Victorian London - Markets - Billingsgate

Billingsgate is the great fish-market, which is principally supplied by fishing-smacks and boats coming from sea up the river Thames, and partly by fresh fish brought by land carriage from all the southern and western parts of England; vast quantities of salmon also reach Billingsgate from Scotland by the steam packets, curiously packed in boxes of ice. The quan tity of fish consumed its the metropolis is on the increase, on account of the very moderate price which it now generally bears. There are, on an average, annually brought to Billingsgate market 2500 cargoes of fish, of 40 tons each, and about 20,000 tons by land carriage; in the whole 120,000 tons. The supply of poultry being inadequate to a general consumption, and the price consequently high, that article is mostly confined to the tables of the wealthy. Game is now publicly sold, and a considerable quantity, by presents, is consumed by the middling classes. Venison is sold, chiefly by pastry cooks, at a moderate rate; but the chief consumption, which is considerable, is amongst the gentry and proprietors of deer-parks. The annual consumption of wheat in London may be averaged at 900,000 quarters, each containing eight Winchester bushels; of porter and ale, 2,000,000 barrels, each containing thirty-six gallons; spirits and compounds, 11,000,000 gallons; wines, 65,000 pipes; butter, 21,000,000 lbs.; and cheese 26,000,000 lbs. The quantity of coals consumed is about 1,800,000 tons. About 9600 cows are kept in the vicinity of London for supplying the inhabitants with milk, and they are supposed to yield nearly 7,900,000 gallons every year: even this great quantity, however, is considerably increased by the dealers, who adulterate it by at least one fourth with water before they serve their customers.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

BILINGSGATE. A gate, wharf and market a little below London Bridge, appointed 1. Eliz. c.ii: "an open place for the landing and bringing in of any fish, corn, salt stores, victuals and fruit (grocery wares excepted), and to be a place of carrying forth of the same or the liek, and for no other merchandise;" and made, pursuant to 10 & 11 William III, c.24, on and after May 10th, 1699 "a free and open market for all sorts of fish."
    ... The coarse language of the place has long been famous:- 

"There stript, fair Rhetoric languish'd on the ground;
His blunted arms by sophistry are borne,
And shameless Billingsgate her robes adorn."
Pope, The Dunciad, B. iv.

The market opens at 5 o'clock throughout the year. All fish are sold by the tale except salmon, which is sold by weight, and oysters and shell-fish, which are sold by measure.
    ... Here every day (at 1 and 4), at the "One Tun Tavern" looking on the river, a capital dinner may be had for eighteen-pence, including three kinds of fish, joints, steaks, and bread and cheese.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

see also David Bartlett in London by Day and Night - click here

Billingsgate Fish Market is in Lower Thames Street, adjoining the western side of the Custom House; it has its own port for the landing and sale of all kinds of fish on a most extensive scale. Fish from all parts of the coast and from foreign ports are here sold. The lobster from Norway is a most valuable article of import; a very large sum annually is remitted by the salesmen for this fish alone. This market is under strict, yet judicious management by city authority, and all tainted fish unfit for human food is destroyed, and the vendor fined for his attempt at imposition. This market is an exception to the foregoing remarks; it has lately been much improved by the city architect, Mr. Bunning, who has attended strictly to its ventilation, drainage, and sanitary regulation. This object is effected by mechanical means. Mr. Bessemer, the engineer, has constructed a centrifugal machine for exhausting the air: it consists of two discs of iron, each eight feet in diameter, and having a central opening of half that size, and placed on a shaft, 2 ft. apart from each other, and attached by eight radial partitions, forming a series of segmental chambers around the axis; a communication is established between the central openings of this disc and the place to be exhausted, by several underground channels branching off to different points, where openings are formed for the inlet of the air, while the external diameter of the discs communicate with an air shaft leading upwards above the roof of the building, where the foul air is dispersed. When a rapid rotary motion is communicated to the disc the air contained In its segmental chambers immediately acquires centrifugal force, and escapes at the outer edge of the disc, while new portions of air rush to the centre of it, from all the numerous inlets before referred to, and thus fill up the vacuum formed by the escape of it at the periphery ; so that a continuous and powerful action is kept up, carrying out of the market at least 50,000 cubic feet of foul air per minute, the space previously occupied by which is immediately reoccupied with fresh air from the open front next the river.
    Upon this same centrifugal principle Mr. Bessemer has recently patented a pump of the most powerful description, for lifting and forcing water, which is here applied for the supply of water for washing the market; and filtered water for cleaning the fish, and the general use of the market people, is also supplied by means of this small though powerful pumping machine. Two tons of water per minute are lifted 35 ft. high from filters in the bed of the Thames, and from thence delivered into a fountain In the upper market; 1¾ ton per minute of unfiltered water is lifted from the Thames, and passes in a constantlv-flowing stream along a series of gutters formed at short Intervals along the whole surface of the market, and covered over with gratings, so that the drainage from the numerous fish-stalls, uniting with the water flowing in these gutters, is immediately carried off, while 1 ton per minute of water is in like manner distributed throughout the lower market, from which it is again pumped out by the tame apparatus, and discharged into the Thames.
    The quantity of water raised, it is said, by this small pump, is 77,000 imperial gallons per hour; and at the price charged by the water companies, would exceed 4000l. per annum. Notwithstanding there are four different elevations to which the water has to be raised in such vast quantities, and that some part of it is filtered, some in the state of ordinary Thames water, and the other part consisting of the foul drainage water from the lower market, one apparatus deals with these different masses of water without any intermixture ; and the entire apparatus consists only of one single revolving piece, having no no rubbing surfaces, and fitting closely nowhere except at its axis, and is contained in a cast-iron case, and without any reciprocating parts whatever, not even the alternating motion of a valve ; nay more, the same axis on which the centrifugal water discs are fixed, nerves also for the axis of the large air disc used for ventilation; and thus by the simple rotation of one revolving piece all the effects before referred to are produced, motive power being applied from a very simply-constructed oscillating steam engine of 16-horse power, the fly-wheel of which is made broad enough to carry a gutta-percha strap, passing over a drum in the centrifugal pump shaft, and thus communicating a sufficiently rapid motion.

London Exhibited in 1852, 1852

   YESTERDAY morning we went to London Bridge and along Lower Thames Street, and quickly found ourselves in Billingsgate Market,—a dirty, evil-smelling, crowded precinct, thronged with people carrying fish on their heads, and lined with fish-shops and fish-stalls, and pervaded with a fishy odour. The footwalk was narrow,—as indeed was the whole street,—and filthy to travel upon; and we had to elbow our., way among rough men and slatternly women, and to guard our heads from the contact of fish-trays; very ugly, grimy, and misty, moreover, is Billingsgate Market, and though we heard none of the foul language of which it is supposed to be the fountain-head, yet it has its own peculiar­ities of behaviour. For instance, U. tells me that one man, staring at her and her governess as they passed, cried out, ‘What beauties !‘—another - looking under her veil, greeted her with ‘Good morning, my love!’ We were in advance, and heard nothing of these civilities.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The English Note-Books. Nov. 15th 1857

    The busy scene within the market, between the hours of 5 and 7 in the morning, is one of the marvels of the metropolis. Billingsgate is the only wholesale fish-market in London, and it may therefore be imagined how great must be the business transacted within its walls. Of old nine- tenths of the supply came by way of the river. . now the railways are day by day supplanting smacks, and in many cases steamers.. . Nearly one-half in fact of the fish-supply of London is hurried in the dead of night across the length and breadth of the land to Billingsgate, and, before the large consumers in Tyburnia and Belgravia have left their beds, may be seen lying on the marble slabs of the fishmongers, or penetrating on the barrow of the costermonger into the dismal lanes and alleys inhabited by ‘London Labour and the London Poor’. Let the visitor beware how he enters the market in a good coat, for, as sure as he goes in in broad cloth, he will come out in scale armour. They are not polite at Billingsgate, as all the world knows, and ‘by your leave’ is only a preliminary to your hat being knocked off your head by a bushel of oysters or a basket of crabs... 
    Busiest among the busy is seen the ‘Bommeree’, or middle-man. The province of this individual is to purchase the fish as it comes into the market, and divide it into lots to suit large and small buyers, separating the qualities as they are designed for St. James’s or St. Giles’s. After the ‘trade’ has been supplied, and the serge-aproned ‘regulars’ have loaded their light spring carts, there comes an eruption of purcha­sers of a totally different character—the costermongers of the streets. This nomade tribe, which wanders in thousands from market to market, performs a most important part in the distribution of food. They are for the most part the tradesmen of the poor, and by their energy and enter­prise secure to our working-classes many of the fruits of both sea and land, which they would never taste but for them...

