The history of the East End is inextricably tied up with its markets. Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane, Roman Road – sometimes it seems as much trading is done in the streets themselves as in the shops.
But ironically, one of the most venerable markets in Tower Hamlets, with a 900-year history, has only had its home in the borough for the last 18 years. When the Billingsgate Market bell rang to announce the commencement of trading on January 19, 1982, it marked just the latest stop in the market’s long and troubled history.
In the Middle Ages, London had two big fish markets. Queenhithe stood in Upper Thames Street, just west of the Tower of London, and Billingsgate on the river in Lower Thames Street.
Both were infamous for their foul language as well as the foul smell – hence the
raucous reputation of the fishwives. At first, Queenhithe was more important, but gradually Billingsgate, with its proximity to the water and ability to deal with the bigger fishing vessels, took over.
The first toll regulations for Billingsgate were drawn up in 1016 and, by the 13th century, corn, malt and salt were being landed, as well as fish.
By the reign of Elizabeth I, ‘victuals and fruit’ were on sale. And when an Act of Parliament was passed in 1698 to break the monopoly of the small group of fishmongers who ran the market, Billingsgate became
‘a free and open market for all sorts of fish’.
Space had always been a problem in the cramped Lower Thames Street site, but even the opening of Hungerford Market in competition in 1749 couldn’t break Billingsgate’s dominance. The site was, in truth, a mess. Until 1850 it consisted of a huddle of scruffy sheds on the open space of
An observer at the time described the market as ‘dotted with low booths and sheds, with a range of wooden houses with a piazza in front on the west, which served the salesmen and fishmongers as
shelters, and for the purpose of carrying on their trade’.
The porters would scurry to and fro wearing their ‘bobbing hats’, leather helmets which they used to convey the fish from wholesaler to retailer, and said to have been
modelled on the helmets worn by Henry V’s bowmen at Agincourt. A ‘bob’ or shilling was the price of the carriage.
In a bid to increase the
market’s capacity, JB Bunning rebuilt Billingsgate, but it was quickly deemed inadequate and, in 1874, Corporation of London architect Sir Horace Jones designed the mock French edifice seen in Lower Thames Street to this day.
Even then, the market failed to live up to demands and in 1883 it was written that the ‘deficiencies of Billingsgate and its surrounds are a great scandal to London’. Running a bustling market in the increasingly crowded financial centre of the City of London was becoming ever more difficult.
It took another 90 years for the Corporation of London to do something about it though, when the freemen decided to relocate to the increasingly derelict Isle of Dogs. As the docks closed down there was space to spare, and the island was far more accessible to
container ships and the huge trucks which converge on Billingsgate from around the UK and Europe.
A new beginning
The old site closed on January 16, 1982. The bobbing hats were history, being replaced with less picturesque forklift trucks. About the only thing that was taken to the island was the bell – which rang three days later to commence a new era of dealing.
At last, after 900 years, on a 13.5 acre site built around a renovated warehouse on the West India Docks, Billingsgate had the room it needed.