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The Last Fish Porters of Billingsgate Market

September 1, 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came to an end as the porters who have been in existence since Billingsgate started trading in 1699 had their licences withdrawn by the City of London Corporation.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

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Libby Hall permalink
    September 1, 2012

    Lovely photographs by what is obviously a gentle photographer – and with a perfect introduction by a gentle author.

  2. September 1, 2012

    The juxtaposition of the porters and the Canary Wharf towers makes an eloquent statement. Thank you for this post.

  3. September 1, 2012

    Wonderful portraits, such a shame (scandal?) that this tradition being forced to end. But the record is a treasure. Nicola

  4. Patty permalink
    September 1, 2012

    As always, thank you for sharing before it is lost

  5. September 1, 2012

    oh dear here we go again , why oh why must money always win.As one of the porters said in claudias heartbreaking video ,why not develop the market as a traditional heritage place of work,as an asset ?
    Identity is so important to ones self esteem,it has developed there at the market into a very fine art,who will care when its destroyed ?Not enough people with any power in our too often profit led times.
    I wish all the men luck and hope they are able to work something out,can they refuse to be bought out I wonder, hold tight maybe ?
    such evocative and beautiful(tender as you said g. a) photos and video claudia, thanks for sharing them gentle author.

  6. September 3, 2012

    More history and photos of old billingsgate here, including porters badges:

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