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.

Walter Thornbury, Old and New London, 1878


From Chapter V of Walter Thornbury’s Old and New London: Volume 2. London, 1878. Source: British History Online.


Billingsgate, though a rough and unromantic place at the present day, has an ancient legend of its own, that associates it with royal names and venerable folk. Geoffrey of Monmouth deposeth that about 400 years before Christ’s nativity, Belin, a king of the Britons, built this gate and gave it its name, and that when he was dead the royal body was burnt, and the ashes set over the gate in a vessel of brass, upon a high pinnacle of stone. Stow, more prosaic, on the other hand, is quite satisfied that one Biling once owned the wharf, and troubles himself no further.

In Hogarth’s memorable tour (1732) he stopped at Billingsgate for the purpose of sketching. His poetical chronicler says—

“Our march we with a song begin.
Our hearts were light, our breeches thin.
We meet with nothing of adventure
Till Billingsgate’s dark house we enter;
Where we diverted were, while baiting,
With ribaldry not worth relating
(Quite suited to the dirty place);
But what most pleased us was his Grace
Of Puddle Dock, a porter grim,
Whose portrait Hogarth, in a whim,
Presented him, in caricature,
He pasted on the cellar door.”

The introduction of steamboats has much altered the aspect of Billingsgate. Formerly, passengers embarked here for Gravesend and other places down the river, and a great many sailors mingled with the salesmen and fishermen. The boats sailed only when the tide served, and the necessity of being ready at the strangest hours rendered many taverns necessary for the accommodation of travellers. “The market formerly opened two hours earlier than at present,” says Mr. Platt, writing in 1842, “and the result was demoralising and exhausting. Drink led to ribald language and fighting, but the refreshment now taken is chiefly coffee, and the general language and behaviour has improved.” The fish-fags of Ned Ward’s time have disappeared, and the business is done smarter and quicker. As late as 1842 coaches would sometimes arrive at Billingsgate from Dover or Hastings, and so affect the market. The old circle from which dealers in their carts attended the market, included Windsor, St. Albans, Hertford, Romford, and other places within twenty-five miles. Railways have now enlarged the area of purchasers to an indefinite degree. In the Dutch auction system used at Billingsgate, the prices asked sink till they reach the level of the purchaser. The cheap fishsellers practise many tricks, blowing the cod-fish larger with pipes, and mixing dead eels with live ones. Railways have made fish a main article of food with the London poor, so that, according to Mr. Mayhew, the London costermongers sell one third of the entire quantity of fish sent to Billings gate. The salesmen divide all fish into two classes, “red” and “white.” The “red” fish is salmon, all other descriptions are known as “white.”

To see this market in its busiest costermonger time, says Mr. Mayhew, the visitor should be there about seven o’clock on a Friday morning. The market opens at four, but for the first two or three hours it is attended solely by the regular fishmongers and “bummarees,” who have the pick of the best there. As soon as these are gone the costers’ sale begins. Many of the costers that usually deal in vegetables buy a little fish on the Friday. It is the fast-day of the Irish, and the mechanics’ wives run short of money at the end of the week, and so make up their dinners with fish: for this reason the attendance of costers’ barrows at Billingsgate on a Friday morning is always very great. As soon as you reach the Monument you see a line of them, with one or two tall fishmongers’ carts breaking the uniformity, and the din of the cries and commotion of the distant market begin to break on the ear like the buzzing of a hornet’s nest. The whole neighbourhood is covered with hand-barrows, some laden with baskets, others with sacks. The air is filled with a kind of sea-weedy odour, reminding one of the sea-shore; and on entering the market, the smell of whelks, red herrings, sprats, and a hundred other sorts of fish, is almost overpowering. The wooden barn-looking square where the fish is sold is, soon after six o’clock, crowded with shiny cord jackets and greasy caps. Everybody comes to Billingsgate in his worst clothes; and no one knows the length of time a coat can be worn until they have been to a fish-sale. Through the bright opening at the end are seen the tangled rigging of the oyster-boats, and the red-worsted caps of the sailors. Over the hum of voices is heard the shouts of the salesmen, who, with their white aprons, peering above the heads of the mob, stand on their tables roaring out their prices. All are bawling together—salesmen and hucksters of provisions, capes, hardware, and newspapers—till the place is a perfect Babel of competition.

