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.

W. S. Gilbert, London Characters and the Humorous Side of London Life, 1870


From Henry Mayhew and W. S. Gilbert, London Characters and the humorous side of London life. London, 1870. Source: British Library, shelfmark C.132.g.70.


Summer or winter, light or dark, rain or shine, it matters not; as the clock strikes five, the bell rings and the market opens. The Clerk of the Market, the representative of the Corporation, is there, to act the part of major-domo; the vessels are there, hauled up in tiers in the river, laden with their silvery cargoes; the porters are there, running to and fro between the ships and the market; the railway vans and carts are there, with fish brought from the several railway stations; the salesmen are there at their stands or benches; and the buyers are there, ready to buy and pay. As yet all is tolerably clean. There is, of course, that “fish-like smell” which Trinculo speaks of; but Billingsgate dirt and Billingsgate vilification have not yet commenced. The street dealers, the costermongers or “costers,” have not yet made their appearance; they wait till their “betters,” the regular fishmongers, have paid good prices for choice fish, and then they rush in to purchase everything that is left. It is a wonderful scene, even at this early hour. How Thames Street can contain all the railway vans that throng it is a marvel. From Paddington, from Camden, from King’s Cross, from Shoreditch, from Fenchurch Street, from the depots over the water, these vehicles arrive in numbers perfectly bewildering. Every one wants to get the prime of the market; every salesman tells his clients that good prices depend almost as much on early arrival as on fine quality; and thus evey cargo of fish is pushed on to market with as little delay as need be. Pickford objurgates Chaplin and Horne, Macnamara is wrathful at Parker, every van in in every other van’s way. Fish Street Hill and Thames Street, Pudding Lane and Botolph Lane, Love Lane and Darkhouse Lane, all are one jam and muddle, horses entangling in shafts, and shafts in wheels. A civilian, a non-fisherman, has no business there at such a time; woe to his black coat or black hat, if he stands in the path of the porters; he will have a finny sprinkling before he can well look about him; or perhaps the tail of a big fish will flap in his face, or lobsters’ claws will threaten to grapple him.

It was always thus at Billingsgate, even before the days of railways, and before Mr. Bunning built the present market—-a structure not without elegance on the river front; but the street arrangements are becoming more crowded and difficult to manage every year. In the old days, when trains and locomotives were unthought of, nearly all the fish reached Billingsgate by water. The broad-wheeled waggons were too slow to bring up the perishable commodity in good time; while the mail and passenger coaches, even if the passengers had been willing (which they would not) to submit to the odour, could not have brought up any large amount of fish. At an intermediate period, say about 1830 or 1835, certain bold traders, at some of our seaport towns, put on four-horse fast vans, which brought up cargoes of fish during the night, and deposited them at Billingsgate before five in the morning; but this was a costly mode of conveyance, which could not be safely incurred except for the best and high-priced fish. When it became an established fact that railways could bring up fish in any quantity, and in a few hours, from almost any port in England, the effect was striking; the supply at Billingsgate became regular instead of intermitting; and the midland towns, such as Birmingham amd Wolverhampton, were placed within reach of supplies that were literally unattainable under the old system. It used to be a very exciting scene at the river-side at Billingsgate. As the West-end fishmongers are always willing to pay well for the earliest and choicest fish, the owners of the smacks and other boats had a strong incentive to arrive early at “the Gate;” those who came first were absolutely certain of obtaining the best prices for their fish; the laggards had to content themselves with what they could get. If there happened to be a very heavy haul of any one kind of fish on any one day, the disproportion of price was still more marked; for as there were no electric telegraphs to transmit the news, the salesmen had no certain means of knowing that a large supply was forthcoming; they sold, and the crack fishmongers bought, the first cargo at good prices; and when the bulk of the supply arrived, there was no adequate demand at the market. In such a state of things there is no such process as holding back, no warehousing till next day; the fish must all be sold—-if not for pounds, for shillings; if not for shillings, for pence. Any delay in this matter would lead to the production of such attacks upon the olfactory nerves as would speedily call for the interference of the officers of health. In what way a glut in the market is disposed of we shall explain presently.

