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The Fish Harvest Festival

October 8, 2016
by the gentle author

Today we preview the annual Fish Harvest Festival which will be held tomorrow at St Mary-at-Hill

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 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-nine 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 seventy-three, still fit and healthy, Billy 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 revoked the porters’ licences after more than one hundred and thirty years – “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, now 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

The Last Porters of Billingsgate Market

Charlie Casey, Fishmonger

At The Fishmongers Hall

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Toni Bracher permalink
    October 8, 2016

    What an interesting event and wonderful to see some of the older men with such.p a long work history. oh to be there! Next time I travel to London I will have to try and ensure I’m there at that time of the year.

  2. Malcolm permalink
    October 8, 2016

    My Dad was a fishmonger, as was my Grandfather before him. They had a fish shop on the Isle of Dogs. I used to love going to the old Billingsgate with my Dad to buy his fish when I was a kid. It was a wonderful place, the wet flagstones, hanging lanterns and glistening fish made it look magical to my eyes. I loved going into the City early in the morning when it was still dark, the narrow streets, noise and bustle of the market was fantastic. The porters in their white coats and bobbin hats carrying piles of wooden fish boxes balanced on their heads was a sight to behold! I wish I had taken pictures of it all but I didn’t have a camera until much later. My Dad went to the fish harvest festival sometimes but unfortunately he’s very frail now and no longer able to do these things. Maybe I’ll get to go next year…I am the son of a Fishmonger and proud of it.

  3. vanda permalink
    October 8, 2016

    Wonderful article, since reading your blog there are so many “new” places that are on my list to visit if I am fortunate to visit the UK again. The UK just seeps with interesting history and to read about the elderly folk who had and still have such a strong work ethic, somthing which lacks in the youth today.

  4. Weston L. Thomas permalink
    October 8, 2016

    what is the wordBOBBIN

  5. Helen permalink
    October 9, 2016

    I’m glad to hear this Harvest Festival is still thriving. A wonderful display of fish. I hope these old customs and traditions ate passed onto the next generation.

  6. Bill permalink
    October 9, 2016

    How pleasing it is that these old tradition still thrive, long may they remain

  7. kristine dillon permalink
    October 11, 2016

    I especially enjoyed this article. Such fascinating history, loved too, seeing the old hats worn for the trade. What a treasure it must be for Frank David to have the very same hat his own grandfather wore over 100 years ago.

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