Dr Andrew Wynter, ‘The London Commissariat’, Quarterly Review, No. cxc, vol. xcv 1854

click here for Henry Mayhew on Costermongers and Billingsgate in 
London Labour and the London Poor (chapter 1)

click here for Henry Mayhew on Costermongers and Billingsgate in 
London Labour and the London Poor  (chapter 2)

BILLINGSGATE MARKET, the great fish depot of the Metropolis, is now held within the precincts of a picturesque red-brick building, designed by Mr. Bunning, and erected in 1849-53. The name is probably derived from an old settlement of the Saxon Belingas, who formerly possessed this "gate," or "opening," to the River. From the earliest times a market has been held here, and the laws of Athelstan record that at this place a toll was levied upon fishing-boats. William III. made it "a free and open market for all sorts of fish," in 1699.
    The scene presented here, at early morning, is full of life and animation. Fishmongers from all parts of the Metropolis, and from many of the principal inland towns, gather around the salesmen's stalls, which are loaded with salmon from Ireland, Scotland, and Norway; or mackerel from the "narrow seas;" or turbot from the English Channel; and sales are effected, by Dutch auction, in a remarkably simple and expeditious manner. 

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865 

see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps - click here

The Market, for many years, consisted of a collection of wooden pent-houses, rude sheds, and benches it commenced at three o'clock A.M. in the summer and five in the winter: in the latter season it was a strange scene, its large flaring oil-lamps showing a crowd struggling amidst a Babel din of vulgar tongues, such as rendered "Billingsgate" a byword for low abuse: "opprobrious, foul-mouth language is called Billingsgate discourse." -(Martin's Dictionary, 1754, second edit.) In Bailey's Dictionary we have "a Billingsgate, a scolding, impudent slut. Tom Brown gives a very coarse picture of her character; and Addison refers to debates which frequently arise among the ladies of the British fishery. She wore a strong stuff gown, tucked up, and showing a large quilted petticoat; her hair, cap, and bonnet flattened into a mass by carrying a basket upon her head; her coarse, cracked cry, and brawny limbs, and red, bloated face, completing a portrait of the "fish-fag" of other days.
    Not only has the virago disappeared, but the market-place has been rebuilt, and its business regulated by the City authorities, with especial reference to the condition of the fish; and in 1849 was commenced the further extension of the market. There is no crowding, elbowing, screaming, or fighting, as heretofore; coffee has greatly superseded spirits; and a more orderly scene of business can scarcely be imagined. The market is daily, except Sundays, at five A.M., summer and winter, announced by ringing a bell, the only relic of the olden rule. The fishing-vessels reach the quay during the night, and are moored alongside a floating wharf, which rises and falls with the tide. The oyster-boats are berthed by themselves, the name of the oyster cargo is painted upon a board, where they arc measured out to purchasers. The other fish are carried ashore in baskets, and there sold, by Dutch auction, to fishmongers, whose carts are waiting in the adjoining streets. The wholesale market is now over; the bummarees supply the costermongers, &c.
    All fish is sold by tale, except oysters and shell-fish, which are sold by measure, and salmon by weight. In February and March, about thirty boxes of salmon, each one cwt., arrive at Billingsgate per day; the quantity gradually increases, until it amounts in July and August, to 1000 boxes (during one season it reached to 2500 tons)-the fish being finest when it is lowest in price. Of lobsters, Mr. Yarrell states a twelvemonths' supply to be 1,904,000; of turbots, 87,958. The speculation in lobsters is very great: in 1816, one Billingsgate salesman is known to have lost 1200l. per week, for six weeks, by lobsters! Periwinkles are shipped from Glasgow, fifty or sixty tons at a time, to Liverpool, and sent thence by railway to London, where better profits are obtained, even after paying so much sea and land carriage. Sometimes there is a marvellous glut of fish: thus, in two days from 90 to 100 tons of plaice, - soles, and sprats have been landed at Billingsgate, and sold at two and three lbs. a penny; soles, 2d.; large plaice, ld. each.
    A full season and scarce supply, however, occasionally raise the price enormously; as in the case of four guineas being paid for a lobster for sauce, which, being the only one in the market, was divided for two London epicures! During very rough weather, scarcely an oyster can be procured in the metropolis. In the Times, Nov. 9, 1859, we read: "In consequence of the gales which have recently prevailed, the price of fish has risen so much, that cod-fish fetched the enormous sum of- 1l. 15s., yesterday morning in Billingsgate market."
    Mackerel were, in 1698, first allowed to be cried through the streets on a Sunday; but, by the 9 and 10 Victoria, passed August 8, 1846, the sale of mackerel on a Sunday was declared illegal.
    The wholesale fish-trade of Billingsgate having greatly increased in 1854, Mr. Bunning, the City architect, completed a sub-market on the site of Billingsgate Dock; the carriage of fish by railway to London having greatly superseded the use of sailing vessels for that purpose. A new granite wharf-wall extends the entire river frontage of the market; and the foundations of the fish-market were constructed on the blue clay beneath the bed of the river, without the aid of a coffer-dam.
    Few persons are aware of the great consumption of fish in the metropolis. In the Parliamentary Report on the Sea Fisheries, 1866, is a calculation showing that nearly as much fish as beef is consumed in London. About 90,000 tons of fish are brought yearly, of which some 80,000 tons are large fish, the remainder being whiting and small fish.

