Billingsgate Market, City of London

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

One of the enduring memories of my childhood is lying on the back seat of our family car, in the still cool dark hours of pre-dawn, still in my pyjamas, toe to head with my brother, and wrapped in a blanket, listening to my parents quietly chatting to one another, as I dosed and they drove.

It’s a peaceful memory, filled with potential and promise. Early morning. Pad kos. The open road.

Note: I don’t do early mornings. I love my sleep. To this day, I’m only really prepared to get up early for a road trip. .. and the promise of tea.

In the second to last week of August, Hubby woke us up at some ‘unGodly’ hour – me and Mama – to drive to Billingsgate fish market.

The famous market, which has it’s origins in the 16th century, is now in the Isle of Dogs, in East London’s Poplar area. Poplar was made famous by the Call the Midwife BBC TV series, as the deprived multiple-baby-birthing area of post war London. It took us 45 minutes to drive across London (we live in the west) to the east end in the early hours, driving over Tower Bridge and through Canary Wharf along the docklands – quite picturesque.

Billingsgate Market is named for the nearby City of London historical gate spelt ‘Blynesgate’ or ‘Byllynsgate’, it’s original location. Now it’s a sprawling indoor market of freezer rooms, market stalls and a chippy-fish-and-tea-type-cafe situated against a backdrop of Canary Wharf skyscrapers.

It was totally worth it, despite yawns and moans, to experience this quintessentially London gem.

Once we’d parked and displayed our pre-paid ticket in our car window, we followed some welly-wearing workers to the entrance. The very present fishy smell was softened somewhat by the cool morning air and the fact that all the seafood is on ice.

It’s a piece of history preserved and a people-watching wonderland, I thought. However, there’s nowhere to sit and stare and the wet floors make for a slightly slippery tread, so be careful, as you’re taking in the sights and sounds not to slip in fish guts (though the floors were mostly wet because they were hosed clean actually).

The “guvnors” – as the fish merchants are known – are dressed in white overalls, white wellies and blue net caps and shout out the details of their fishy products and prices in priceless east end accents in barrow-boy style (as I imagine anyway). Around us, porters deftly moved freezers and fish crates around, replenishing ice, weighing and chopping.

Cash is king and you buy by the kg, so we bought quite a lot with our hard earned dosh and will be eating fish … for-the-rest-of-our-lives!

They have every fishy favourite you could ever ask for –  lobsters, prawns, crabs, crayfish (note the one in the photo gallery below trying to escape), clams, scallops, squid, sardines, salmon, octopus, oysters, prawns, mackerel, mussels, herring, halibut and everything in between.

Interesting fact 1:

‘Billingsgate’, in the 1700’s became a byword for bad language known as “Billingsgate discourse”. This might have stemmed from the women, known as fish wives, who did the filleting and pickling on Lower Thames Street.

“Billingsgate is the market where fish women assemble to purchase fish; and where, in their dealings and disputes, they are somewhat apt to leave decency and good manners a little on the left hand,” said one dictionary in 1811.

Interesting fact 2:

“Traditionally, the only people allowed to move fish around the market were licensed fish porters. The role dates back at least to Henry VIII, and was officially recognised by the Corporation of London in 1632. In 2012, a bitter battle was fought between modernisers, citing facts such as porters getting £700 for a 17-hour week, and traditionalists. The modernists won and the role of the porters ended.” [quote thanks to Wiki]

Interesting fact 3:

Before ‘elf ‘n safety,  Billingsgate porters wore hard leather hats called ‘Bobbins’ (sometimes weighing up to 12 stone) with with hard square tops designed to transport boxes (and fish) on their heads. Bobbins were made from 5lb of hardened leather, six yards of wax for the hand stitching and 400 nails.

A super (early) morning out in London town.

Prawn, scallop and spinach deliciousness.

P.s. My freezer now smells like Billingsgate.
P.p.s. Following his abruptly curtailed fishing trip in the north of England, Hubby, now fully recovered, went fishing in Astrakhan, Russia, and caught several fish. “Some small, some smaller,” he said. “Those are the most difficult to catch,” I told him, “‘cos you can’t feel them bite.”
P.p.p.s. Billingsgate Market is run by and leased to the City of London from the Borough of Tower Hamlets on long term lease. The City of London pays an annual ground rent as per an agreement between the two councils as “the gift of one fish”.
P.p.p.p.s. My book quote today is from another tiny book like last week’s blog. The Old Man and The Sea is about a seasoned fisherman, Santiago, who goes 84 days without catching a fish, is proclaimed ‘untouchable’ as being bad luck, and then hooks the biggest fish of his life. He must then fight sharks, birds, sleep deprivation, thirst and his own ailing body and mind, to bring the fish home strapped to the side of his wooden dinghy. I WEPT!!!
P.p.p.p.p.s. My first fishy memory is visiting Saldanha Bay on a family holiday. A long long way outside the town of Saldanha Bay you could smell the fishy-ness, but after being there a couple of hours you got accustomed to it and forget about it. It’s only on your return home, when you unpack your clothes and things from the boot of the car, that it all comes flooding back. Then it’s really difficult to rid yourself of the smell.

One thought on “Billingsgate Market, City of London

  1. A delightful account of the great atmosphere in the early morning at Billingsgate.A remarkable ‘plaice’ with a lot of history.I Remember working in the locality prior to 1982 when it moved to its present site.A real London landmark and a joy to see it in action from Tuesday to Saturday’s from early early 4.00 am to a sensible 8.30 am finish.’Anyone for a cuppa tea or as is often said ….a cup of Rosie Lee.x


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