“Ha-a-andsome cod! the best in the market! All alive! alive! alive, oh!”—“Ye-o-o! ye-o-o! Here’s your fine Yarmouth bloaters! Who’s the buyer?”—“Here you are, governor; splendid whiting ! some of the right sort!”—“Turbot ! turbot! All alive, turbot!”—“Glass of nice peppermint, this cold morning ? Halfpenny a glass !”—“Here you are, at your own price ! Fine soles, oh!”—“Oy! oy! oy! Now’s your time! Fine grizzling sprats ! all large, and no small!”—“Hullo! hullo, here! Beautiful lobsters! good and cheap. Fine cock crabs, all alive, oh !”—“Five brill and one turbot—have that lot for a pound! Come and look at em, governor; you won’t see a better lot in the market.”—“Here! this way; this way, for splendid skate! Skate, oh! skate, oh!”—“Had-had-had-had-haddock! All fresh and good!”—“Currant and meat puddings ! a ha’penny each !”—“Now, you mussel-buyers, come along ! come along! come along! Now’s your time for fine fat mussels!”—“Here’s food for the belly, and clothes for the back; but I sell food for the mind!” shouts the newsvendor.—“Here’s smelt, oh!”—“Here ye are, fine Finney haddick!”—“Hot soup! nice pea-soup! a-all hot! hot!”—“Ahoy! ahoy, here! Live plaice! all alive, oh!”—” Now or never! Whelk! whelk! whelk! “—“Who’ll buy brill, oh! brill, oh?”—“Capes! waterproof capes! Sure to keep the wet out! A shilling apiece!”—“Eels, oh! eels, oh! Alive, oh! alive, oh!”—“Fine flounders, a shilling a lot! Who’ll have this prime lot of flounders ?”—“Shrimps! shrimps! fine shrimps!”—“Wink! wink! wink!”—“Hi! hi-i! here you are; just eight eels left—only eight!”—“O ho! O ho! this way—this way—this way ! Fish alive ! alive ! alive, oh !”

Billingsgate Dock is mentioned as an important quay in Brompton’s Chronicle (Edward III.), under the date 976, when King Ethelred, being then at Wantage, in Berkshire, made laws for regulating the customs on ships at Blynesgate, or Billingsgate, then the only wharf in London. 1. Small vessels were to pay one halfpenny; 2. Larger ones, with sails, one penny; 3. Keeles, or hulks, still larger, fourpence. 4. Ships laden with wood, one piece for toll. 5. Boats with fish, according to size, a halfpenny and a penny; 6. Men of Rouen, who came with wine or peas, and men of Flanders and Liege, were to pay toll before they began to sell, but the Emperor’s men (Germans of the Steel Yard) paid an annual toll. 7. Bread was tolled three times a week, cattle were paid for in kind, and butter and cheese were paid more for before Christmas than after.

By King Stephen’s time, according to Becket’s friend and biographer, Fitzstephen, the different foreign merchants had drafted off to their respective quays—Germans and Dutch to the Steel Yard, in Upper Thames Street; the French wine merchants to the Vintry. In the reign of Edward I., a great regulator of the price of provisions, the price of fish was fixed at the following scale:—Seal, sturgeon, ling, and dolphin were also eaten.

s. d.
A dozen of best soles 0 3
Best haddock 0 2
Best mullett 0 2
Best John Dory 0 5
Best whitings, four for 0 1
Best fresh oysters, a gallon 0 2
Best Thames or Severn lamprey 0 4
Best turbot 0 6
Best porpoise 6d. to 0 8
Best fresh salmon (after Easter), four for 5 0
Best roach 0 1
Best pike 6d. to 0 8
(Probably brought from abroad, pickled).
Best eels, a strike, or quarter of a hundred 0 2
Best conger 1 0
Edward III. fixed the Billingsgate dues at 2d. for large ships, 1d. for smaller, and one halfpenny for boats or battles. For corn one farthing was paid for two quarters; one farthing for two measured quarters of sea-coal. Every tun of ale exported was taxed at 4d.; and every 1,000 herrings, one farthing.

In May, 1699, an Act of Parliament constituted Billingsgate a free and open market for the sale of fish six days in the week, and on Sundays (before Divine service) for mackerel; and any fishmonger who bought, except for his own sale, was to be sentenced to a fine of £20 for every offence. Several fishery-laws were passed in 1710, to restrain abuses, and the selfish greediness of fishermen. Eel-spears were forbidden, and it was made unlawful to use a flue, trammel, hooped net, or double-walled net, or to destroy the fry of fish. No draw-nets were to be shot before sunrise or after sunset. No fisherman was to try for flounders between London Bridge and Westminster more than two casts at low and two at high water. No flounders were to be taken under the size of six inches. No one was to angle within the limits of London Bridge with more than two hooks upon his line; no one was to drag for salmon in the Thames with nets under six inches in the mesh; and all unlawful nets were to be destroyed.

