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The Last Fish Porters of Billingsgate Market

May 10, 2012
by the gentle author

John Schofield, porter for thirty years

The fish porters of Billingsgate Market have been abolished. On 28th April this year, a centuries-old way of life came to an end as the porters who have been in existence since Billingsgate started trading in 1699 had their licences withdrawn by the City of London Corporation. Long-established rights and working practises – and a vibrant culture possessing its own language and code of behaviour handed down for generations – were all swept away overnight to be replaced by cheaper casual labour.

Thus, a cut in economic cost was achieved through an increase in human cost by degrading the workforce at the market. The City recognised the potential value of the land occupied by the Billingsgate fish market at the foot of the Canary Wharf towers, and the abolition of the porters was their first step towards moving it out and redeveloping the site.

While the news media all but passed this story by, photographer Claudia Leisinger took the brave initiative herself to be down at the market continuously throughout the last winter, documenting the last days of this historic endeavour, and taking these tender portraits of the porters in the dawn, which record the plain human dignity they have shown as their livelihood and identity were taken from them .

“My interest in the Billingsgate porters’ story stems from a fascination with the disappearance of manual labour, work generally considered menial by our society, yet carried out with a great deal of pride and passion by those small communities involved.” Claudia told me, and it is to her credit that in a moment of such vulnerability these men trusted her to be their witness for posterity.

Bradley Holmes, porter for twenty years.

Nick Wilson, porter for twelve years.

Micky Durrell, porter for forty-five years.

Jeff Willis, porter for twenty-five years.

Gary Simmons, porter for thirty-three years.

Dave Bates, porter for twenty-two years.

Conor Olroyd, apprentice porter.

Three generations – Edwin Singers, porter for fifty-three years, with his son, Leigh Singers, porter, and grandson, Brett Singers, porter.

Steven Black, porter for twenty years.

Tony Mitchell & Steve Martin, both porters for over  thirty-two years.

Martin Bicker, porter for twenty-four years.

Andy Clarke, porter for two years.

Laurie Bellamy, porter for thirty-one years.

Alfie Sands, shopboy.

Gary Durden, porter for thirty-one years.

Jack Preston, porter for two years.

Dicky Barrott, porter for twenty years.

Alan Downing, porter for forty-five years, with his grandson Sam who comes down on Saturdays.

Dave Auldis, porter for six years.

Colin Walker, porter for forty-six years.

Brett Singers, shopboy for three years.

Bobby Jones, porter for thirty years.

Basil Wraite, porter for thirty-one years.

Steve Sheet, porter for fifteen years.

Steve Jones, porter for thirty years.

Greg Jacobs, porter for thirty-two years.

Chris Gill, porter for thirty-two years.

Photographs copyright © Claudia Leisinger

See more of Claudia Leisinger’s Billingsgate pictures and hear the voices of the porters by clicking here

You may like to read these other Billingsgate stories

Charlie Caisey, Fishmonger

Albert Hafize, Fish Merchant

At the Fish Harvest Festival

24 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    May 10, 2012

    William Dunbar. 1465–1520?
    19. In Honour of the City of London

    London, thou art the flour of Cities all.
    Gladdith anon, thou lusty Troynovaunt,
    Citie that some tyme cleped was New Troy;
    In all the erth, imperiall as thou stant,
    Pryncesse of townes, of pleasure and of joy,
    A richer restith under no Christen roy;
    For manly power, with craftis naturall,
    Fourmeth none fairer sith the flode of Noy:
    London, thou art the flour of Cities all.

    http://www.bartleby.com/101/19.html

  2. May 10, 2012

    How sad. Thanks for the lovely photos and piece.

  3. May 10, 2012

    Shocked to know that a way of life that’s been going on for more than 300 years, and often seems to have run in the family, has been wiped out at a stroke. Thank you, Claudia Leisinger and Gentle Author for this record.

  4. May 10, 2012

    Sad to see another tradition go…

  5. May 10, 2012

    A staggering post. I can’t believe this hasn’t been more widely reported. Here in UK PLC we now seem to see the cost of everything and the value of nothing and repay loyalty with contempt. It’s so short sighted too,. The company works towards it’s own bankruptsy. When every job is performed by the lowest paid who will buy their goods and services?

