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At the Fish Harvest Festival

October 9, 2011
by the gentle author

Frank David, Billingsgate Porter for sixty years

Thomas à Becket was the first rector of St Mary-at-Hill in the City of London, the ancient church upon a rise above the old Billingsgate Market, where each year at this season the Harvest Festival of the Sea is celebrated – to give thanks for the fish of the deep that we all delight to eat, and which have sustained a culture of porters and fishmongers here for centuries.

The market itself may have moved out to the Isle of Dogs in 1982, but that does not stop the senior porters and fishmongers making an annual pilgrimage back up the cobbled hill where, as young men, they once wheeled barrows of fish in the dawn. For one day a year, this glorious church designed by Sir Christopher Wren is recast as a fishmongers, with an artful display of gleaming fish and other exotic ocean creatures spilling out of the porch, causing the worn marble tombstones to glisten like slabs in a fish shop, and imparting an unmistakeably fishy aroma to the entire building. Yet it all serves to make the men from Billingsgate feel at home, in their chosen watery element – as Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Ashley Jordan Gordon and I discovered when we went along to join the congregation.

Frank David and Billy Hallet, two senior porters in white overalls, both took off their hats – or “bobbins” as they are called – to greet us. These unique pieces of headgear once enabled the porters to balance stacks of fish boxes upon their heads, while the brim protected them from any spillage. Frank – a veteran of eighty-four years old – who was a porter for sixty years from the age of eighteen, showed me the bobbin he had worn throughout his career, originally worn by his grandfather Jim David in Billingsgate in the eighteen nineties and then passed down by his father Tim David.

Of sturdy wooden construction, covered with canvas and bitumen, stitched and studded, these curious glossy black artefacts seemed almost to have a life of their own. “When you had twelve boxes of kippers on your head, you knew you’d got it on,” quipped Billy, displaying his “brand new” hat, made only in the nineteen thirties. A mere stripling of sixty-eight, still fit and healthy, Billy continues to work at the new Billingsgate market driving a fork lift truck, having started his career at Christmas 1959 in the old Billingsgate market carrying boxes on his bobbin and wheeling barrows of fish up the incline past St Mary-at-Hill to the trucks waiting in Eastcheap. Caustic that the City of London is revoking the porters’ licences after more than one hundred and thirty years, nevertheless he is “hanging on” as long as he can. “Our traditions are disappearing,” he confided to me in the churchyard, rolling his eyes and striking a suitably elegiac Autumnal note.

Proudly attending the  spectacular display of fish in the porch, I met Eddie Hill, a fishmonger who started his career in 1948. He recalled the good times after the war when fish was cheap and you could walk across Lowestoft harbour stepping from one herring boat to the next. “My father said, ‘We’re fishing the ocean dry and one day it’ll be a luxury item,’” he told me, lowering his voice, “And he was right, now it has come to pass.” Charlie Caisey, a fishmonger who once ran the fish shop opposite Harrods, employing thirty-five staff, showed me his daybook from 1967 when he was trading in the old Billingsgate market. “No-one would believe it now!” he exclaimed, wondering at the low prices evidenced by his own handwriting, “We had four people then who made living out of  just selling parsley and two who made a living out of just washing fishboxes.”

By now, the swelling tones of the organ installed by William Hill in 1848 were summoning us all to sit beneath Wren’s cupola and the Billingsgate men, in their overalls, modestly occupied the back row as the dignitaries of the City, in their dark suits and fur trimmed robes, processed to take their seats at the front. We all sang and prayed together as the church became a great lantern illuminated by shifting patterns of October sunshine, while the bones of the long-dead slumbered peacefully beneath our feet. The verses referring to “those who go down the sea in ships and occupy themselves upon the great waters,” and the lyrics of “For those in peril on the sea” reminded us of the plain reality upon which the trade is based, as we sat in the elegantly proportioned classical space and the smell of fish drifted among us upon the currents of air.

In spite of sombre regrets at the loss of stocks in the ocean and unease over the changes in the industry, all were unified in wonder at miracle of the harvest of our oceans and by their love of fish – manifest in the delight we shared to see such an extravagant variety displayed upon the slab in the church. And I shall be enjoying my own personal Harvest Festival of the Sea in Spitalfields for the next week, thanks to the large bag of fresh fish that Eddie Hill slipped into my hand as I left the church.

St Mary-at-Hill was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677.

Senior fishmongers from Billingsgate worked from dawn to prepare the display of fish in the church.

Fishmonger Charlie Caisey’s market book from 1967.

Charlie Caisey explains the varieties of fish to the curious.

Gary Hooper, President of the National Federation of Fishmongers, welcomes guests to the church.

Frank David and Billy Hallet, Billingsgate Porters

Frank’s “bobbin” is a hundred and twenty years old and Billy’s is “brand new” from the nineteen thirties.

Billy Hallet’s porter’s badge, soon to be revoked by the City of London.

Jim Shrubb, Beadle of Billingsgate with friends.

The mace of Billingsgate, made in 1669.

