1 October 1892
The Greatest Wholesale Fish Market in the World - Older then Authentic British History - Its Ancient Fishwives Are No More - Interesting Surroundings and Odd Characters
London, Sept. 19.
You can fairly smell Billingsgate market, the greatest wholesale fish market of London, and the most important fish market in all the world, long before you can see it. It has a hint of the sea air in it. Tar and oakum are suggested. Floating to your senses, along with the coming of the first rays of the morning sun broken by the grim and lofty Monument, it tells more than of the stuffy market and its steaming throngs. It carries the fancy pleasantly along past London's grim waterside structures and the webs of spars and rigging, down the widening Thames and on past pretty Margate to the wide free reaches of the blue North sea. There is that wondrous sea harvest field, from Dover to upper Norway, are rocking the fisher fleets. In olden days. indeed not more than a quarter of a century ago, these sent their catches to the London market. And a pretty sight it must then have been, when the fleet came up here to the old Billingsgate wharf, just under the shadows of historic London Bridge; the Dutch built eelboats, with their bulging polished oaken sides, half hidden in the river mist; punts packed with flounders and small closely crowded baskets ranged along the seats, scores of oyster punts filled with gray masses of sand and shell; weather neaten luggers packed with herrings, cod and ling, and all about the wharf and swarming like flies aboard all manner of closely anchored fishing craft, sailors, fishermen, costers, Billingsgate fishwives, and fine ladies too, engaged in the chaffering and bantering of eager selling and buying.
But that day is past. The olden color and brightness are gone. Hard mercantile thrift and modern methods have banished the fine ladies who in gentle "slumming" mood made their own purchases at Billingsgate and took back into choice London society the wondrous sayings of the Billingsgate women, whose tongues were the readiest and wickedest in all the world. The fishwives are gone, and their only existing prototypes are at the Claddagh, Galway, Ireland.
Steam vessels scurry about the North Sea grounds, secure the fish where they are taken and bring them to the mouth of the Thames. Here other larger fast sailing steam craft are laden, and these, varying in number according to the season, daily bring the vast fish supply of London, landing it at the very doors of Billingsgate, much as the fish supply of New York city is set down in the East River at the back doors of ramshackle old Fulton Market.
Billingsgate Market still stands just where it has stood for centuries. How many centuries, no man knows. Iconoclasts without reverence for even the antiquities of a fish say a fellow by the name of Billing owned a wharf upon the same spot in Queen Elizabeth's reign, and hence its name. But I have seen a preamble to an Act of Parliament (in 10 and 12 of William III) to make Billingsgate a free market for the sale of fish, in which, among other "whereases," is one reciting that "Billingsgate has time out of mind been a free market for all manner of floating and salt fish, as also for all manner of lobsters and shellfish." Tradition, which is good history when authorities differ, lends the place its more fitting antiquity and insists that it owes its origin to Belin, an ancient king of the Britons, who flourished 400 years B.C., and who, observing an opportunity for gain like a true Briton, erected a gate here through which the fishermen of his day were made to pass and pay toll before they could sell their fish, and hence the name Belin's Gate, finally corrupted to Billingsgate.
However all this may be, Billingsgate is the oldest wharf on the Thames, and that is saying much for it on the line of age. The market building and the ground it stands upon is owned by the London municipal authorities. Its river frontage is 200 feet and its superficial area is 40,000 square feet, affording sites for seventeen shops and two large public houses. It is located in the densest part of what may be termed waterside London, on the north bank of the Thames. Just above it, to the west, is old London Bridge - a bridge probably better known in the literature of fiction and travel than any other similar structure in the world.
Just below it to the east is the new Tower Bridge, in process of construction for the past six years. Immediately adjoining, to the west, are the great Levant and Spanish fruit markets, and on the other side, seaward, stands the huge Doric fronted London custom house. Immediately opposite, across the Thames on the Surrey side, is the tremendous reach of the Surrey Commercial docks, vast, grim, black, and half in mist, and the Thames at this point between London and Tower Bridges is called the "Upper Pool." It is said to carry here more floating traffic than any other reach of water approaching it in size upon the face of the globe.
Owing to the dense massing of river traffic at this point and the inconceivably congested nature of the population, narrowness of streets and seeming inextricability of street traffic banking up against and hemming in Billingsgate from all directions, it would almost seem that London would have long since found some more accessible and convenient depot for the disposal of her enormous fish supply. Yet all attempts to abandon Billingsgate or divert its trade have proven futile. "Conservatism," tradition, and even superstition balk all efforts of this character. Dealers tell me they would go out of business if they had to leave Billingsgate. Fishermen would not feel easy about their consignments to any new market. Costers have repeatedly told me that their best customers among the poor of the East End would not buy or eat fish that had not the time honored seal of Billingsgate inspection upon it. The varieties of fish which are in their respective seasons delivered at Billingsgate market certainly number nearly 100. During this month I have noticed perch, periwinkles, pike, anchovies, roach, salmon, gurnard, haddocks, herrings, flounders, turbot, sprats, jack, ling, plaice, dories, prawns, catfish, mullets, whelks, coalfish, trout, soles, pilchards, eels and conger fish, dogfish, bream, hake, shad, weavers, skate, smelts, whitebait, tench, sturgeon and perhaps a dozen other varieties, and the total weight is from 12,000 to 13,000 tons per month of 150,000 per year.