It is really wonderful to see by how many routes, and from what varied sources, fish now reach Billingsgate. The smack owners, sharpening their wits at the rivalry of railroads, do not “let the grass grow under their feet;” they call steam to their aid, and get the fish up to market with a celerity which their forefathers would not have dreamed of. Take the Yarmouth region, for instance. The fishermen along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast congregate towards the fishing banks in the North Sea in such number that their vessels form quite a fleet. They remain out two, three, four, or even so much as six weeks, never coming to land in the interval. A fast-sailing cutter or steamer visits the bank or station every day, carrying out provisions and stores to the fishermen, and bringing back the fish that have been caught. Thus laden, the cutter or steamer puts on all her speed, and brings the fish to land, to Yarmouth, to Harwich, or even right to Billingsgate, according as distance, wind and tide, may show to be best. If to Yarmouth or Harwich, a “fish train” is made up every night, which brings the catch to Shoreditch station, whence vans carry it to Billingsgate. There used, in the olden days, to be fish vans from those eastern parts, which, on account of the peculiar nature of the service, were specially exempted from post-horse duty. As matters now are, the fishermen, when the richness of the shoal is diminished, return to shore after several weeks, to mend their nets, repair their vessels, and refresh themselves after their arduous labours. At all the fishing towns round the coast, the telegraphic wire has furnished a wonderful aid to the dealers; for it announces to the salesmen at Billingsgate the quantity and description of fish en route, and thereby enables them to decide whether to sell it all at Billingsgate, or to send some of it at once to an inland town. This celerity in railway conveyance and in telegraphic communication gives rise to many curious features in the fish-trade. Tourists and pleasure-seekers at Brighton, Hastings, and other coast towns, are often puzzled to understand the fact that fish, although caught and landed near at hand, is not cheaper there than in London: nay, it sometimes happens that good fish is not obtainable either at a high price or low. The explanation is to be sought in the fact that a market is certain at Billingsgate, uncertain elsewhere. A good catch of mackerel off Hastings might be too large to command a sale on the spot; whereas, if sent up to the great centre the salesmen would soon find purchasers for it. It is, in a similar way, a subject of vexation in the salmon districts that the best salmon are so uniformly sent to London as to leave only the secondary specimens for local consumption. The dealers will go to the best market that is open for them; and it is of no avail to be angry thereat. It is said that few families are more insufficiently supplied with vegetables than those living near market-gardens; the cause being similar to that here under notice. Perhaps the most remarkable fact, however, in connection with this subject is, that the fish often make a double journey, say from Brighton to Billingsgate and back again. The Brighton fishermen and the Brighton fishmonger do not deal one with another so much as might be supposed; the one sends to Billingsgate to sell, the other to buy; and each is willing to incur a little expense for carriage to insure a certain market.

Of course the marketing peculiarities depend in some degree on the different kinds of fish, obtainable as they are in different parts of the sea, and under very varying circumstances. Yarmouth sends up chiefly herrings—-caught by the drift-net in deep water, or the seine-net in shallow—-sometimes a hundred tons in a night. The north of England, and a large part of Scotland, consign more largely salmon to the Billingsgate market. These salmon mostly come packed in ice, in boxes, of which the London and North-Western and the Great Northern Railway Companies are intrusted with large numbers; or else in welled steamers. The South-Western is more extensively the line for the mackerel trade; while pilchards find their way upon the Great Western. But this classification is growing less and less definite every year; most of the kinds of fish are now landed at many different ports which have railway communication with the metropolis; and the railway companies compete with each other too keenly to allow much diversity in carriage charges. The up-river fish, such as plaice, roach, dace, &c., come down to Billingsgate by boat, and are, it is said, bought more largely by the Jews than by other classes of the community. The rare, the epicurean white-bait, so much prized by cabinet ministers, aldermen, and others, who know the mysteries of the taverns at Blackwall and Greenwich, are certainly a piscatorial puzzle; for they are caught in the dirty part of the Thames between Blackwall and Woolwich, in the night-time, at certain seasons of the year, and are yet so delicate although the water is so dirty.