John Timbs, Curiosities of London, 1867

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

Billingsgate so called, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after Belin King of the Britons, who built the first water-gate here in 400 B.C., styled by Fuller “the Esculine gate of London,” and has been for the last five centuries the great fish-market of the metropolis. It is built of red brick, with stone dressings and a campanile, and stands on the left bank of the river, a little below London-bridge. The market opens at 5 a.m. throughout the year, the fish being sold by tale, except in the case of salmon, which is sold by weight, and shellfish, which are sold by measure. It is one of the curious sights of London, but it is not well to go very elaborately dressed, or with too dainty ears. It is only fair, however, to say that the good old days of the “fish-fag “ are now over, and nothing worse in the way of “Billingsgate” will be heard than at any other place where rough work is being done in a hurry. Nevertheless, it requires coolness and presence of mind to pay a visit to Billingsgate with safety. Thames-street is narrow, crowded, and not over savoury. The pavements are narrow, and men are hurrying across them with boxes of oranges, for this is the centre of the Levant and Spanish fruit trade; waggons from the docks block the street; costermongers’ carts dodge in and out as best they may; everyone is intent upon business, and a man who comes on pleasure must shift for himself. Billingsgate is smelt before it is seen: there is a whiff of fresh fish and of red herrings, a tarry seaside smell which is not altogether disagreeable. Perhaps upon first visiting Bilhingsgate the feeling is one of disappointment: the show of fish is not great, for there is but little retail trade, but a little examination shows how immense is the trade carried on. At the river side are taut steamers which have just come in from the North Sea; piled up in thousands are boxes with fish from Yarmouth and Lowestoft and the eastern fishing places, and from the southern ports. There are hundreds of baskets and hampers of sprats, of herrings, of mackerel, boxes of soles and of flat fish, tons of cod, thousands of lordly turbot, and any quantity of whiting, plaice, and mullet. Besides all these there are quantities of shrimps, and, if it be the season, baskets upon basket of delicate smelt and whitebait. The river fish are represented only by salmon, and perhaps a few trout, but what a magnificent representation it is! Hundreds, nay thousands, of splendid fish which have come in ice, from Scotland principally, but some from Wales, some from Galway and the Irish rivers, some even from Norway. It is in the early morning or in the evening that Billingsgate is seen at its fullest, and perhaps the scene at night is the most characteristic. The market is well lighted, is thronged by a crowd of fishmongers and costermongers, and the din of the shouting salesmen is bewildering. If the weather has been stormy, the supply poor, the fish consequently dear, the costermonger element will soon thin out. There is no chance at such a time for them to buy fish at such a price as will enable them to sell to the working classes, and accordingly they all turn their attention to oranges, or if these are out of season, will go off for the night, and start for Covent-garden at daybreak to get a load of vegetables—perhaps even go down to a market-garden miles out, and buy the barrow-load there. Of all the population of London there are none who work longer hours for a living than do these itinerant vendors; their labour commencing at daybreak, and extending until eleven or twelve at night. NEAREST Railway Stats. ,Mansion House (Dist.), Cannon-st (S.E.), and Fenchurch. street; Omnibus Routes, Cannon-street, King William-street, Gracechurch-street, Fenchurch. street, and London-bridge; Cab Rank, Fish-street-hill  

