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 London Fishery laid open, 1759


Unknown author, The London Fishery laid open: or the Arts of the Fishers and Fishmongers set in a true light, etc. London, 1759. Source: British Library, shelfmark 1029.e.28.


The anonymous author begins by describing and emphasising the problem of price-fixing in food markets: “There is, perhaps, no instance, where these laws and cautions, are more the concern of every individual, as well as those who have the care of the public, than such as relate to abuses, in the supply of our public markets with our daily food. Monopolies are injurious in all trades, but in none worse, than in those on which this supply depends. In this business of markets there is also another mischief, which generally attends that of monopoly, and that is forestalling, and, where these get a head, either by evil custom, or combination, it is high time for the state to look out and supply a remedy.”

The author demonstrates that the problem has a long history, citing an act made in the 31st year of the reign of Edward III (i.e. around 1343)  to control forestalling of herrings at Great Yarmouth by the fishermen. The act ascertained the price of fish and laid out a series of punishments for those fishermen and ‘hostlers’ exceeding the price.

Further statutes meant that fishermen came under intense scrutiny and “finding they were so well watched, and marked by the public, and that they could not of themselves find the ready means to get the better of the law, took the fishmongers into their assistance, and let them into their secrets, this, as it often happens in such cases, proved fatal to them. The fishmongers soon got the power over them; and, with respect to the public, out did the fishermen in all their arts, and became the greater aggressors.”

The author mentions an ‘inquisition’ of 1669 against the fishmongers, with 92 indicted and fined 500 marks. But this remedy proved short-lived: “Notwithstanding this exemplary proceeding, the fishmongers still went on in their abuse of the people till it became again a public concern”. The author then relates an act in the 10th and 11th years of the reign of William III (i.e. around 1699) and quotes from it:

“Whereas the public wealth, honour, and safety of this kingdom, as well as the maintenance of trade, and support of navigation, as in many other respects, depend on the improvement and encouragement of the fishery; and Billingsgate having been, time out of mind, a free market for all manner of floating and salt fish, nevertheless divers abuses evidently destructive to that trade, have been of late years practised, by raising new impositions and tolls, and by forestalling of the markets, and other methods used by the fishmongers, in not permitting the fish-women, and others, to buy the said fish of the fishermen, to sell them again in London and elsewhere; by which means the fishermen are obliged to sell their fish to the said fishmongers, at their own rates, to the great discouragement of the fishermen, for remedy whereof, &c.”

The 1699 act appears, at face value, to be well designed: “By this act, Billingsgate market was freed from impositions, and the fishermen allowed to bring his fish there, paying only a certain final toll, in lieu of all others, as mentioned in the act. And it was thereby declared to be lawful for any one to buy or sell fish there, and for those who bought, to sell again, in any other market, by retail; except, nevertheless, that none but fishmongers should be permitted to sell fish in public or fixed shops, or houses. After this, the act prohibits the bad practice of the fishmongers, as therein mentioned, and restrains them from buying at the market any quantity of fish, but should be for their own sale or use, and not to sell it to any fishmonger to sell again.”

However: “One would have thought such an act would have kept the fishmongers in some order [. . .] but this was not the case.” The author details how the fishmongers have arranged to control the market by obliging the fishermen to stop at Gravesend before they go to London. There part of the catch, especially of the ‘best sorts of fish’, will be diverted into a water-filled ‘well-boat’, where the fish are kept for up to five or six weeks before being sent to Billingsgate. “Fishmongers soon became owners, of fishing vessels, hiring fishermen to go masters, in those wherein they were sole owners, and gaining the direction in others, where they could be owners but in part.”

Descriptions are given of some of the different kinds of fish sold at Billingsgate and how they’re brought to market:

Fresh cod: “This fish is caught, in almost all parts round our coasts; and when the fishing vessel returns from fishing, it stops as before observed at Gravesend [. . .] In this cod fishery, there are not less than 100 vessels employed which, one with another, make ten voyages in a year; a vessel for this fishery will cost 5 or 600 l. and sails with 8 or 9 hands, men, and boys, at 14 and 15s. a week each. [. . .]  Other expenses incident to the market, are, 15s. for a boat from Gravesend, to carry up the fish. The Lord Mayor’s dues is 1 s. 9 d. the toll for groundage is, as in the act of King William, and 5 or 6 s. a boat paid the porters for shoreing and lotting the fish. These articles, with the salesman’s commission at 9 d. in the pound for selling the fish, include the whole charge, attending a cod fishing vessel, and the sale of the cargo, except the victualling.”

Lobster: “This fish is caught all along the British Channel, and on the coast of Scotland and Norway, and on our coast of Northumberland. The fishermen out of cod season, go to Norway, and buy their cargo, and this they continue from February to June and July. [. . .] The fishermen also go for lobsters to Scotland, and to our north coast, and contract with the fishermen there for the season, beginning in December, and ending in May.”

Herring: “This fish has its abode, in the seas between the north of Scotland, Norway, and Denmark, from whence they come through the British Channel, as far as the coast of Normandy; from the middle of September to the middle of October, they are caught on the coast of Norfolk and Suffolk, near Yarmouth, Leostaffe, and Southwold, and, on the coast of Sussex, by the people there; and any one who will be a dealer, goes thither, with his vessel, yaul, or wherry, and buys a cargo of these fishers, and hastens to Billingsgate, as fast as he can, and so continues going and coming, the whole season.”

Pilchard: caught off the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, and conveyed to Billingsgate in the same way as herring.

Sprat: caught everywhere off the British coast, likewise conveyed to Billingsgate as herring and pilchard.

Mackrel [sic]: caught around June off Cornwall and Suffolk, conveyed to Billingsgate as above.

Haddock and Whiting: caught in coastal waters nearer to London.

Turbot: caught by Dutch fishermen and sold at exorbitant prices.

The author provides an overview of how Billingsgate works day to day: “This market of Billingsgate opens at three and five o’clock in the morning, at different times of the year, and continues open till all the fish is sold, which may be in two or three hours, and sometimes more. When the fish comes to the market, where it is brought either in small fishing vessels or boats, it is put into lots, or parcels, by porters, who bring it on shore, and place the lots on benches in the market, behind which the salesmen stand to sell; every salesman taking his fish, as consigned to him by the owner. The salesman sets the price to the buyer; of late years he is grown a great governor of the market, and is a buyer of fish himself, as the fishmonger was, to sell again to the retailer; thus making another profit to arise from the fish, before it gets to the consumer; by all which, it is easy to conceive, how much it is even in his power to enhance the price, and how much more so, if he is in combination with the fishmonger and fisherman.”

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