Plying the ‘Billingsgate Trade’

By Ushashi Dasgupta.

In Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1855-7), Amy Dorrit despairs for her brother, Tip. Tip is a gambler, perennially in debt and unable to settle to anything; he’s always drawn back to the Marshalsea Prison, where the Dorrits have lived with their father since early childhood. We’re told that Amy, the ‘brave little creature’ at the heart of the novel, ‘pinche[s] and scrape[s] enough together to ship him for Canada’. ‘Don’t be too proud to come and see us, when you have made your fortune’, she urges Tip, but he never makes it past Liverpool, returning to the Marshalsea before the month is up. It’s a fleeting reference to settler colonialism in a novel that explores the difficulties of traversing boundaries – especially once they’ve been constructed in our minds. It’s Amy’s last resort for Tip, who ‘tire[s] of everything’, from working in an auctioneer’s to a distillery; he goes ‘into a wool house, into dry goods house, into the Billingsgate trade, into the foreign fruit trade, and into the docks’ (Dickens: 1855-7).

This is an essay about the ‘Billingsgate trade’, or the sale of fish at London’s most celebrated market. Billingsgate thrives to this day. In Little Dorrit, the ‘Billingsgate trade’ is just one of many interchangeable examples of honest industry, but the market plays a greater role in the nineteenth-century imagination. Its history is also a history of constructing and questioning binaries: between the nation and the world, the human and the non-human, the haves and the have-nots, the city and the plantation, and, finally, between English and other languages. 

Graeme Milne’s work on the nineteenth-century ‘sailortown’ explores ‘entanglements’ and ‘encounters’ at waterfronts around the world: the liminal spaces separating city, river or sea (Milne: 2016). Billingsgate was a tiny sliver of land on the banks of the Thames, and its fish-market has moved several times over history. As the Victorian writer George Augustus Sala explains, ‘Billingsgate has been one of the watergates or ports of the city from time immemorial’ (Sala: 1859). Originally a gate to the ancient city, the Victorian market concentrates ideas about trade, globalisation, and the relationship between the province, the nation and the world. For Dickens and the urban journalists working around him, a visit to Billingsgate is an opportunity to witness Victorian progress, but it also forces them to confront some of modernity’s discontents. In 1850, Dickens co-wrote an article (‘A Popular Delusion’) about the market with his sub-editor, WH Wills, for his journal Household Words; Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851), includes an extended section on Billingsgate and its street-sellers; Sala’s Twice Round the Clock opens with a trip to bustling Billingsgate at the break of dawn. Mayhew, Sala, Dickens and Wills share a broad aim – to make London legible. They suggest Victorian London is an undiscovered land and act as guides for their readers. In doing so, they insist on the centrality of London, the capital of the world as much as the country, a place with the power to absorb all attention and capture the imagination. 

When these writers bring Billingsgate to life, replicating its sights and sounds, they’re reinforcing the argument that urban space is atomised, and not a coherent whole. A border subdivides space and forms territories. The borders between zones in a city may be artificial, stencilled in from above, or they might emerge unintentionally – a result of a decision made elsewhere, about something else. Alternatively, the process of creating a border can be organic, the line sketched after tacit and casual agreement. Borders might spring up overnight or ossify over time. At one level, the uniqueness of Billingsgate’s identity in Victorian journalism simply emphasises that any city is a patchwork of local neighbourhoods stitched together, where some seams show more clearly than others. But because Billingsgate is both a market and a port, it also invites a host of different questions about the way space is circumscribed. Dickens, Wills and Mayhew describe the ability of technology to collapse boundaries. At Billingsgate, Londoners are compelled to recalibrate their definitions of distance and proximity, which creates a more pronounced conception of a unified nation-state. Stocks of fish hurtle into the metropolis on trains and steamboats, from Devon and Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, and Norway; as they are bought and sold, they disperse again, turning this neighbourhood into a crossroads. Dickens and Wills reconstruct the final movements of a single turbot, captured twenty miles off the coast of Dover. ‘He is no sooner taken on board’, they write, ‘than he is trans-shipped immediately with thousands of his flat companions in a row-boat into a clipper’; from the clipper he is transferred to a tug steamer, deposited alive in Billingsgate, and ‘finds his way to table in the neighbourhood of the Mansion House or Belgrave Square some four-and-twenty hours after he has been sporting in the sea, no less than a hundred and fifty miles off’ (Dickens and Wills: 1850). Perhaps unexpectedly, the turbot’s streamlined journey to the dinner-plate becomes an anchor for philosophical and political thinking: at what point does ‘there’ become ‘here’, or ‘far’ become ‘near’? As space begins to contract, the Victorians have to reorient themselves – and fast. 