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

Billingsgate Market, Thames-street, about 300 yards east of London Bridge, and adjoining the west side of the Custom House, is the one only market for fish in London. Some year since, an attempt was made to provide a second, and the Columbia Market was built by Lady, then, Miss Burdett Coutts, with the special view of securing a cheaper supply of fish for the benefit of the poorer classes. Put there are few commercial problems more difficult than the establishment of a new centre for an ancient trade. Even the Corporation themselves, to whom Lady Burdett Coutts presently handed over her noble building, found the task too much for them, and after struggling gallantly through a considerable period of dismal failure, the philanthropic attempt was abandoned, and Billingsgate resumed its undisputed sway. The derivation of its name is matter of dispute. All that is certainly know is that the appropriation of the site to the purpose of a fish-market took place in the year 1699 A.D., and that a fish-market it has remained ever since.
    It was not impossibly the failure of the Columbia Market which suggested to the Corporation the advisability of doing something to improve and extend the accommodation of Billingsgate Market. At all events, on the 27th of October, 1874, the first stone was laid of the handsome building which was to supersede the "elegant Italian structure" of Mr. Bunning, which, with its tall campanile, had long been one of the most conspicuous shore marks of the river below bridge. The construction presented considerable difficulties, both from the necessity of carrying it out without disturbance of the daily business of the market, and from the nature of the ground on which is had to be built, and which required an immense amount of preparation in the way of a platform of solid concrete, 15 feet in thickness. In 1877, however, the building was completed, and on the 20th of July of that year formally opened for business. Its river façade still adheres more or less to the Italian Gothic legend, but the campanile has disappeared, and the building now presents a uniform frontage of two lofty storeys, the centre portion being thrown a little back. The wings, which are, perhaps, artistically speaking, somewhat small in proportion to the central block, are occupied by taverns, at each of which is a daily fish ordinary.
    All along the front runs a broad floating story, alongside of which come the smaller craft by which the water-borne fish are brought up the river, and which vary in size and rig from the specially built steamer of more than 200 tons register, whose cargo has been collected from the smacks of the North Sea, to the little open barge in which cod or salmon has been lightered from the big sea-going ships in the docks of Victoria or Millwall.
    These North Sea steamers are a very special feature in the Billingsgate trade, not only for their novelty, but in themselves. They were originally started by Messrs. Hewett, the largest salesmen in the market, and till recently the only firm which as yet had impressed steam into the service of the water-borne trade. They are still the largest fish-steamer owners and their vessels, six in number, are the largest in point of tonnage, averaging something under 200 tons register each. But a new joint-stock company has within the last few months started at Grimsby, with four steam vessels averaging a little over 100 tons each. The vessels themselves are somewhat curiously built, with a shear almost like that of a Chinese junk, which, indeed, with the addition of a small poop and top-gallant forecastle, they would not a little resemble. They have considerable beam for their length, and are strongly and bluffly built, their cargo being heavy, and the weather they have to encounter often of the wildest. The engine-room is placed aft, and is strongly housed in to a considerable height above the deck, which is frequently swept fore and aft for hours together by seas which, without such precaution, would speedily drown her fires, and send ship and cargo together to the feeding grounds from which the latter had been so recently taken. In spite, however, of their heavy build, they can develop a very fair turn of speed, and have frequently been known to make the round voyage from Billingsgate to the North Sea and back twice in the course of a single week. Arrived on their cruising ground, the loading is an arduous, and but too often a highly dangerous operation. The smacks themselves in which the fish have been caught do not venture alongside, but send their "trunks" of fish in small open boats, from which they are hove on to the steamer's deck. Even so, however, the transhipment of a number of heavy boxes from a little dancing cockle-shell of a craft is no easy or safe task, and numbers of lives are lost by the capsizing of an overloaded boat, or by a momentary carelessness in fending her off, as the steamer lurches suddenly down upon her. In comparatively smooth water, a boat will discharge on either side of the ship. In rougher weather only one will venture alongside at a time to leeward. But it must be very heavy weather, indeed, in which these hardy fellows abandon the attempt, and the steamer loses her voyage altogether. The loaded "trunks" safely on board, the next operation is to hand over to the discharged boat a fresh supply of empty trunks with a corresponding quantity of fresh ice - a most important article, without which but a very small proportion of the present trade in fish could be carried on.
    The steamer's load collected, and her supplies of ice and empty trunks duly distributed, the next thing is to catch her tide at the river's mouth. This is a most important point, especially in warm weather. Missing the tide means missing the market, and missing the market may but too possibly at such time mean the sacrifice of  the greater portion, if not the whole, of the cargo, involving sometimes a loss of hundreds of pounds. On this point, indeed, a good deal of misapprehension exists. People who read in the papers of the "seizure" at Billingsgate of so many tons of fish as "unfit for human food," are apt to look upon tine salesmen as deliberately engaged in a chronic conspiracy against the public health. The task of detecting unsound fish is not left to the market authorities but is diligently carried out by the salesmen themselves, who at once set aside any trunk to which the slightest suspicion can attach, and send for the  fish-meter to inspect it and deride upon its fate. If pronounced tainted, it is consigned to a condemned cell in the hold of the landing-stage, whence it is cleared out by the contractors in whose charge it passes down the river again, for conversion into manure.
    The sound fish are then carried ashore by the licensed porters, a class of men who probably  make more money in less time than any unskilled labourers in Europe. A Billingsgate porter's  license costs but 2s. 6d., including the numbered brass badge with the City arms and the words Billingsgate Market which he wears upon his arm. A hard-working man will earn on favourable days as much as 20s., and that by 10 o'clock in the morning, leaving the rest of the day at his disposal.
    The landing process begins every  morning, summer and winter, at 5 a.m., when the tolling of the big bell announces the opening of the market, and a rush takes place to secure the earliest sales. The of these falls almost as a matter of prescription to Messrs. Hewett, who for years past have prided themselves upon putting up their first lot before the last stroke of the hour has ceased to vibrate. Besides the large steamers, of which there will be two or sometimes three at a time, the landing-stage is beset with a swarm of sailing, rowing, and towing craft of all sizes, rigs, and builds; handy sea-going cutters and smacks direct from the fishing-ground; barges with consignments of salmon from the big steamers trading from Norway to the Millwall Docks, or of cod from the far-off banks of Newfoundland; saucy little sprat-boats, open row-boats with shrimps or river fish, and great solid Dutch schuyts - Billingsgatice "skoots" - only just less broad than they are long, and with round bluff bow, and equally round bluff stern. Exquisitely clean and tidy, however, are these eccentric-looking craft, with their wriggling cargoes of eels piled in one great slimy mass in their roomy holds. With many of them even paint - and none but your Dutchman; could appreciate your true Hollander's devotion to the paint-pot - fails to attain the standard aimed at by Mynheer of an eel-schuyt. The whole craft will be built of finest oak, scraped and polished like the floor of an old-fashioned French drawing-room, till it is slippery to the touch as the eels it encloses, and as bright as the glowing copper bolts on which rottenstone and wash-leather seem to be unceasingly at work from morn to eve of seven days a week.
    Inside the market the scene is animated to the verge of obstreperousness. The great hall in which the sales take place, and which occupies the whole ground-floor of the centre building, is let off in 140 "stands," at a rate per week which, by the bye-laws of the market, sanctioned by the Board of Trade, is not to exceed 9d. per superficial foot. At each of the standings sales are busily going on, in many cases by auction, though how in such cases the bids of individual buyers ever reach the ear of the auctioneer through the Babel-like storm which is raging around is one of those things which no fellow not himself a fish-salesman, can hope to understand. The huge piles of trunks which have arrived by water, and which for the first hour or so are continually augmenting under the stream of fresh supplies poured in by the porters, are supplemented by still heavier arrivals from the landward side, where for hundreds of yards - east, west, and north of the market - Thames-street and its tributaries are blocked by a solid mass of waggons, vans, and railway machines. The chief portion of the supplies of this kind comes in the machines, which are in effect mighty packing-cases, 12 or 15 feet long, by 6 or 8 feet wide, and about 3 feet deep, solidly clamped and bound with iron, and with heavily padlocked lids opening on hinges, the inside filled with a solid mass of fish closely-packed in finely-ground ice. The greater number of these machines come up by rail from Grimsby and elsewhere upon ordinary open trucks, from which they are hoisted out on to lorries constructed for the purpose. Some, however, especially of those belonging to the Great Eastern line, are themselves mounted on wheels, but this plan seems to be giving way to the other. The total weekly supply of the market averages by water - 800 to 850 tons, and by land as nearly as possible double that amount, and as the whole of this enormous mass has to be carried on  men's shoulders from ship or machine to salesman's stall, there to be disposed of in some four hours or so, more or less, among the thousands of fishmongers and costers, large and small, from the swell tradesman of the West End, whose weekly bill for salmon alone will not unfrequently cast up in three figures, to the itinerant, who will trundle off his hand-barrow of "offal" for after-dark disposal in Clare Market or the New Cut, and then all carried back again for distribution among the vans, carts, and barrows of the purchasers, some faint idea may readily be formed of the bewildering turmoil of the scene. Even this, however, is not all, for Billingsgate supplies not only London but a very large portion of England. From Brighton to Birmingham, from Epping to Exeter, the supply is furnished almost exclusively from Billingsgate, whilst a large proportion of the market supplies are sold twice over ; the costers and smaller fishmongers being unable to take the large lots into which the stock is divided by the original salesman, and purchasing their modest supplies of the "Bummaree," who divides his purchases into parcels of sometimes even two or three fish. The market is at its height from 5 am. to about 9, by which time the greater part of the morning supply has been cleared off; but the market remains nominally open until 3 p.m., up to which period there is always a chance of the arrival of some belated craft with additional supplies.
    It must not he supposed, however, that these chance arrivals are allowed to take any one by surprise. From whatever point of the shore the approach of any fish-laden craft is first noted, the electric wire conveys the intelligence forthwith to Billingsgate; but even this does not satisfy the exigencies of the modern fish trade, and large numbers of pigeons are maintained for the express purpose of communicating with the shore from points on the open sea, to which the ubiquitous wire has not even yet penetrated.
    Not the least curious feature in the transactions of Billingsgate is the classification of its scaly ware. That the mighty cod, the lordly turbot, the royal salmon, the eccentric skate, the halibut beloved of Israel, the mullet (woodcock of the sea), the delicate sole of ordinary domestic life, and half a score more should vote themselves the aristocracy of the market under the title of "prime" fish is natural enough, though even philichthists might be found in whose vocabulary the snub-nosed grey-mullet at all events would hardly take that rank ; but why the delicate plaice and toothsome haddock should be contemptuously ranked as offal is a question hardly to be solved on gastronomic grounds. Probably the true solution is the financial one, and if turbot and salmon should ever become plentiful enough to be thrown upon the market at a penny or so apiece, they, too, would very shortly lose caste. So cheap at all events are the despised fish at Billingsgate, that even at the low prices at which they may be had in the shops by the understanding marketer, they are believed by those versed in such matters to produce a larger profit than anything else that wears fins. A haddock which will be offered for sale at a West End fishmonger's for a couple of shillings, and for which even an East End coster will ask and obtain sixpence or eightpence, has very likely been purchased in that morning's market for twopence or even less. Very often they are not disposable to the day's market even at that price, and they are then bought up for smoking.
    Meanwhile,in the great dungeon-like basement below the market, a somewhat similar scene to that above is being enacted with the day's supply of shell-fish. The pressure is indeed not so great, the accommodation for this branch of the business being rather in excess of the demand, but the scene is lively enough nevertheless, and hundreds of bushels of crabs and lobsters, prawns and shrimps, cockles, mussels, whelks, and winkles, change hands under the flaring gas-jets, which here, a dozen feet or more below the river level, afford, with the exception of a few dim glass bulls'-eyes in the pavement of the market above, the only available illumination.
    In a side chamber on this floor is the boiling establishment, where the shell-fish which have been purchased in the market can be prepared for consumption. The boiling apparatus consists of a row of eight or ten coppers, each encased in a strong iron jacket, into which can be introduced at will the steam from the great central boiler. The fish are placed in a kind of crate holding about three bushels each, and are immersed in the coppers, the periods varying from ten to twenty minutes or more, according to the size of the individual fish. Very few shrimps or prawns, however, find their way to the Billingsgate boiling-house, the great majority being operated upon on their way to market on board the smacks. The staff of the market includes about eleven hundred licensed porters, besides constables, detectives, clerks, &c. and the business, rough and riotous as it is, is conducted, so far as the official personnel is concerned, with machine-like precision and punctuality. The utmost care, too, is taken  to ensure the most scrupulous cleanliness throughout the building.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881

see also Richard Rowe in Life in the London Streets - click here

BILLINGSGATE MARKET, LOWER THAMES STREET ... The great fish market of London, where fish have been sold since 1351. The Market opens at 5 a.m. throughout the year.

