A Fishy Business – Billingsgate Market

The New Family Cookery or Town and Country Housekeepers’ Guide by Duncan MacDonald (1812) begins its General Directions for Marketing with fish and with Billingsgate Market:

The comment in the penultimate paragraph is ironic, considering Billingsgate’s colourful reputation! When I was researching for my book Regency Slang Revealed I discovered that to talk Billingsgate meant to use particularly coarse and foul language.

Billingsgate Market was sited at the foot of Lower Thames Street from at least the 10th century until it was moved to the new market site on the Isle of Dogs in 1982. The first set of toll regulations covering it dates from 1016 and by the time of Elizabeth I it was dealing in corn, malt, salt and vegetables, although fish was always the main reason for its existence at the highest point where fish could be unloaded straight from the boats before London Bridge. It can be seen in Horwood’s map of London (c1800) below with the deep indentation of the dock taking a bite out of the waterfront and London Bridge on the left. This dock vanished with the Victorian rebuilding of the market in 1850. That building proved inadequate and was replaced with the present handsome structure by Sir Horace Jones, opened in 1877. It was refurbished after the closure and is now used for various commercial purposes. During the 1988 work extensive remains of the late 12th century/early 13th century waterfront were revealed.

The engraving from a print of 1820 shows the view of the dock from the river. At this date there was no covered market building, simply stalls and tables set out around the dock. In the days before a ready supply of ice dealers would come into Billingsgate from places within about twenty five miles – an outer ring that included Windsor, St Albans and Romford – and fish was sold in lots by the Dutch auction method where the price falls until a buyer is found. Many of the fish were caught in the Thames and in 1828 a Parliamentary Committee took evidence that in 1798 there were 400 fishermen, each owning a boat and employing one boy, who made a good living between Deptford and London catching roach, plaice, smelts, flounders, shad, eels, dudgeon, dace and dabs. One witness stated that in 1810 3,000 Thames salmon were landed in the season. By the time of the Commission,eighteen years later, the fishery had been destroyed by the massive pollution of the river from water closets and  the waste from gas works and factories that went straight into the river.

It was the fishwives of Billingsgate who became its most notorious feature. They were tough women, as they needed to be to thrive in such a hard, competitive business, and they did not shrink from either physical violence or colourful language. In Bailey’s English Dictionary (1736) a “Billingsgate” is defined as “a scolding, impudent slut.” Addison referred to the “debate” that arose among “the ladies of the British fishery” and Ned Ward describes them scolding and chattering among their heaps of fish, “ready enough to knock down the auctioneer who did not knock down a lot to them.”

The women of Billingsgate were an inevitable attraction to young bucks and gentlemen slumming, as the two prints below show. The top one is a drawing by Henry Alken for the Tom and Jerry series – “Billingsgate: Tom and Bob taking a Survey after a Night’s Spree.”  Below that is “A Frolic: High Life or a Visit to Billingsgate” from The London Spy.

Here two sporting gentlemen stand out in the crowd of working people as they watch a fight that has broken out between two bare-breasted fishwives. Another has just been knocked to the ground. Amongst the details note the woman sitting on a basket smoking a clay pipe, another (far left) taking a swig from a bottle and the porter’s hat on the man in the centre foreground with its long ‘skirt’ to protect the neck.

This print below is not dated, but as there is the funnel of a steam boat in the background amongst the masts it is probably 1820s.

Here a determined-looking lady in a riding habit, her veil thrown back and her whip under her arm, is negotiating the sale of a large fish head. Behind her is a smartly-dressed woman, perhaps a merchant’s wife, and an elderly gentleman in spectacles is talking to another fish seller on the far right. There are two men in livery, perhaps accompanying the lady in the riding habit. The man standing behind the seated fishwife is a sailor, judging by his tarred pigtail, and the porter walking towards us is wearing one of the black hats whose ‘tail’ can just be glimpsed over his shoulders. It is all fairly orderly and respectable, despite the crowd (and the smell, no doubt) but a hint to the other activities in the area may be the couple in the window!

 

 

 

 

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Keeping a Diary – and a lady who didn’t

I recently deposited my late father’s 40+ years-worth of diaries with the Great Diary Project , an incredible undertaking to preserve diaries of all kinds.  It made me think about keeping a diary – and how many good resolutions there must be to do just that which are never fulfilled. Which reminded me that I own a ladies’ memorandum book for 1822 –  and the owner didn’t use it either.

