Billingsgate fish market in Canary Wharf is one of the last vestiges of old London. Under its distinctive yellow roof, men barter over rows of iced fish with shiny eyes and gaping mouths. The wholesale market, set up by an Act of Parliament in 1699, is loved by tourists, history buffs and Londoners with a fondness for quirky corners of the city. Every morning before dawn breaks, a trail of aspiring chefs and fish enthusiasts go from stall to stall, before heading to the market’s fish school to gut and cook breakfast.
But within a few years this 13-acre site—along with its 500-strong workforce, 98 stands, two cafés and 800-tonne freezer store—will be moved outside the capital to make way for luxury housing. Not only will the last trace of the market disappear from Canary Wharf, but also many of its traditions—and indeed its jobs—are unlikely to survive the transfer east to Essex.
Some fear that the move will render Billingsgate another casualty of London’s compulsion to monetise the future and wipe out the past. Beyond a love of tradition, though, is there a reason for it to stay? Its most loyal visitors struggle to articulate why the market should remain in the heart of the capital, beyond the fact that it always has been. And yet when you speak to the workers, it’s hard not to sympathise with their unease that something will be lost—even if you struggle to put your finger on what that might be.
The original Billingsgate (which lies on the Thames between what is now Tower Bridge and London Bridge) was one of the first wharfs built along its river. Fish was sold from stalls and sheds around docks at the side of the River Thames. The privileges of the Corporation of London over markets date back to Edward III’s charter of 1327, which barred rival markets setting up within six-and-a-bit miles of each other—the distance it was reckoned traders could walk back-and-forth with their wares in one day. In 1400, Henry IV gave London the right to collect tolls and customs at Billingsgate and two other sites including Smithfield, which the Corporation still runs as a wholesale meat market. Although much more than fish was traded in medieval Billingsgate, it was always part of the mix—and increasingly so over the centuries. For hundreds of years, the market consisted of individual businesses, known as traders, and their employees. The sellers and their porters were the only people allowed to transport fish within the market.
By 1850, the amount of fish handled had increased so much that a purpose-built market was built on nearby Lower Thames Street. Over the next century, business kept growing, eventually necessitating a move in 1982 to a new “Billingsgate,” three miles east of the original wharf, in the Docklands.
The Docklands had taken a hammering in the Blitz so the price of land was cheap. Despite the move, the market retained its traditions, including the porters. It quickly became a time capsule surrounded by dizzying social and economic change. In 1981, Michael Heseltine, Margaret Thatcher’s ambitious environment secretary, set up the Docklands Development Corporation. Canadian property tycoon Paul Reichmann created Canary Wharf around the fish market. Great strides were made to attract young professionals to the area. Falteringly at first, but soon unstoppably, the banks relocated from the old City—Morgan Stanley, Citibank UK, HSBC and Deutsche Bank—into glittering skyscrapers higher than London had ever seen. In among the plush offices, came luxury housing.
As Canary Wharf grew, questions were raised about whether this was the right place for a fish market. In 2002, a government report into London’s wholesale markets recommended that Billingsgate should merge with two other Corporation of London markets: Smithfield and New Spitalfields, the fruit and veg market that had already relocated from the old East End to Leyton in 1991.
Apart from the market traders themselves, the recommendation was widely accepted and eventually set in motion plans to move all three markets to Barking Reach at Dagenham Dock, more than 10 miles east of the City. At the proposed new site, Billingsgate will become an all-purpose food market selling meat, fruit and vegetables as well as fish.
Seventeen years on, Nicholas Saphir, the author of that report, insists to me that the arguments for the markets’ merger and relocation have only become more powerful. “Canary Wharf is still developing fast, and Billingsgate is the last part that’s developable,” he explains. “There’s a recognition that you can’t have wholesale markets in the middle of the city when there’s such a pressure on spaces to do more ‘value-added things,’” he says. It’s the sort of jargon that could be designed to wind up the traders, but Jim Fitzpatrick, the local Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, seems to agree: “Billingsgate is an obstacle,” he says. “It doesn’t contribute hugely to the local economy.”
Whether or not you see Billingsgate as “an obstacle” is, of course, likely to turn on what you expect to see in its place. Near the current site, the new development Wood Wharf is set to have 3,600 homes by 2023. Andrew Wood, Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf ward, says the land under Billingsgate will probably go the same way.
Nobody doubts the pressing housing needs in Tower Hamlets. It’s probably the most economically unequal borough in the country, with the mix of lavishly paid bankers pushing up the rent for poorer and immigrant families. Housing benefit restrictions are biting especially hard here and many have already been priced out. The borough has one of the highest numbers of benefit-capped households in the country, and has the fourth highest number of families being shipped out to other boroughs, often outside London.