Reynolds' Shilling Coloured Map of London, 1895

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Twice Round the Clock, or The Hours of the Day and Night in London, by George Augustus Sala, 1859

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    READER, were you ever up all night? You may answer that you are neither a newspaper editor, a market gardener, a journeyman baker, the driver of the Liverpool night mail, Mrs. Gamp the sicknurse, the commander of the Calais packet, Professor Airey, Sir James South, nor a member of the House of Commons. It may be that you live at Clapham, that one of the golden rules of your domestic economy is “gruel at ten, bed at eleven,” and that you consider keeping late hours to be an essentially immoral and wicked habit,—the immediate prelude to the career and the forerunner of the fate of the late George Barn-well. I am very sorry for your prejudices and your susceptibilities. I respect them, but I must do them violence. I intend that— bon gre, mal gre — in spirit, if not in actual corporeality, you should stop out not only all night but all day with me; in fact, for the space of twenty-four hours, it is my resolve to prohibit your going to bed at all. I wish you to see the monster LONDON in the varied phases of its outer and inner life, at every hour of the day-season and the night-season; I wish you to consider with me the giant sleeping and the giant waking; to watch him in his mad noonday rages, and in his sparse moments of unquiet repose. You must travel TWICE ROUND THE CLOCK with me; and together we will explore this London mystery to its [-10-] remotest recesses—its innermost arcana. To others the downy couch, the tasselled nightcap, the cushioned sofa, the luxurious ease of night-and-day rest. Ours be the staff and the sandalled shoon, the cord to gird up the lions, the palmer’s wallet and cockle-shells. For, believe me, the pilgrimage will repay fatigue, and the shrine is rich in relics.
   Four o’clock in the morning. The deep bass voice of Paul’s, the Staudigl of bells, has growlingly proclaimed the fact. Bow church confirms the information in a respectable baritone. St. Clement’s Danes has sung forth acquiescence with the well-known chest-note of his tenor voice, sonorous and mellifluous as Tamberlik’s. St. Margaret’s, Westminster, murmurs a confession of the soft impeachment in a contralto rich as Alboni’s in “Stridi la vampa;” and all around and about the pert bells of the new churches, from evangelical Hackney to Puseyite Pimlico, echo the announcement in their shrill treble and Soprani.   
   Four o’clock in the morning. Greenwich awards it,—the Horse Guards allow it—Bennett, arbiter of chronometers and clocks that, with much striking, have grown blue in the face, has nothing to say against it. And that self-same hour shall never strike again this side the trumpet’s sound. The hour itself being consigned to the innermost pigeon-hole of the Dead Hour office—(a melancholy charnel-house of misspent time is that, my friend)—you and I have close upon sixty minutes before us ere the grim old scythe-bearer, the saturnine child-eater, who marks the seconds and the minutes of which the infinite subdivision is a pulsation of eternity, will tell us that the term of another hour has come. That hour will be five a.m., and at five it is high market at Billingsgate. To that great piscatorial Bourse we, an’t please you, are bound.
   It is useless to disguise the fact that you, my shadowy, but not the less beloved companion, are about to keep very bad hours. Good to hear the chimes at midnight, as Justice Shallow and Falstaff oft did when they were students in Gray’s Inn; but four and five in the morning! these be small hours indeed: this is beating the town with a vengeance. Were it winter, our bedlessness would be indefensible; but this is still sweet summer time.
   But why, the inquisitive may ask—the child-man who is for ever cutting up the bellows to discover the reservoir of the wind—why four o’clock a.m.? Why not begin our pilgrimage at one a.m., and finish the first half at midnight, in the orthodox get-up-and-go-to-bed man-[-11-]ner? Simply because four a.m. is in reality the first hour of the working London day. The giant is wide awake at midnight; he sinks into a fitful slumber about two in the morning: short is his rest, for at four he is up again and at work, the busiest bee in the world’s hive.
   The child of the Sun, the gorgeous golden peacock, strutting in a farmyard full of the Hours, his hens, now triumphs. It is summer and more than that, a lovely summer morning. The brown night has retired, and the meek-eyed moon, mother of dews, has disappeared:
   the young day pours in apace; the mountains’ misty tops are swelling on the Sight, and brightening in the sun. It is the cool, the fragrant, and the silent hour, to meditation due and sacred song; the air is coloured, the efflux divine turns hovels into palaces, and shoots with gold the rags of beggars.
   “The city now doth like a garment wear
   The beauty of the morning
   Never did Sun more beautifully steep
   In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill.
   Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep.
   The River glideth at its own sweet will;
   Dear God! the very houses seem asleep,
   And all that mighty Heart is lying still.”
   I know that the acknowledgment of one’s quotations or authorities is going out of fashion. Still, as I murmur the foregoing lines as I wander round about the Monument and in and out of Thames Street, waiting for Billingsgate-market time to begin, a conviction grows upon me that the poetry is not my own; and in justice to the dead, as well as with a view of sparing the printer a flood of inverted commas, I may as well confess that I have been reading Mr. James Thomson and Mr. William Wordsworth on the subject of summer lately, and that very many of the flowery allusions to be found above, have been culled from the works of those pleasing writers.
   Non omnes moriar. Though the so oft-mentioned hours be asleep, and the river glideth in peace, undisturbed by penny steamboats, the mighty heart of Thames Street is anything but still. The great warehouses are closed, ‘tis true; the long wall of the Custom House is a huge dead wall, full of blind windows. The Coal Exchange (which edifice, with its gate down among the dead men in Thames Street, and its cupola, like a middle-sized bully, lifting its head to about the level of the base of that taller bully the Monument, is the neatest example of an architectural “getting up stairs” that I know)—the Coal Exchange [-12-] troubles not its head as yet about Stewarts or Lambtons, Sutherlands or Wallsend. The moist wharfs, teeming with tubs and crates of potter’s ware packed with fruity store, and often deliciously perfumed with the smell of oranges, bulging and almost bursting through their thin prison bars of wooden laths, are yet securely grated and barred up. The wharfingers are sleeping cosily far away. But there are shops and shops wide open, staringly open, defiantly open, with never a pane of glass in their fronts, but yawning with a jolly ha! ha! of open-windowedness on the bye-strollers. These are the shops to make you thirsty; these are the shops to make your incandescent coppers hiss; these are the shops devoted to the apotheosis and apodeiknensis (I quote Wordsworth again, but Christopher, not William) of Salt Fish—

   “Spend Herring first, save Salt Fish last,
   For Salt Fish is good when Lent is past.”

