Fish on the roof

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.

Catching the wind

Cambridge, UK

LOOK UP AND if your eyesight is reasonably up to scratch, you might well be lucky enough to see a weathervane on top of a church steeple or some other high point on a building. The ‘vane’ in weathervane is derived from an Old English word, ‘fana’, meaning flag (in German the word ‘Fahn’ means flag). Weathervanes are simple gadgets that indicate the direction of the wind. They usually consist of an arrow attached by a horizontal straight rod to a flat surface that catches the wind. The rod is mounted on a vertical support in such away that it can rotate as the wind catches the flat surface. The horizontal rod with the arrow rotates so that it offers the least resistance to the prevailing wind. Beneath the rotating arrow are often indicators that are labelled with letters denoting the four points of the compass. If, for example, the wind begins to blow from east to west, the horizontal rod will rotate so that the arrow is above the ‘E’ denoting east. Some weathervanes substitute the horizontal rod with a single flat asymmetric object that can catch the wind and rotate. Often the object seen above churches is a cock or other bird, whose beak will indicate the direction of the wind. I suppose that for birds wind direction is quite important.

The weathervane is not a recent invention. It was invented in the 2nd century BC both by the Greeks and the Chinese but separately. Some of the oldest Chinese weathervanes were shaped as birds and later, at least by the end of the 9th century AD, bird shaped vanes became used in Europe. Although avian weathervanes are still very common, a wide variety of other shapes have been used. Sundials, weathervanes, now archaic, only give an approximate indication of time and wind direction respectively. However, unlike sundials, which do not work when the sun is not shining, weathervanes work in all weather conditions and in day and night, although they are somewhat difficult to see at night-time. Despite their relative inaccuracy compared with modern instruments for measurements of  wind, weathervanes are attractive adornments to buildings both old and new.