With regard to the oyster trade, suffice it here to say that the smacks and other vessels, when they arrive, are moored in front of the wharf, to form what is called “Oyster Street.” The 4th of August is still “oyster day,” as it used to be, and it is still a wonderful day of bustle and excitement at Billingsgate; but oysters now manage to reach London in other ways before that date, and the traditional formality is not quite so decided as it once was. Lobsters come in vast numbers even from so distant a locality as the shores of Norway, the fiords or firths of which are very rich in that kind of fish. They are brought by swift vessels across the North Sea to Grimsby, and thence by the Great Northern Railway to London. Other portions of the supply are obtained from the Orkney and Shetland coasts, and others from the Channel Islands. It has been known, on rare occasions, that thirty thousand lobsters have reached Billingsgate in one day; but, however large the number be, all find a market, the three million mouths in the metropolis, and the many additional millions in the provinces, having capacity to devour them all. There are some queer-looking places in Darkhouse Lane and Love Lane, near Billingsgate, where the lobsters and crabs undergo that boiling process which changes their colour from black to red. A basketful of lobsters is plunged into a boiling cauldron and kept there twenty minutes. As to the poor crabs, they are first killed by a prick with a needle, for else they would dash off their claws in the convulsive agony occasioned by the hot water! Sprats “come in,” as it is called, about the 9th of November: and there is an ineradicable belief that the chief magistrate of the City of London always has a dish of sprats on the table at Guildhall banquet on Lord Mayor’s Day. The shoals of this fish being very uncertain, and the fish being largely bought by the working classes of London, the sprat excitement at Billingsgate, when there has been a good haul, is something marvellous. Soles are brought mostly by trawling-boats belonging to Barking, which fish in the North Sea, and which are owned by several companies; or rather, the trawlers catch the fish, and then smart, fast-sailing cutters bring the fish up to Billingsgate. Eels, of the larger and coarser kind, patronized by eel-pie makers and cheap soup-makers, mostly come in heavy Dutch boats, where they writhe and dabble about in wells or tanks full of water; but the more delicate eels are caught nearer home. Cod are literally “knocked on the head” just before being sent to Billingsgate. A “dainty live cod” is of course not seen in the London fishmongers’ shops, and still less in the barrow of the costermonger; but, nevertheless, there is an attempt made to approach as near to this liveliness as may be practicable. The fish, brought alive in welled vessels, are dexterously killed by a blow on the head, and sent up directly to Billingsgate by rail, when the high-class fishmongers buy them at once, before attending to other fish. We may be sure that there is some adequate reason for this, known to and admitted by the initiated. The fish caught by the trawl-net, such as turbot, brill, soles, plaice, haddock, skate, halibut, and dabs, are very largely caught in the sandbanks which lie off Holland and Denmark. The trawl net is in the form of a large bag open at one end; this is suspended from the stern of the fishing-lugger, which drags it at a slow pace over the fishing-banks. Two or three hundred vessels are out at once on this trade, remaining sometimes three or four months, and sending their produce to market in the rapid vessels already mentioned. The best kinds of trawl-fish, such as turbot, brill, and soles, are kept apart, separate from the plaice, haddock, skate, &c., which are regarded as inferior. The “costers” buy the haddock largely, and clean and cure them, cut them up, fry them in oil, and sell them for poor people’s suppers. The best trawl-fish are gutted before they are packed, or the fishmongers will have nothing to do with them. Concerning mackerel, a curious change has taken place within a year or two. Fine large mackerel are now sent all the way from Norway, packed in ice in boxes, like salmon, landed at Grimsby or some other eastern port, and then sent onward by rail. The mackerel on our own coast seem to have become smaller than of yore, and thus this new Norwegian supply is very welcome.

