The Sounds of Billingsgate Past

For over 50 years, field and sound recordists have captured different soundscapes to help develop our knowledge of local history – enabling researchers to identify change around language, technology and the environment. One such soundscape is the market place, and in particular the cries and general noise of this traditionally busy and crowded centre for local trade.

The end of an era

Included among the City of London Corporation archives are the sounds and voices of Billingsgate Fish Market. Formally established under Act of Parliament in 1699, it wasn’t until the mid to late Victorian period that work began on the design of a more purpose-built structure, first by City Architect James B. Bunning, and then later by Sir Horace Jones, who enlarged it twofold to incorporate Billingsgate Stairs and Wharf, and Darkhouse Lane. Opened in 1877, the fish market remained in this building before its relocated to the West India Docks in 1982.

© London Met Archives Exterior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973Image: Exterior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973 (COLLAGE 36135)

In January 1982, before the market moved, Capital Radio conducted a series of interviews with traders and porters. In the introduction, our host reflects on what will be lost once the building is vacated including the friendliness – and language – of the porters, as well as the powerful smell.  So, who best to reminisce about its history than those who worked and bought produce from the market?

Memories of Old Billingsgate

One interviewee comments, for example, on how the younger traders lack the fish handling skills of his generation:

 “… you get hold of a Salmon, you put your hand around the back of the Salmon, lift it and the same with a Hake, you put your fingers in the eyes, slide your hand along the body, lift it. You see them now, they get hold of fish, they just throw it and chuck it away …”

While another discusses the different buyers, from the West End to Walworth Road:

“… they’d have the fish on the stands by 5 in the morning when the market opened, it was bloody noisy then what with the clatter of the hooves and the wheels of the vans rumbling over the cobbles. After the West End buyers had bought the fancy fish for all the hotels, the costers from Kennington and Walworth came round and they bought loads of haddock which they smoked themselves at home overnight. They bought the fish for tuppence and sold it smoked on the street for about six pence or eight pence”

© London Met Archives Interior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973
Image: Exterior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973 (COLLAGE 36140)

Market Sounds

Recording at Billingsgate Fish Market, it is not only the interviews themselves that provide insight to its history, but also the transient sounds and colloquial voices heard in the background. For instance, traders heard selling different types of fish, traffic echoing through the market from trucks or vans transporting goods, and the ‘chat’ used to sell produce:

“… what about the mackerel?”

“You’re not trying are you really?”

“Sir, here you are mackerel!”

“Where you going handsome?”

Although we have printed collections of market cries within our wider archives, sound recordings like these help us understand more about the pace and rhythm of the words spoken – a shame really that the process of ‘how to record sound’ wasn’t discovered until the 19th century!

*These recordings were digitised and catalogued as part of The British Library ‘Unlocking our Sound Heritage’ project – https://bit.ly/2Az6XkN, for which LMA is a regional hub.*

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