Monday 4 November 2019


                                 - Greenwich’s ancient harbour
                                                                                  by Herbert Dickson

Just by the Cutty Sark and alongside the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel are some railings overlooking the river. Tourists stand there all the time - but how many of them know that this stretch of bland riverside was the heart of old maritime Greenwich. There are no signs to tell you about the great fishing fleet which once sailed from here, or about the ancient and mysterious name which the area has - Billingsgate!

The fishing fleet which was based in this area went out into the North Sea to catch cod - no river fish for them!  When things got too difficult, and steam trawlers came along, then they took themselves up to Grimsby and started the fishing industry there. We have records of Greenwich fishermen going back to the fourteenth century, and certainly they were there before that.

Today ‘Billingsgate’ is a place name which goes all round the world - all of them places with fishy associations. These places are all called after the famous fish market on the banks of the Thames in the City of London.   Archaeologists have now found that the Romans were there - and perhaps sold fish there too.  There has been endless speculation about the source of the name ‘Billingsgate’ ; was it a Saxon fishmonger called ‘Biling’? Or was it the mysterious King of the Ancient Britons ‘Belin’.

What has all this got to do with Greenwich?   It is the only place called ‘Billingsgate’ which is just as old as the one in Central London - and it too was a fishmarket!. In ‘A History of Greenwich’ Beryl Platts suggested that perhaps King Belin was based here, rather than in London and that our’s came first!  Even stranger, as she points out, the area of the London Billingsgate was owned by the same Saxon queen who owned Greenwich in the Dark Ages. Was London’s Billingsgate founded by Greenwich fishermen?

Whatever the truth is about Greenwich’s Billingsgate the fact it that this part of today’s Cutty Sark Gardens is the area of a very ancient port. It was here that mediaeval fishermen, boat builders and sailors jostled - it is the real heart of Maritime Greenwich.  There is absolutely nothing to see and nothing to tell people about the areas exciting past. Could the History Society ask why not?  It would be wonderful to turn it into a harbour again - with little boats coming and going and with a real atmosphere for tourists to enjoy. 

1 comment:

Amanda Gay said...

My family were living by Billingsgate in Maiden Row in 1818 - you can't get much more London than that! Mum was very proud of her Thames heritage - waterman, lightermen, sailors and pilots. It was a precarious existence, bringing travel, adventure, but also long absences from home, danger, casualties, dire poverty etc.

No, there is nothing to link the Naval College in Greenwich with the shipbuilding at Deptford, say. Young men joining the navy might sail on ships built practically in front of their eyes at Deptford (eg HMS Mars 1794). This was the case for my family.

Best wishes, Amanda Gay