An Act of the 33rd year of George II. was passed, to regulate the sale of fish at Billingsgate, and prevent a monopoly of the market. It was found that the London fishmongers bought up the fishing-boats, and kept the fish down at Gravesend, supplying the market with only boatloads at a time, so as to keep up the price. An attempt had been made, in the year 1749, to establish a fish-market at Westminster, and fishing-boats were bought by subscription; but the fishmongers prevented any supply of fish reaching the new depot. The Act of Parliament above referred to (33 Geo. II.) was intended to remedy these evils. The master of every fishing-vessel arriving at the Nore with fish had to report the time of his arrival, and the cargo he brought, to the clerk of the coastoffice, under penalty of £20; and for any marketable fish he destroyed he was to be sentenced to not less than one month’s hard labour. No fish was to be placed in well-boats or store-boats, unless to go straight to Billingsgate, under a penalty of £20. No one by the same Act was allowed to sell fishspawn, or unsizable fish, or any smelt less than five inches long from nose to tail.

Stow (Elizabeth) describes Billingsgate as a port or harborough for ships and boats bringing fish, fresh and salt, shell-fish, oranges, onions, fruit, roots, wheat, rye, and other grain. It had become more frequented after the decline of Queenhithe. Steam-vessels, of late years, have superseded the old hoys and sailing-boats that once visited Billingsgate stairs. Steamers are not, of course, dependent on the state of the tide, and the old summons for their departure (under penalty) at the ringing of the bell, which announced high water at London Bridge, is no longer an observance.

Addison, who glanced at nearly every kind of London life, with his quiet kindly philosophy, and large toleration for folly, did not forget to visit Billingsgate, and refers, in his delightful way, to the debates which frequently arose among “the ladies of the British fishery.” Tom Brown gives a ribald sketch of the fish-fag; and coarse-tongued Ned Ward, that observant publican of Defoe’s time, painted a gross Dutch picture of the shrill-voiced, bloated Moll Flagons of the Dark House, scolding and chattering among their heaps of fish, ready enough to knock down the auctioneer who did not knock down a lot to them.

In Bailey’s English Dictionary (1736) a Billingsgate is described as meaning “a scolding, impudent slut,” and Munden, incomparable as Sir Abel Handy, in Morton’s excellent comedy of Speed the Plough, when asked about the temper and manners of his wife, replies, in the true Socratic mode, by the query, “Were you ever at Billingsgate in the sprat season?”

Mr. Henry Mayhew, writing in 1861, calculates that every year in Billingsgate there are sold 406,000 salmon, 400,000 live cod, 97,520,000 soles, 17,920,000 whiting, 2,470,000 haddocks, 23,520,000 mackerel, 4,000,000 lbs. of sprats, 1,050,000,000 fresh herrings, in bulk, 9,797,760 eels, 147,000,000 bloaters, 19,500,000 dried haddocks, 495,896,000 oysters, 1,200,000 lobsters, 600,000 crabs, and 498,428,648 shrimps. Of this vast salvage from the seas the 4,000 London fish costermongers sell 263,281,000 pounds’ weight. Mr. Mayhew calculated that the sprat costermongers sell 3,000,000 pounds’ weight annually, and realise £12,000.

The forestallers or middlemen at Billingsgate are called “bummarees” (probably a word of Dutch origin). They buy residues, and sell again in lots, at a considerable profit, to the fishmongers and costermongers. They are said to derive their name from the bumboat-men, who used to purchase of the wind-bound smacks at Gravesend or the Nore, and send the fish rapidly up to market in light carts.

The costermongers are important people at Billingsgate market. Sprat-selling in the streets generally commences about the 9th of November (Lord Mayor’s Day), which is accordingly by costermongers sometimes called “Sprat Day.” Sprats continue in about ten weeks. They are sold at Billingsgate by the “toss” or “chuck,” which is about half a bushel, and weighs from forty to fifty pounds. The price varies from 1s. to 5s. A street sprat-seller can make from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. a day, and often more. About 1,000 “tosses” of sprats are sold daily in London streets during the season. The real costermonger thinks sprat-selling infra dig. A street shell-fish-seller will make his 15s. a week, chiefly by periwinkles and mussels. The London costermongers, in Mr. Mayhew’s time, sold about 770,000 pints of shrimps annually, which, at 2d. a pint, a low calculation, amounts to £6,400 yearly. The costermongers sell about 124,000,000 oysters a year, which, at four a penny, the price some years ago, would realise £129,650. The periwinkles sold in London Mr. Mayhew calculated from good data to be 3,600,000 pints, which, at a penny a pint, gives the large sum of £15,000. The sellers of “Wink, wink, winketty, wink, wink,” make, on an average, 12s. a week clear profit in the summer season. Taking fresh, salt, and shell-fish together, Mr. Mayhew calculated that £1,460,850 was spent annually on fish by London street purchasers.

