BILLINGSGATE AT FIVE IN THE MORNING.
[explanations in brackets]
Summer or winter, light or dark, rain or shine, it matters not; as the clock strikes five, the bell
rings and the market opens. The Clerk of the Market, the representative of the Corporation, is
there, to act the part of major-domo [house-steward]; the vessels are there, hauled up in tiers in
the river, laden with their silvery cargoes; the porters are there, running to and fro between the
ships and the market; the railway vans and carts are there, with fish brought from the several
railway stations; the salesmen are there at their stands or benches; and the buyers are there,
ready to buy and pay. As yet all is tolerably clean. There is, of course, that "fish-like smell" which
Trinculo speaks of; but Billingsgate dirt and Billingsgate vilification have not yet commenced.
The street dealers, the costermongers or "costers," have not yet made their appearance; they
wait till their "betters," the regular fishmongers, have paid good prices for choice fish, and then
they rush in to purchase everything that is left. It is a wonderful scene, even at this early hour.
How Thames Street can contain all the railway vans that throng it is a marvel. From Paddington,
from Camden, from King's Cross, from Shoreditch, from Fenchurch Street, from the depots over
the water, these vehicles arrive in numbers perfectly bewildering. Every one wants to get the
prime of the market; every salesman tells his clients that good prices depend almost as much
on early arrival as on fine quality; and thus evey cargo of fish is pushed on to market with as little
delay as need be. Pickford objurgates Chaplin and Horne, Macnamara is wrathful at Parker,
every van in in every other van's way. Fish Street Hill and Thames Street, Pudding Lane and
Botolph Lane, Love Lane and Darkhouse Lane, all are one jam and muddle, horses entangling
in shafts, and shafts in wheels. A civilian, a non-fisherman, has no business there at such a time;
woe to his black coat or black hat, if he stands in the path of the porters; he will have a finny
sprinkling before he can well look about him; or perhaps the tail of a big fish will flap in his face,
or lobsters' claws will threaten to grapple him.
It was always thus at Billingsgate, even before the days of railways, and before Mr. Bunning
built the present market—a structure not without elegance on the river front; but the street
arrangements are becoming more crowded and difficult to manage every year. In the old days,
when trains and locomotives were unthought of, nearly all the fish reached Billingsgate by water.
The broad-wheeled waggons were too slow to bring up the perishable commodity in good time;
while the mail and passenger coaches, even if the passengers had been willing (which they
would not) to submit to the odour, could not have brought up any large amount of fish. At an
intermediate period, say about 1830 or 1835, certain bold traders, at some of our seaport
towns, put on four-horse fast vans, which brought up cargoes of fish during the night, and
deposited them at Billingsgate before five in the morning; but this was a costly mode of
conveyance, which could not be safely incurred except for the best and high-priced fish. When it
became an established fact that railways could bring up fish in any quantity, and in a few hours,
from almost any port in England, the effect was striking; the supply at Billingsgate became
regular instead of intermitting; and the midland towns, such as Birmingham and
Wolverhampton, were placed within reach of supplies that were literally unattainable under the
old system. It used to be a very exciting scene at the river-side at Billingsgate. As the West-end
fishmongers are always willing to pay well for the earliest and choicest fish, the owners of the
smacks and other boats had a strong incentive to arrive early at "the Gate;" those who came
first were absolutely certain of obtaining the best prices for their fish; the laggards had to
content themselves with what they could get. If there happened to be a very heavy haul of any
one kind of fish on any one day, the disproportion of price was still more marked; for as there
were no electric telegraphs to transmit the news, the salesmen had no certain means of
knowing that a large supply was forthcoming; they sold, and the crack fishmongers bought, the
first cargo at good prices; and when the bulk of the supply arrived, there was no adequate
demand at the market. In such a state of things there is no such process as holding back, no
warehousing till next day; the fish must all be sold—if not for pounds, for shillings; if not for
shillings, for pence. Any delay in this matter would lead to the production of such attacks upon
the olfactory nerves as would speedily call for the interference of the officers of health. In what
way a glut in the market is disposed of we shall explain presently.