All these varieties of fish alike, then, and others not here named, are forwarded to the mighty metropolitan market for sale. And here the reader must bear in mind that the real seller does not come into personal communication with the real buyer. As at Mark Lane, where the cornfactor comes between the farmer and the miller; as at the Coal Exchange, where the coalfactor acts as an intermedium between the pit-owner and the coal-merchant; as at the Cattle Market, where the Smithfield (so called) salesman conducts the sales, from the grazier to the butcher—-so at Billingsgate does the fish-salesman make the best bargain he can for the fisherman, and takes the money from the fishmonger. More than two thousand years ago, according to the Rev. Mr. Badham, there were middlemen of this class, and men, too, of no little account in their own estimation and in the estimation of the world. The Billingsgate salesman must be at business by five in the morning, and his work is ended by eleven or twelve o’clock. They all assemble, many scores of them, in time for the ringing of the market-bell at five o’clock. Each has his stand, for which a rental is paid to the Corporation; and as there are always more applicants for stands than stands to give them, the privilege is a valued one. Some of these salesmen have shops in Thames Street, or in the neighbouring lanes and alleys; but the majority have stands only in Billingsgate. Some deal mostly in one kind of fish only, some take all indiscriminately. In most cases (as we have said) each, when he comes to business in the morning, has the means of knowing what kind and quantity of fish will be consigned to him for sale. The electric telegraph does all this work, while we laggards are fast asleep. Of the seven hundred regular fishmongers in the metropolis, how many attend Billingsgate we do not know; but it is probable most of them do so, as by no other means can proper purchases be made. At any rate, the number of fishmongers’ carts within a furlong or so of the market is something enormous. The crack fishmongers go to the stalls of the salesmen who habitually receive consignments of the best fish; and as there is not much haggling about price, a vast amount of trade is conducted within the first hour or two. Porters bring in the hampers and boxes of fine fish, the fishmongers examine them rapidly, and the thing is soon done. Of course, anything like a regular price for fish is out of the question; the supply varies greatly, and the price varies with the supply. The salesman does the best he can for his client, and the fishmonger does the best he can for himself.

But the liveliest scene at Billingsgate, the fun of the affair, is when the costermongers come. This may be at seven o’clock or so, after the “dons” have taken off the fish that command a high price. How many there are of these costermongers it would be impossible to say, because the same men (and women) deal in fruit and vegetables from Covent Garden, or in fish from Billingsgate, according to the abundance or scarcity of different commodities. Somehow or other, by some kind of freemasonry among themselves, they contrive to learn, in a wonderfully short space of time, whether there is a good supply of herrings, sprats, mackerel, &c., at the “Gate,” and they will flock down thither literally by the thousands. The men and boys all wear caps—-leather, hairy, felt, cloth, anything will do; but a cap it must be, a hat would not be orthodox. The intensity displayed by these dealers is very marked and characteristic; they have only a few shillings each with which to speculate, and they must so manage these shillings as to get a day’s profit out of their transactions. They do not buy of the principal salesmen. There is a class called by the extraordinary name of bommarees or bummarees (for what reason even the “oldest inhabitant” could not tell), who buy largely from the leaders in the trade, and then sell again to the peripatetics—-the street dealers. They are not fishmongers; they buy and sell again during the same day, and in the market itself. The bommaree, perched on his rostrum (which may be a salmon-box or a herring-barrel), summons a group of costermongers around him, and puts up lot after lot for sale. There is a peculiar lingo adopted, only in part intelligible to the outer world—-a shouting and vociferating that seems to be part of the system. The owners of the hairy caps are eagerly grouped into a mass, inspecting the fish; and every man or boy makes a wonderfully rapid calculation of the probable price that it would be worth his while to go to. The salesman, or bommaree, has no auctioneer’s hammer; he brings the right palm down with a clap upon the left to denote that a lot has been sold; and the fishy money goes from the costermonger’s fishy hand into the bommaree’s fishy hand with the utmost promptness. Most of the dried-fish salesmen congregate under the arcade in front of the market; most of the dealers in periwinkles, cockles, and mussels (which are bought chiefly by women), in the basement story, where there are tubs of these shell-fish almost as large as brewers’ vats; but the other kinds of fish are sold in the great market—-a quadrangular area covered with a roof supported by pillars, and lighted by skylights. The world knows no such fishy pillars elsewhere as these; for every pillar is a leaning-post for salesmen, bommarees, porters, costermongers, baskets, hampers, and fish-boxes.

