horn, that calls the Cuck old-makers to their Commons: And every word they spoke was at least in the Piitch of Double Gammut. Their chief Clamour was against High Heads and Patches; and said it would have been a very good Law, if Queen Mary had effected her Design, and brought the Proud Minks of the Town to have worn High Crown’d Hats instead of Top-knots.

Then one looking over her Shoulder, and spying me behind her, accosts me after this manner; God save you, honest Master, will you Pledge me? Aye, Dame, said I, with all my Heart. Why then, says she, here’s a Health to mine A—s, and a Fart for those that owe no Money.

Lord help my poor Masters, says another, they look as if they had disoblig’d there Wives or their Landladies, and they would not rise, and let them in to Night.

Come, come away, says my Friend, let’s seek another Apartment: These saucy Tongu’d old Whores will tease us to Death; which unhappy words one of them over-heard; and starting up like a Fury, thus gave her Lungs a Breathing.

You White-liver’d Son of a Fleet-street Bumsitter, begot upon a Chair at Noonday, between Ludgate and Temple-Bar. You Puppily Off-spring of a Mangy Night-walker, who was forc’d to Play the Whore an Hour before she cry’d out, to pay the Bawd her Midwife, for bringing you, you Bastard, into the World. Who is it that you call Whore?

Away slunk my Friend and I into another Room, and left them to spend their malignant Spirits by them­selves, and were as thankful to Providence we escap’d so imminent a Danger, as if deliver’d from the Rage of so many Wild-Cats. And indeed if their Tallons were as sharp as their Tongues, they need not fear a Combat with all the Beasts of America.

We were now tumbled into Company compos’d of as many sorts of Rakes as you may see Whores at a Buttock-Ball. One in a long Wig and Muff, look­ing as fretful as a broken Gamester, biting his Nailes as if he was ready to Curse aloud Confound the Dice. Another as dull as if the Grey Mare was the better Horse; and deny’d him Enterance for keeping late Hours. The next as brisk and lively as if just come of Age, and had got his Means in his own Hands, bought his Time of his Master, and fear’d no colours: But thinking the day too short for his Fortune, resolves the Night shall make amends, by lengthening out his Pleasures.

Up in a Corner sat a couple of brawny Watermen, one Eating Broil’d Red Herrings, and the other Bread and Cheese and Onions, that had a Welch-man Spew’d up his Cous-bobby and Leek-Porridge into a Dutch­man’s Close Stool Pan, it could not have produc’d a fi­ner Nose-gay to have Poison’d the Devil.

Then in blunders a Drunken Tar, as great in his Thoughts as an Admiral; and calls to the Boy in the Bar after this manner. You Horse-turdly Spawn of a Fresh-water Lubber, why don’t you hand me a Candle, and induct me to my Cabbin, that I may Belay my self? As the Boy lights him up Stairs, he stumbles; and Curses, The Devil D—n the Ratlings of these Wooden Shrowds, for I have broke my Shins against ’em, I had ra­ther run up to the Cross Trees of the Main-top-mast in a Storm, than six Rounds of these confounded Land Ladders after the Drinking a Kan of Phlip or a Bowl of Punch.

Next this came in a spruce Blade with a pretended Wife, ask’d what time the Boats went off to Grave­send, they told him about four in the Morning. Alas, says he, that will be too long to sit up: Can’t my Wife and I have a Bed here? Yes, yes, Sir, if you please, reply’d the pious Beldam, God forbid else, we have several couple a­bove in Bed, that wait for the Tide as well as you Sir. So up they were lighted Post-haste to the Old Trade of Basket-making.

After these Bolted in two Seamen, with a little crooked Fiddler before them, short Pipes in their Mouths, Oaken Truncheons in their Hands, Thrum-Caps upon their Heads, and Canvas Trunks upon their Arses. We had the Good Luck for these to stagger in our Company, whose unpolish’d Behavi­our, Apish Guestures, and Maritime Nonsense, added no small Pleasure to the Night, but gave us hopes of as much Mirth as a London Apprentice finds at a Bar­tholomew Fair Poppet Show, or a Country ’Squire a­mong a gang of Stroling Comedians.

The two lousie Subjects of the pickled God Neptune, having wash’d off their Brine with a Plentiful Dose of Fresh-water Ale, began to be as brisk as a Town Rake that has shak’d off his Poverty, or a Court Libertine an old Mistress. In their Frolicks they happened to espy a Hook drove into the Mantle-Tree, which they immediately converted to a very Comical use, laying violent Hands on my little Lord Crowdero, and by the hind slit of his Breeches, hung him upon the Ten­ter, who being sorely affrighted at this unexpected Elevation, shot that into his Trousers, which made the Crooked Vermin out-stink a Pole-Cat. In this condition, pendant like a Play House Machine, or a Brazen Cherub over a Church Branch; Begging with humble Submission to be set safe upon Terra Firma. All the time dripping his Guts upon the Earth like a Roasted Wood-Cock; till at last, by rigling, broke the String of his Breeches, and down came our Broil’d Scraper into his own Sauce, upon his feeble Instrument; and was a Sweet Bit ready to be serv’d up to a weak Appetite.

