Buying Fish and Shopping at Billingsgate Fish Market in Georgian and Victorian Times

It’s time to post another modern translation from John Trusler’s The London Adviser and Guide: Containing every Instruction and Information Useful and Necessary to Persons Living in London and Coming to Reside There published in 1786. In my last post from this book, we learned how to acquire poultry and meat in Georgian. Today, we will buy fish and visit Billingsgate Fish Market.  Once again, I am using information from both Trusler’s book and London Labour and the London Poor: a cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work, by Henry Mayhew, published in 1851.

Billingsgate Fish Market in Trusler’s time was an open air market lined with booths and sheds.  An enclosed building had been erected approximately the same time that London Labour and the London Poor was printed. In 1877, the market again restricted and expanded. In this post, I’ll be using images from Trusler’s time and the new construction.

From Francis Wheatley's Cries of London. "New Mackerel. New Mackerel"

Let’s get started with Trusler

FISH is generally dearest and best, when in season.

1. Fish-mongers charge a price for fish according to their customers; to deal with one man regularly, and pay him once or twice a year, is as bad as dealing with butchers in the same way. A fish-monger near the squares will charge 2s. 6d. for a mackerel, which may be bought for half the money at Charing-cross; and for one third of the money from those who cry them about.

2. To such as live convenient, Billingsgate is the place to buy sea fish at, whether you want little or much. —— Market-days there are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; days; but market days are the dearest days. You may often buy them fresh, and forty per cent, cheaper, on the intermediate days. By purchasing at Billingsgate, you may buy at one-third of the price which fish-mongers charge; and if you lay out a few shillings, it will pay for a person to carry them home, or it may be sent by the Parcel-post. Fish-mongers, at this market, purchase at break of day; and, when the market is not glutted, they will, at those times, buy up all the largest fish, but there is always sufficient left to serve private families. There is an act of parliament to oblige fish-mongers to sell brill, bret, or small turbot, not exceeding 16 inches from eye to tail, for 6d. a pound, under a penalty of 20s. to the informer; for asking more or refusing to weigh or measure it, any person may seize the fishmonger and deliver him to a constable, to carry him before a justice, who will not only fine him, but make him return the money. But when turbot is in season, as in May and June, one of 6lb. weight may be bought at Billingsgate for 3s. 6d. or 4s. other fish in proportion.

3. Mackerel, in June and July, are in great plenty, and may be bought at Billingsgate by the quarter of a hundred, for 2d. or 3d. apiece. Mackerel and herrings, if fresh, will look bright, their gills red, and their eyes clear. Mackerel are reckoned cheap at 4.d. or 5d. each. If fish are not firm, not of a greenish hue, not flabby or slimy, the gills ruddy or bleeding, and the eyes bright, you may depend on it, it is fresh ; but if otherwise, not so. Salmon, when cut, should look red and bleeding fresh. But, put your nose to the gills, and you will soon find if it is stale. Thames salmon is always double the price of other salmon; not that it is better tasted, but being later out of the water, it can be crimped, which gives it firmness. The price of sea-salmon is from 9d. to 3s. a pound.

Billingsgate as an open market from Microcosm of London; or, London in miniature

Lobsters and crabs should always be bought a!ive.—Those of a middling size are always the best. No overgrown animal food is delicious; and the heaviest are fullest  of meat. A cock-lobster’s claw is larger than those of a hen. A hen-lobster’s-tail is broader in the middle than that of a cock. Hen-lobsters are reckoned best, on account of the spawn.

The average price of foals is about 1s. a pound, though they are not fold by the pound, but the pair. Herrings are bought for about one shilling a dozen; whitings 2s. a dozen; haddock according to their size, for about 6d. a pound. Large cod at the dearest time, may be purchased for about 1s., or 1s.3d. a pound; at the cheapest for one third of the money. Skate at about 6d. a pound, and barrel cod, in Lent, for about 6d. a pound. If a family could dispense with a quantity of salt-fish, dried cod may be bought at the dry fishmongers, in Thames-street, in winter, for about 5s. for 28lb. and barrel cod, or pickled salmon by the kit, at a very reasonable price. The price of a barrel of the best oysters, Colchester or Milton, is 3s. 6d. Dutch eels 4a. or 6d. a pound. Smelts from 2s. a hundred to 5s. Prawns from is. 6d. to 3s. a hundred.

Fresh-water fish is in price as follows:. Eels, jack, carp and perch, 1s. a pound; trout and tench is. 6d. gudgeons 6d. or 9d. a dozen; flounders from 9d.to 3d. a piece, according to the size. Fresh-water fish are kept by fish-mongers, in cisterns, and should be bought alive.

