GREENWICH, FISH AND BILLINGSGATE DOCK
by BARBARA LUDLOW
Fishing in the River Thames was part of everyday life for its riverside communities, as can be testified by the many 'manor ways' leading from towns and villages to the banks of the river. Subsistence fishing was soon in competition with commercial enterprise and as early as the twelfth century powerful landowners placed 'kidels' across the Thames, to the detriment of private fishermen. In 1197 the City of London, on purchasing the Crown's Thames fishing rights, stipulated "that all kidels that are in the Thames shall be removed"
As the population of the metropolis and its environs grew the Thames, described in the reign of Henry II as being full of fish, could not supply the amount or variety fish required by the market. The British had been catching off-shore cod since Roman times but in the late fourteenth century adventurous fishermen from various ports sailed into Icelandic waters. So far no records have been found to prove that Greenwich fishermen went to Iceland that early but there is evidence to show how important the industry had become in the town at that time
About 1560 twenty-two sites on the Thames were designated on the banks of the Thames for various merchandise and raw materials. The quay at Billingsgate in the City was given over to fish, salt, corn and fruit. It would be convenient to state that Billingsgate Dock in Greenwich became associated with fish at the same time but sadly there is no proof of this. However, situated in the heart of the town Greenwich's Billingsgate had become a centre for shipping. The first known written reference to the Dock is in royal building accounts of l449. A price was quoted for conveying materials from Billingsgate Dock to 'Bella Vista', Margaret of Anjou's house by the river. This was later demolished and the Tudor Palace of Greenwich built on its site
It must be presumed that the early Billingsgate Dock accommodated fishing smacks but it was not the only quay used by fishermen. Fisher Lane/Alley ran close to the river between Greenwich Church Street and the perimeter of the Greenwich Hospital for Seamen, later the Royal Naval College and now housing part of the University of Greenwich. Ship Dock and Ship Stairs at the eastern end of Fisher Lane were used by the fishing fraternity and this small area of Greenwich near the river became a fish market before 1700. The early 1700s Greenwich fishermen were allowed to sell in the newly established Charter market. This was later abolished to make way for the Greenwich Hospital Infirmary of 1764, subsequently the Dreadnought Seamen's Hospital. Albeit old habits die hard and the fishermen went on selling their catches at Ship Dock until it, Ship Stairs and most of Fisher Lane disappeared under the Greenwich Hospital Improvement Acts of 1830-1850. In lieu of this Billingsgate Dock was enlarged
The enlarging of the dock took place around the time when the Greenwich 'fishing fleet' was on the wane. It was not steam trawlers which set this in motion but the formation of the Great Grimsby Dock Company (1845) and the quick development of the railway between London and the eastern counties. The Eastern Counties Railway of 1836 started the ball rolling and by 1845 the Great Central Railway was transporting fish from Grimsby to London.
Attempts were made to help the fishermen of Greenwich and the Fishermen's Provident Annuity Society was founded in 1636. Thomas Norledge of Greenwich became an official of the new Great Grimsby Dock Company and James Meadows of Greenwich was based in Grimsby as an agent for the Greenwich fishers. After the 1860s fewer and fewer fishing smacks left Greenwich for Icelandic waters and the rich fishing grounds of the North- Sea. After about 1870 the steam trawlers of Grimsby were taking over the trade and a large number of fishermen and their families left Greenwich and Barking to settle in Grimsby and Lowestoft.
New markets and new inventions killed off the Greenwich deep-sea fishing industry, ironically just as the demand for fresh fish exploded with the opening of a great number of fish and chip shops. In 1893 Dickens's 'Dictionary of the Thames' recorded that "many of the fishermen have left the river for other more profitable pursuits and there has scarcely been a youth apprenticed to the calling of fisherman for the last few years".
The industrial life of Billingsgate Dock cannot be resurrected. However, perhaps an historical time-chart with illustrations could be erected adjacent to the Dock and a short pamphlet outlining its history made available at Greenwich Tourist Office now housed in Pepys House, Cutty Sark Gardens
This ariticle appeared in the GIHS Newsletter in November 2000