It is really wonderful to see by how many routes, and from what varied sources, fish now reach
Billingsgate. The smack owners, sharpening their wits at the rivalry of railroads, do not "let the
grass grow under their feet;" they call steam to their aid, and get the fish up to market with a
celerity which their forefathers would not have dreamed of. Take the Yarmouth region, for
instance. The fishermen along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast congregate towards the fishing
banks in the North Sea in such number that their vessels form quite a fleet. They remain out two,
three, four, or even so much as six weeks, never coming to land in the interval. A fast-sailing
cutter or steamer visits the bank or station every day, carrying out provisions and stores to the
fishermen, and bringing back the fish that have been caught. Thus laden, the cutter or steamer
puts on all her speed, and brings the fish to land, to Yarmouth, to Harwich, or even right to
Billingsgate, according as distance, wind and tide, may show to be best. If to Yarmouth or
Harwich, a "fish train" is made up every night, which brings the catch to Shoreditch station,
whence vans carry it to Billingsgate. There used, in the olden days, to be fish vans from those
eastern parts, which, on account of the peculiar nature of the service, were specially exempted
from post-horse duty. As matters now are, the fishermen, when the richness of the shoal is
diminished, return to shore after several weeks, to mend their nets, repair their vessels, and
refresh themselves after their aduous labours. At all the fishing towns round the coast, the
telegraphic wire has furnished a wonderful aid to the dealers; for it announces to the salesmen
at Billingsgate the quantity and description of fish en route, and thereby enables them to decide
whether to sell it all at Billingsgate, or to send some of it at once to an inland town. This celerity
in railway conveyance and in telegraphic communication gives rise to many curious features in
the fish-trade. Tourists and pleasure-seekers at Brighton, Hastings, and other coast towns, are
often puzzled to understand the fact that fish, although caught and landed near at hand, is not
cheaper there than in London: nay, it sometimes happens that good fish is not obtainable either
at a high price or low. The explanation is to be sought in the fact that a market is certain at
Billingsgate, uncertain elsewhere. A good catch of mackerel off Hastings might be too large to
command a sale on the spot; whereas, if sent up to the great centre the salesmen would soon
find purchasers for it. It is, in a similar way, a subject of vexation in the salmon districts that the
best salmon are so uniformly sent to London as to leave only the secondary specimens for local
consumption. The dealers will go to the best market that is open for them; and it is of no avail to
be angry thereat. It is said that few families are more insufficiently supplied with vegetables than
those living near market-gardens; the cause being similar to that here under notice. Perhaps the
most remarkable fact, however, in connection with this subject is, that the fish often make a
double journey, say from Brighton to Billingsgate and back again. The Brighton fishermen and
the Brighton fishmonger do not deal one with another so much as might be supposed; the one
sends to Billingsgate to sell, the other to buy; and each is willing to incur a little expense for
carriage to insure a certain market.
Of course the marketing peculiarities depend in some degree on the different kinds of fish,
obtainable as they are in different parts of the sea, and under very varying circumstances.
Yarmouth sends up chiefly herrings—caught by the drift-net in deep water, or the seine-net in
shallow—sometimes a hundred tons in a night. The north of England, and a large part of
Scotland, consign more largely salmon to the Billingsgate market. These salmon mostly come
packed in ice, in boxes, of which the London and North-Western and the Great Northern
Railway Companies are intrusted with large numbers; or else in welled steamers. The
South-Western is more extensively the line for the mackerel trade; while pilchards find their
way upon the Great Western. But this classification is growing less and less definite every year;
most of the kinds of fish are now landed at many different ports which have railway
communication with the metropolis; and the railway companies compete with each other too
keenly to allow much diversity in carriage charges. The up-river fish, such as plaice, roach,
dace, &c., come down to Billingsgate by boat, and are, it is said, bought more largely by the
Jews than by other classes of the community. The rare, the epicurean white-bait, so much
prized by cabinet ministers, aldermen, and others, who know the mysteries of the taverns at
Blackwall and Greenwich, are certainly a piscatorial puzzle; for they are caught in the dirty part
of the Thames between Blackwall and Woolwich, in the night-time, at certain seasons of the
year, and are yet so delicate although the water is so dirty.