In the days before railways, when the coaches were stopped by snow, or the river by ice, fish used sometimes to command great prices at Billingsgate. In March, 1802, a cod-fish of eight pounds was sold to a Bond Street fishmonger for £1 8s. In February, 1809, a salmon of nineteen pounds went for a guinea a pound. In March, 1824, three lobsters sold for a guinea each; and Mr. Timbs mentions two epicures dividing the only lobster in the market for sauce, and paying two guineas each for the luxury. On the other hand, the prolific sea furnishes sometimes great gluts of fish. Sixty tons of periwinkles at a time have been sent from Glasgow; and in two days from ninety to a hundred tons of plaice, soles, and sprats have been landed at Billingsgate. Perhaps we may live to see the time when the better sorts of fish will grow scarce as oysters, and cod-fish will have to be bred at the Dogger Bank, and encouraged in its reproduction.

All fish is sold at Billingsgate by tale, except salmon, which go by weight, and sprats, oysters, and shell-fish, which are sold by measure. In Knight’s “London” (1842), the number of boxes of salmon sent to Billingsgate is said to begin in February at about thirty boxes a day, and to increase in July to 1,000 boxes a day. In 1842 probably not less than 2,500 tons of salmon reached Billingsgate. In 1770 salmon was sent to London in panniers on horseback; after that, it was packed in straw in light carts. After April it was impossible to send the fish to market. About the year 1785, Mr. Alexander Dalrymple, a servant of the East India Company, told a Mr. George Dempster, at the East India House, the Chinese fishermen’s mode of conveying fresh fish great distances packed up in snow. Dempster instantly wrote off to a Scotch friend, who had already tried the plan of sending salmon, packed in ice, to London from Aberdeen and Inverness. In 1852 there were about sixty fish-salesmen in London, and fifty of these had stalls in Billingsgate.

The old water-gate of Beling, the friend of Brennus the Gaul, was long ago a mere collection of dirty pent-houses, scaly sheds, and ill-savoured benches, with flaring oil-lamps in winter, daybreak disclosing a screaming, fighting, and rather tipsy crowd; but since the extension of the market in 1849, and the disappearance of the fishermen, there is less drinking, and more sober and strenuous business.

Mr. Henry Mayhew has painted a minute yet vivid picture of this great market. “In the darkness of the shed,” he says, “the white bellies of the turbots, strung up bow-fashion, shine like mother-of-pearl, while the lobsters, lying upon them, look intensely scarlet from the contrast. Brown baskets piled upon one another, and with the herring-scales glittering like spangles all over them, block up the narrow paths. Men in coarse canvas jackets, and bending under huge hampers, push past, shouting, ‘Move on! move on, there!’ and women, with the long limp tails of cod-fish dangling from their aprons, elbow their way through the crowd. Round the auction-tables stand groups of men, turning over the piles of soles, and throwing them down till they slide about in their slime; some are smelling them, while others are counting the lots. ‘There, that lot of soles are worth your money,’ cries the salesman to one of the crowd, as he moves on leisurely; ‘none better in the market. You shall have ‘em for a pound and half-a-crown.’ ‘Oh!’ shouts another salesman, ‘it’s no use to bother him; he’s no go.’ Presently a tall porter, with a black oyster-bag, staggers past, trembling under the weight of his load, his back and shoulders wet with the drippings from the sack. ‘Shove on one side,’ he mutters from between his clenched teeth, as he forces his way through the mob. Here is a tray of reddish-brown shrimps piled up high, and the owner busy shifting his little fish into another stand, while a doubtful customer stands in front, tasting the flavour of the stock, and consulting with his companion in speculation. Little girls carrying matting-bags, that they have brought from Spitalfields, come up, and ask you in a begging voice to buy their baskets; and women, with bundles of twigs for stringing herrings, cry out, ‘Halfpenny a bunch!’ from all sides. Then there are blue-black piles of small live lobsters, moving about their bound-up claws and long ‘feelers,’ one of them occasionally being taken up by a looker-on, and dashed down again like a stone. Everywhere every one is asking, ‘What’s the price, master?’ while shouts of laughter, from round the stalls of the salesmen, bantering each other, burst out occasionally over the murmuring noise of the crowd. The transparent smelts on the marble slabs, and the bright herrings, with the lump of transparent ice magnifying their eyes like a lens, are seldom looked at until the market is over, though the hampers and piles of huge maids, dropping slime from the counter, are eagerly examined and bartered for.

