Billingsgate is the largest inland seafood market in the UK. It started off life as a market for miscellaneous goods. Then, in 1699 an Act of Parliament decreed that it was “a free and open market for all sorts of fish whatsoever.” This only excluded the sale of eels, which was restricted to Dutchmen moored on the Thames due to their support in feeding Londoners after the great Fire (this exclusion does not stand today). Fish was sold from stalls or sheds until 1876 when the new covered market was opened.
The market occupies the same building today, with the entire market taking up around thirteen acres of land in East London. It is served by ports as far as Aberdeen and Penzance. Fish is brought by train to the market in the early hours of the morning, ready to be sold on to restaurateurs, fishmongers, caterers, and just about anyone in London who wants fish. There are 98 stands, 30 shops, 2 cafes, a seafood boiling room, an 800 tonne freezer, cold rooms, an ice-making stand and a number of merchants selling sundries.
Billingsgate is a working market. It is not so much a tourist attraction but a must-see place for lovers of fish. It is busy and bustling, with trolleys filled with fish whizzing past, people stomping up and down looking for the best bargain, and vendors selling their wares. There are thousands of varieties of fish for sale, with stalls specialising in fish that you see every day, like cod, plaice and sole, others specialising in seafood or smoked fish, and a number specialising in exotic fish.
There a remarkable number of life fish and seafood – crabs crawling around iced boxes and huge trays filled with live eels. Many of the merchants will be happy to talk to you about their varieties but remember that it’s big business at Billingsgate and they are there to make money, not to teach.
If you are interested in learning about the market or about fish more generally, then you can contact the market. They do not offer regular tours but are happy to arrange one if you phone in advance. Children under 12 are not permitted on the market floor, and it is advised that you wear non-slip foot ware. In addition, if you want to take photos you need to put in a request in advance.
More recently Billingsgate has opened its own seafood school. This is a non-profit school and any money made is used to pay for seafood training for school groups. Fish enthusiasts can book themselves in for a course from anything up to a few hours to a whole day. The whole day course commences at around 6am when students are given a tour of the market. Some of the vendors might offer some samples to taste – but beware! Jellied eels at 6am do not always go down too well. After a breakfast of smoked fish and eggs, the students set about cutting, descaling and preparing a variety of fish in the teaching room upstairs. By the end of the day the students should be less squeamish about ripping out guts, and more confident producing a beautiful fillet. The school also offers courses in shellfish, knife skills, exotic fish and, more recently, butchery.