Billingsgate: fishwives and the Great Fire of London

Billingsgate fish market today (Source: The Fishmongers’ Company)

Today’s look at the gates of the City of London will go off on a slight tangent: thus far (and going forward) the real focus has been on those seven main gates that were posterns in the London Wall fortification. There are, however, other gates – the water gates of the city, one of which is Billingsgate, a name perhaps most closely associated with the fish market. The cries of the vendors gave their name to an expression of vulgar language, as in swearing like a fishwife, particularly a Billingsgate fishwife.

According to John Stow, the market was originally a general market for a number of goods including corn, coal, iron, wine, salt, pottery – and fish, and by the 16th century had become a specialist fish market.

Stow also reported a theory (one to which he did not himself adhere) as to how the name of Billingsgate came about. Geoffrey of Monmouth (who, incidentally, may not actually have been Welsh), the 12th-century historian who wrote extensively about the kings of Britain, said that it came from Belin, a king who reigned about 400 BC.

Billingsgate Ward
Billingsgate Ward in the 17th century

Belin supposedly had the gate built and gave it his name. When he died, he was cremated and his ashes put into a brass vessel that was placed high above the gate. Stow, however (who is not normally such a wet blanket when it comes to interesting name derivations), wrote that “it seemeth to me not to be so ancient, but rather to have taken that name of some later owner of the place, happily named Beling, or Biling, as Somar’s key, Smart’s key, Frosh wharf, and others, thereby took their names of their owners”.

Billingsgate has its own special place in London’s history, as it was where the fire of London started. Until boundaries were changed early in the 21st century, Pudding Lane lay within the ward of Billingsgate. (The wards were systems in medieval London that allowed for smaller units within the city to be self-governing and there are still 25 of them in existence.)

EAS_3904Ward of Candlewick

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