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[-9-] FOUR O'CLOCK A.M.—BILLINGSGATE MARKET.
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-]
BILLINGSGATE MARKET : CARRYING FISH ASHORE
[-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-]
BILLINGSGATE MARKET : THE FISH SOLD AT AUCTION
[-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 some 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.]