“The costermongers have nicknamed the long row of oyster-boats moored close alongside the wharf ‘Oyster Street.’ On looking down the line of tangled ropes and masts, it seems as though the little boats would sink with the crowds of men and women thronged together on their decks. It is as busy a scene as one can well behold. Each boat has its black sign-board, and salesman in his white apron walking up and down ‘his shop,’ and on each deck is a bright pewter pot and tin-covered plate, the remains of the salesman’s breakfast. ‘Who’s for Baker’s?’ ‘Who’s for Archer’s?’ ‘Who’ll have Alston’s?’ shout the oyster-merchants; and the red cap of the man in the hold bobs up and down as he rattles the shells about with his spade. These holds are filled with oysters—a grey mass of sand and shell—on which is a bushel-measure well piled up in the centre, while some of them have a blue muddy heap of mussels divided off from the ‘natives.’ The sailors, in their striped guernseys, sit on the boat-sides smoking their morning’s pipe, allowing themselves to be tempted by the Jew boys with cloth caps, old shoes, and silk handkerchiefs.”

Mr. Mayhew has also sketched, with curious photographic realism, the Dutch eel-boats, with their bulging polished oak sides, half hidden in the river mist. They are surrounded by skiffs full of traders from the Surrey and Middlesex shores. You see wooden sabots and china pipes on the ledges of the boats, and the men wear tall fur caps, red shirts, and canvas kilts. The holds of the vessels are tanks, and floating at the stern are coffin-shaped barges pierced with holes, with eelbaskets hanging over the sides. In the centre of the boats stand the scales, tall and heavy, with, on one side, the conical net-bag for the eels; on the other, the weights and pieces of stone to make up for the water that clings to the fish. The captain, when purchasers arrive, lays down his constant friend, his black pipe, and dives into the tank a long-handled landing-net, and scoops from the tank a writhing knot of eels. Some of the purchasers wear blue serge aprons; others are ragged women, with their straw pads on their crushed bonnets. They are busy sorting their purchases, or sanding them till they are yellow.

In old times the Thames fish half supplied London. Old Stow says of the Thames in his day, “What should I speak of the fat and sweet salmons daily taken in this stream, and that in such plenty (after the time of the smelt is past) as no river in Europe is able to exceed it ? But what store also of barbels, trouts, chevens, perches, smelts, breams, roaches, daces, gudgeons, flounders, shrimps, eels, &c., are commonly to be had therein, I refer me to them that know by experience better than I, by reason of their daily trade of fishing in the same. And albeit it seemeth from time to time to be, as it were, defrauded in sundry wise of these, her large commodities, by the insatiable avarice of fishermen; yet this famous river complaineth commonly of no want, but the more it loseth at one time it gaineth at another.”

Stow also tells us that, before 1569, the City ditch, without the wall of the City, which then lay open, “contained great store of very good fish, of divers sorts, as many yet living know, who have taken and tasted them, can well witness, but now (he says) no such matter.” Sir John Hawkins, in his edition of Walton’s “Angler” (1760), mentions that, about thirty years before, the City anglers were accustomed to enjoy their sport by the starlings of old London Bridge. “In the memory of a person not long since living, a waterman that plied at Essex Stairs, his name John Reeves, got a comfortable living by attending anglers with his boat. His method was to watch when the shoals of roach came down from the country, and, when he had found them, to go round to his customers and give them notice. Sometimes they (the fish) settled opposite the Temple; at others, at Blackfriars or Queenhithe; but most frequently about the chalk hills (the deposit of chalk rubble) near London Bridge. His hire was two shillings a tide. A certain number of persons who were accustomed thus to employ him raised a sum sufficient to buy him a waterman’s coat and silver badge, the impress whereof was ‘Himself, with an angler in his boat;’ and he had annually a new coat to the time of his death, which might be about the year 1730.” Mr. Goldham, the clerk or yeoman of Billingsgate Market, stated before a Parliamentary Committee that, in 1798, 400 fishermen, each of whom was the owner of a boat, and employed a boy, obtained a good livelihood by the exercise of their craft between Deptford and London, above and below bridge, taking roach, plaice, smelts, flounders, salmon, shad, eels, gudgeon, dace, dabs, &c. Mr. Goldham said that about 1810 he had known instances of as many as ten salmon and 3,000 smelts being taken at one haul up the river towards Wandsworth, and 50,000 smelts were brought daily to Billingsgate, and not fewer than 3,000 Thames salmon in the season. Some of the boats earned £6 a week, and salmon was sold at 3s. and 45. a pound. The fishery was nearly destroyed at the time when this evidence was given, in 1828. The masters of the Dutch eel-ships stated before the same committee that, a few years before, they could bring their live eels in “wells” as far as Gallion’s Reach, below Woolwich; but now (1828) they were obliged to stop at Erith, and they had sustained serious losses from the deleterious quality of the water, which killed the fish. The increase of gas-works and of manufactories of various kinds, and of filth disgorged by the sewers, will sufficiently account for this circumstance. The number of Dutch eel-vessels which bring supplies to Billings gate varied, in 1842, from sixty to eighty annually. They brought about fifteen hundred weight of fish each, and paid a duty of £13. Mr. Butcher, an agent for Dutch fishermen, stated before the committee above mentioned that, in 1827, eight Dutch vessels arrived with full cargoes of healthy eels, about 14,000 pounds each, and the average loss was 4,000 pounds. Twelve years before, when the Thames was purer, the loss was only thirty pounds of eels a night; and the witness deposed that an hour after high water he had had 3,000 pounds of eels die in an hour. (How singularly this accounts for the cheap eel-pie!) The river had been getting worse yearly. Fish were often seen trying to save themselves on floating pieces of wood, and flounders would climb up bundles of weeds for a moment’s fresh air.