Small turbots are easily distinguished from Dutch plaice; for plaice have many small yellow spots on their back, turbots have none.

Haddock may be known from small cod, by two black spots, one on each shoulder. Small cod is a bad fish, but the haddock is a good one.

Half a kit of pickled salmon, neat weight about 161b. may be purchased at the dry fish-mongers, in Thame-street, in summer time, May, June, July, &c. for 9s. and in September, &cwhen it is equally good, for 5 s. In winter-time it will keep a long while.

Billingsgate 1837

From London Labour and the London Poor: a cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work.

Billingsgate. To see this market in its busiest costermonger time, the visitor should be there about Seven o’clock on a Friday morning. The market opens at four, but for the first two or three hours, it is attended solely by the regular fishmongers and ” bumniarees” who have the pick of the best there. As soon as these are gone, the costers’ sale begins.

Many of the costers that usually deal in vegetables, buy a little fish on the Friday. It is the fast day of the Irish, and the mechanics’ wives run short of money at the end of the week, and so make up their dinners with fish; for this reason the attendance of costers’ barrows at Billingsgate on a Friday morning is always very great. As soon as you reach the Monument you see a line of them, with one or two tall fishmonger’s carts breaking the uniformity, and the din of the cries and commotion of the distant market, begins to break on the ear like the buzzing of a hornet’s nest. The whole neighbourhood is covered with the hand-barrows, some laden with baskets, others with sacks. Yet as you walk along, a fresh line of costers’ barrows are creeping in or being backed into almost impossible openings; until at every turning nothing but donkeys and rails are to be seen. The morning air is filled with a kind of seaweedy odour, reminding one of the sea-shore ; and on entering the market, the smell of fish, of whelks, red herrings, sprats, and a hundred others, is almost overpowering.

Billingsgate 1876

The wooden barn-looking square where the fish is sold, is soon after six o’clock crowded with shiny cord jackets and greasy caps. Everybody comes to Billingsgate in his worst clothes, and no one knows the length of time a coat can be worn until they have been to a fish sale. Through the bright opening at the end arc seen the tangled rigging of the oysler-boats and the red worsted caps of the sailors. Over the hum of voices is heard the shouts of the salesmen, who, with their white aprons, peering above the heads of the mob, stand on their tables, roaring out their prices.

All are bawling together—salesmen and hucksters of provisions, capes, hardware, and newspapers—till the place is a perfect Babel of competition. “Ha-a-ansome cod! best in the market! All alive! alive! alive O!” “Ye-o-o! Ye-o-o! here’s your fine Yarmouth bloaters! Who’s the buyer?” “Here you are, governor, splendid whiting! some of the right sort!” “Turbot! turbot! all alive! turbot!” “Glass of nice peppermint! this cold morning a ha’penny a glass!” “Here you are at your own price!  Fine soles, O!” “Oy! oy! oy! Now’s your time! fine grizzling sprats! all large and no small!” “Hullo! hullo here beautiful lobsters! good and cheap! fine cock crabs all alive O!” “five brill and one turbot—have that lot for a pound! Come and look at ’em, governor; you wont see a better sample in the market.” “Here, this way! this way for splendid skate! skate O! skate O!” “Had– had —had—had—haddick! all fresh and good!” “Currant and meat puddings ! a ha’penny each!” “Now, you mussel – buyers, come along! come along! come along! now’s your time for fine fat mussels!” “Here’s food for the belly, and clothes for the back, but I sell food for the mind” (shouts the newsvender). “Here’s smelt O!” “Here ye are, fine Finney haddick!” “Hot soup! nice peas-soup! a-all hot! hot!” “Ahoy! ahoy here! live plaice! all alive O!” “Now or never! whelk! whelk! whelk!” “Who’ll buy brill O! brill O!” “Capes! water-proof capes! sure to keep the wet out! a shilling a piece!” “Eels O! eels O! Alive! alive O!” “Fine flounders, a shilling a lot! Who’ll have this prime lot of flounders?” “Shrimps! shrimps! fine shrimps!” “Wink! wink! wink!” “Hi! hi-i! here you are, just eight eels left, only eight!” “O ho I O ho! this way—this way—this way! Fish alive! alive! alive O!”