Whether or not Wood Wharf is the solution for the affordable housing shortage in Tower Hamlets is another matter. Only a quarter of homes are set to be “affordable,” itself a contentious definition because it is relative to astronomical market prices, as distinct from “social rents,” which are set with half an eye on what most people can actually afford. Many of the rest of the homes are marketed as “luxury,” with a concierge and security teams, artisan bakeries, health clubs and gyms. Whether there is still a market for these sort of developments is debatable—more than half of the 1,900 “ultra-luxury” apartments built across London in 2017 are failing to sell.
While there are thriving shops and restaurants in Canary Wharf, Wood worries that some of the new housing developments here, in the most densely populated place in the UK, are “lacking things that make life enjoyable.” He wants floating gardens and a floating lido on the docks. “There is an opportunity to do something smarter than just build residential and office towers.” At the moment, he argues, too much of Canary Wharf feels devoid of life.
But what if many of the flats end up not being actual homes but money boxes in the sky? “People from Asia will buy property in Canary Wharf for when their kids are going to university or to use as holiday homes,” explains Wood, “so the properties definitely aren’t full all-year round, but they are being occupied.” Others might “come to London and share an apartment on the Isle of Dogs, but it’s not a place you want to stay long.”
None of this sounds very promising for community life. Should the market be saved instead?
Market porter Chris Gill knows Billingsgate inside out. Gill started working at the market aged 18, during its last year at the old City site in 1981. Wearing a battered cap, he talks thoughtfully in a cockney accent. He used to be proud of working at Billingsgate—it’s in his blood. “My dad was a docker, my dad’s dad worked as a cleaner in the market, and my uncles were fish porters,” he tells me from his Portakabin at the back of the market, where he sits surrounded by skyscrapers.
Gill, though, is under no illusions that Billingsgate needs a serious overhaul. It is an operation that has outgrown its environment. The drains are overflowing and the freezers need updating. Some of the parking meters don’t work. There are rat infestations, pigeons peck at uncovered fish and—Gill tells me—the men’s loo is leaking. Frozen prawns defrost in warm water before being sold as fresh, several people at the market informed me, while I saw lobsters illegally displayed with their eggs still inside them.
“You’re walking into England’s premier fish market. It should be like, ‘Wow, you’ve come to London, where there’s this famous market that’s almost a thousand years old,’” says Gill. “But it’s a shithole now.” In-between taking orders on his phone, scribbling them down on his overalls and talking to everyone who walks past, he relives the good old days. “The market is nothing like it was. Some days you’d be crying with laughter. It used to be such a great buzz. Now, it’s like a factory.”
In 2012, the Corporation controversially stripped porters of the licenses that restricted who was allowed to move fish around the market. Suddenly, anyone could do it. Gill, along with more than 90 of his fellow fish porters, lost his job. “A lot of the porters had no other skills than what they did here, and when they lost their licenses they had nowhere to go,” says merchant Greg Whites. “I know one man who’s been working here from the age of 10.” Without the rights that came with those licenses—including holiday and sick pay—traders could replace porters with casual labour. Gill points to a young worker shifting boxes. “He doesn’t get any holiday or sick pay. He gets £60 a day in his hand.” Gill drifted in and out of odd jobs before coming back to the market less than two years later.
Relations between workers, the traders who employ them and the Corporation, which remains the landlord, soured long ago. Inside the market, the Corporation is blamed for not investing enough to update fixtures and equipment. The Corporation, however, says merchants are responsible for investing in the market, through a service charge they pay alongside rent.
Billingsgate’s workers are despondent. Since losing the fight over licenses a few years ago, they are fearful that profiteering will render their livelihoods even more precarious if their location is moved to Essex. It doesn’t help matters that, before the market moves, the Corporation—a peculiar body that operates both as an accountable council and as a veiled trade body for financial services—hopes to hire out Billingsgate as a film location.
It’s unclear whether the move will rouse protests among workers—many will cut their losses and retire from the market that’s been their life. “The average age of a market trader is 65,” says merchant Martin Eldred. “They’ll get two years’ retirement on the golf course, then pop their clogs. We’ve lived a different life to everyone else, had disruptive sleep all our lives, trading six-and-a-half days a week.”
Fitzpatrick, the local MP, sees a high turnover of Billingsgate’s workers as a chance for reform, and says some of the workers are against the move because they know it will force them to change. “There have been lots of accusations about Billingsgate being a white male monopoly,” he says. “It’s one of the last bastions of white male hegemony, and it’s very difficult to defend that.”