And now the reader may fairly ask, what is the quantity of fish which in a day, or in a year, or any other definite period, is thus sold at Billingsgate? Echo answers the question; but the Clerk of the Market does not, will not, cannot. We are assured by the experienced and observant Mr. Deering, who has filled this post for many years, that all statements on this particular subject must necessarily be mere guesses. No person whatever is in possession of the data. There are many reasons for this. In the first place, there are no duties on fish, no customs on the imported fish, nor excise on that caught on our own coasts; and therefore there are no official books of quantities and numbers. In the second place, there is no regularity in the supply; no fisherman or fishmonger, salesman or bommaree, can tell whether tomorrow night’s catch will be a rich or a poor one. In the third place, the Corporation of the City of London do not charge market-dues according to the quantity of fish sold or brought in for sale; so much per van or waggon, so much per smack or cutter, so much per stand in the market—-these are the items charged for. In the fourth place, each salesman, knowing his own amount of business, is not at all likely to mention that amount to other folks. Out of (say) a hundred of them, each may form a guess of the extent of business transacted by the other ninety-nine; but we should have to compare a hundred different guesses, to test the validity of each. Nor could the carriers assist us much; for if every railway company, and every boat or steamer owner, were even so communicative as to tell how many loads of fish had been conveyed to Billingsgate in a year, we should still be far from knowing the quantities of each kind that made up the aggregate. On these various grounds it is believed that the annual trade of Billingsgate cannot be accurately stated. Some years ago Mr. Henry Mayhew, in a series of remarkable articles in the “Morning Chronicle,” gave a tabulated statement of the probable amount of this trade; and about five or six years later, Dr. Wynter, in the “Quarterly Review,” quoted the opinion of some Billingsgate authority, that the statement was probably not in excess of the truth. We will therefore give the figures, the reader being quite at liberty to marvel at them as much as he likes:—-

Salmon . . . 29,000 boxes, 7 in a box.
Cod, live . . 400,000, averaging 10 lb. each.
” barrelled 15,000 barrels, 50 to a barrel.
” salt . . 1,600,000, averaging 5 lb. each.
Haddocks . . 2,470,000, at 2 lb. each.
Do., smoked . 65,000 barrels, 300 to a barrel.
Soles . . . 97,520,000, at 1/4 lb. each.
Mackerel . . 23,620,000, at 1 lb. each.
Herrings . . 250,000 barrels, at 150 each.
Do., red . . 100,000 barrels, at 500 each.
Do. bloaters . 265,000 baskets, at 150 each.
Eels . . . . 9,000,000, at 6 to 1 lb.
Whiting . . 17,920,000, at 6 oz. each.
Plaice . . . 36,600,000, at 1 lb, each.
Turbot . . . 800,000, at 7 lb. each.
Brill & Mullet . . 1,220,000, at 3 lb. each.
Oysters . . 500,000,000, at 400 to a peck.
Crabs . . . 600,000,
Lobsters . . 1,200,000.
Prawns . . 12 tons, at 120 to 1 lb.
Shrimps . . 192,295 gallons, at 329 to a pint.

These figures nearly take one’s breath away. What on earth becomes of the shells of five hundred million oysters, and the hard red coats of the eighteen hundred thousand lobsters and crabs, besides the shells of the mussels, cockles, and winkles, which are not here enumerated? Another learned authority, Mr. Braithwaite Poole, when he was goods manager of the London and North-Western Railway Company, brought the shell-fish as well as the other fish into his calculations, and startled us with such quantities as fifty million mussels, seventy million cockles, three hundred million periwinkles, five hundred million shrimps, and twelve hundred million herrings. In short, putting this and that together, he told us that about four thousand million fish, weighing a quarter of a million tons, and bringing two million sterling, were sold annually at Billingsgate! Generally speaking, Mr. Poole’s figures make a tolerably near approach to those of Mr. Mayhew; and therefore it may possibly be that we Londoners—-men and women, boys, girls, and babies—-after supplying country folks—- eat about two fish each every average day, taking our fair share between turbot, salmon, and cod at one end of the series, and sprats, periwinkles and shrimps at the other. Not a little curious is this ichthyophagous estimate. If Mr. Frank Buckland, Mr. Francis, and the other useful men who are endeavouring to improve and increase the artificial rearing of fish, should succeed in their endeavours, we shall, as a matter of course, make an advance as a fish-eating people.

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