Skip to content

Charlie Caisey, Fishmonger

December 2, 2011
by the gentle author

Eighty-one year old fishmonger Charlie Caisey retired twenty years ago yet he cannot keep away from the fish market for long, so I was delighted to give him an excuse for a nocturnal visit – showing me around and introducing me to his pals. These days, Charlie maintains his relationship with the fish business through involvement with the school at Billingsgate, where he teaches young people training as fishmongers and welcomes school parties visiting to learn about fish.

Universally respected for his personal integrity and generosity of spirit, Charlie turned out to be the ideal guide to the fish market. Thanks to him, I had the opportunity to shake the hand and take the portraits of many of Billingsgate’s most celebrated characters, and now that he can look back with impunity upon his sixty years of experience in the business, Charlie told me his story candidly. He did not always enjoy the high regard that he enjoys today, Charlie forged his reputation in an arena fraught with moral challenges.

“In 1950, when I joined Macfisheries and started in a shop at Ilford, I was told, “You’ll never make a fishmonger,” and they moved me to another shop in Leytonstone. I was honest and in those days fishmongers always added coppers to the scale but I wouldn’t do that. Later, when I ran my shop, it was always sixteen ounces to the pound.

In Leytonstone, it was an open-fronted shop with sawdust on the floor. You had a blocksman who did the fishmongering, a frontsman who served the customers and a boy who ran around. At twenty-one, I was a boy fishmonger and then the frontsman decided to leave, so I moved up when he left. And I found I had an uncanny ability at arranging fish in shows! I made quite a little progress there, even though I was never taught – just three weeks at Macfisheries’ school.

I got my first management of a fish shop within three years, I was sent out to a poor LCC estate at Hainault. It was a fabulous shop but it was losing money, this was where I learnt to run a business and I worked up a bit of a storm there, working eighty hours a week and accounting the stock to a farthing. As a consequence, I was offered a first hand job in a shop behind Selfridges where all the customers were lords and ladies, but I refused because, if I was manager in my own shop, it would have been a step down. So then they sent me to run a shop in Bayswater. It was a lovely shop, when I arrived I had never seen many of the fish that were on display there, and I became wrapped up in it. We had a great cosmopolitan public including ladies of the oldest profession in the world.

Within a couple of years, Macfisheries moved me to Notting Hill Gate at the top of Holland Park Avenue – absolutely fabulous. I served most of the embassies and the early stars of television. The likes of Max Wall, Dickie Henderson and the scriptwriter of The Good Life were customers of mine. I built up quite a reputation and I was the first London manager to earn £1000 a year. From there I went to Knightsbridge running the largest fish shop in London, opposite Harrods. In 1965, I had thirty-five staff working under me and I worked fourteen hours a day.

My dream was to go into business on my own but I had no money. When I started my own shop, the sad part was how poor it was. It had holes in the floor, no proper drainage and no refrigeration. I’d never been to Billingsgate Market in my thirteen years at Macfisheries and when I went with my small orders, it was a different ball game. The dealers treated me like an idiot, the odd shilling was going on the prices and I was given short measures. Yet I never took it personally and I started to earn their respect because I always paid my bills every week. And, in twenty years, my turnover went from twelve thousand pounds to over half a million a year.

Most of my experience and knowledge has come from the customers. My experience of life came from the other side of the counter. They showed me that if you go out and look, there is a better life. When I think of Stratford while I was growing up, it was a stinky place because of the smell from the soap factories. My family were all railway people, my father was an uneducated labourer and what that man used to do for such a small amount of money and bad working conditions. We were poor because my marvellous parents were underpaid for their labours. I didn’t leave London during the war and I witnessed all the horrors. I missed lots of school because I was in the East End all through the bombing, so I’ve always been conscious of my poor education. Basically, I’m a shy man and  I’m always amazed that I can stand up in front of people and speak, but I can do it because it comes from the heart.

Don’t ever do what I did. I went eighteen years without a holiday. It was a little crazy, I was forty before I had time to learn to drive.”

Dawn came up as Charlie told me his story and we walked out to the back of the fish market where the porters throw fish to the seals from the wharf. Through his tenacity, Charlie proved his virtue as a human being and won respect as a fishmonger too. Yet although he may regret the inordinate struggle and hard work that kept him away from his family growing up, Charlie is still in thrall to his lifelong passion for this age-old endeavour of distributing and selling the strange harvest of the deep.