The turbot is almost – if not quite – a character in this essay, and his efficient transportation from Dover to London raises ethical questions about the consumption of animals as food. There’s something slightly creepy about the way his story is told. The more recently a fish has been alive – the closer our proximity to the living thing, the narrower the line between life and death – the higher the fish is valued. While Dickens and Wills seem to allow the possibility that an animal is a self rather than an object (the turbot ‘sport[s] in the sea’, is him rather than it), Mayhew is more interested in Billingsgate’s role as a temple to commodity culture. For Mayhew, the piles of fish have a strange kind of splendour, all colour and gleam and iridescence. Most striking are the ‘transparent smelts on the marble-slabs, and the bright herrings, with the lump of transparent ice magnifying their eyes like a lens’: the ‘transparent’ smelts hover somewhere between the substantial and insubstantial, and the herrings’ massive, dead eyes stare back at the purchaser. Elsewhere in London Labour, Mayhew talks about the way the quality of the light at sunrise stains cauliflowers red on a market-stall, and he’s doing something similar in his descriptions of Billingsgate, employing a novelist’s eye for detail to suggest that commerce is beautiful (Mayhew: 1851). He’s excited by the entrepreneurial spirit, the circulation of things, and the everyday manifestations of economic change and growth – what the nation’s slow, messy transition toward capitalism might look like from the street. The history of Billingsgate captures this turn in miniature. Sales in Billingsgate were regulated in its earliest years, but it became a free market in 1699. By the time the nineteenth century comes around, the neighbourhood is at the centre of a vast enterprise: Mayhew calculates that £1,460,850 is spent on fish on the streets. 

Eel-boats, or schuyts, are sites of exchange between the British and the Dutch. They offer an interesting example of the kinds of, casual, regular interactions that are possible among the citizens of different nations. Mayhew describes the negotiations taking place; ‘men in tall fur caps with high cheek bones, and rings in their ears, walk the decks’.  As customers are brought up to the eel-boats by skiff, ‘the master Dutchman takes his hands from his pockets, lays down his pipe, and seizing a sort of long-handled landing-net scoops from the tank a lot of eels’. These encounters are theatrical and comic, at once casual and slightly ritualistic, especially as the haggling begins. It’s an example of disparate people coming together at Billingsgate. Dickens and Wills describe the diners at Simpson’s Tavern, who have arrived, ‘like the fish, from various distances’. There are visitors from the Eastern Counties and Doncaster, an ‘undertaker from Whitechapel’, and a ‘respectable Jew provision-merchant from Hamburg’. They’re joined by a man from York, ‘with sunken jaws that were always in motion, like a gutta percha mouth that was being continually squeezed’, and, finally, ‘a wooden leg that had brought the person it belonged to, all the way from Canada’; as John Carey has pointed out, Dickens frequently troubles the boundary between person and thing, the animate and inanimate (Carey: 1973). While these descriptions are uncanny, Dickens and Wills end the segment with a tiny gesture that points to shared humanity: the meal is so satisfying that a ‘very large smooth-faced old gentleman’ from Devonshire must push back his chair when he is finished ‘to give his satin waistcoat play’. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the space is utopian, or meaningfully cosmopolitan, just because it’s convivial: there’s no deeper point made in this essay about sympathy, understanding, or mutual positive change. It’s too much to ask of one fish-market. Nevertheless, the schuyts and tavern demonstrate how national and regional boundaries can be crossed in informal ways. 

As these examples suggest, the literature of London is something of an ethnographic exercise; on certain occasions, it seems more interested in perpetuating negative stereotypes and fitting people into boxes than allowing for the fluid, multiple, even contradictory identities contained within a single urban subject, which can make it jarring to the modern reader. Though London Labour does appear obsessed by categories, especially with relation to London’s ‘poor’, it also offers surprising and subtle insights into class stratification. Mayhew explains that the market is busiest at the end of the week when households are running low on money, and fish is cheap; Fridays, too, are fast days for impoverished Irish Catholic migrants into the city, and a day when fish is consumed. He interviews the people he finds at the market, listening to their stories.