Of this vast quantity fully two thirds reaches London by railway. All the fish from Ireland is sent across St. George's channel in fast steamers and thence by rail. Salmon and trout all come by rail, and much of the northern North Sea yield, taken off east Scottish shores, and even some of the catches from about Yarmouth and Scarborough, are for the sake of time saving thus transferred. Small wheeled, lead lined vans are provided by the railways. These are dragged by horses from fishing stations or quays to railway stations, wheeled into the railway vans, and this brought to London without breaking bulk. On arrival here they are wheeled to the streets and dragged by horses through the streets from various stations to Billingsgate. Fully 100,000 tons of fish annually reach the market in this manner. Over three fourths of all the fish consumed by London passes inspection at Billingsgate. As the market is city property the officials for this purpose, four in number, are appointed by the Court of the Fishmongers' Company, one of the ancient but still thoroughly active Guilds or Trades Companies of London. It has a fine Fishmongers' Hall near London Bridge, and expends many thousands yearly in preventing the sale of decayed fish. All fish condemned by its inspectors are immediately conveyed to a waiting barge, treated with carbolic acid and sent to fertilizing works at Rainham, where after being baked dry they are ground to powder and sold at about five pounds per ton to the strawberry and hop farmers of Kent for fertilizing purposes. The fish steamers arrive alongside the market at all hours of the night and early morning. At precisely 5 o'clock in the morning the market opens. Long lines of plank are laid from the market quay over barges and pontoons to the steamers' decks, and every ounce of fish is brought over these in baskets and bags on porters' heads and backs. At the same time the railway vans are unloading on the landward side, But six can be cared for at the same time. The confusion and entanglement are indescribable.
One who witnesses the scene for the first time is filled with amazement that the largest and most civilized capital in the world will tolerate such antiquated methods. But the porters are wonderfully deft, alert, and carry incredible loads. I have seen many laden with from 200 to 300m pounds weight. They will positively frisk under a barrel of herrings which weighs 200 pounds, and there is no question many of these fellows can easily get about the market with upward of 400 pounds properly distributed upon head and back.
These Billingsgate porters are regarded as the strongest, quickest, and most athletic men in London. They live in every respect like the water rats of the Thames and the aristocracy of the Whitechapel district. Their only earthly ambitions are to eat, drink, visit "penny gaffs," rat and dog fights and excel in pugilism. They are licensed, and the strictest regulations exist regarding their conduct, even to the character of language. To lose their license is worse than imprisonment as a criminal. Their "reputations" among their fellows, the costers, and the East End slums are gained by their prowess and strength here.
It is their world, their highest, broadest outlook, and they are really curiosities in social or literary studies. They delight especially in odd sounding nicknames. In my few visits to Billingsgate I have already come to know and be favorably known by "Fishy Jim," "Cocky Jim," "Black Prince," "Jack the Float," "Happy Jack," "Johnny Shoeblack, "Jimmy Fingers" - the latter because of his thieving propensities; "Blue Nose Mike," Cross Eyed Joe," and "Four Ale Jim." The latter is never quite at his best unless he has drunk six or seven quarts of ale before breakfast. The oath of all these Billingsgate porters, like that of the costers, to which class they have marked affinities, of "Gor blimey" and its wickedness too abhorrent for translation. They comprise two classes in their daily market work - those who bring the fish from the steamers into the market, who are called "shorers," and those who remove the fish to the stallmens' wagons on the costers' carts, who are called "mobbers."
The pugilists of London chiefly have their origin among the Billingsgate porters. They have their regular champions at "seven stone six," "eight stone six," and "eleven stone," and Officer 790, Policeman F. Wade, informed me that there is not a man among them who has not at some time or another appeared in a Whitechapel ring. Bill Goode, who fought Slavin, is still a licensed porter here. Among many curious characters is one Cornelius Callahan, known as "Mike the Tipster." He is a ne'er do well and a privileged person. He makes great ostentation of his knowledge of the state of the market. Getting up at 2 o'clock in the morning, he prowls about the fishing steamers, and then just before the market opens he slips about among buyers and sellers and whispers "the tip o' the day" in their ears. The ha'penny is always forthcoming. On Saturday afternoon, just before the market is closed for the week, they have a game with Mike. He regularly appears for his buffeting, and often in the rough play that ensues Mike is nearly killed. Then the hat is passed, and from six to ten shillings are always paid the willing victim.
At Billingsgate fish are sold by auction and a veritable Babel the place is from 5 to 8 or 9 o'clock. There are two classes of sellers. One comprises the regular commission men to whom the fishermen consign their catches, and the other is a thoroughly hated but most prosperous class, known to Billingsgate from time immemorial as "bummarees." These are really middle men, who practice all possible arts to combine and force the regular commission men, who have but a short limit of time in which to sell, to dispose of lots at ruinous prices, and through similar combination often compel retailers to purchase at exorbitant rates. But however interesting may be the interior of Billingsgate to the casual visitor, the adjacent thoroughfares from midnight, when the first retail buyers begin coming, until the close of the market at 9 o'clock, provide far more strange and curious pictures and groupings. Upper and Lower Thames Street, Eastcheap and Great Tower Streets, Tower Hill, Fish Street Hill, St Mary at Hill, St. Dunstan's Hill, King William Street, Arthur Streets, east and west, Grace Court and Love Lane, are apparently inextricably jammed with hundreds of railway fish vans, greengrocers' wagons, and costers' donkey carts and handbarrows.
There is no other place in London where such a vast and so odd a jumble of vehicles and folk may at any time be seen. Over 4,000 vehicles for the bringing or taking away of fish are here. With them are 10,000 coster men and women, and an unnameable, indescribable host of petty street vendors and hangers on. If you can arrive here on a foggy morning, when the first rays of the sun are filtering through the fleece fold of mist flapping up with the tide along the Thames, you will then know old Billingsgate as Dickens and Thackeray knew it, and will long for power and space in which to paint with pen or pencil one the strangest, oddest scenes to be found in this mighty London town.
Edgar L. Wakeman