Now located in the East End’s financial capital, Canary Wharf, Billingsgate is one of the capitals’ best known fresh produce markets and its oldest wholesale market. Held to be the leading inland fish market in the country, Billingsgate has a long history, dating back to the 1400s, if not further.
Billingsgate’s Early History
Historically, people couldn’t set up a market without a royal charter. Billingsgate got its official charter in 1400 from King Henry IV, however fish was probably informally traded in the area from as far back as the 9th century. The market didn’t originally specialise in selling fish. Like most markets at the time, it sold a range of produce and goods, including corn, salt, wine, fish, pottery, coal and iron.
East End Markets – Billingsgate Market
In 1699, parliament passed an Act that gave Billingsgate the right to sell just fish. The market could not, however, sell eels, a popular food at the time. Parliament rewarded Dutch fishermen who had helped provide food for Londoners during the Great Fire of London in 1666 by giving them exclusive rights to sell eels to the city. Billingsgate had to settle for selling everything else until the ban was lifted.
The building of Billingsgate Market
Billingsgate Market got its name from the stalls and sheds clustered round the dock in the area from which fish was sold. In 1850, a formal market building was constructed on Lower Thames Street to create a centralised market space. This building was rebuilt in 1873 on the same site, as the original building was not big enough to meet the fast-growing needs of traders and their customers. During this period of time, it is thought that Billingsgate was the largest dedicated fish market in the world. Reports say that an average of 120,000 tons of fish were delivered to the market for sale each year in Victorian times by sea, road and rail.
History of Billingsgate’s Porters
In 1876, the Corporation of London introduced a bye-law within its market regulations that required all porters working at Billingsgate to be licensed. Only licensed porters were allowed to transport fish around the market, leaving traders reliant on their services. This trade was highly coveted for over 300 years and was often passed down from father to son – porters were paid by how much fish they delivered which made this a potentially lucrative job for a few hours of work a week. Despite many protests, the bye-law licensing porters was revoked in 2012.
Famous Billingsgate Characters
The writer George Orwell worked in the market in the 1930s for a time. If Michael Caine had taken the traditional porter’s route and followed his father into the market, he might have missed out on Hollywood stardom! The most infamous characters to work at Billingsgate were the East End gangsters, the Kray twins. They worked in the market for around six months after leaving school. Reggie Kray worked as a salesman, while Ronnie was what was known as an “empty boy”. It was his job to go round the market at the end of trading to collect empty fish boxes.
The most famous current resident at Billingsgate is probably Sammy the seal. He pops up in the Thames near the market on a regular basis, often called by people working in the market who bang on a rail to get his attention. It’s no wonder Sammy keeps coming back – they feed him some prime bits of fish!
Visiting Billingsgate Market
In 1982, Billingsgate Market relocated to the Docklands. It is now housed in a purpose-built 13 acre site on the Isle of Dogs. Primarily serving trade customers, you have to get up early to buy at the market. It opens for trading at 5am and closes at 8.30am. During these few hours, you can see the largest selection of fish and seafood in the country. As well as around 50 traders selling fish, other traders also sell related restaurant and catering supplies. The market is open to the public during its opening hours and is well worth a visit if you are in the area, and are an early riser!
If you are with a group of people, you can ask for guided tours in advance. Bear in mind that you can’t take young children on to the market floor – kids under 12 won’t be allowed in. It’s also recommended that you wear non-slip shoes as the floor in the market can get very wet and slippery.
If you do make a visit, keep an eye out for members of the Billingsgate police force. The City of London Corporation runs a dedicated police constabulary for the market. Constables who work there are no longer actual police officers, but they still wear uniforms. They provide security and emergency medical services and it is their responsibility to make sure that traders and their customers abide by market rules and regulations.