Billingsgate (Bylynges gate or Belins Gate), a water-gate and harbour located on the north side of the Thames between London Bridge and the Tower of London, was London’s principal dock in Shakespeare’s day. Its age and the origin of its name are uncertain. It was probably built ca. 1000 in response to the rebuilding of London Bridge in the tenth or eleventh century. In his Survey of London, Stow says that, according to twelfth-century writer Geoffrey Monmouth, Billingsgate was named for the ancient British King Belin who built the gate in 400 B.C. However, Stow himself supposes Billingsgate to have been established more recently and named after an owner with a name such as Beling or Biling (Stow 1:43).
In the early Middle Ages, the port known as Queenhithe, located west of London Bridge, was the most important harbour for trade. However, with the reconstruction of London Bridge (1176–1209), water traffic had more difficulty travelling up the Thames to Queenhithe. The platforms called starlings that supported the pillars of the Bridge significantly reduced the width of the river, making passage for ships more difficult. Located east of London Bridge, Billingsgate served as a suitable alternative port and market for goods. However, in 1224, in order to manage customs dues more efficiently, Henry III ordered all corn and fish to be sold at Queenhithe. Following Henry’s reign, Edward I allowed the fishmongers to land their fish wherever they wanted. The fish market began to shift from Old Fish Street near Queenhithe to Bride Street (later called New Fish Street) near Billingsgate (Bird 29; Borer 40, 110; Sheppard 71, 77; Stow 1:206, 2:7).
Although, it was no longer London’s exclusive port, Queenhithe was still granted favour toward the end of the Middle Ages. In 1463, when slackness in the raising of the London Bridge drawbridge discouraged ships from travelling up the river to Queenhithe, Edward IV decreed that all vessels were to unload their goods at Queenhithe. However, if more than one vessel entered the river at the same time, some of the ships were allowed to dock at Billingsgate, provided that Queenhithe receive the majority of those incoming vessels. Ships that were too large to reach Queenhithe had to deliver their goods via lighters (Bird 29; Stow 2:9).
Over the years, as a result of the congestion caused by the Bridge, the use of Queenhithe decreased so drastically that, by 1603, it was, as Stow says,
almost forsaken(1:43). By this time, Billingsgate had risen to become London’s most important harbour. Stow writes that Billingsgate
is at this present a large Watergate, Port, or Harbrough, for shippes and boats, commonly arriuing there with fish, both fresh and salt, shell fishes, salt, Orenges, Onions, and other fruits and rootes, wheate, Rie, and graine of diuers sorts, for seruice of the Citie, and the parts of this Realm adioyning. This gate is now more frequented then of olde time, when the Queenes Hith was vsed [...].
As fish became a more important part of the diet of Londoners, Billingsgate became increasingly devoted to fish, which was sold from stalls and sheds near the dock (
Market Historypar. 5; Borer 224). In 1699, an Act of Parliament made Billingsgate a
free and open market for all sorts of fish(qtd. in Borer 224).
In the 1600s, when England’s foreign trade increased fivefold, London was the most important port city in England, handling 69% of exports, 80% of imports, and 86% of re-exports (Sheppard 145). Thus, as the most important port in London, Billingsgate was the most important port in Early Modern England.
See also: Chalfant 40.
Billingsgate Market, Corporation of London.
Market History.2002. Open.
- Bird, James. The Geography of the Port of London. London: Hutchinson U Library, 1957.
- Borer, Mary Cathcart. The City of London: A History. New York: McKay, 1977.
- Chalfant, Fran C. Ben Jonson’s London: A Jacobean Placename Dictionary. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1978.
- Sheppard, Francis. London: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
- Stow, John. A Survey of London. Reprinted from the Text of 1603. Ed. Charles Lethbridge Kingsford. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1908. [Also available as a reprint from Elibron Classics (2001). Articles written before 2011 cite from the print edition by volume and page number.]
Last modification: 2016-06-20 12:51:09 -0700 (Mon, 20 Jun 2016) (mholmes)