WEATHERVANES ATTRACT BOTH wind and my attention. The variety of forms that these wind direction indicators assume is why I enjoy looking at them. A few days ago, whilst crossing London Bridge I spotted a building with two weathervanes on its roof. They are shaped like fish. But they are not alone because the roof is decorated with more metal fish. Their presence is appropriate because between 1875 and 1982, this arcaded edifice next to the river was home to the Billingsgate fish market. Today, the place is used as a venue for gatherings of various sorts.
Writing in 1598, John Stow (c1524-1605) noted that the ward of Billingsgate was named after ‘Belinsgate’. It was then, he wrote:
“… a large water-gate, port, or harborough, for ships and boats, commonly arriving there with fish, both fresh and salt, shell-fishes, salt, oranges, onions, and other fruits and roots, wheat, rye, and grain of divers sorts, for service of the city and parts of this realm adjoining.”
He also mentions that in the reign of Edward III (reigned 1327-1377), Belinsgate was then a much-used place for mooring ships and that these all attracted harbour fees, which depended on their size.
John Timbs (1801-1875), writing in his “Curiosities of London”, published in 1867 provided more of the history of Billingsgate. He wrote that it had been a landing place, if not also a marketplace, since the reign of King Ethelred II (reigned 978-1013). In 1699, an Act of King William III declared that Billingsgate was a market for all kinds of fish, and that it should be close to London Bridge. Timbs recorded:
“The Market, for many years, consisted of a collection of wooden pent-houses, rude sheds, and benches: it commenced at three o’clock AM in summer and five in the winter: in the latter season it was a strange scene, its large flaring oil lamps showing a crowd struggling amidst a Babel din of vulgar tongues, such as rendered “Billingsgate” a byword for low abuse … In Baileys “Dictionary” we have; a Billingsgate, a scolding, impudent slut’”
In 1849, the market was enlarged, making it more spacious and less of a scrum that it had been previously. In 1850, the first Billingsgate market building was ready for use but by 1873, when it was demolished, it was already too small for its purpose. The former market building, which we see today with its rooftop fish ornaments, was designed by the City Architect Horace Jones (1819-1887) and opened for use in 1876. Jones’s most famous building, Tower Bridge, was completed after his death.
After it ceased being used as a fish market, instead of being demolished, the old Billingsgate market was:
“Given an industrial twist by architect Lord Richard Rogers, the building has undergone an amazing transformation, from the 19th century’s largest fish market to London’s premier event space.”
Thanks to that repurposing, we can still enjoy sight of fish on a roof in the heart of the City of London.