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.

The Case of the Poor Fishermen using Billingsgate Market, 1699


Printed petition: The Case of the Poor Fishermen using Billingsgate Market, humbly offer’d to the consideration of Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons in Parliament assembled. 1699. Source: British Library, shelfmark HS.74/1052.(64.).


That the Fishermen have laboured under very great Oppressions at Billingsgate, by the Lord Mayor’s Officers, and the Wet-Trading Fishmongers, they being in a Combination against the poor Fishermen, by which, great numbers of industrious poor Fishermen and their Families, will be inevitably Ruined, if some speedy Care be not taken, by maming the Market of Billingsgate Free. The Officers of all sorts do Extort great Duties from the Fishermen, for their bringing and selling Fish at Billingsgate, contracy to the Statute of 5 Eliz. cap. 5. which plainly says, That no Toll or Duty shall be paid by any Subject of England bringing Fish, and Selling the same at any Market. Any Liberty, Custom, Grant or Priviledge whatsoever to the contrary notwithstanding.

Yet notwithstanding the said Statute the Officers have forced by Exaction from the poor Fishermen, and by Compulsion made them pay in Money and Fish sometimes to the value of 14, 16 and 20 s. at a time for their bringing of a single Freight of Fish to Sell at the place aforesaid; some of whome refusing to pay those Exorbitant Demands and Impositions, have been carried before a Justice of Peace for the said City, who hath Committed them for their refusal of the aforesaid Extravagant Fees; and they be reason of their Poverty, have been frighted into a Submission and Compliance with the unreasonable Demands of the said Officers: And the Exactions or Duties aforesaid, have been forced from them by the said Officers, tho’ they have not come to Billingsgate, but went to Hungerford Market, and other places.

The Fish-mongers in their Printed Case do set forth, that Billingsgate is more properly, and till of late, was only a Landing-place for Salt, Fruit, Victuals, and other Commodities, as in truth it is; which very much hinders and onstructs the Freedom of the said Market, which its hoped the Bill now depending will Remedy.

Also, the Fish-mongers set forth in their Printed Case, that there hath been a good Custom used at Billingsgate, and pray that the same may be continued.

What they mean by this good Custom they speak of, We know not.
But to set forth their Customs and Practices there, take it as followeth.

The Fishmongers are in a Combination, insomuch, that two Fishmongers shall Buy up Fish for the whole Company, and divide the same by Lot; by which Evil Practices the Fishmongers having reduced the Buyers into so small a number, that they will have the Fish of the Fishermen at their own Price; and have commonly taken whole Freights of Fish from them, without agreeing upon any Price, whereby the Fishermen have been incapable of setting a Price on their own Goods; but three or four Days after the Fishmongers comes to the poor Fishermen, and pays what Price only they please; which ungodly Practices leave the Fishermen great Losers, and no manner of Advantage to any but themselves; which is altogether contrary to the Statute of Edw. 6 chap. 15. made against the Combinations of Butchers, Brewers, Bakers, Poulterers, Cooks, Costermongers, &c.

It is therefore Humbly Prayed, that these notorious Ingrossers and common Oppressors may be under the same Restraint, as the aforesaid Traders are by the said Act.

For that, There cannot be a Combination of a more Evil Consequence than this of the Fish-mongers, by their daily Practice in coming to Billingsgate ten or fifteen together, not to buy, but to breed Disturbances only: For, if the poor Fishermen resolve to Sell their Fish by Retale, then they in a Riotous manner fall to beating the Fishermen‘s Wives: and Servants, and throw their Fish about the Streets and in the Thames, and have in those Riots, made divers Fisherwomen Miscarry, and endangered their Lives; and if Fighting will not do, then they stand before the said Fish; abusing those that come to Buy, and preventing the Owners selling the same; and so continue till about Eight of the Clock in the Morning, which is the time of the coming of the Lord Mayor’s Officers, called the Yeomen of the Water-side (who Confederate with the Rioters, they allowing them Money for the same) who then make these Poor People depart the Place, and Sell their Goods where, and for what they can after their Market has been so Obstructed.

And for the preventing several Poor People from getting a small Competency for their Families; and, to Ingross the whole Trade to themselves, have agreed, to raise a Stock of Money for the Officers Troubles and Charges, in Prosecuting such Poor Persons by Indictment, and otherwise, under Pretence of Forestalling the Market, to their great Oppression.

Insomuch, That at a Sessions lately held for the said City, It was given in Charge to the Grand Inquest, to Present these notorious Offenders as a Common Agrievance to the Subjects.

Note, The Fishmongers suggest the necessity of a Clause in the Bill, to set a new Size upon Fish.

It is hoped that your Honours will answer their Suggestions in no other manner than according to the Size of Fish already settled; and now remaining in the Admiralty, pursuant to a by-Law made to the Fisher-mens Company.

It is Observed, That the Lord Mayor’s Officers urge to have a Clause added to the Bill for a Provision for them; for that in Passing the Bill, their pretended Toll or Fees will sink.

With Humble Submission, it’s true, and so they ought to do; not only for that they have been exceeding Extortive and Oppressive [as before is mentioned] but also for that they having no Right or Claim to any Fees; as by the Fifth of Queen Elizabeth may more fully appear.

It is therefore, humbly hoped, That your Honours will take no Notice of the Officers demands, for that they have Sallaries, and other considerable Advantages payable from the City; and for that they having been the most Original Instruments, and Encouragers of all the aforesaid Abuses.

Note, The Lord Mayor calling a Common Council a few Days since, it was proposed to Petition the Lords against this Bill, and upon the Question being put, carried in the Negative: That Court adjudging thereby, the Passing the same to be for the Benefit of the City which they Represent.

Wherefore, it’s most humbly Prayed, That what Duties shall be paid by the Fishermen at Billingsgate, may be paid to the use of the City only, and be disposed of as the Common Council shall direct.

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