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City of London and Tower Hamlets

A wholesale fish market formerly located in the City of London ward of the same name and now based in Docklands. Billingsgate probably began as a Roman watergate on the Thames and it was used by the Saxons as a small port for general cargo. Until the late 15th century most of London’s fish was landed upstream at Queenhithe, after which it began to decline as a result of its inaccessibility to larger vessels. Billingsgate’s status was officially recognized by an act of parliament of 1699, which established ‘a free and open market for all sorts of fish whatsoever.’ Sales were made in wooden sheds until the construction in 1850 of the first trading hall, which was replaced by a larger structure in 1877. This building (pictured below) survives today on Lower Thames Street. With the widening of that road in the late 1960s trading at Billingsgate became increasingly impractical and the market transferred to a renovated warehouse at the West India Docks in 1982. Each year since the move the lord mayor of London has presented the nominal rent to the mayor of Tower Hamlets in the form of a gift of fish, which is then distributed to old people’s homes in the borough.

The old market caught the attention of many artists, attracted by the opportunity to present life in the raw. William Hogarth’s exuberant Shrimp Girl (c.1750) hangs in the National Gallery. The swearing of workers in the market made Billingsgate – and its fishwives – synonymous with coarse language.

Billingsgate Old Market
click for Old Billingsgate area map
A weathervane atop Old Billingsgate market
Postal districts: EC3 (old Billingsgate), E14 (new Billingsgate)
Further reading: Colin Manton and John Edwards, Bygone Billingsgate, Phillimore & Co Ltd, 1989

Brewer's London Phrase & Fable

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