This put the whole Company into such an extra­vagant fit of Laughter, That had we seen a Bailiff bogg’d, or a Fellow break his Neck at Foot-ball, it could not have been a greater Jest to the Spectators. But as soon as the Angry Homunculus had gathered himself up from his own Dunghill, he gave the two Tritons such an untuneable Lesson upon his ill tun’d Organ, that the whining of a Dog-drawn Bitch, or the winding of a Cat-call, could not have disoblig’d our Ears with less grateful Harmony. When he had thus given vent to his ungovernable Indignation, he cockt the Arm of his Hump’d Shoulder upon his Hip, and away rowl’d the Runlet of Gall, turning his unsa­voury Bung-hole upon the Company.

The Tarpaulins now began to talk to each other of their Travels; and of the sundry remarkable Acci­dents which had happened in their Voyages. One swore They once found it so excessive Hot going to Guinea, that they us’d no Fire to Boil their Kettle, but drest all their Beef above Deck in the Sun-shine: And could Bake, Boil, Fry, or Stew, as well as in an Ambrals Cook-room.

Says the other, I never was in so Hot a Climate, as that, but I have been so many degrees to the Northward, where it has been so Cold, it has frozen our Words in our Mouths, that we could not hear one another speak, till we came into a warmer Latitude to thaw ’em; and then all our Discourse broke out together like a Clap of Thunder, that there was never such a Confusion of Tongues ever heard at Babel.

Says his Companion, That’s very strange, but I have known stranger things to be true. I once was sitting upon my Chest between Decks, Lousing an old Canvas Jacket, and we had found by our Observation that day, we were wi­thin a few Minutes of being under the Tropick of Cancer; and on a sudden it began to Lower; and the Larboard Watch handed in our Sails, for fear of a Tornado or a Squale: At last a Beam of Lightening darted thro’ an o­pen Port, melted one of the Guns, and went through a pair of Buck-skin Breeches I had on, and Burnt the Lappets of a blew Shirt to Tinder, hiss’d as it came like a Rattle-Snake, but did my Body no manner of Damage.

As our Salt-water Wits were thus Romancing, who should stagger into our Company, but an old Acquaintance of my Friends, who (as I understood by his Talk) was an Exchange Commodity-Broker: A kind of Mungril Match-maker, between Cock-Bawd, and Pimp; or rather a Composition of both. He made more a roaring than half a dozen Drunken Porters, and was as full of Freaks as a Madman at the Full of the Moon. He Guzzl’d, and Rattl’d, Smoak’d, and Star’d like a Fury: And every time he spoke ’twas with so much Earnestness, that I thought his Eyes would have flown out of his Head in pursuit of his Words. All he talk’d was lowd Nonsense; and the heat of his Brain setting Fire to his Tongue, made e­very thing he said so wonderfully hot, it made the Ears of all People glow that heard ’em. At last he pluck’d out a Catalogue of what Fortunes he had at his Disposal, viz.

A Mercers Daughter in Cornhil, about Seventeen, who was unluckily Kiss’d by her Fathers Prentice, which being spread among the Neighbourhood, he is willing to give her two hundred Pounds advance a­bove an Equality, to salve up the flaw, to any Honest Young Shop-keeper, that will wink at a fault to bet­ter his Condition.

An old Maid that had Liv’d 30 Years in an Alder­mans Family, who with her Wages, Lady’s old Cloaths, and Money got for private Service, is worth about three hundred pounds; and thinks her self Qualified for keeping a Victualers Bar, is willing to bestow her self upon any honest Free-man, if clear in the World, tho’ not worth a Groat.
A young Buxom Widdow, on the Back-side of the Change, who was Married five Years, but never had a Child; is still in her Mourning, wonderfully Pret­ty, and tollerably Honest: She is willing to dispose of her self to a brisk, likely Man, within or without the Year: Is in a good Shop well custom’d, and needs no Money.

About half a Hundred Exchange Girles, some Tall, some Short, some Black, some Fair, some Handsome, some Housewifely, some Homely, some Vertuous, but all with White-Chappel Portions, and will make very good Wives for those who have more Money than Wit, and more Faith than Jealousie.

A Vintners Daughter bred at the Dancing School, becomes a Bar well, steps a Minuet finely, Plays John come Kiss me now, now, now, sweetly upon the Vir­ginals, makes a very graceful Figure, and is as Proud, as she’s Handsome: Will have a great many Quart-Pots, old Pewter, Linnen, and other Houshold-stuff to her Portion; but whoever Marries her, must Ride her with a Curb, or she may prove unlucky to the Bane of her Rider.

When he had thus diverted us with his Catalogue of Job’s Comforters, which he pretended were upon Sale, and at his disposal, my Friend began to put me in mind of the considerable Business we had upon Change, at Gresham Colledge, Bedlam, and other places, on the morrow, which occasion’d us to think of Bed, though with as much indifferency as a worn-out Stallion does of a pretty Punk, or a new Married Woman of her Prayers. For the pleasures of the Night were so en­gaging, and every various Humour such a wake­ful piece of Drollery, that a Mountebank and his Jack Pudding, or a set of Morrice-Dancers, could not give more content to a crowd of Country Specta­tors, than the lively Action of what is here repeated did afford us. But to qualifie our selves the better for our Task, we thought it necessary to take some Rest: So, accordingly, were conducted to a Room which stunk as bad of Pitch, Tar, Sweat, and Tallow, as a Ship between Decks, when the: Tars are in their Hamocks: But the unseasonableness of the hour, forc’d us to be content. And so good Night to ye.


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