Billingsgate 1876

In the darkness of the shed, the white bellies of the turbots, strung up bow-fashion, shine like mother-of-pearl, while, the lobsters, lying upon them, look intensely scarlet, from the contrast. Brown baskets piled up on one another, and with the herring-scales glittering like spangles all over them, block up the narrow paths. Men in coarse canvas jackets, and bending under huge hampers, push past, shouting “Move on! more on, there!” and women, with the long limp tails of cod-fish dangling from their aprons, elbow their way through the crowd. Round the auction-tables stand groups of men turning over the piles of soles, and throwing them down till they slide about in their slime; some are smelling them, while others are counting the lots. “There, that lot of soles are worth your money,” cries the salesman to one of the crowd as he moves on leisurely; “none better in the market. You shall have ’em for a pound and half-a crown.” “Oh!” shouts another salesman, “it’s no use to bother him—he’s no go.”

Billingsgate 1876

Presently a tall porter, with a black oyster-bag, staggers past, trembling under the weight of his load, his bade uid shoulders wet with the drippings from the sack. “Shove on one side !” he mutters from between his clenched teeth, as he forces his way through the mob. Here is a tray of reddish-brown shrimps piled up high, and the owner busy sifting his little fish into another stand, while a doubtful customer stands in front, tasting the flavour of the stock and consulting with his companion in speculation. Little girls carrying matting-bags, that they have brought from Spitalfields, come up, and ask you in a begging voice to buy their baskets; and women with bundles of twigs for stringing herrings, cry out, ” Half-penny a bunch !” from all sides. Then there are blue-black piles of small live lobsters, moving about their bound-up claws and long “feelers,” one of them occasionally being taken up by a looker-on, and dashed down again, like a stone. Everywhere every one is asking, “What’s the price, master?” while shouts of laughter from round the stalls of the salesmen, bantering each other, burst out, occasionally, over the murmuring noise of the crowd. The transparent smelts on the marble-slabs, and the bright herrings, with the lump of transparent ice magnifying their eyes like a lens, are seldom looked at until the market is over, though the hampers and piles of huge maids, dropping slime from the counter, are eagerly examined and bartered for.

”Billingsgate

OF THE EXPERIENCE OF A FRIED FISHSELLER, AND OF THE CLASS OF CUSTOMERS. The man who gave me the following information was well-looking, and might be about 45 or 50. He was poorly dressed, but his old brown surtout fitted him close and well, was jauntily buttoned up to his black satin stock, worn, but of good quality; and, altogether, he had what is understood among a class as “a betterly appearance about him.” His statement, as well as those of the other vendors of provisions, is curious in its details of public-house vagaries.

“I’ve been in the trade,” he said, ” seventeen years. Before that, I was a gentleman’s servant, and I married a servant-maid, and we had a family, and, on that account, couldn’t, either of us, get a situation, though we’d good characters. I was out of employ for seven or eight months, and things was beginning to go to the pawn for a living; but at last, when I gave up any hope of getting into a gentleman’s service, I raised 10s., and determined to try something else, I was persuaded, by a friend who kept a beer-shop, to sell oysters at his door. I took his advice, and went to Billingsgate for the first time in my life, and bought a peck of oysters for 2s.  6d. I was dressed respectable then—nothing like the mess and dirt I’m in now” (I may observe, that there was no dirt about him) ; “and so the salesman laid it on, but I gave him all he asked. I know a deal better now. I’d never been used to open oysters, and I couldn’t do it I cut my fingers with the knife slipping all over them, and had to hire a man to open for me, or the blood from my cut fingers would have run upon the oysters. For all that, I cleared 2s. 8d. on that peck, and I soon got up to the trade, and did well; till, in two or three months, the season got over, and I was advised, by the same friend, to try fried fish. That suited me. I’ve lived in good families, where there was first-rate men-cooks, and I know what good cooking means, I bought a dozen plaice; I forget what I gave for them, but they were dearer then than now. For all that, I took between 11s. and 12s. the first night—it was Saturday—that I started; and I stuck to it, and took from 7s. to 10s. every night, with more, of course, on Saturday, and it was half of it profit then. I cleared a good mechanic’s earnings at that time —30s. a week and more. Soon after, I was told that, if agreeable, my wife could have a stall with fried fish, opposite a wine-vaults just opened, and she made nearly half as much as I did on my rounds.