  6. Tanya permalink
    May 10, 2012

    And this seems to be the way of the world today – take away jobs that provide a decent living and replace with cheaper casual labour. The One Percent wins again and each time they win I think of Tolstoy’s story – How Much Land Does a Man Need. The story ends thus:
    His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.

  7. Sheldon Davies permalink*
    May 10, 2012

    Just read your article. Thanks for highlighting the Billingsgate Porters struggle with the Merchants and City of London Corporation. As i said on the day the C o L C are too rich and powerful and the land that Billingsgate sits on too valuable. I would like to know if the C oL C have ever borrowed upwards of 2.5 million pounds or more to an institution so that said institution could get rid of it’s employees? Because that is exactly what happened to the once proud and for the majority hard working Billingsgate Fish Porters. We were made redundant but our jobs are still there. I once had an assurance from a Mr Boleat , from the C oL C, that the termination of the bye-laws and therefore the termination of our badges would not affect our employment in Billingsgate Market. He may have been right in that respect but the 2.5 million pound his organisation borrowed the Merchants of Billingsgate Market certainly did. The Porters in Billingsgate never cost the C o L C a penny so why did they lend that amount of money? You normally go to a bank to lend money, don’t you? Have the C oL C got a hidden agenda? Was getting rid of the Porters the first phase in this agenda? Once again many thanks for your support. Sheldon Davies badge No 80, 31 years in Billingsgate Fishmarket.

  8. Donald Carlton Burns permalink
    May 10, 2012

    A beautiful and sad story written on the faces of these caring men. These portraits tell a wonderful story, silently speaking out knowing that nothing will change their individual and collective fate. A way of life is sold at to high a price. Beautifully written and photographed. All too sad.

  9. bobby jones permalink
    May 11, 2012

    how sad that the lungs of london have been ripped from them, how sad it is also that they can get rid of very proud hard working men whose jobs are still there but can’t get rid of the people who put this country in the state it is today. shame on you .. claudia what a great set of photos you made us porters feel very proud again. thankyou

  10. May 14, 2012

    I would have never known this was happening if it weren’t for this piece. Thank you, even though it makes the day dark for me. Better to know than to pass in ignorance.

  11. John flood permalink
    May 30, 2012

    I am proud to be the son of Charlie Flood market porter who served the market for fifty years .
    The market and it’s ways live with me every day
    I never had the honour of working amongst you all .
    The Market porter was all about graft and spirit
    After the war the porters got together and worked for nothing to get the mark et back on its feet after that they got paid in fish.They never complained they thought they were lucky to still be here ,this was the east end.
    Still have bobbin hat sorry lads me mum would’nt let me wear it even if it was the only place I ever wanted to work.
    Good luck and God bless. Be lucky lads.

  12. cathy permalink
    June 1, 2012

    these photos of such brilliant people are lovely, and such a great tribute – thank you Claudi

  13. Alexandra Marier permalink
    June 1, 2012

    Well, hello Jack Preston.
    Fancy a French Canadian girlfriend? ;)

  14. June 13, 2012

    Very moving. Thank you to Claudia for taking these portraits.

  15. ray watkins permalink
    February 21, 2013

    i fill sorry for the billingate porters it away life job and finish i was a smithfield porter they done the same at smithfield took away my part of my working life at the time take from billingate /smithfield will never be the same one i still got is my badge all the best ray 23/years at smithfield

  16. Chris Holmes permalink
    April 15, 2013

    I last worked in the market in 1986 as a salesman for J. Haywoods. I wanted better for my family but there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t missed the people. Your pictures bring back so many memories that I thank you for.