Almost any other business, Fitzpatrick says, would feel pressure to employ a more diverse workforce, but because the market consists of small businesses, it’s cheaper for traders to hire from within their family and friends than advertise externally. “It’s always male relatives that get the job. These retirements are an opportunity for Billingsgate to come into the 21st century.” He may have a point, but some of the workers would feel betrayed to hear a Labour MP, and one of the few politicians they believed to be in their corner, talking breezily in such top-down, managerial terms about the livelihoods they have struggled to defend. There are also concerns that trade has fallen in recent years—although the Corporation doesn’t collect turnover figures from merchants. Many workers I speak to have noticed that the market feels emptier now. Gill tells me that fishmongers and restaurateurs are increasingly cutting out the middleman and getting their fish directly from the coast.
Jamie Balment, who made the BBC documentary Inside Billingsgate in the lead-up to the 2012 removal of the porters’ licences, says the market felt like it was “teetering” then. “It felt like the old-school Billingsgate merchant, carrying on doing what he was doing, was probably going to have his days numbered at some point.” But Fitzpatrick sees no point in resisting change. “The world moves on. After all the fuss of 2012… I didn’t hear anything afterwards, because people were just getting on with their lives, trying to make it work.” But because “people will still want to buy and sell fish,” the market will survive, and the workers who make the move will have to adapt again.
At4am, most of London is asleep. But at the bottom of a cluster of skyscrapers, a bell rings out across Billingsgate to signal the start of trade. Twelve hours later, and eight miles further east in an office in Barking and Dagenham, council leader Darren Rodwell wonders aloud whether the new market at Barking Reach could emulate a bit of this old-school charm. He first asked the Corporation for the market four years ago and did everything in his power to triumph over the other three proposed sites in London: in Newham, Redbridge and Thurrock. While the plan is for three markets to move, the one he most wanted on his patch was Billingsgate.
“Is there a bell that says the market is open? Or a town crier bit that we could put in the public area of the new market? Or maybe there’s a feast of the traders,” he says. “People like culture, and they pay for it.” The nostalgia doesn’t stop here. Moving the market to Barking and Dagenham is a homecoming, says Rodwell, since the borough was home to one of the world’s largest fishing fleets in the 1800s, when Billingsgate was the largest fish market. Rodwell even envisions a boat from Tower Bridge that “promises to take people to the home of London’s markets.” He wants the new site—an old power station in Dagenham, set to be ready by 2025—to be the “new Barbican of the east,” attracting crowds through restaurants and other attractions, including public markets to go alongside the wholesale ones.
Traders, though, are concerned that the new space won’t be big enough for the three markets. Barking and Dagenham council is looking into buying more land and isn’t afraid to use compulsory purchase orders. There are also concerns that the roads won’t be big enough to handle the traffic, but Rodwell says he’s looking at points down the Thames where produce can be brought in by boats. Nostalgia, again, is part of the allure: “Using the river again is very historical, that’s how it originally happened,” says Rodwell.
The first step of the consolidation of the three markets will be a private bill through parliament, which the Corporation hopes will happen next year. This will provide a good opportunity to figure out the role that traditional skills and trade play in the city’s regeneration, argues Jon Cruddas. The Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, who supported the porters in 2012, hopes that labour standards will rise rather than fall with the move: “I want my borough to help counteract the shift into the speculative economics of land management, where the danger is what falls off at the end is the historical role of trades and vocations within the history of London.”
Perhaps. There is no doubt Billingsgate needs updating, and its employment practices overhauling to ensure they don’t lock out London’s diverse population. But this isn’t the motivation behind a move that may—or may not—achieve these things. It is natural that a workforce toiling for long and anti-social hours is suspicious after having its privileges eroded in recent years.
I haven’t heard any good reason why the market should stay where it is. But even those beyond its workforce will perceive the move as just one more instance of the disruptive effect modernity is having on cities around the world. Despite the efforts by all sides to cling on to the market’s traditions, the uprooting of Billingsgate will be seen in this wider context. The relics of old capital, from independent shops to council estates, are being torn down in favour of lucrative projects that make little sense to those who aren’t super-rich. Many of these new developments create the foreboding sense that, in the coming years, London will be very quiet. Few of its citizens hear the early morning Billingsgate bell, but in a sense it tolls for us all.
Images © Jessica Brown, Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo, ITV/Shutterstock, Elliot Smith / Alamy Stock Photo