With regard to the oyster trade, suffice it here to say that the smacks and other vessels, when
they arrive, are moored in front of the wharf, to form what is called "Oyster Street." The 4th of
August is still "oyster day," as it used to be, and it is still a wonderful day of bustle and
excitement at Billingsgate; but oysters now manage to reach London in other ways before that
date, and the traditional formality is not quite so decided as it once was. Lobsters come in
vast numbers even from so distant a locality as the shores of Norway, the fiords or firths of
which are very rich in that kind of fish. They are brought by swift vessels across the North Sea to
Grimsby, and thence by the Great Northern Railway to London. Other portions of the supply are
obtained from the Orkney and Shetland coasts, and others from the Channel Islands. It has
been known, on rare occasions, that thirty thousand lobsters have reached Billingsgate in one
day; but, however large the number be, all find a market, the three million mouths in the
metropolis, and the many additional millions in the provinces, having capacity to devour them
all. There are some queer-looking places in Darkhouse Lane and Love Lane, near Billingsgate,
where the lobsters and crabs undergo that boiling process which changes their colour from
black to red. A basketful of lobsters is plunged into a boiling cauldron and kept there twenty
minutes. As to the poor crabs, they are first killed by a prick with a needle, for else they would
dash off their claws in the convulsive agony occasioned by the hot water! Sprats "come in," as
it is called, about the 9th of November: and there is an ineradicable belief that the chief
magistrate of the City of London always has a dish of sprats on the table at Guildhall banquet
on Lord Mayor's Day. The shoals of this fish being very uncertain, and the fish being largely
bought by the working classes of London, the sprat excitement at Billingsgate, when there has
been a good haul, is something marvellous. Soles are brought mostly by trawling-boats
belonging to Barking, which fish in the North Sea, and which are owned by several companies;
or rather, the trawlers catch the fish, and then smart, fast-sailing cutters bring the fish up to
Billingsgate. Eels, of the larger and coarser kind, patronized by eel-pie makers and cheap
soup-makers, mostly come in heavy Dutch boats, where they writhe and dabble about in wells
or tanks full of water; but the more delicate eels are caught nearer home. Cod are literally
"knocked on the head" just before being sent to Billingsgate. A "dainty live cod" is of course
not seen in the London fishmongers' shops, and still less in the barrow of the costermonger;
but, nevertheless, there is an attempt made to approach as near to this liveliness as may be
practicable. The fish, brought alive in welled vessels, are dexterously killed by a blow on the
head, and sent up directly to Billingsgate by rail, when the high-class fishmongers buy them at
once, before attending to other fish. We may be sure that there is some adequate reason for
this, known to and admitted by the initiated. The fish caught by the trawl-net, such as turbot,
brill, soles, plaice, haddock, skate, halibut, and dabs, are very largely caught in the sandbanks
which lie off Holland and Denmark. The trawl net is in the form of a large bag open at one end;
this is suspended from the stern of the fishing-lugger, which drags it at a slow pace over the
fishing-banks. Two or three hundred vessels are out at once on this trade, remaining
sometimes three or four months, and sending their produce to market in the rapid vessels
already mentioned. The best kinds of trawl-fish, such as turbot, brill, and soles, are kept apart,
separate from the plaice, haddock, skate, &c., which are regarded as inferior. The "costers"
buy the haddock largely, and clean and cure them, cut them up, fry them in oil, and sell them for
poor people's suppers. The best trawl-fish are gutted before they are packed, or the
fishmongers will have nothing to do with them. Concerning mackerel, a curious change has
taken place within a year or two. Fine large mackerel are now sent all the way from Norway,
packed in ice in boxes, like salmon, landed at Grimsby or some other eastern port, and then
sent onward by rail. The mackerel on our own coast seem to have become smaller than of
yore, and thus this new Norwegian supply is very welcome.