Clearing away after a night’s trading at Billingsgate, 7:40am.

Roger Barton, fifty-one years at Billingsgate – a porter who became a dealer twenty-six years ago.

Tom Burchell, forty-five years in the fish business.

Alan Cook, lobster specialist for forty-eight years.

Simon Chilcott, twenty years at Bard Shellfish.

Leonard Hannibal, porter for fifty years - “I never had a day off, never had backache or flu.”

Mick Jenn, fifty years in eels – “Me dad was an empty boy and I started off in an eel factory.”

Terry Howard, fifty-nine years in shellfish – “I played football in the 1960 Olympics.”

Anwar Kureeman, eight years at Billingsgate – “I am a newcomer.”

Paul Webber, thirteen years at J.Bennett, Billingsgate’s largest salmon dealers.

Andres Slips came from Lithuania seven years ago – “I couldn’t speak English when I arrived, now my mother would blush to hear my language.”

Edwin Singers, fifty-two years a porter  - “known as the richest porter in Billingsgate.”

Geoff Steadman, fourth generation fish dealer, thirty-three years at Chamberlain & Thelwell.

Colin Walker, porter of forty-six years, adds up his bobbin money in Shimmy’s Cafe.

Charlie in his first suit at fifteen -“From Willoughbys, I paid for it myself at half a crown a week.”

Charlie at the Macfisheries School of Fishmongery (He is third from right in back row).

Charlie in his fish shop in the seventies.

Charlie Caisey – the little fish that became a big fish.

You may recall I met Charlie Caisey at The Fish Harvest Festival

You may also like to take a look at

Boiling the Eels at Barney’s Seafood

Tubby Isaac’s Jellied Eels Stall

Tom Disson, Fishmonger

Albert Hafize, Fish Merchant

9 Responses leave one →
  1. December 2, 2011

    How can I express gratitude in proper proportion for every beautiful post. This view into the world of the fishmongers is so exquisite. I’ve only recently found Spitalfields Life and it is like finding treasure. Thank you ever so much.

  2. JerryWh permalink
    December 2, 2011

    Another gem of an article, gentle Author. It is wonderful just how fascinating a big city and its people can be, in so very many different ways.
    I bought suits from Willerby Tailoring too (I think that is how it’s actually spelt) – it was quite upmarket compared to Hepworths or Burton, where I bought my first suit.. it was much cheaper but golly, it was awful..

  3. Sarah Lily permalink
    December 2, 2011

    Beautiful, very moving like all your posts. Gentle Author, I look forward to your daily story, photos and archives -Magic of Spitafields!

  4. December 3, 2011

    I was totally engrossed in Charlie’s life which he recounted in extraordinary detail. The pictures make a very neat essay illustrating Billingsgate life. I was a food photographer in London from 1968 to 2001, when we moved to France, and I never visited Billingsgate. The little mention of throwing the offcuts to the seals was a fine touch.

  5. Cherub permalink
    December 15, 2011

    Another lovely story about honest hard work.

  6. Sonia Murray permalink
    September 1, 2012

    A great story – thank you! It’s a shame that Billingsgate market is being closed down. What right does government have to destroy the market and put honest men out of work?

  7. October 14, 2013

    We opened a fish restaurant in Buckhurst hill in the 80/90s and dealt with Charlie and the boys,called Pearls in queens road, Charlie was a brilliant guy to do business with ,lovely to hear he is still doing his bit for the fish business.
    Best regards to the boys at KC in LOUGHTON. Tony Conoley

  8. Penny permalink
    August 25, 2016

    Thankyou Gentle Author,

    am watching the television, in Esperance, Western Australia. A story about a fishmonger from Billingsgate, working in New York. I thought: “I bet ‘spitalfieldslife’ will have something on that fish market” and sure enough even a picture of the man – Roger Barton.
    What fun, makes it such a small world. Thankyou for your blog, which I happened apon a few years ago and dip into now and then.

    Penny

  9. Denise McKay permalink
    January 2, 2017

    I am trying to locate my Uncle (Name unknown) who was married to my Aunt Edna McKay Born 1926), all I know is she was married to a Chief Buyer for Billingsgate. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS