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ABC of City of London Wards

This is the forth post about the wards that make up the the City of London. These links will take you to the post about Aldersgate, Aldgate, Bassishaw.

The City of London is divided into 25 wards. These wards are a survival of the medieval governmental system that allowed very small areas to exist as self-governing units within the wider city. The wards appear to have taken shape by the early 11th century, before the Norman conquest of England. Their administrative, judicial and militia purposes made them equivalent to hundreds in the shires. The primary purpose of wards that had a gate on the city wall, appears to be the defence of that gate, as this would have been the weakest points in the fortifications.


Billingsgate’s most ancient historical reference is as a water gate to the city of Trinovantum, this is the name given to London in medieval British legend as written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, he of King Arthur fame, so we’ll take this with a large pinch of salt. Originally known as Blynesgate and Byllynsgate, its name apparently derives from its origins as a water gate on the Thames where goods were landed, becoming Billingsgate Wharf, part of London’s docks close to Lower Thames Street. The 16th century chronicler John Stow records that Billingsgate Market, next to the wharf 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 late 16th century, most merchant vessels had become too large to pass under London Bridge to gain access to the main wharf at Queenhithe and so Billingsgate to the east of the bridge, with its deeply recessed harbour, replaced Queenhithe as the most important landing place in the City.

The market was formalised by an act of Parliament in 1699 to be “a free and open market for all sorts of fish whatsoever”, but Billingsgate was also the main point for the unloading of oranges, lemons, onions and salt. The market grew over the next two hundred years spreading beyond the wharf to the surrounding streets and by all accounts was a ramshackle affair in it’s later years. The dilapidation coupled with the overall stench of rotting fish remains that were piled high in some streets earned the area a reputation of being “Noisesome” or unpleasant. The raucous cries of the fish vendors gave rise to “Billingsgate” as a synonym for profanity or offensive language and the term Billingsgate Fishwife was used to describe any female who strayed beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour. These Fishwives plied their trade in the market “They dressed in strong robust gowns and quilted petticoats; their hair, caps and bonnets were flattened into one indistinguishable mass upon their heads. … They smoked small pipes of tobacco, took snuff, drank gin and were known for their colourful language.

In 1849, the fish market was moved off the streets into its own riverside building which must have been a temporary structure or not fir for purpose as less than twenty five years later Horace Jones designed the arcaded market that stands today completed in 1875. The market moved close to Canary Wharf in 1982.

The old Billingsgate Market

The ward had two of the City’s main thoroughfares within its boundaries. Thames Street which ran east-west and Fish Street hill leading onto part of London Bridge going north South, so the area was continually busy. The most imposing building in the ward was that of London Bridge. At the time of the establishment of the market in the 17th century and only thirty odd years before Horace Jones structure the old medieval bridge was still standing, having been in place since 1209.

The medieval Billingsgate had a number of fine churches. St Margaret’s New Fish Street, St George, St Andrew Hubbard, St Margaret Pattens, St Benet Gracechurch and St Mary At Hill. All were destroyed during the Great Fire of 1666 with some rebuilt only to be demolished during the late 19th century. Today only St Margaret Patterns and St Mary At Hill survive.

St Margaret Pattens

St Mary At Hill

The Watermans Hall

Not surprisingly due to it’s proximity to the river, Billingsgate is the home for the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames having been founded in 1514. In 1780 The Company moved into its own purpose built hall in St Mary at Hill which is still in use by the guild today. The Ward contains probably what is one of the most famous streets in the world, Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London started in 1666. History says that it started in the Bakery of Thomas Farriner, however archaeological research has brought this fact into disrepute. There is no question that it started in Farriner’s bakery, but it is now thought that the bakery was situated in the location of what is now Monument Street. After over 350 years of the fire being linked to Pudding Lane, I doubt that the facts as they stand will ever be changed, Monument Street just doesn’t have the same ring to it as pudding lane. One fact that does get thrown around and is quite untrue is that the lane takes it’s name from the bakers or the production of puddings within it. A pudding was term used for sacks of waste, mostly animal entrails that were the biproduct of animals being slaughtered in the surrounding areas of Eastcheap. The shortest route twixt the butchers stalls and the Thames where they would be thrown into is the route down Pudding Lane. A Map of the area in the early 14th century shows the lane roughly in it’s current position, but at that time it was known as Rederisgate which it is suggested stems from “Rethereslane” , associated with “rother,” a horned beast brought by the butchers to Eastcheap.

While on the subject of the fire the area is the home of the Monument designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Dr Robert Hooke which was built between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire of London and to celebrate the rebuilding of the City.

As with the other wards that I’ve written about, I’ve tried to find some record of the everyday people that inhabited the area and in most cases these come from court cases from the records of the Old Bailey. Having trawled through the records I was quite surprised to find that in nearly every case over the course of two hundred years that the indictment was theft and there were no cases of murder. Obviously that doesn’t mean there weren’t any, but it’s surprising.

George I

One case that did stand out was for what is described as “Royal Offenses”. On the 16th February 1715 William Wide, a Waterman entered a Billingsgate tavern and sat drinking by himself. After having a few he remarked loudly to all assembled within, “God damn King George, he has no Right to the Crown.” The backdrop to this is that the King in question George I had been on the throne for just over six months and already there had been rumblings of discontent from some of the populous. Firstly George was German, spoke no English and had been foisted on the country by the ruling Whig party in order to ensure a Protestant succession to the throne in opposition to the exiled Roman Catholic claimant, James Edward Stuart, the “Old Pretender”. Secondly, rumours had already circulated regarding George’s treatment of his first wife, who he had divorced and then locked up in a castle where she remained for 32 years until her death. Also, he kept two German mistresses at court and their greed and profligate lifestyle was something that was being widely broadcast by his opponents. In all probability William Wide was a Stuart sympathiser and a few pints loosened his tongue, but it highlights the divisions that were starting to form in the country that two of his fellow Waterman felt moved to report the outburst to the authorities. Wide was later arrested and stood trial at the Bailey indicted for speaking seditious Words. He was found guilty as charged and sentenced to stand in the Pillory at the Royal Exchange, fined (in lieu of branding) and a 3 Months prison term, He then had to give Security for his good Behaviour for a Year.

Moving forward into the 20th century, Billingsgate in the form of Lower Thames Street found immortality when included in T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”.

O city city, I can sometimes hear Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street, The pleasant whining of a mandoline And a clatter and a chatter from within Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls Of Magnus Martyr hold Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.”

During World War Two the eastern side of the ward was heavily bombed with many buildings damaged beyond repair, but as the map below shows the waterfront and the Fish Market itself were relatively unscathed.

Mostly the bomb sites were left undeveloped until the late 1950s when the widening of Lower Thames Street was all encompassing. The two photographs below, taken from roughly the same vantage point shows the difference after the redevelopment.

So today the market exists as a conference and events venue and the once pungent smell of fish has long gone, all you can smell today are the fumes from the cars who rush along Lower Thames Street.

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