All these varieties of fish alike, then, and others not here named, are forwarded to the mighty
metropolitan market for sale. And here the reader must bear in mind that the real seller does
not come into personal communication with the real buyer. As at Mark Lane, where the
cornfactor [corn merchant] comes between the farmer and the miller; as at the Coal Exchange,
where the coalfactor acts as an intermedium between the pit-owner and the coal-merchant; as
at the Cattle Market, where the Smithfield (so called) salesman conducts the sales, from the
grazier to the butcher—so at Billingsgate does the fish-salesman make the best bargain he
can for the fisherman, and takes the money from the fishmonger. More than two thousand
years ago, according to the Rev. Mr. Badham, there were middlemen of this class, and men,
too, of no little account in their own estimation and in the estimation of the world. The
Billingsgate salesman must be at business by five in the morning, and his work is ended by
eleven or twelve o'clock. They all assemble, many scores of them, in time for the ringing of the
market-bell at five o'clock. Each has his stand, for which a rental is paid to the Corporation;
and as there are always more applicants for stands than stands to give them, the privilege is a
valued one. Some of these salesmen have shops in Thames Street, or in the neighbouring
lanes and alleys; but the majority have stands only in Billingsgate. Some deal mostly in one
kind of fish only, some take all indiscriminately. In most cases (as we have said) each, when
he comes to business in the morning, has the means of knowing what kind and quantity of fish
will be consigned to him for sale. The electric telegraph does all this work, while we laggards
are fast asleep. Of the seven hundred regular fishmongers in the metropolis, how many attend
Billingsgate we do not know; but it is probable most of them do so, as by no other means can
proper purchases be made. At any rate, the number of fishmongers' carts within a furlong
[eighth of a mile] or so of the market is something enormous. The crack fishmongers go to the
stalls of the salesmen who habitually receive consignments of the best fish; and as there is not
much haggling about price, a vast amount of trade is conducted within the first hour or two.
Porters bring in the hampers and boxes of fine fish, the fishmongers examine them rapidly,
and the thing is soon done. Of course, anything like a regular price for fish is out of the
question; the supply varies greatly, and the price varies with the supply. The salesman does
the best he can for his client, and the fishmonger does the best he can for himself.
But the liveliest scene at Billingsgate, the fun of the affair, is when the costermongers come.
This may be at seven o'clock or so, after the "dons" have taken off the fish that command a
high price. How many there are of these costermongers it would be impossible to say,
because the same men (and women) deal in fruit and vegetables from Covent Garden, or in
fish from Billingsgate, according to the abundance or scarcity of different commodities.
Somehow or other, by some kind of freemasonry among themselves, they contrive to learn, in a
wonderfully short space of time, whether there is a good supply of herrings, sprats, mackerel,
&c., at the "Gate," and they will flock down thither literally by the thousands. The men and boys
all wear caps—leather, hairy, felt, cloth, anything will do; but a cap it must be, a hat would not
be orthodox. The intensity displayed by these dealers is very marked and characteristic; they
have only a few shillings each with which to speculate, and they must so manage these shillings
as to get a day's profit out of their transactions. They do not buy of the principal salesmen.
There is a class called by the extraordinary name of bommarees or bummarees (for what
reason even the "oldest inhabitant" could not tell), who buy largely from the leaders in the trade,
and then sell again to the peripatetics—the street dealers. They are not fishmongers; they buy
and sell again during the same day, and in the market itself. The bommaree, perched on his
rostrum (which may be a salmon-box or a herring-barrel), summons a group of costermongers
around him, and puts up lot after lot for sale. There is a peculiar lingo adopted, only in part
intelligible to the outer world—a shouting and vociferating that seems to be part of the system.
The owners of the hairy caps are eagerly grouped into a mass, inspecting the fish; and every
man or boy makes a wonderfully rapid calculation of the probable price that it would be worth
his while to go to. The salesman, or bommaree, has no auctioneer's hammer; he brings the
right palm down with a clap upon the left to denote that a lot has been sold; and the fishy
money goes from the costermonger's fishy hand into the bommaree's fishy hand with the
utmost promptness. Most of the dried-fish salesmen congregate under the arcade in front of
the market; most of the dealers in periwinkles, cockles, and mussels (which are bought chiefly
by women), in the basement story, where there are tubs of these shell-fish almost as large as
brewers' vats; but the other kinds of fish are sold in the great market—a quadrangular area
covered with a roof supported by pillars, and lighted by skylights. The world knows no such
fishy pillars elsewhere as these; for every pillar is a leaning-post for salesmen, bommarees,
porters, costermongers, baskets, hampers, and fish-boxes.