BILLINGSGATE. (From a View taken in 1820.)
Bagford, the old antiquary, mentions a curious custom that once prevailed at Billingsgate. “This,” he says, speaking of an old custom referred to in “Hudibras,” “brings to my mind another ancient custom that hath been omitted of late years. It seems that in former times the porters that plyd at Billingsgate used civilly to entreat and desire every man that passed that way to salute a post that stood there in a vacant place. If he refused to do this, they forthwith laid hold of him, and by main force bouped him against the post; but if he quietly submitted to kiss the same, and paid down sixpence, they gave him a name, and chose some one of the gang for a godfather. I believe this was done in memory of some old image that formerly stood there, perhaps of Belus or Belin.”

Adjoining Billingsgate, on the east side, stood Smart’s Quay or Wharf, which we find noticed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth as containing an ingenious seminary for the instruction of young thieves. The following extract of a letter, addressed to Lord Burleigh, in July, 1585, by Fleetwood, the Recorder of London, evinces that the “art and mystery” of picking pockets was brought to considerable perfection in the sixteenth century:—

“Amongst our travels this one matter tumbled out by the way. One Wotton, a gentleman born, and some time a merchant of good credit, having fallen by time into decay, kept an ale-house at Smart’s Key, near Billingsgate; and after, for some misdemeanour, being put down, he reared up a new trade of life, and in the same house he procured all the cut-purses about this city to repair to his said house. There was a school-house set up to learn young boys to cut purses. There were hung up two devices; the one was a pocket, the other was a purse. The pocket had in it certain counters, and was hung about with hawks’ bells and over the top did hang a little scaring-bell; and he that could take out a counter without any noise, was allowed to be a public hoyster; and he that could take a piece of silver out of the purse without the noise of any of the bells, he was adjudged a judicial nipper. N. B.—That a hoyster is a pick pocket, and a nipper is termed a pick-purse, or a cut-purse.”

THE OLD COAL EXCHANGE (see page 50).
The Coal Exchange faces the site of Smart’s Quay, Billingsgate. English coal is first mentioned in the reign of Henry III., who granted a charter to the people of Newcastle, empowering them to dig it. Soon afterwards, dyers, brewers, &c., began to use coal in their trade, and the nobles and gentry complaining of the smoke, a severe proclamation was passed against the use of sea-coal, though wood was yearly growing scarcer and dearer. Edward I. also issued a proclamation against the use of coal. Nevertheless, a charter of Edward II. shows Derbyshire coal to have been then used in London. In 1590 (Elizabeth) the owners of the Newcastle coal-pits, combining, raised the price of coals from 4s. to 9s. per chaldron; and the following year the Lord High Admiral claimed the coal metage in the port of London. The mayor and citizens disputed and overthrew this claim, and, by the influence of Lord Treasurer Burleigh, obtained the Queen’s confirmation of the City’s right to the office. At one period in Elizabeth’s reign it was prohibited to burn stone-coal during the session of Parliament for fear the health of the members (country gentlemen accustomed to their wood-fires) should be injured. Shakespeare speaks in a cozy way “of the latter end of a sea-coal fire;” but others of the dramatists abuse coals; and the sea-coal smoke was supposed to have much injured the stone of old St. Paul’s. In 1655 (Commonwealth) the price of coal in London was usually above 20s. a chaldron; and there were 320 “keels” at Newcastle, each of which carried 800 chaldrons, Newcastle measure; and 136 of these made 217 chaldrons, London measure. A duty of only 1s. a chaldron was paid on coals in London, yet the great Protector generously granted the Corporation a licence to import 400 chaldrons every year for the ‘poor citizens, duty free. The coal-carts numbered 420, and were placed under the regulation of the President and Governors of Christ’s Hospital; and all coal-sacks and measures were illegal unless sealed at Guildhall. It was also at this same period generously provided that the City companies should lay up stores of coal in summer (from 675 chaldrons to three, according to their ability), to be retailed in the winter in small quantities. To prevent extortion, conspiracy, and monopoly, retail dealers, by the same Act, were prohibited under penalties from contracting for coals, or meeting the coal-vessels before they arrived in the port of London.

