This story began in the early 11th century – in that distant, foggy time, when Norman invasion still lied decades ahead. Culturally speaking, England was then more a Scandinavian country, than a European one. Its future mighty capital was but a sturdy seaport, populated by Saxons and Danes – descendants of fierce Norsemen, who arrived on these shores centuries earlier. And that’s when the first records of fish being landed on Billingsgate’s quays had appeared.
The decades went by, and, of course, the invasion occurred, turning swiftly into occupation. The Normans flooded in, bringing with them strict feudal order and first stone castles, new language and new manners, altering forever the fabric of English (not yet British) society. Yet some things didn’t change – and didn’t need to be changed, frankly. For example, commercial nature of the city. Convenient, waterborne trade routes. And vital arteries, supplying fresh fish to the inhabitants – Norman or Saxon.
England was now brought firmly into the European orbit. As centuries melted into centuries, it began trading with sunlit cities of Mediterranean and far-off, exotic lands of the Levant. On the streets of London you could now encounter olive-skinned Venetians, Florentine bankers and Flemish merchants. More modest enterprises developed along with the grand trade deals. Now you could buy on Billingsgate not just fish, but also honey and onions, iron and flax. Written records were not a rare finding anymore, but an essential part of life. For example, a wonderful compilation of London rules and customs, written in 1419, leaves for us a meticulous list of docking rates. Docking and unloading cargo in Billingsgate cost 2 pence for a large vessel, 1 penny for a small one; unloading a ton of honey would rob you of 12 pence, and a thousand herring – only of 1 farthing (quarter of a penny). Some rules are very much understandable: “No one shall buy fish in any vessel afloat until the ropes are brought on shore”, presumably because vessels didn’t pay their docking fees until that moment, and authorities didn’t want them to escape without it. Some are more bizarre: “No man shall sell or buy fresh fish for resale before sunrise or salt fish before the hour of Prime” (the author didn’t elaborate on women buying fresh fish before sunrise; I cannot help but image some Eowyn-like moment in a medieval fish market setting…).
‘Prime’ was a time of prayer, marked by the tolling of a bell of St Paul’s Cathedral at about 6 a.m. Mass production of clocks still lied centuries ahead, and everyone’s day was charted by the toll of church bells.
Middle Ages are often imagined (or even portrayed) as lawless and wild time period. But rules, governing Billingsgate fish trade – from quality of produce to working hours – were laid down meticulously and watched very closely. Of course, transgressions did occur; but don’t they occur now? Interestingly, this set of regulations included even conservation measures – they governed the size of the mesh of nets allowed, ensuring that only fully grown fish would be caught, and smaller fish can escape. The measures themselves sound surprisingly familiar to us, but the punishment for transgression looks quite bizarre. For example, certain Alan atte Were’s nets were found too narrow for small fish of the size and dimensions of one inch to pass through them. These nets were then publicly burnt as a warning to others.
Billingsgate was one of the few enterprises to survive the Great Fire of London. In 1699 – 33 years after the catastrophe, which wiped out most of the old medieval city – it was declared to be “every day in the week except the Sabbath a free and open market for all sorts of fish whatsoever”. From this moment, Billingsgate position as the fish market of London was practically unchallenged, and it had prospered. But its makeshift sheds and plentiful stalls were trading in the shadow of the Monument to the Great Fire.
Years passed, and dynasty changed; by that time the United Kingdom had already been, well, united, and London became a capital of vast trading empire. It underwent significant changes: areas, which we nowadays consider genteel historical centres, were daring new developments back then. Palladian townhouses, broad avenues and Italianate piazzas sprung up, where muddy fields had been before. London was attracting more distinguished visitors, than ever, and some of them were curious about Billingsgate – after all, there were many little places to eat oysters fresh off the boats. A German lady called Sophie von La Roche had never tried an oyster before she visited London in 1788, and she decided to sample them in one of such inns by the market. Later, she wrote in her diary: “The cubicles were neat, the tables were laid with white cloths, and there were delightful wicker-chairs to sit in. A fisherwoman with a basket of oysters, a youngster with lemons and a small basket containing bread, plates and knives followed immediately after us … I liked them very much”.
Not everything was sweetness and light in the Georgian London, of course. On the other end of the social scale from gentle Sophie, there were fishwives of Billingsgate, who peddled their stock in the inns and on the streets from early morning. They were frequently described as “boisterous”, their stock consisting of “five shillings a basket and a good cry”. Each seller had her particular cry, and loyal customers would listen out for their favourite. Fishwives of Billingsgate sold eels and crabs, white fish and herring, and measured shrimp out in third-of-a-pint pewter tankards. They carried their “shops” upon their heads, so that their hair, caps and bonnets were soon flattened into one indistinguishable mass. They smoked small pipes of tobacco, drank gin, wore bright quilted petticoats and were renowned for their colourful language.
Only decades after Sophie von La Roche’s exciting journey, Victorian era dawned over the new empire. It brought with it remarkable passion for order and regulation, strict styles and well-kept records. Billingsgate was not going to escape – in 1846 the City Corporation stepped in and put it under the control of the Corporation’s Markets Committee. In its turn, the committee set up a neat system of rents for stalls, supervised by a Billingsgate Market Superintendent and a special Market Police Force. In 1877 a new building for the fish market was opened. It featured elegant arcades, mansard roof and golden dolphins. Already from the 1840s fish started to arrive by rail from sources as far away as Liverpool, but most of the fish was still brought up by river, just like it was in the days of the Saxons. Eels were a particular exception – they were transported by road in barrels of water from the East Anglian fenlands. The water had to be changed at overnight stops to keep the eels fresh.
But the time flew forwards, the thirst for progress could not be quenched, and by the early days of 20th century rail had overtaken the boats. The weekly deliveries now approached 4,000 tons. Ironically, transportation by rail itself one day was dismissed as dated and ineffective, to be substituted by refrigerated lorries in 1970s.
In 1982, Billingsgate market was reopened on a new site in the former West India Docks, and the bell, brought from Old Billingsgate, tolled at 4 a.m. as it should. This new market, spanning 13 acres, is now occupied by about forty wholesalers. It is opened from Tuesday to Saturday from 4 a.m. to 9.30 a.m. Apart from fish, you can buy there some cooking oils and vegetables. Interestingly, the actual quantity of fish delivered there is now twice smaller, than it was in Edwardian era. This is because the market itself now trades largely in samples, and bulk orders are delivered directly to customers’ premises – whether in London or in the counties.