Billingsgate is a small ward in the south-east of the City of London, lying on the north bank of the River Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. It is found within the boundary defined by the river, Lovat Lane, Fenchurch Street, Mark Lane and Sugar Quay.
Billingsgate, as a water-gate to the city of Trinovantum (the name given to London in medieval British legend), is mentioned the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), written c.1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This work describes how Belinus, a legendary king of Britain said to have held the throne from about 390BCE, built a water-gate to the city of London with a tower above it:
In the town of Trinovantum Belinus caused to be constructed a gateway of extraordinary workmanship, which in his time the citizens called Billingsgate, from his own name. … Finally, when his last day dawned and carried him away from this life, his body was cremated and the ash enclosed in a golden urn. This urn the citizens placed with extraordinary skill on the very top of the tower in Trinovantum which I have described.
Originally it was known as Blynesgate and Byllynsgate, and may indeed have originated with a water gate on the Thames, where goods were landed, becoming Billingsgate Wharf, part of the London docks close to Lower Thames Street.
Stow records that Billingsgate Market was a general market for corn, coal, iron, wine, salt, pottery, fish and miscellaneous goods until the 16th century, when neighbouring streets became a specialist fish market.By the 16th century, most merchant vessels had become too large to pass London Bridge and Billingsgate, with its deeply recessed harbour, replaced Queenhithe as the most important landing-place in the City.
The ward includes Pudding Lane, where in 1666, the Great Fire of London began. A sign was erected upon the house in which it began:
Here, by the permission of Heaven, hell broke loose upon this protestant city, from the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists, by the hand of their agent Hubert, who confessed, and on the ruins of this place declared the fact, for which he was hanged, viz. That here began the dreadful fire, which is described and perpetuated on and by the neighbouring pillar, erected Anno 1680, in the mayoralty of Sir Patience Ward, knight.
The wards of Billingsgate and Bridge in 1720.
This view by Arnold Vanhaecken shows Billingsgate in 1736. It captures the everyday market bustle; full of fishwives, sailors, porters, thieves, quack-medicine men and casual strollers.
Legal Quays between Billingsgate Dock and the Tower of London in John Rocque’s plan of 1746. Behind Legal Quays lay Thames Street, with its warehouses, sugar refineries and cooperages.
1757 print by Louis Philippe Boitard, a view of the Legal Quays, between Billingsgate Dock and the Tower. Boitard’s engraving, ‘Imports from France’, provided a satirical look at Londoners’ passion for French luxury goods and manners. Although Boitard deliberately exaggerated the number of both people and shipping, he also provided the most accurate picture of the Legal Quays at work. Boitard recorded treadwheel cranes, beamscales, Customs’ Officers gauging barrels and porters handling cargoes. Smuggling, theft and pilferage of cargoes were rife on both the busy open wharves and in the crowded warehouses.
After the Great Fire of London, arcaded shops and stalls lined the west side of the harbour and at its head lay an open market-square known as ‘Roomland’.
Billingsgate Fish Market was formally established by an Act of Parliament in 1699 to be “a free and open market for all sorts of fish whatsoever”. Oranges, lemons, and Spanish onions were also landed there, alongside the other main commodities, coal and salt. In 1849, the fish market was moved off the streets into its own riverside building, which was subsequently demolished (c. 1873) and replaced by an arcaded market hall (designed by City architect Horace Jones, built by John Mowlem) in 1875.
In 1982, the fish market was relocated to a new building close to Canary Wharf in east London. The original riverside market hall building was then refurbished (by architect Lord Rogers) to provide office accommodation.
The raucous cries of the fish vendors gave rise to “billingsgate” as a synonym for profanity or offensive language.
The ward contains the Customs House and the Watermen’s Hall, built in 1780 and the only surviving Georgian guild hall. Centennium House in Lower Thames Street has Roman baths within their basement foundations.