And now the reader may fairly ask, what is the quantity of fish which in a day, or in a year, or
any other definite period, is thus sold at Billingsgate? Echo answers the question; but the
Clerk of the Market does not, will not, cannot. We are assured by the experienced and
observant Mr. Deering, who has filled this post for many years, that all statements on this
particular subject must necessarily be mere guesses. No person whatever is in possession
of the data. There are many reasons for this. In the first place, there are no duties on fish, no
customs on the imported fish, nor excise on that caught on our own coasts; and therefore there
are no official books of quantities and numbers. In the second place, there is no regularity in
the supply; no fisherman or fishmonger, salesman or bommaree, can tell whether tomorrow
night's catch will be a rich or a poor one. In the third place, the Corporation of the City of London
do not charge market-dues according to the quantity of fish sold or brought in for sale; so much
per van or waggon, so much per smack or cutter, so much per stand in the market—these are
the items charged for. In the fourth place, each salesman, knowing his own amount of business,
is not at all likely to mention that amount to other folks. Out of (say) a hundred of them, each
may form a guess of the extent of business transacted by the other ninety-nine; but we should
have to compare a hundred different guesses, to test the validity of each. Nor could the carriers
assist us much; for if every railway company, and every boat or steamer owner, were even so
communicative as to tell how many loads of fish had been conveyed to Billingsgate in a year,
we should still be far from knowing the quantities of each kind that made up the aggregate. On
these various grounds it is believed that the annual trade of Billingsgate cannot be accurately
stated. Some years ago Mr. Henry Mayhew, in a series of remarkable articles in the "Morning
Chronicle," gave a tabulated statement of the probable amount of this trade; and about five or
six years later, Dr. Wynter, in the "Quarterly Review," quoted the opinion of some Billingsgate
authority, that the statement was probably not in excess of the truth. We will therefore give the
figures, the reader being quite at liberty to marvel at them as much as he likes:—
Salmon . . . 29,000 boxes, 7 in a box.
Cod, live . . 400,000, averaging 10 lb. each.
" barrelled 15,000 barrels, 50 to a barrel.
" salt . . 1,600,000, averaging 5 lb. each.
Haddocks . . 2,470,000, at 2 lb. each.
Do., smoked . 65,000 barrels, 300 to a barrel.
Soles . . . 97,520,000, at 1/4 lb. each.
Mackerel . . 23,620,000, at 1 lb. each.
Herrings . . 250,000 barrels, at 150 each.
Do., red . . 100,000 barrels, at 500 each.
Do. bloaters . 265,000 baskets, at 150 each.
Eels . . . . 9,000,000, at 6 to 1 lb.
Whiting . . 17,920,000, at 6 oz. each.
Plaice . . . 36,600,000, at 1 lb, each.
Turbot . . . 800,000, at 7 lb. each.
Brill & Mullet . . 1,220,000, at 3 lb. each.
Oysters . . 500,000,000, at 400 to a peck.
Crabs . . . 600,000,
Lobsters . . 1,200,000.
Prawns . . 12 tons, at 120 to 1 lb.
Shrimps . . 192,295 gallons, at 329 to a pint.
These figures nearly take one's breath away. What on earth becomes of the shells of five hundred
million oysters, and the hard red coats of the eighteen hundred thousand lobsters and crabs,
besides the shells of the mussels, cockles, and winkles, which are not here enumerated? Another
learned authority, Mr. Braithwaite Poole, when he was goods manager of the London and
North-Western Railway Company, brought the shell-fish as well as the other fish into his
calculations, and startled us with such quantities as fifty million mussels, seventy million cockles,
three hundred million periwinkles, five hundred million shrimps, and twelve hundred million
herrings. In short, putting this and that together, he told us that about four thousand million fish,
weighing a quarter of a million tons, and bringing two million sterling, were sold annually at
Billingsgate! Generally speaking, Mr. Poole's figures make a tolerably near approach to those of
Mr. Mayhew; and therefore it may possibly be that we Londoners—men and women, boys, girls,
and babies—after supplying country folks—eat about two fish each every average day, taking
our fair share between turbot, salmon, and cod at one end of the series, and sprats, periwinkles
and shrimps at the other. Not a little curious is this ichthyophagous estimate. If Mr. Frank
Buckland, Mr. Francis, and the other useful men who are endeavouring to improve and increase
the artificial rearing of fish, should succeed in their endeavours, we shall, as a matter of course,
make an advance as a fish-eating people.