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The Harvest Festival Of The Sea

October 6, 2019
by the gentle author

Today we preview the annual Fish Harvest Festival which will be held at St Mary-at-Hill next Sunday October 13th

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 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 I discovered when I 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 me. 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 enjoyed 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


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


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

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    October 6, 2019

    Lovely ceremony! Being an old church buff (and living & working in the City at the time) I was in St Mary-at-Hill one day in 1988, taking lots of photos of that exquisite dome. A week later it had burned down. I still look at the pictures sometimes and feel v. sad (though the restoration was excellent. as your photos show). As is the case with so many London churches, I always wish I could go back and see them before 1666 – but then I’d be greedy, and want to see them before c.1250, etc. etc

    I was also in St Ethelburga’s Bishopsgate about a month before the IRA near demolished it. I hope I’m not bringing foul luck.

  2. October 6, 2019

    As a child I remember walking with my father along the cobbled streets and watching the old Billingsgate working.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 6, 2019

    That must have been a heavenly church service for a fish lover like you… (I take slight issue with the phrase “which we all delight to eat”!)

    But great to see the old City traditions living on.

  4. October 6, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for sharing your experience at the Fish Harvest Festival at St. Mary-at-Hill. What a wonderful ritual to maintain, combining the traditions of Billingsgate Market in that lovely Christopher Wren setting. Good to see the children participating also.

    Great pics, especially of the senior porters and their “bobbins.” That luncheon spread looks tempting too. Glad you enjoyed your fish for the week…

  5. October 6, 2019

    I love the bobbins, wonderful inventions. Great article.

  6. Saba permalink
    October 6, 2019

    GA, Spitalfields is the only blog I read daily. Just a gift and your writing is beautiful.

    Please accept a gentle reminder offered only with respect. I sometimes find what I think may be misplaced modifiers in the articles. Here’s one today —
    Proudly attending the spectacular display of fish in the porch, I met Eddie Hill, a fishmonger who started his career in 1948.
    Were you or Eddie Hill “proudly attending” the display? You may mean that you were proud, but it seems more likely that you want the readers to know that Eddie Hill was proud.

    Anyway, I look forward to the articles every day. Saba

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