The book is beautifully bound in plain red Morocco leather with a tab to keep the covers closed and measures just over 4.5 x 3.25 inches.

But even though it contains no fascinating insights into the daily life of a lady in 1822 it is a lovely item in its own right, and it does contain two handwritten recipes and a mass of other useful printed material including “New Songs and Melodies”, instructions for country dances and quadrilles, the price of stamps and “Enigmas, Charades and Rebuses.”

The diary belonged to “Elizabeth Plant. Greatwood Lodge.” I did not have much confidence that I could find her – but an on-line transcript of a deed appointing Thomas Plant “Farmer of Greatwood Lodge in the parish of Eccleshall in the county of Staffordshire” as a trustee in 1879 gave me the parish. Greatwood Lodge is still there, a red-brick farmhouse that was perhaps quite new in Elizabeth’s time, and still a farm.

The frontispiece has a fashion plate and a view of a fine country house in Suffolk

As the frontispiece says the diaries were sold by a Bury St Edmund’s bookseller and throughout East Anglia the choice of a Suffolk house was probably for marketing purposes. Perhaps Elizabeth received it as a gift from a friend or relative.

I wonder if she took the picture of the walking dress to her local dressmaker, or even attempted it herself – and did she and her friends try out the country dances the book contained?

Amongst the poems I particularly like this cynical view off London – perhaps intended to convince the country-dwelling owners of the diary that they were in the right place:

The only things that Elizabeth wrote in her diary were two recipes, one for gingerbread and one for “toufy” or toffee, both on the accounts page for January. The  gingerbread sounds tasty!

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A Georgian Parlour Game

The Georgians were great believers in educational games and I own a battered and much-used copy of one of them – Wallis’s Tour Through England and Wales: A New Geographical Pastime, published in London in 1794.

The whole game measures approximately 500 x 630mm (20 x 26 inches) and is made up of 16 sections glued to a flexible backing. It folds up neatly into a slipcase approximately 175 x 140cm (7 x 4.5 inches). The slipcase has an imposing image of scrolls, flags and military drums on it, but it has had such a hard life that it is impossible to scan. There was another version of the game for Europe (on sale on the internet at over £1,000, I see) and one for the whole world. Unfortunately I doubt my battered copy of England and Wales is worth anything like that!

The same plate was also stuck onto wood and cut out so that each county formed a piece of a jigsaw – or dissected puzzle as they were known at the time. The children of George III played with these puzzles which survive at Kew Palace and can be seen here.

The instructions tell us that 2 to 6 “may amuse themselves with this agreeable pastime” for which they will need a “totum” and a pyramid (presumably some kind of marker) and four counters per player, each set in a different colour. A totum was a teetotum, a spinning top with a variable number of faces. I can recall making one as a child out of card cut as a polygon with a cocktail stuck through the centre. There are some lovely ones illustrated on this website.

Players spin the totum and the highest score starts. With their first score they place their pyramid on the corresponding town – 1, for example, would land them at Rochester. On their next turn they move on the number of towns they have scored – say 6 –  which would give them 7 and they can then move to Lewes, number 7 on the map. The winner is the first to reach London with exactly the right number. If a player exceeds the right number then he has to count backwards from London.

Each numbered town has a short description in the margins and some of these have a delay  involving missed turns. When a player lands on one of those they must deposit the stated number of counters and have to miss the next turn, or turns, until they have collected them back up again. (see 50. Worcester, in the top right hand corner of the first image). Presumably each player would be expected to read out the description of the towns they land on for the instruction of all the participants.

If you landed on 89, The Isle of Man, you would be shipwrecked and out of the game!

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Every Home Should Have One – An Ottomane Couch

Rummaging in the treasure trove of prints I bought recently I found this from Ackermann’s Repository of Arts (July 1814). It is captioned “Design for an Ottomane [sic] Couch” although I doubt whether any citizen of the Ottoman Empire would recognise it!

otomane-couch

It is obviously designed for a very large house and it looks decidedly uncomfortable – but fashion overrides comfort, presumably. I’m at a loss to identify ‘Ottoman’ influences – the two half-figures of naked women look decidedly Egyptian in origin.

