6 Secrets Of Billingsgate Market

By Danny Lavelle Last edited 12 months ago
6 Secrets Of Billingsgate Market
Photo: Will Noble

Billingsgate is a wholesale market steeped in the history and social fabric of London. The market is renowned for selling fish from all over the world, and has been known to shift over 25,000 tonnes of fish every year, with an annual turnover of about £200m. Here are some more interesting facts about the market.

Billingsgate is a byword for bad language

Billingsgate Market 1975. Image: Roy Reed

According to the Martin's Dictionary, 1754, Billingsgate was a byword for foul and abusive language, known as "Billingsgate discourse." This piece of folklore might have stemmed from the women, known as fish wives, who did the filleting and pickling on Lower Thames Street. An 1811 dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined Billingsgate language as: "Foul language or abuse, Billingsgate is the market where fish women assemble to purchase fish; and where, in their dealings and disputes, they are somewhat apt to leave decency and good manners a little on the left hand."

It's had some well-known staff

Tom Hardy as the Kray Twins in Legend (2015). Photo: Universal Pictures

George Orwell would often immerse himself thoroughly in the subjects he was writing about. He even went as far as fighting in the Spanish Civil War for his craft. It was rumoured that he worked as a porter at the fish market, but this story probably came from the evening he spent at Bethnal Green Police Station where he gave the name Edward Burton, and said he had been disowned by his parents and living on casual work at Billingsgate. The Kray Twins really did work at the market. Reggie Kray worked as a salesman and Ronnie's job was collecting empty fish boxes.

How it got its name

Old Billingsgate - the market has now moved to Canary Wharf. Photo: Rob Fincher

Billingsgate was known as Blynesgate and Byllynsgate before the name Billingsgate was settled upon. The name comes from the City of London gate close to the site of the original market. Why the gate was called that is unclear.  The 16th century antiquarian and historian John Stow reckoned that it was named after “some owner of the place, happily called Beling or Biling”, although the 12th century cleric and historian Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that it was named for Belinus, a mythical king of pre-Roman Britain.

Sammy the Seal

Grey Seal. Image: Mateusz Włodarczyk

Sammy the seal is one of the market's most regular customers, visiting for 12 years — not that he ever brings his wallet. Sammy has resisted any attempts to being reintroduced into the wild, which is hardly surprising when you consider the minimal effort it takes him to catch his breakfast. It has recently emerged that Sammy may be a Samantha as experts have said the markings on Sammy's coat indicate 'he' could be female.

Porters' hats were especially practical

Before Britain became engulfed in red tape, the porters at Billingsgate wore hats with rectangular tops designed to transport boxes around on their heads. Some of the boxes could weigh as much as 12 stone. The hats were called Bobbins and took a full eight hours to make by hand. Into each hat went 5 pounds of hardened leather, six yards of wax end for the hand stitching and 400 nails.

Billingsgate Market has moved home three times

Old Billingsgate Market. Photo: Matt Brown

Billingsgate Market started of as a cluster of stalls and makeshift sheds around docks on the Thames. In 1850, a formal market hall was constructed on Lower Thames Street to create a centralised space in which merchants could trade. The building wasn't big enough however, and the building was rebuilt in 1873 to meet the requirements of the rapidly flourishing fish trade. Billingsgate lasted in this location for over a hundred years until it had to move again in in 1982. The market hall is now housed in a 13 acre site on the Isle of Dogs. If you're an early bird you can get down to Billingsgate and grab yourself a bargain, and why not say hi to Sammy the seal while you're at it.

Last Updated 28 September 2017