Originally situated on Lower Thames Street, what is now between Monument and Tower Hill tube stations, Billingsgate fish market was the largest and busiest fish market in the country. Relocated to the Isle of Dogs in 1989, it now sits in the shadow of Canary Wharf and the capital’s financial district. This fitting new home is symbolic of the shift London’s economy has undergone in the last century.
Billingsgate is open Tuesday to Saturday, 4am-9.30am. In these colder, darker months almost all of the offloading, ferrying, bidding and buying is carried out before even the bankers arrive at their desks next door. The floor of the market is slick with melted ice and squid ink. The oily black substance cut into patterns by the wheels of the pallet trucks pushed and pulled by the fish porters. Trading starts at 2am but no fish can be moved until the 5am bell. Each trader, or tenant as they are officially known, will use his stall to showcase the freshest fish from not only the UK, but other oceans around the world. Over 50% of the fish sold at Billingsgate is imported from overseas. This diversification in stock is slowly being accepted by the tenants, as is the ever changing customer base, with large numbers of fish exporting back out to China.
This switch from the traditional has been felt throughout the market. Dating back to Henry VIII the fish could only be moved from transport to market floor by licensed porters. Until 2012 they still had to pay the yearly fee of a shilling to have their licenses stamped. Now, in the name of modernisation and increasing profit margins, the Corporation of London has enforced a statutory change which has made all porters unlicensed and opened the job up to anyone.
Billingsgate fish market is London’s oldest wholesale food market. Once the most dependable industry of a globally influential capital throughout the mid to late 19th Century, the market now faces global crises, as well as domestic. Along with rapidly depleting fish stocks, rising sea temperatures as a result of Global Warming have meant that many of the UK’s staple fish stocks are drifting north and being replaced by less traditionally desirable species of fish. Cod and Haddock, while still on the MSC (Marine Conservation Society) Fish to Avoid list, are moving further north and less desirable, less profitable, species are taking their place.