John White (President & Alderman), Michael Welbank (Master) and John Bowman (Secretary) of the Billingsgate Ward Club.

Crudgie, Sailor, Biker and Historian.

Dennis Ranstead, Sidesman Emeritus and Graham Mundy, Church Warden of St Mary-at-Hill.

Senior Porters and Fishmongers of Billingsgate.

Frank sweeps up the parsley at the end of the service.

The cobbled hill leading down from the church to the old Billingsgate Market.

Frank David with the “bobbin” first worn by his grandfather Jim David at Billingsgate in the 1890s.

Photographs copyright © Ashley Jordan Gordon

You may also like to read about

At the Pearly Kings & Queens’ Harvest Festival

At the 65th Grimaldi Service

Or see other photographs by Ashley Jordan Gordon

At the Lord Mayor’s Show

The Girl on the Kingsland Rd

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Rowena permalink
    October 10, 2011

    Who on earth is the man in your pictures named Crudgie? The Sailor, Biker and Historian? An intriguing gap in this post. Tell us more about him. He looks somewhat a fish out of water at the harvest festival, or a different kettle of fish altogether.

    Great post as usual. Beautiful pictures. I shall forward on to my boyfriend, who is a fisherman down in Newhaven, East Sussex. Lots of his fish ends up in Billingsgate Market, I’m sure, and he certainly does live a ‘life of peril’ on the sea.

  2. Anne permalink
    October 11, 2011

    A wonderful piece of writing, with its careful descriptions and closeness to the subject. The photographs are tremendous of course but you seldom find prose as well balanced and beautifully crafted as this. It will clearly serve as a brilliant archive as well as a reminder of the times we live in today, much fuller of quirky character and meaningful stories than we might ever imagine without reading this.

    Also loved the Cafe story with the wonderful ninety year old. Let’s hope we can all look half as glamorous as that when we’re 70 never mind 10 years off the century. What an amazing life, so hard and so well captured, with its sad detail of lives lost through broken heartedness and children slipping into death – all in the context of the shock and loss of war.

  3. jeannette permalink
    October 13, 2011

    We all sang and prayed together as the church became a great lantern illuminated by shifting patterns of October sunshine, while the bones of the long-dead slumbered peacefully beneath our feet. The verses referring to “those who go down the sea in ships and occupy themselves upon the great waters,” and the lyrics of “For those in peril on the sea” reminded us of the plain reality upon which the trade is based, as we sat in the elegantly proportioned classical space and the smell of fish drifted among us upon the currents of air.

    one of your immortals.
    i love that the ancient, perhaps immortal, porters and their immortal hats sit in the back near the fish, presumably, while the fur trimmed bobbins crowd to the front.

  4. kev hallett permalink
    January 12, 2012

    as a kid i used to visit the old billingsgate with my granfather who like my father{the porter in the pic Billy Hallett } worked there it was a amazing place lots of happy memorys of early mornings seing my dad at work.strange thing is i hope im forgiven i dont like the taste of fish

  5. Dennis Patten permalink
    April 9, 2012

    Hi, I am Dennis Patten currently living in Sydney Australia after careers, marriages and producing babies in various parts of the World since 1968, the day I left my job as a Billingsgate Porter and first journied to the Americas. I started work at Billingsgate in 1960 as a junior at Thomas M. Wright next to the cafe and opposite a distant relative Alfie Pollock. My boss was the WONDERFUL Arthur Davies along with Nolan, Ted, Jimmy, Frank, the legendary Jack Smart and England amateur international TERRY HOWARD, who still works at the market today. Often nightly in my dreams I astrotravel back to those days and often shed a tear when the memories are accompanied by Charles Aznavour’s “yesterday when I was young”. I can honestly state the “I LOVED WORKING AT BILLINGSGATE”. The personalites, ex fighters, Billy Walker, Michael Caine’s dad Alf, the Titan union leader Jimmy Wickes and the blokes I was always fighting and arguing with…David Thurlow, Ronnie Johnston and Lumpy Jim !! My friends were everyone, with David Walker, David Gordon, Manny Abrahams my minder Moe Nathan and the bloke who always asked me when I was throwing shadow punches to the old boxers “How many fights did you really have” (punch drunk)……..Tommy Barton. I would sell my soul to Argentina, to relive just one week of those “heady days”

  6. Kate Abrahams permalink
    November 24, 2014

    Hi Dennis,
    My husband’s Grandfather was Manny Abrahams, unfortunately he passed away in the mid-90′s, having worked at Billingsgate until he was 83. My husband is supposedly very much like him. If you have any stories about him, that would be great to hear
    Kate Abrahams

  7. B Bean permalink
    February 22, 2015

    This is great stuff for me to show my mum.She was born in bow in 1928 and moved to Hertfordshire during the war.Her Grandmothers maiden name was Godier,who we believe were fishmongers in the east end,going some way back.

  8. Dennis Patten permalink
    January 21, 2017

    Kate if you can email me at oldgeezer21@hotmail.com or dp@australiancorporatewear.com.au I can send you a photo of Manny with Diana Dors at the market. It was taken around 1965.

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