If it was mine I think I’d be worried about male guests dangling a hand over the end and groping the ornaments…

 

 

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The Cock and Pie Public House – “A Specimen of Ancient Architecture.”

cock-pie-drury-lane

This print “View of the Cock & Pie Public House in Drury Lane” was published in 1807 as the frontispiece to volume 52 of The European Magazine. I was amused by the heading “Specimen of ancient architecture” making it sound as though the Druids, at least, were responsible for it! It isn’t easy to work out just how old it is – certainly 17th century, I imagine. It is said that it was where Nell Gwynne had her lodgings and where Samuel Pepys once saw her standing at the door.

I have been trying to place it along Drury Lane but with no success. It is certainly on the western side because one of the churches in the Strand to the south can be clearly seen at the end. The British Museum notes on their copy of the print that this is St Clement Dane, but I’m not convinced. Looking at maps of the time it seems more likely to be St Mary-le-Strand which stood opposite the end of Drury Lane.

The detail is fascinating. This was not a very respectable area, close to Covent Garden and the theatres (Nell Gwynne again!), and the gentleman walking away from us with a bundle on his shoulder is recoiling in surprise (disgust?) as the on the other side of the street woman toasts him with a wine glass. She is slumped drunkenly against a shop front, a basket of plucked chickens at her feet. Perhaps it was gin in that glass. The odd shape hanging in front of the inn is a bush, or bundle of greenery, the sign for home-brewed liquor being available that stretches back to Roman times. “ELLIOT & Co’s ENTIRE” is painted across the front and translating this took me into the history and mythology of ale, beer and porter making.

According to the Brewery History website which explains all this in exhaustive detail, “Entire, or “intire”, was an expression used by brewers to indicate a beer where the first, second and third mashes had been mixed and fermented together to make one grade of beer, rather than brewed separately to produce three different-strength beers…” This is another name for porter, as opposed to stout, a strong beer made from the first mash, which was the strongest. (If you want to be further confused with the different terms for beer and ale, have a look at my Regency Slang Revealed where I identified over thirty terms for ale and beers.)

The inn sign itself shows a cockerel on the ground and a magpie perched on a branch, a literal depiction of the name. Victorian writers maintain that this is a corruption of “Peacock in Pie” referring to the great banquet dish. Drury Lane was also a cock-fighting area and the cock may reflect that. (An area to the north-west of Drury Lane where St Martin’s Lane  met Long Acre and which became the notorious slum of Seven Dials, is shown on William Morgan’s map of 1682 as “Cock and Pye Fields” – it may have the same derivation.)

cock-pie-1840-2

By the time  Old and New London (Edward Walford 1874) was published the building was still standing, although by then it had become “Stockley’s Cheap Bookshop”. The print of 1840 from that book, shows it when it was still a tavern, and indicates how buildings were constantly being adapted and changed. The middle upstairs window has been closed off and the sign is now on that bit of wall, the bush is no longer being displayed and the sheltering overhang over the ground floor front has been continued around the side. It is now “Gooding & Co’s Entire Celebrated Stout and XXX [ie strong] Ales” that are advertised for sale and the buildings on either side have also changed. A barber’s striped pole can be clearly seen and there is street lighting on the opposite building.

Finally here is a 19th century photograph of the poor Cock & Pie, now showing part of it as Stockley’s Bookshop. Does anyone know when Drury Lane was cleared and these old buildings swept away?

cock-pie-late-19thc

 

 

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In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb (or vice versa?)

march

Cruikshank’s scene of chaos on the London streets in March is a reminder of just how variable March weather can be. Here’s another equally windy scene from my collection. The little watercolour sketch is undated and unsigned, but looks about 1820s to me.

windy-weather

So – keep tight hold of your umbrella – or remember that Beau Brummel considered that no gentleman would be seen with one and take a sedan chair instead.

 

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The Tower From the River

Just a short post today – but recently I went to see the exhibition about Emma Hamilton at the National Maritime Museum (stunning, by the way) and travelled by water bus between Greenwich and Westminster. We passed the Tower of London, of course, and it was interesting to compare the view today with this one of 1797.

tower

The biggest difference is the presence of the Embankment and the disappearance of the open space with the cannon to the right- presumably they belonged to the Board of Ordnance who were in the Tower. Now the approach road to London Bridge crosses close to this spot. The water gate, the entrance to Traitor’s Gate can be seen in the print as a crescent shape just to the left of the White Tower.

There are no crowds of tourists taking selfies in this image, but the amount of river traffic is surprisingly close – now it is tourist boats, river buses, the River Police and still quite a few barges and tugs. I wish I’d had this print with me!

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