About Billingsgate Market
The market rights of the City of London were based on a charter granted by Edward III in 1327 which prohibited the setting up of rival markets within 6.6 miles (based on the distance a person could be expected to walk to market, sell his produce and return in a day).
In 1400, King Henry IV granted to the citizens the right, by charter, to collect tolls and customs at Billingsgate, Cheap and Smithfield. Since then, the Billingsgate Market Act of 1846 and 1871 and the City of London Acts of 1973, 1979 and 1987 have confirmed the City's role as the Market Authority and laid down its responsibilities and rights, including the making of regulations, byelaws and the collection of tolls, rents and other charges.
Billingsgate was known as Blynesgate and Byllynsgate before the name settled to its present form. The origin of the name is unclear and could refer to a watergate at the south side of the City were goods were landed - perhaps owned by a man named 'Biling' - or it may have originated with Belin (400BC), an ancient King of the period.
Billingsgate was originally a general market for corn, coal, iron, wine, salt, pottery, fish and miscellaneous goods and does not seem to have become associated exclusively with the fish trade until the sixteenth century.
In 1699, an Act of Parliament was passed making it a 'free and open market for all sorts of fish whatsoever'. The only exception to this was the sale of eels which was restricted to Dutch fishermen whose boats were moored in the Thames. This was because they had helped feed the people of London during the Great Fire. The restriction has since been abolished!
Until the mid-nineteenth century, fish and seafood were sold from stalls and sheds around the 'hythe' or dock at Billingsgate. As the amount of fish handled increased, a purpose-built market became essential. In 1850, the first Billingsgate Market building was constructed on Lower Thames Street but it proved inadequate and was demolished in 1873 to make way for the building that still stands in Lower Thames Street today. This was designed by the City Architect, Sir Horace Jones and built by John Mowlam. It was opened in 1876 and is now a listed building.
By the early 1970's, it had become inevitable that the market would have to be moved from its City site. Lower Thames Street was to become a major dual carriageway, which would have split the Market and prohibited use of the old highway for parking buyers' vehicles.
In January 1982, the Market moved from the City to a site at West India Docks, Poplar. The move was made possible by an arrangement between the City Corporation, the merchants, the Docklands Joint Committee, (representing the GLC and riparian boroughs) and the Department of the Environment, together with the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which purchased the site from the Port of London Authority and leased it to the Corporation. Each year since the move, the Lord Mayor of London has presented the nominal rent in the form of a gift of fish to the Mayor of Tower Hamlets (this is then distributed to old people's homes in the borough).
As an agent for Tower Hamlets and continuing in its historic role of inspecting fish to ensure that 'it is fit for man's body', the Fishmongers' Company and its Environmental Health Officers are responsible for food quality standards at the market.