While Dickens and Wills recommend serving Billingsgate fish to the inmates of workhouses and prisons, using the market to try to tackle a perceived social problem, George Augustus Sala is interested in the way physical neighbourhoods become synonymous with revolutionary politics in the cultural imagination. Billingsgate is Sala’s first stop in Twice Round The Clock – a journey through London’s neighbourhoods, over the course of a single day. As the chapter draws to a close – at five o’clock in the morning – he is tempted to go home to bed, where he will have ‘fantastic dreams’ of Ned Ward and ‘the market-scene in “Masaniello”’, and ‘hum a dream-reminiscence of “Behold, how brightly beams the morning!” [‘Amis la matinée est belle’]’.  These are references to Ned Ward’s The London Spy (1703) and Daniel François Esprit Auber’s grand opera La Muette de Portici (1828), first performed in translation in London in 1829. Both Ward and Auber tell stories of working-class subversion in the fish-markets of Europe. La Muette is an embroidered account of the Neapolitan rebellion against the Spanish Habsburg empire, led by the fisherman Masaniello in 1647; not only is the opera’s history intertwined with that of revolutionary France, it’s also credited with starting the Belgian Revolution against the Netherlands in the early 1830s (Hibberd: 2003). Ned Ward, meanwhile, is talking about his misadventures in Billingsgate and his uncomfortable encounters with local fishwives. Paula McDowell discusses Ward and explores the trope of the working-class, grandiloquent, sexualised and rude fishwives of Billingsgate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who overpower educated gentlemen; McDowell also explains that the humble fishwife becomes central in conversations about the French Revolution (McDowell: 2017). In these traditions, fish-markets are public and democratic spaces that encourage defiance against a range of oppressors. Sala, it would seem, has internalised Ward and Auber’s transgressive texts so completely that he expects to dream about them. 

But how does this story shift when we consider new research by Cassandra Pybus and Kit Candlin, who have discovered that Sala spent much of his life struggling with his own, personal connection to global histories of oppression? In their micro-histories of women in the ‘revolutionary Atlantic’, Pybus and Candlin draw attention to Dorothy Thomas: a freed woman of colour in Demerara who gained great wealth, owned and hired out slaves, and counted Sala as one of her great-grandchildren. For Pybus and Candlin, Sala’s shame about his links to Thomas, whom he met in childhood during one of her visits to Europe, explains the overt racism in his fiction and journalism (Pybus: 2011, Pybus and Candlin: 2015). Pybus and Candlin’s research also encourages a reconsideration of Sala’s project as an urban observer and journalist. His most off-the-cuff references to the rest of the world become charged. Twice Round the Clock is a celebration of flânerie, the act of walking the city at leisure and often with joy, taking in the life of the street without having to participate; it is predicated on ease, freedom of movement, and freedom of access. Sala’s London exists in a diptych with the spaces of slavery – the land seized by imperialists, the ship, and the sugar plantation. What is the relationship between the flaneur, in his mobility, and the countless constricted lives in the Caribbean and South America?  It’s clear that these spaces and bodies are linked in ways that aren’t apparent at first glance.

Peter Blake charts Sala’s travels to Russia, the US, and Australia as a foreign correspondent (Blake: 2015). In the opening pages of Twice Round The Clock, Sala suggests that being worldly isn’t simply to do with where one goes – the influence of other nations is inscribed in his literary style. ‘I cannot write otherwise than I do write,’ he says. ‘Born in England, I am neither by parentage nor education an Englishman; in my childhood I browsed on a salad of languages, which I would willingly exchange now for a plain English lettuce or potato. Better to feed on hips and haws’ – the fruit of the native rose – ‘than on gangrened green-gages and mouldy pine-apples’ – both imported from overseas, and, in Sala’s image, the worse-for-wear for travelling. It’s a strange moment, tinged with ambivalence about linguistic hybridity. Sala is reflexive about the nature and power of language, and nowhere is this more apparent than at Billingsgate. When he says that the ‘flowers of Billingsgate eloquence are evergreens’, and makes a note to himself, ‘Mem.’, ‘to write a philosophical dissertation on the connection between markets and voluble vituperation which has existed in all countries and in all ages’, he’s alluding to the neighbourhood’s centuries’-old reputation: Billingsgate fishwives are renowned through the Early Modern city for their unique and sweary cant (Spain-Savage: 2016, McDowell: 2017). McDowell argues that their raucous street-cries compel writers to weigh up competing definitions of articulacy, and speak to the triumph of oral culture over rhetorical training, book-learning, and print. Dickens and Wills take pains to show that Victorian Billingsgate is no longer the ‘headquarters of verbal vulgarity’. Its legacy, however, remains: in English idiom, ‘Billingsgate’ has become a synonym for ‘abusive language’, and to ‘speak Billingsgate’ simply means to swear. A mode of expression defined by its relationship to a precise location has broken free of its original context, and travels across temporal and geographical boundaries. 