London: A Pilgrimage published in 1872

I served the public-houses, and soon got known. With some landlords I had the privilege of the parlour, and tap-room, and bar, when other tradesmen have been kept out. The landlords will say to me still: ‘You can go in, Fishy.’ Somehow, I got the name of ‘Fishy’ then, and I’ve kept it ever since. There was hospitality in those days. I’ve gone into a room in a public-house, used by mechanics, and one of them has said: ‘I’ll stand fish round, gentlemen;’ and I’ve supplied fifteen penn’orths. Perhaps he was a stranger, such a sort of customer, that wanted to be agreeable. Now, it’s more likely I hear: ‘Jack, lend us a penny to buy a bit of fried;’ and then Jack says: ‘You be d—d! here, lass, let’s have another pint.’ The insults and difficulties I’ve had in the public-house trade is dreadful. I once sold 16d.worth to three rough-looking fellows I’d never seen before, and they seemed hearty, and asked me to drink with them, so I took a pull; but they wouldn’t pay me when I asked, and I waited a goodish bit before I did ask. I thought, at first, it was their fun, but I waited from four to seven, and I found it was no fun. I felt upset, and ran out and told the policeman, but he said it was only a debt, and he couldn’t interfere. So I ran to the station, but the head man there said the same, and told me I should hand over the fish with one hand, and hold out the other hand for my money. So I went back to the public-house, and asked for my money—and there was some mechanics that knew me there, then—but I got nothing but ‘—– you’s!’ and one of ’em used most dreadful language. At last, one of the mechanics said: ‘Muzzle him, Fishy, if he won’t pay.’ He was far bigger than me, him that was one in debt; but my spirit was up, and I let go at him and gave him a bloody nose, and the next hit I knocked him backwards, I’m sure I don’t know how, on to a table; but I fell on him, and he clutched me by the coatcollar—I was respectable dressed then—and half smothered me. He tore the back of my coat, too, and I went home like Jim Crow. The potman and the others parted us, and they made the man give me 1s., and the “waiter paid me the other 4d., and said he’d take his chance to get it— but he never got it. Another time I went into a bar, and there was a ball in the house, and one of the ball gents came down and gave my basket a kick without ever a word, and started the fish ; and in a souffle—he was a little fellow, but my master—I had this finger put out of joint—you can see that, sir, still—and was in the hospital a week from an injury to my leg; the tiblin bone was hurt, the doctors said” [the tibia.] “I’ve had my tray kicked over for a lark in a public-house, and a scramble for my fish, and all gone, and no help and no money for me. The landlords always prevent such things, when they can, and interfere for a poor man; but then it’s done sudden, and over in an instant. That sort of thing wasn’ t the worst. I once had some powdery stuff flung sudden over me at a parlour door. My fish fell off, for I jumped, because I felt blinded, and what became of them I don’t know; but I aimed at once for home— it was very late—and had to feel my way almost like a blind man. I can’t tell what I suffered. I found it was something black, for I kept rubbing my face with my apron, and could just tell it came away black. I let myself in with my latch, and my wife was in bed, and I told her to get up and look at my face and get some water, and she thought I was joking, as she was half asleep; but when she got up and got a light, and a glass, she screamed, and said I looked such a shiny image; and so I did, as well as I could see, for it was black lead—such as they use for grates—that was flung on me. I washed it off, but it wasn’t easy, and my face was sore days after. I had a respectable coat on then, too, which was greatly spoiled, and no remedy at all, I don’t know who did it to me. I heard some one say: ‘You’re served out beautiful’ Its men that calls themselves gentlemen that does such things. I know the style of them then— it was eight or ten years ago; they’d heard of Lord , and his goings on. That way it’s better now, but worse, far, in the way of getting a living. I dare say, if I had dressed in rough corderoys, I shouldn’t have been larked at so much, because they might have thought I was a regular coster, and a fighter; but I don’t like that sort of thing—I like to be decent and respectable, if I can.

9 Replies to “Buying Fish and Shopping at Billingsgate Fish Market in Georgian and Victorian Times”

  1. I really like to read your blog and how you collect info for the past ages. It is like a time window:)

    But reading the exerps above I can see that the information is actually valide only for the high class and upper middle class of the English society. Because how many of the working class, for example, could afford to buy a steak every Sunday?

    They bought and ate liver, feet, etc. They also randomly could afford butter or cream, it was substituted for tallow or lard. Do you have any info about the prices and shopping rituals/habbits of these products?

    Excuse my English:)

  2. Well, sort of, thank you:) Maybe I’ll have to dedicate some time to find how much the working class paid for a beef liver for example:) If I find info, I’ll write to you:)

  3. Hi Susanna,

    I found the information I was looking for – you know, the liver, pig’s feet, tallow, lard, etc. prices. it is very detailed with great recipes in Isabella Beaton Household Management book. That woman is awesome:) If you need information for your books about how middle class ate, you can find it there. Just a note that some of the prices Beaton mentioned were those that she paid to the butcher or grocery-monger that delivered to her house. Market prices were about 40-50 percent lower:)

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