   So old Tusser. What piles of salted fish salute the eye, and make the mouth water, in these open-breasted shops! Dried herrings, real Yarmouth bloaters, kippered herrings, not forgetting the old original, unpretending red herring, the modest but savoury “soldier” of the chandler’s-shop! What flaps of salt cod and cured fishes to me unknown, but which may be, for aught I know, the poll of ling which King James the First wished to give the enemy of mankind when he dined with him, together with the pig and the pipe of tobacco; or it may be Coob or Haberdine! What are Coob and Haberdine? Tell me, Groves, tell me, Polonius, erst chamberlain and first fishmonger to the court of Denmark. Great creels and hampers are there too, full of mussels and periwinkles, and myriads of dried sprats and cured pilchards—shrunken, piscatorial anatomies, their once burnished green and yellow panoplies now blurred and tarnished. On the whole, each dried-fish shop is a most thirst-provoking emporium, and I cannot wonder much if the blue-aproned fishmongers occasionally sally forth from the midst of their fishy mummy pits and make short darts “round the corner” to certain houses of entertainment, kept open, it would seem, chiefly for their accommodation, and where the favourite morning beverage is, I am given to understand, gin mingled with milk. It is refreshing, however, to find that the fragrant berry of Mocha (more or less adequately represented by chicory, burnt horse-beans, and roasted corn)—that coffee, the nurse of Voltaire’s wit, the inspirer of Balzac’s brain; coffee, which Madame de Sevigné pertly predicted [-13-] would “go out” with Racine, but which nevertheless has, with astonishing tenacity of vitality, “kept in” while the pert Sevigne and the meek Racine have quite gone out into the darkness of literary limbo—is in great request among the fishy men of Billingsgate. Huge, massive, blue and white earthenware mugs full of some brown decoction, which to these not too exigent critics need but to steam, and to be sweet, to be the “coffee as in France,” whose odoriferous “percolations” the advertising tradesmen tell us of, are lifted in quick succession to the thirsty lips of the fishmen. Observe, too, that all market men drink and order their coffee by the “pint,” even as the scandal-loving old ladies of the last century (ladies don’t love scandal now-a-days) drank their tea by the “dish.” I can realise the contempt of a genuine Billingsgate marketeer for the little thimble-sized filagree cups with the bitter Mocha grouts at the bottom, which, with a suffocating Turkish chibouque, Turkish pachas and attar-of-roses dealers in the Bezesteen, offer as a mark of courtesy to a Frank traveller when they want to cheat him.
   Close adjacent is a narrow passage called Darkhouse Lane, and here properly should be a traditional Billingsgate tavern called the “Darkhouse.” There is one, open all night, under the same designation, in Newgate Market. Hither came another chronicler of “twice round the clock” with another neophyte, to show him the wonders of the town, one hundred and fifty years ago. Hither, when pursy, fubsy, good-natured Queen Anne reigned in England, and followed the hounds in Windsor’s Park, driving two piebald ponies in a chaise, and touched children for the “evil,” awing childish Sam Johnson with her black velvet and her diamonds, came jovial, brutal, vulgar, graphic Ned Ward, the “ London Spy.” Here, in the “ Darkhouse,” he saw a waterman knock down his wife with a stretcher, and subsequently witnessed the edifying spectacle of the recreant husband being tried for his offence by a jury of fishwomen. Scant mercy, but signal justice, got he from those fresh-water Minoses and Rhadamanthuses. Forthwith was he “cobbed “—a punishment invented by sleeveboard~vielding tailors, and which subsequently became very popular in her Majesty’s navy. Here he saw “fat, motherly flatcaps, with fishbaskets hanging over their heads instead of riding-hoods,” with silver rings on their thumbs, and pipes charged with “mundungus” in their mouths, sitting on inverted eel-baskets, and strewing the flowers of their exuberant eloquence over dashing young town rakes who had stumbled into Billingsgate to finish the night—disorderly blades in [-14-] laced velvet coats, with torn ruffles, and silver-hilted swords, and plumed hats battered in scuffles with the watch. But the town-rakes kept comparatively civil tongues in their heads when they entered the precincts of the Darkhouse. An amazon of the market, otherwise known as a Billingsgate fish-fag, was more than a match for a Mohock. And here Ned Ward saw young city couples waiting for the tide to carry them in a tilt-boat to Gravesend; and here he saw bargemen eating broiled red-herrings, and Welshmen “louscobby” (whatever that doubtless savoury dish may have been, but there must have been cheese in it) ; and here he heard the frightful roaring of the waters among the mechanism of the piers of old London Bridge. There are no waterworks there now; the old bridge itself is gone; the Mohocks are extinct; and we go to Gravesend by the steamer, instead of the tilt-boat ; yet still, as I enter the market, a pleasant cataract of “chaff” between a fishwoman and a costermonger comes plashing down—even as Mr. Southey tells us that the waters come down at Lodore—upon my amused ears; and the conviction grows on me that the flowers of Billingsgate eloquence are evergreens. Mem.: To write a philosophical dissertation on the connection between markets and voluble vituperation which has existed in all countries and in all ages. ‘Twas only from his immense mastery of Campanian slang that Menenius Agrippa obtained such influence over the Roman commons; and one of the gaudiest feathers in Daniel O’Connell’s cap of eloquence was his having “slanged” an Irish market-woman down by calling her a crabbed old hypothenuse!
   Billingsgate has been one of the watergates or ports of the city from time immemorial. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fabulous history of the spot acquaints us that “ Belin, a king of the Britons, about four hundred years before Christ’s nativity, built this gate and called it ‘Belinsgate,’ after his own calling;” and that when he was dead, his body being burnt, the ashes in a vessel of brass were set on a high pinnacle of stone over the said gate. Stowe very sensibly observes, that the name was most probably derived from some previous owner, “happily named Beling or Biling, as Somars’ Key, Smart’s Wharf, and others, thereby took the names of their owners.” When he was engaged in collecting materials for his “Survey,” Billingsgate was a “large watergate port, or harborough for ships and boats commonly arriving there with fish, both fresh and salt, shellfish, salt, oranges, onions, and other fruits and roots, wheat, rye, and grain of divers sorts, for the service of the city, and the parts of this realm adjoining.” [-15-] Queenhithe, anciently the more important watering-place, had yielded its pretensions to its rival. Each gives its name to one of time city wards.
   Some of the regulations concerning the “mystery” of the fishmongers in old times are sufficiently interesting for a brief notice. In the reign of Edward I. the prices of fish were fixed—for the best soles, 3d. per dozen; the best turbot, 6d. each; the best pickled herrings, 1d. a score; fresh oysters, 2d. a gallon ; the best eels, 2d. per quarter of a hundred. In a statute of Edward I. it was forbidden to offer for sale any fish except salt fish after the second day. In the city assize of fish the profits of the London fishmongers were fixed at one penny in twelve. They were not to sell their fish secretly, within doors, but in plain market-place. In 1320 a combination was formed against the fishmongers of Fish-wharf, to prevent them from selling by retail; but Edward II. ordered the mayor and sheriffs to interfere, and the opposition was unsuccessful. The mayor issued his orders to these fishmongers of Bridge Street and Old Fish Street, to permit their brethren in the trade to “ stand at stall ;“ to merchandise with them, and freely obtain their share of merchandise, as was fit and just, and as the freedom of the city required. A few years later some of the fishmongers again attempted to establish a monopoly; but it was ordered that the “billestres,” or poor persons who cried or sold fish in the streets, “provided they buy of free fishmongers, and do not keep a stall, or make a stay in the streets, shall not be hindered;” and also that persons and women coming from the uplands with fish caught by them or their servants in the waters of the Thames or other neighbouring streams, were to be allowed to frequent the market. With these exceptions, none but members of the Fishmongers’ Company were to be allowed to sell fish in the city, lest the commodity should be made dear by persons dealing in it who were unskilful in the mystery.
   The old churches of London in the immediate vicinity of the fish-markets contained numerous monuments to fishmongers. That the stock-fishmongers, or dealers in dried or salted fish, should have formed so important a portion of the trade is deserving of notice, as a peculiarity of the times. Lovekin and Walworth, who both acquired wealth, were stock-fishmongers. The nature of the commodity was such as to render the dealers in it a superior class to the other fishmongers. A great store might be accumulated, and more capital was required than by the other fishmongers, who on1y purchased from hand to mouth.
   [-16-] In 1699, an act was passed for making it a free market for the sale of fish—though the very commencement of the preamble alludes to Billingsgate having been time out of mind a free market for all kinds of floating and salt fish, as also for all manner of floating and shellfish. The necessity of a new act had arisen, as the preamble recites, from various abuses, one of which was that the fishmongers would not permit the street hawkers of fish to buy of the fishermen, by which means the fishmongers bought at their own prices. The extraordinary dream of making the country wealthy, and draining the ocean of its riches by means of fisheries, had for above a century been one of the fondest illusions of the English people; and about the time that the act was passed, “ways to consume more fish” were once more attracting the popular attention. The price of fish at the time was said to be beyond the reach of the poor and even of the middling classes; and for many days together the quantity received at Billingsgate was very inconsiderable. To remedy these evils, carriages were to be constructed, to be drawn by two post-horses, which were to convey the fish to market at a rate of speed which was then thought to be lightning rapidity. But though the project was much talked about, it never came to a head, and ultimately fell through, the projectors consoling themselves with the axiomatic reflection—that there are more fish in the sea than ever came out of it.
   But while I am rummaging among the dusty corners of my memory, and dragging forth worm-eaten old books to the light; while I have suffered the hare of the minute-hand, and the tortoise of the hour-hand (the tortoise wins the race), to crawl or scamper at least half round the clock, Billingsgate Market itself—the modern—the renovated—a far different place to that uncleanly old batch of sheds and hovels, reeking with fishy smells, and more or less beset by ruffianly company, which was our only fish market twenty years ago— New Billingsgate, with a real fountain in the centre, which during the day plays real water, is now in full life and bustle and activity. Not so much in the market area itself, where porters are silently busied in clearing piles of baskets away, setting forms and stools in order, and otherwise preparing for the coming business of the fish auction, as on the wharf, in front of the tavern known to fame as Simpson’s, and where the eighteenpenny fish ordinary is held twice every day, except Sunday, in each year of grace. This wharf is covered with fish, and the scaly things themselves are being landed, with prodigious celerity, and in quantities almost as prodigious, from vessels moored [-17-]


