Today (January 16) in London History – scurrilous vituperation, violent abuse

We look back at Billingsgate Market. The occasion: today, January 16, is the anniversary of its last day of trading (1989).


London calling.

Lost London calling.

It’s January 16th, 1979 – not so very long ago – but in some ways a world away. A bygone London.

We’re saying goodbye to Billingsgate Fish Market. Today’s the last day of trading. There’s been commercial activity there getting on for a thousand years, maybe longer, maybe back in Roman days. The reason’s simple. Billingsgate was the main London harbour downstream from London Bridge. Merchandise will have been offloaded there and carted or carried to the Eastchepe Market. Eastchepe. The nucleus of the word is the Old English word chepe – that’s Old English as in Anglo-Saxon. It meant bargain or market.  Cheapside – London’s High Street (or Main Street Americans would say) – shares the same linguistic nucleus. In the event, Cheapside was served by a different Dock, by Queenhithe, the dock that was upstream from London Bridge. 

The oldest visual we’ve got of London Bridge dates from 1415. That illustration also shows the White Tower, the oldest part of the Tower of London. And sure enough, there’s Billingsgate – photobombing London Bridge and the Tower.

And I like the other clues to the character of the place. Its stridency and boisterousness. It’s baked right into the name itself. The Oxford English Dictionary, practically holding its nose, says of the etymology of the word: References to the abusive language of this market are frequent and hence foul language is itself called “billingsgate.”

The first definition the OED gives of Billingsgate is: One of the gates of the city of London; the fish-market near it; the latter noted for vituperative language.

Second definition is: Scurrilous vituperation, violent abuse.

Third and final definition: A clamouring foul-mouthed person, a vulgar abuser or scold.

I mean the air must have been blue down there. All-day every day. What I wouldn’t give to have heard some of the genuine article, some real Billingsgate.

And dollars to doughnuts the pungent odour that often emanates from the word fishwife is another Billingsgate production. As the ever fastidious OED puts it: a means of characterizing someone (typically a woman) as coarse, loud, peevish, or foul-mouthed. colloquial (derogatory and potentially offensive).

Billingsgate people – men and women – they weren’t selling petit four. Big fish were heavy and unwieldy. Baskets were heavy. Fish are aromatic. Floors would have been slippery. There would have been a lot of clamour and shouting. Billingsgate people – porters and their fishwives – were hard cases, they were strong, they were brawny, they were spirited. As is attested to by this 1723 notice. It reads: “I, Martha Jones of Billingsgate, fish-woman, who have fought the best fighting women that ever came to that place, and hearing the fame that is spread about the Town of this noble City Championess, of her beating the Newgate Basket-woman, think myself as brave and stout as any, therefore invite her to fight me on the stage for ten pounds.” It would have been no-holds-barred except that the women were obliged to carry coins in their fists to prevent them pulling each other’s hair.

We don’t know how that one turned out but I wouldn’t have bet against Martha Jones, fish-woman of Billingsgate. 

Six other points in aid of keeping a pungent London memory, well, pungent.

  1. The last market building – it’s still there – was designed by that quintessential London architect, Horace Jones. Who also designed Tower Bridge, Smithfield Market, Leadenhall Market and Temple Bar.
  2. Centuries of off-loading and selling fish there meant that Billingsgate was aromatic for many months after the market was closed.
  3. Before refrigeration, the fish were stored in ice caves in the cellar there. There was speculation that the permafrost was holding the building up and that it would collapse once the ice was melted. Well, it wasn’t the case, but it was a nice story.
  4. Those hats. The porters’ hats. Specially made for the job, they were called bobbins. Stylish they weren’t, but they were perfect for the job. The porters balanced heavy boxes of fish on the bobbins’ flat crown. A light touch of one was all it took to balance the load. Some were so good at it they didn’t need to use a hand to steady the load. All-day, back and forth, up and down ships’ gangplanks, imagine their neck muscles. Those hats weren’t lightweights. It took five pounds of strong leather, six yards of waxed thread and 400 nails to make one. 
  5. And how about a bit of name dropping. In the 1930s George Orwell did a stint at Billingsgate. That would have been a crash course in matters working class for Eton-educated Eric Blair, Orwell’s real name. Those nice 16-year-olds, the Kray twins, did some time, so to speak, at Billingsgate after they left school. They moved on of course. The grass was greener over on the gangland side of the fence. Michael Caine’s dad was a Billingsgate porter. The job was often passed from father to son. Now there’s some food for thought. 
  6. Finally, some orienteering. And a wrap. The old market, as I said, is still there. Closest Tube Stop is Monument. The Fish Street Hill exit. Now there’s a clue. From the Monument, that 17th century skyscraper, walk along Monument Street to The Walrus and Carpenter pub. Just over the way, over Lower Thames Street, you’ll see the Old Billingsgate Market building. It’s handsome enough but what really gives it life, gives it meaning, are the stories that go with it. Especially when they’re as pungent as these are.

And on that note, good night from London. And from London Walks. We’ll meet again. 

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