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…