[-18-] in triple tier before the market. Here are Dutch boats that bring eels, and boats from the north sea that bring lobsters, and boats from Hartlepool, Whitstable, Ilarwich, Great Grimsby, and other English seaports and fishing stations. They are all called “boats,” though many arc of a size that would render the term ship, or at least vessel, far more applicable. They arc mostly square and squat in rigging, and somewhat tubby in build, and have an unmistakeably fishy appearance. Communications are opened between the vessels, each other, and the shore, by means of planks placed from bulwark to bulwark; and these bulwarks arc now trodden by legions of porters carrying the fish ashore. Nautical terms are mingled with London street vernacular; fresh mackerel competes in odour with pitch and tar; the tight strained rigging cuts in dark indigo-relief against the pale-blue sky; the whole is a confusion, slightly dirty but eminently picturesque, of ropes, spars, baskets, oakum, tarpaulin, fish, canvas trousers, osier baskets, loud voices, tramping feet, and “perfumed gales,” not exactly from “Araby the blest,” but from the holds of the fishing-craft.
   Upon my word, the clock has struck five, and the great gong of Billingsgate booms forth market-time. Uprouse ye, then, my merry, merry fishmongers, for this is your opening day! And the merry fishmongers uprouse themselves with a vengeance. The only comparison I can find for the aspect, the sights, and sounds of the place, is—a Rush. A rush hither and thither at helter-skelter speed, apparently blindly, apparently without motive, but really with a business-like and engrossing pre-occupation, for fish and all things fishy. Baskets full of turbot, borne on the shoulders of the facchini of the place, skim through the air with such rapidity that you might take them to be flying fish. Out of the way! here is an animated salmon leap. Stand on one side! a shoal of fresh herrings will swallow you up else. There is a rush to the tribunes of the auctioneers; forums surrounded by wooden forms—I mean no pun—laden with fish, and dominated by the rostra of the salesmen, who, with long account-books in their hands, which they use instead of hammers, knock down the lots with marvellous rapidity. An eager crowd of purchasers hedge in the scaly merchandise. They are substantial-looking, hearty, rosy-gilled men— for the sale of fish appears to make these merchants thrive in person as well as in purse. Why, though, should fishmongers have, as a body, small eyes? Can there be any mysterious sympathy between them and the finny things they sell ?—and do they, like the husband and wife who loved each other so much,. and lived together so long, that, [-19-] although at first totally dissimilar in appearance, they grew at last to resemble one another feature for feature—become smaller and smaller-eyed as their acquaintance with the small-eyed fishes lengthens? I throw this supposition out as a subject for speculation for some future Lavater. Among the buyers I notice one remarkable individual, unpretending as to facial development, but whose costume presents a singular mixture of the equine and the piscine. Lo! his hat is tall and shiny, even as the hat of a frequenter of New-market and an habitué of Aldridge’s Repository, and his eminently sporting-looking neckcloth is fastened with a horse-shoe pin ; but then his sleeves are as the sleeves of a fishmonger, and his loins are girt with the orthodox blue apron appertaining, by a sort of masonic prescription, to his craft and mystery! His nether man, as far as the spring of the calf, is clad in the galligaskins of an ordinary citizen; but below the knee commence a pair of straight tight boots of undeniably sporting cut. Who is this marvellous compound of the fishy and “ horsey” idiosyncrasies? Is he John Scott disguised as Izaak Walton? is he Flatman or Chifney? Tell me, Mr. Chubb, proprietor of the “ Golden Perch;” tell me, “Ruff,” mythical author of the “Guide to the Turf”—for knowing not to which authority especially to appeal, I appeal to both, even as did the Roman maid-servant, who burnt one end of the candle to St. Catherine and the other to St. Nicholas (old St. Nicholas I mean, sometimes familiarised into “Nick”), in order to be on the safe side.
   There are eight auctioneers or fish salesmen attached to the market, and they meet every morning between four and five o’clock at one of the principal public-houses, to discuss the quantity and quality of fish about to be offered for sale. The three taverns are known as Bowler’s, Bacon’s, and Simpson’s. The second of these is situated in the centre of the market, and is habitually used by the auctioneers, probably on account of the son of the proprietor being the largest consignee at Bilhingsgate.
   As the clock strikes five, the auctioneers disperse to their various boxes. Below each box are piled on “forms” or bulks the “doubles” of plaice, soles, haddock, whiting, and “ offal.” A “double” is an oblong basket tapering to the bottom, and containing from three to four dozen of fish; “offal” means odd lots of different kinds of fish, mostly small and broken, but always fresh and wholesome. When the auctioneer is ready, a porter catches up a couple of “doubles,” and swings one on to each shoulder, and then the bids begin. Soles have been sold as low as four shillings the “double,” and have fetched [-20-]


[-21-] as high as three pounds. There is one traditional bid on record, which took place in the early part of the present century, of forty guineas per hundred for mackerel. Plaice ranges from one-and-six-pence to four shillings the double. The sale is conducted on the principle of what is termed a “Dutch auction,” purchasers not being allowed to inspect the fish in the doubles before they bid. Offal is bought only by the “fryers.” You may see, almost every market morning, a long, gaunt, greasy man, of that dubious age that you hesitate whether to call him youngish or oldish, with a signet ring on one little finger, and a staring crimson and yellow handkerchief round the collar of his not very clean checked shirt, buy from fifteen to twenty doubles of one kind or another; and in the season the habitués of the market say that he will purchase from twenty-five to thirty bushels of periwinkles and whelks. This monumental “doubler,” this Rothschild of the offal tribe, resides in Somers Town. To him resort to purchase stock those innumerable purveyors of fried fish who make our courts and bye-streets redolent with the oleaginous perfumes of their hissing cauldrons. For the convenience of small dealers, who cannot afford to buy an entire double, stands are erected at different parts of the market for “bumbarees.” We may ask in vain, unde derivatur, for the meaning of the term, though it is probably of Dutch origin. Any one can be a bumbaree: it requires neither apprenticeship, diploma, nor license, and it is the pons asinorum of the “mystery of fishmongers.” The career is open to all; which, considering the difficulty of settling one’s children in life, must be rather a gratifying reflection for parents. The process of bumbareeing is very simple. It consists in buying as largely as your means will afford of an auctioneer, hiring a stall for sixpeuce, and retailing the fish at a swingeing profit. I think that if I were not a landed gentleman, a Middlesex magistrate, and a member of the Court of Lieutenancy—vainly endeavouring, meanwhile, to ascertain my parochial settlement, in order to obtain admission to a workhouse as an unable-bodied pauper—that I should like to be a bumbaree.
   Plaice, soles, haddocks (fresh), skate, maids, cod, and hag (the two last-mentioned fish in batches of threes and fours, with a string passed through the gills), are the only fish sold by auction. Fresh herrings are sold from the vessel by the long hundred (130). They are counted from the hold to the buyers in “warp” fives. Twopence per hundred is charged to bring them on shore. Eels are sold by the “draft” of twenty pounds weight—the price of the draft varying from three [-22-] shillings to fifteen. Twopence per draft is paid for “shoreing” or landing the fish from the vessels. Sprats are sold on board the ships by the bushel. A “tindal”is a thousand bushels of sprats. When we come to consider the vast number of these oily, savoury little fishes that a bushel will contain, the idea of a “tindal” of them seems perfectly Garagantuan; yet many “tindals” of them are sold every week during the winter season—for the consumption of sprats among the poorer classes is enormous. What says the Muse of the Bull at Somers Town—what sweet stanzas issue from the anthology of Seven Dials