By statute 16 and 17 Charles II., all sea-coal brought into the river Thames was to be sold by the chaldron, containing thirty-six bushels; and all other coals sold by weight were to be sold after the proportion of 112 pounds to the hundred avoirdupois. By the 12th Queen Anne, the coal measure was ordered to be made round, and to contain one Winchester bushel and one quart of water; the sack to hold three such bushels; the bushel to be sealed or stamped at the Exchequer Office or the Guildhall, under penalty of £50.

In 1713 the master-meters of the Coal Office were only allowed to employ or dismiss the deputies sanctioned by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen. An Act of George II. required the ancient custom to be kept up of giving one chaldron in addition to every score purchased on board ship, under penalty of £100. This bonus was called ingrain, and constituted good Pool measure. By a later Act any lighterman receiving any gratuity from owners or fitters for preference in the quality in lading ships was fined £500. All bargains for coals at Billingsgate had to be entered on the factor’s book, signed by buyer and seller, and witnessed by the factor, who gave a copy of the contract to each. Masters of ships were fined for delaying their cargoes at Gravesend.

¶The old Coal Exchange, erected in 1805, for the use of the black-diamond merchants, was a quaint and picturesque building, with a receding portico, supported by small Doric pillars, and with some stone steps, that led into a quadrangle. The narrow windows lit the upper storeys. The present Coal Exchange was opened by Prince Albert in 1849, and Mr. J. B. Bunning was the architect. The design was thought original yet simple. The fronts in Thames Street and St. Mary-at-Hill are 112 feet wide and 61 feet high. The entrance vestibule is in a circular tower 109 feet high. The lowest storey is Roman-Doric; the first storey Ionic. The inner rotunda is crowned by a dome 74 feet high, which rests on eight piers. About 300 tons of iron were used in the building. The Raphaelesque decorations were designed by Mr. Sang. Above emblematical figures of the collier rivers are figures of the Virtues, and over these are groups of shells, snakes, and lizards. In some of the arabesques the leading features are views of the Wallsend, Percy, Pitt Main, and other celebrated collieries, adorned with groups of flowers and fossil plants.

While digging for the foundation of the new building, on the site of the old “Dog” tavern, the workmen came on a Roman sweating-bath, with tiled floors and several rooms. This hypocaust is still shown.

The floor of the rotunda is composed of inlaid woods, disposed in form of a mariner’s compass, within a border of Greek fret. The flooring consists of upwards of 4,000 pieces of wood, of various kinds. The varieties of wood employed comprise black ebony, black oak, common and red English oak, wainscot, white holly, mahogany, American elm, red and white walnut, and mulberry. The appearance of this floor is beautiful in the extreme. The whole of these materials were prepared by Messrs. Davison and Symington’s patent process of seasoning woods. The same desiccating process has been applied to the wood-work throughout the building. The black oak introduced is part of an old tree which was discovered in the river Tyne, where it had unquestionably lain between four and five centuries. The mulberry-wood, of which the blade of the dagger in the shield of the City Arms is composed, is a piece of a tree planted by Peter the Great, when he worked as a shipwright in Deptford Dockyard.

“The coloured decorations of this Exchange have been most admirably imagined and successfully carried out. They are extremely characteristic, and on this point deserve praise. The entrance vestibule is peculiarly rich and picturesque in its embellishments; terminal figures, vases with fruit, arabesque foliage, &c., all of the richest and most glowing colours, fill up the vault of the ceiling; and, looking up through an opening in the ceiling, a figure of Plenty scattering riches, and surrounded by figurini, is seen painted in the ceiling of the lantern. Over the entrance doorway, within a sunk panel, is painted the City Arms.”