  17. Elaine O'Shea permalink
    June 13, 2013

    I worked here, at the new Billingsgate as it was then called when it was first opened, as a waitress cooking and serving Fish and chips to announce the move from the old Billingsgate in Lower Thames street, which had been there for many years My Dad delivered to all London Markets before and after the 2nd WW by Horse n cart. 30 years ago when this market was moved it was the beginning of the rapid decline of all things typically London, as money became the most important word you could in the city, I’m not talking Stock market, Lloyds Insurance etc they had all been earning for years before. The realization that there was large profits to be had by foreign investors buying in to our past and Heritage, therefore so much has been pulled down because to these people, its about money and land, not the buildings the people or the history that made this country the way is was, as they do not have a connection to it, so lets pull it down build ugly monstroserties, that we can get a huge profit from, we don’t have to look at it or live in it so what matter? Its so sad that a way of life can be swept away without so much as a by or leave. I think that Boris Johnson has started to behave like that, with the wool exchange being given the go ahead for development, and there are only so many shopping areas that you can go to and spend money in one week, especially as they are all clones of each other, except that some kind and gracious soul who thinks he/she has done our people a huge enlightened favour and has save a tiny piece of 300 year old wall for us all to look at and remember our past. Erosion and erasion of our ways of life and living is not development or progress, its decimation of our culture.

  18. Rick Norman permalink
    June 24, 2013

    It’s always about money. Never mind the tradition…MONEY……….

  19. sandra squires permalink
    July 19, 2013

    Such a shame. Have been meaning to see if anybody knows the Bates (think thats the correct spelling) family. Am trying to trace my father William Squires (Bill) relatives. Sadly my dad passed away in dec 2011. His mother was Rosa Rowley and i believe he had a relative called Franie who was married to a mr bates. please email me sandrastephens@live.co.uk if you can help.

  20. Sue Mcallan permalink
    November 1, 2013

    Sad to see another tradition disappear. We feel for the porters and have told many people about their plight. We trust they have found other employment. A tradition like that and £400 per week wage isnt a lot of money to keep tradition alive.

  21. Suzanne Godfrey permalink
    November 11, 2013

    Just read the article about the Billingsgate Fishporters. Absolutely disgusting how they were treated. The City of London Corporation should hang their heads in shame. They , of all people , should be doing all they can to uphold the history and traditions of all things London. And not to borrow the fish merchants of Billingsgate £2.5 million to put one hundred or so Fishporters out of work. Did their actions have anything to do with the up and coming cross rail station being built right outside the porters changing room? And why haven’t the CoLC kicked out one of their tenants ? A one Mr Roger Barton who was recently fined over £10,000 for selling fish unfit for human consumption. His THIRD such conviction. This whole tail smells very fishy to me. Hope the Fishporters who lost their jobs go on to better things .

  22. Jean-Marie Thompson permalink
    February 11, 2014

    I knew the market was moving, but didn’t realise that the fish porters were being signed-off. My grandfather worked there as a fish porter between 1870 and 1920. He would be turning in his grave to know that porters were no longer wanted there. What a sad end to such a proud tradition.

  23. Dennis Patten permalink
    February 17, 2014

    Surfing the network tonight, looking for just one item relating to Billingsgate Fish market in the 1960′s my heart sank as I again re-read the ousting of Billingsgate Porters from the “New Market”.
    I started work at Thomas M Wright, next to Ted Holts Cafe in the big Market in 1961…..For SEVEN of the most wonderful years of my life progresed from a Junior Salesman to a full fledged Porter in 1962. I worked at Vango and Gorman with Aussie Spencer Kingsford, Tommy shuffles, Alfie Squibb and the miserable boss Jim Murphy. I also spent many years “under the Clock” where we were hired casually by the day. That wonderful period saw me tip snow from an awning on to Boxing legend Billy Walker, be in several punch ups for supporting our union head Jimmy Wickes and generally being the Market eccentric for seven years. After I left England in 1968, my journies took me from New York to Vancouver, The Fiji Islands to Vietnam and for the last two decades here in Sydney, en route marrying several exotic women, with names difficult to pronounce. . The Market, its personalities and lifestyle is STILL in my system and more than often in my nightly dreams……I have NEVER paid retail for ANYTHING, compared shows featuring Jacquie Collins to Jackie Chan, attended zillions of openings from Fox Studios to an envelope, been a newspaper publisher, Ceo of a Casino, and always made a more than generous quid….Today at 69, I own a Corporate uniform business and manage Asian bands….Truthfully, I owe much of it to Billingsgate in the 1960′s and the wonderful comrades who taught me to always be different and enjoy life 25 hours a day……

  24. April 2, 2014

    i,m selling winkles large amounts is there a market to sell contact details 07717015434

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