Who, then, imports this word, or has language pressed upon them? I’m going to end in the Bengal Presidency, and with the following pair of sentences: ‘It is unnecessary to try the patience of my readers by reproducing all of his Billingsgate. The patient woman bore it silently’ (Chattopadhyay: 1864). This appears in Rajmohan’s Wife – the first Indian novel written in English, serialised in the Indian Field in 1864. Rajmohan’s Wife comes to an abrupt end, and had a limited audience. The author, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, never published an English novel again. Instead, Bankim decided to direct his creative energies to composing fiction in Bangla, and became one of the most important novelists of the age: his books include Durgeshnandini (1865) and the explicitly anti-colonial Anandamath (1882). There are wide-ranging discussions of Rajmohan’s Wife by Meenakshi Mukherjee (2000), Priya Joshi (2002), and Supriya Chaudhuri (2015), but I want to linger on this single moment, and on Rajmohan’s Billingsgate. Rajmohan is intimidating his wife, Matangini – the novel’s courageous protagonist, long used to domestic abuse. They live in an East Bengali village, and she’s punished for going down to the Madhumati River to fetch water with a friend. Rajmohan ‘pour[s] out all the water on the dust-heap’, ‘[flings] away the empty pitcher’, and grabs her wrist, threatening to hit her. Bankim uses the expression as a euphemism, in order to avoid printing Rajmohan’s language; if, in eighteenth-century London, Billingsgate was used by fishwives to chastise hapless men, gender roles are switched here, and the scene is much more serious. What do we do with this undeniably odd reference to Billingsgate in Rajmohan’s Wife? How much weight can one word bear? It functions as an imaginative bridge from tiny Radhaganj to monstrous London, the Madhumati to the Thames. It’s a time portal to the eighteenth century. It also sticks out of the text; you feel like you’ve crashed into it as you’re reading, and it becomes a hook on which to hang questions. How are the histories of imperialism and the English language intertwined? How porous are the lines between literary cultures and reading publics? What happens when the British oral tradition meets Indian print culture, or when an expression with a comic history is used in a melodramatic context, or when the language of the fish-market is brought into the home – all because a woman has ventured out to the water’s edge?

I come from three busy port cities – Hong Kong, Kolkata, and Los Angeles – and, after many years, am still getting used to living in a town with a moseying river. Thinking about Billingsgate in landlocked Oxford, though, has encouraged me to hold up the light the divisions between literary periods. Somewhat hesitantly, I have stepped over the lines separating other disciplines from my own: geography, history, economics, politics and music. It’s yet another unexpected consequence of the ‘Billingsgate trade’.

Ushashi is a lecturer in English Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford.

Artwork by Charlotte Bunney.


Peter Blake, George Augustus Sala and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: The Personal Style of a Public Writer (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

John Carey, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1973).

Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Rajmohan’s Wife, ed. Meenakshi Mukherjee (New Delhi: Penguin, 2009).

Supriya Chaudhuri, ‘Beginnings: Rajmohan’s Wife and the Novel in India’, in A History of the Indian Novel in English, ed. Ulka Anjaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp.31-44.

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1855-7).

——– [and WH Wills], ‘A Popular Delusion’, Household Words, 1 June 1850.

Sarah Hibbert, ‘La Muette and Her Context’, in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, ed. David Charlton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp.149-167.

Priya Joshi, In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (London: Griffin & Bohn, 1851).

Paula McDowell, The Invention of the Oral: Print Commerce and Fugitive Voices in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Graeme Milne, People, Place and Power on the Nineteenth-Century Waterfront: Sailortown (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Meenakshi Mukherjee, The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Cassandra Pybus, ‘Tense and Tender Ties: Reflections on Lives Recovered from the Intimate Frontier of Empire and Slavery’, Life Writing, 8 (2011), 5-17.

——– and Kit Candlin, Enterprising Women: Gender, Race, and Power in the Revolutionary Atlantic (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

George Augustus Sala, Twice Round the Clock (London: Houlston & Wright, 1859).

Christi Spain-Savage, ‘The Gendered Place Narratives of Billingsgate Fishwives’, SEL, 56 (2016), 417-434.

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