The Hall of the Watermen’s Company was originally situated at Coldharbour, near the “Three Cranes,” in the Vintry, and is referred to in the statute of 1 James I., 1603. It was burnt, with many of the Company’s old records, in the Great Fire of 1666, but was again rebuilt in the old place. It was rebuilt once more in 1722, and in 1776 the Company removed to St. Mary-at-Hill, Billingsgate, where it now remains, Calvert’s brewery occupying the old site. In 1555 an Act was passed, directing that the Court should consist of eight watermen, to be called overseers and rulers, to be annually appointed by the Court of Lord Mayor and Aldermen. In 1641 an order was made by the Court of Lord Mayor, that fifty-five persons at the different stairs should select twenty of their number to choose the eight rulers to carry out the laws. These fifty-five persons assumed the title of “assistants.”

In 1700 the lightermen of the City were incorporated with the watermen (called Watermen and Lightermen’s Company). Three lightermen were to be appointed as additional overseers and rulers, and a court of forty assistants. In 1729 an Act was passed which reduced the number of assistants to thirty. In 1827 a new Act was passed, re-incorporating the Company, to consist of a master, four wardens, and twenty-one assistants. In case of vacancy in court, the court were to select three qualified persons, for the Court of Lord Mayor, &c., to choose one to fill the vacancy. In 1859 an Act was passed, by which the court were empowered to fill up vacancies, without reference to the Court of Lord Mayor, &c.

The various Acts passed from the time of Henry VIII. gave power to the Company to hold general courts, courts of binding, and courts for hearing and determining complaints, and to punish offenders by fine and imprisonment; power to license passenger-boats, register craft, and to appoint Sunday ferries, the rent of which has always been applied to the relief of the poor of the Company, and to make bye-laws for the regulation of boats, barges, and steam-boats on the river, and the men navigating the same. There are about 350 apprentices bound annually, and about 250 complaints are investigated during the year. The introduction of steam greatly reduced the watermen, but the lightermen and barges have been annually increasing. There are now about 6,000 freemen of the Company, and 2,000 apprentices. The court distribute about £1,600 per annum, out of their ferry-rents, in pensions to 400 poor freemen and widows. Forty almshouses have been established at Penge, supported by the voluntary contributions of the public.

The fares of the Thames watermen and wherrymen were regulated by Henry VIII. in 1514. Taylor, the water-poet, temp. Elizabeth, states the watermen between Windsor and Gravesend at 40,000. A third statute regulates the dimensions of the boats and wherries, then dangerously “shallow and tickle;” the Lord Mayor and Aldermen to limit the watermen’s fares, if confirmed by the Privy Council. Strype was told by one of the Company that there were 40,000 watermen upon their rolls; that they could furnish 20,000 men for the fleet, and that 8,000 were then in the service. Taylor, the water-poet, with his fellow-watermen, violently opposed the introduction of coaches as trade-spoilers. The Company (says Mr. Timbs) condemned the building of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges, as an injury to the ferries between Vauxhall and the Temple, the profits of which were given to the poor, aged, decayed, and maimed watermen and their widows; and in both cases the Company were compensated for their losses. The substitution of steam-boats for wherries has, however, been as fatal to the watermen as railways to stage-coachmen.

The Lord High Admiral, or the Commissioners of the Admiralty, used to have power to demand a certain number of watermen to serve in the Royal Navy, by an Act of William and Mary; and in 1796 nearly 4,000 watermen were thus enrolled. The ribald banter of the Thames watermen was formerly proverbial, and is mentioned by Ned Ward, and nearly all the essayists. Dr. Johnson, Boswell says, was particularly proud of having silenced some watermen who tried to ridicule him. By an order of the Company in 1761, this foul kind of extemporaneous satire was forbidden by the rulers and auditors of the Company; and any waterman or apprentice convicted of using indecent language was fined 2s. 6d. for each offence; the fines to go to the use of the “poor, aged, decayed, and maimed members of the Company, their widows and children.”

¶All wherries were formerly required to be 12½ feet long and 4½ broad in the midships, under pain of forfeiture; and all wherries and boats were to be entered and numbered. Extortion and abuse was punishable by fine and imprisonment. A statute (34 George III.) placed the watermen more immediately under the mayor’s jurisdiction; and the highest penalty was fixed at £3.

Before the time of steamboats, a bell used to ring at Gravesend at high water, as a warning to hurry off the London watermen. A report of the Dock Committee in 1796 shows that there were then 12,283 watermen, 8,283 freemen, 2,000 non-freemen, and 2,000 apprentices; the annual number of apprentices being from 200 to 300. In 1828 there were above 3,000 wherries on the Thames.

comments powered by Disqus