   “O ‘tis my delight on a Friday night,
   When sprats they isn’t dear,
   To fry a couple of score or so
   Upon a fire clear.
   “They eats so well, they bears the bell
   From all the fish I knows:
   Then let us eat them while we can,
   Before the price is rose.”
   (Chorus—ad libitum) “O ‘tis my delight,” &c.

   The last two lines are replete with the poetry and philosophy of the poorer classes : “ Let us eat them while we can, before the price is rose ;“ for even sprats are sometimes luxuries unattainable by the humble. Exceedingly succulent sprats labour under the disadvantage of being slightly unwholesome. To quote Mr. Samuel Weller’s anecdote of the remark made by the young lady when remonstrating with the pastrycook who had sold her a pork pie which was all fat, sprats are “rayther too rich.” And yet how delicious they are I have had sonic passably good dinners in my time; I have partaken of turbot a la creme at the Trois Frères Provençaux; I have eaten a filet a la Chateaubriand at Bignon’s: yet I don’t think there is a banquet in the whole repertory of Lucullus and Apicius—a more charming red-letter night in the calendar of gastronomy, than a sprat supper.
   You must have three pennyworth of sprats, a large tablecloth is indispensable for finger-wiping purposes—for he who would eat sprats with a knife and fork is unworthy the name of an epicure—and after the banquet I should recommend, for purely hygienic and antibilious reasons, the absorption of a petit verre of the best Hollands.
   To return. As regards salmon, nine-tenths of the aristocratic fish are brought up by rail in barrels, and in summer packed in ice. Salmon and salmon-trout are not subjected to the humiliation of being [-23-] “knocked down” by an auctioneer. They are disposed of “ by private contract” at so much per pound.
   Of dried and smoked fish of all kinds the best come from Yarmouth; but as regards the costermonger and street-vender—the modern “ billestres,” of dried haddocks, smoked sprats and herrings, entire or kippered -they are little affected by the state of the cured fish market so long as they can buy plenty of the fresh kind. The costermonger cures his fish himself in the following manner :—He builds a little shed like a watch-box, with wires across the upper part; and on this grating he threads his fish. Then he makes a fire on the floor of his impromptu curing-house with coal or mahogany dust, and smokes the fish” till done,” as the old cookery books say. There is a dealer in the market to whom all fish-sellers bring the skins of departed soles. He gives fourpence-halfpenny a pound for them. They are used for refining purposes. And now for a word concerning the crustacea and the molluscs. Of oysters there are several kinds: Native Pearls, Jerseys, Old Barleys, and Commons. On board every oyster-boat a business-like gentleman is present, who takes care that every buyer of a bushel of oysters pays him fourpence. No buyer may carry his oysters ashore himself, be he ever so able and willing. There are regular “shoremen,” who charge fourpence a bushel for their services; so that whatever may be the market-price of oysters, the purchaser must pay, nolens volens, eightpence a bushel over and above the quoted rate.
   Of mussels there are three kinds: Dutch, Exeters, and Shorehams. They are brought to market in bags, of the average weight of three hundredweight; each bag containing about one hundred and sixty quarts, inclusive of dirt and stones. They are sold at from five shillings to seven shillings a bag. Of periwinkles—or, as they are more popularly and familiarly termed, “winkles “—there are four sorts: Scotch, Clays, Isle of Wights, and Maidens. They are sold by the bushel, or by the “level” or gallon. Crabs arc sold by the “kit” (a long shallow basket) and by the score. Lobsters by the score and the double.
   At the “Cock,” in Love Lane, and at the “White Hart,” in Botolph Lane, there is a boiling-house in the rear of the premises. Each boiling-house consists of a spacious kitchen filled with immense cauldrons. Here winkle and whelk buyers, who have neither utensils nor convenient premises sufficient to boil at home, can have it done for them for fourpence a bushel. Each boiling is performed separ-[-24-]ately in a wicker-basket; crabs and lobsters may likewise be boiled at these houses. Half-a-dozen scores of the fish are packed in a large basket, shaped like a strawberry-pottle, a lid is put between each lot, and the hot-water torture is inflicted at the rate of sixpence a Score.
   If your servant, the writer, were not precluded by the terms of his contract from taking any natural rest, he might, pleading fatigue, retire to bed; and, tossing on an unquiet couch, as men must do who slip between the sheets when the blessed sun is shining, have fantastic dreams of Ned Ward and Sir William Walworth : dream of the market-scene in “Masaniello,” and hum a dream-reminiscence of “Behold, how brightly beams the morning!” which, of course, like all things appertaining to dreams, has no more resemblance to the original air than the tune the cow died of. Then fancy that he is a supernumerary in a pantomime, and that Mr. Flexmore, the clown, has jumped upon his shoulders, and is beating him about the ears with a “property” codfish. Then he might be Jonah, swallowed by the whale; and then Tobit’s fish. Then he would find himself half awake, and repeating some lines he remembered reading years ago, scrawled in ink on a huge placard outside the shop of Mr. Taylor, the famous fishmonger, in Lombard Street. Yes: they ran thus—
   “ So the ‘Times’ takes an interest in the case of Geils
   I wish it would take some in my eels! What a queer fish Mr. Taylor must have been! Where is he now? Why, he (your servant) is Taylor—Jeremy Taylor—Tom Taylor— Taylor the water-poet—Billy Taylor—the Three Tailors of Tooley Street—Mr. Toole, the toast-master of arts and buttered toast; ann— he is asleep!

[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]



Punch, September 15, 1883

see also W.J.Gordon in article 'The Feeding of London' - click here

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - Billingsgate Market

Billingsgate Market - photograph


Billingsgate, on the Middlesex bank of the Thames, just east of London Bridge, is the most famous fish market in the country. It dates from the end of the seventeenth century, but the present building was only completed in 1877. The business of the Market - which should be visited at five o'clock in the morning by those who do not object to "the ancient and fish-like smell" - is carried on in the great hall in the wings, each surmounted by a weathercock in the shape of a gilt fish, are taverns. Our view shows the river façade, and the landing stage at low-water; but no inconsiderable proportion of the hundreds of tons of fish disposed of here weekly is now brought to Billingsgate by land. The Fishmongers' Company employs officials known as "meters " to seize fish which is unfit for food.