Monday 29th January was a very fishy day. After Sheila had told us about the history of the Barking fishing fleet, Ian talked about two venerable institutions involved with the selling of fish, Billingsgate Market and the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers.
Billingsgate is a ward in the City of London just east of London Bridge. A dock was dug there around the 9th century and a market grew up around it in the Middle Ages. Originally it was a general market, but from the 16th century it increasingly specialised in fish. By Act of Parliament in 1698, it was confirmed as a fish market, run by the City Corporation, where anyone could buy any sort of fish.
There must have been some sort of cover from an early stage for this all-weather operation, but the early history of the market buildings is not well documented. In 1850, a building in Italianate style was constructed to the design of the City Architect, J B Bunning. It soon proved too small for the growing trade and in 1877 a new and very beautiful building, designed by a new City Architect, Sir Horace Jones, was opened by the Lord Mayor, with three times the sales area of its predecessor.
Having such a busy market in the centre of the City was not entirely popular. The surrounding streets were often grid-locked and the stench was legendary. Pressure grew for a new fish market, led by Robert Hewett of the Short Blue Fleet at Barking. In 1882, he secured an Act of Parliament to use a site at Shadwell, but the market there never prospered. In 1899, the Hewetts sold it to the City Corporation. It struggled on until 1914, after which the site became a public park.
Billingsgate continued on its City site until 1982, when it moved to its present site in Poplar. The building in the City became an events and conference centre. The freehold of the new site is held by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The City Corporation, who still run the market, pay an annual ground rent of one fish.
True to the Act of 1698, anyone can still buy fish at Billingsgate, as long as they go during the trading hours of 4.00am to 8.00am, Tuesday to Saturday. The main trade is of course wholesale, with up to 150 varieties of fish on offer, annual sales of 25,000 tonnes and a turnover in the region of £200 million.
Billingsgate has its own constabulary, with police uniforms and a police car, though its role is now primarily to provide security and an emergency medical service. The famous Billingsgate porters, with their flat-topped leather hats, were abolished in 2012.
The retail fish trade is changing. The National Federation of Fishmongers, which had 9,000 members 75 years ago, was down to 1,300 by 2005, with a 13% share of the market. The other 87% had been taken by the supermarkets, up from 10% in 1982. The trend is doubtless set to continue.
The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, like Billingsgate Market, goes back to the Middle Ages. It got its first charter from Edward I in 1272, but will have existed as a guild of City fish merchants some time before that. Successful guilds were given charters and became livery companies, with responsibility for training and regulation of their trades. By a ruling of the City Aldermen in 1515, the Fishmongers’ Company ranks 4th of the 48 livery companies then in existence. Today the number of companies has grown to 110 and new ones are still being created.
Some of the companies own splendid halls in the City. Three prominent fish merchants, all of whom served as Lord Mayor, built a great hall on land to the west of London Bridge, which they gave to the Fishmongers’ Company in 1444. It stood until the Great Fire in 1666, and its successor until 1828. Part of the site was then required for the new London Bridge and the hall was in need of repair anyway, so a replacement was built a little to the west. Serious damage in the Blitz has been repaired and this third hall still serves the Company today.
Membership of the livery companies is not granted lightly. The main route used to be by apprenticeship. A young man would serve a member of the company for a period, usually seven years, learning the trade. At the end, he would be “granted his freedom” and become a member himself. The apprenticeship route is now rare and not used by the Fishmongers.
There are three other routes to membership: patrimony, redemption and invitation. Membership by patrimony is open to those who had a parent who was a member at the time of their birth. Redemption involves a fee, and is only granted to those with a close link to the company. Invitation is a great honour: the Fishmongers admit one person by that route each year. Their total membership is around 800.
Many of the livery companies have little connection today with their original trades, but the Fishmongers are still very much involved. James I granted the Company a charter in 1604, appointing them as inspectors of all fish sold in the City and in Southwark. The area of their jurisdiction was extended when Billingsgate Market moved to Poplar, and a team of the Company’s inspectors still operates in the market every day. The Company also administers the Master Fishmonger Standard, an accreditation scheme for practising fishmongers.
In 1998, it helped to set up the Billingsgate Seafood Training School, which lives above the market. It teaches fishmongering skills, promotes the health benefits of seafood to the public and offers free teaching to children about fish in the diet. The Company also grant aids three other industry organisations: the Marine Biological Association, the Shellfish Association of Great Britain and Salmon and Trout Conservation UK.
The Company’s charitable work extends beyond the world of fish. In 1970, several livery companies including the Fishmongers helped the City and Guilds of London Art School in Kennington to reinvent itself as an independent charity. The Company continues to provide financial support and has a member on the board.
The largest recipient of the Company’s charitable funding and governance is Gresham’s School at Holt, set up in 1555 by Sir John Gresham, a leading London merchant. The Company took over support of the school when Sir John died the next year and has continued it ever since. It also provides the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Scholarships for women studying at the University of London Medical School. Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain, set up a forerunner of the Medical School and her son and grandson, both leading members of the Fishmongers, endowed the scholarships.
The final role of the Company which we heard about took us back if not to fish at least to the river. In 1715, Thomas Doggett, manager of the Haymarket and Drury Lane theatres, started what came to be known as Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, in tribute to George I whose reign began the previous year. Six young men who had just completed their apprenticeships and become members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen were invited to row from London Bridge to Chelsea, for a prize consisting of a scarlet coat with a metal badge on the sleeve.
Doggett continued to organise the race each year until his death in 1721. The Fishmongers agreed to take it over and still run it today. There are still apprentice watermen and each year those gaining their freedom still get their chance to compete over the same course.