The world immediately surrounding the Monument subway station in central London is a jungle of international banks, insurance agencies and the stock exchange. Monolithic, 20-century structures rise from well-ordered sidewalk blocks, and everywhere the "typical London businessman with bowler hat and pin-striped suit rushes toward his destiny. Troops of black cabs and red buses hurtle around in seeming madness as the subway roars into the darkness below.
There's something in the air besides pure chaos though. Through this impregnable-looking, concrete scene wafts and pungent smell of fish, hinting at something beyond. Just around the corner, on the banks of the river Thames, lies Billingsgate Fish Market, a cobblestone world more suited to a Dickens novel than a block in contemporary London.
Long before the London businessman is even aware of the new day, the Billingsgate fishmonger has put in his busiest hours. And, by the time that same businessman has opened his morning paper, the fishmonger has completed his day's work, and 250 tons of fish from all over the world are on their way to the 12 million residents of the greater London area.
With the century-old building and the primitive, cobbled streets as a backdrop, this anachronistic, 19th century scene comes alive at 5 a.m. five days a week. Tea flows all morning from the market cafe or from privately brewed pots. Human pack horses, then tweed jackets adding that element of dignity typical of the British working class, pull barrows laden with fish to waiting transport trucks, incongruous intrusions to this antiquated market scene.
Until recently, Billingsgate played an increasingly dominant role in London life. Although its origins are shrouded in conjecture, a market has been known to exist on the site since 870 A.D., at which time the king of England, Ethelred, imposed customs' regulations on ships at "Byllynsgate." The name varied between Byllynsgate and Billyngegate for the next 500 years until King Edward I drew up the market's first charter in 1297, calling the market Billingsgate.
But Billingsgate today houses a self-acclaimed, dying breed of Londoner, and the trade itself is quickly changing character with the advent of frozen fish and increased transport facilities to haul the fish directly to the local markets from the harbors. Even the market building, a London landmark with its twin, gold-gilt Dolphin weathervanes, is being threatened by a new road, and ever-increasing maintenance costs on such an aged structure.
"You can't keep pouring money into such an old building," says C.A. Wiard, the market's superintendent since 1956. He feels that the only hope for the old building would be a government grant to convert it into a museum, with lots of money for restoration.
Actually, it's the government's present lack of money that's keeping the building intact. At the onset of the economic squeeze, work was halted on a four-lane road that would lay asphalt over the market's cobblestones. When funds permit, work will be continued and the road completed. But right now the market's fate remains nervously in limbo.
"We're always wondering where and when we're going," says Wiard. "We're not short of ideas, just money."
But, whatever happens when the money comes through, it seems certain that the romantic appeal of Billingsgate will be sacrified to modern efficiency. Speculative plans for a new building depict a structure not unlike the impersonal monoliths that now surround the little market.
Many of the fishmongers don't believe or perhaps don't want to believe that the market will be undergoing radical changes. They insist that they've been hearing about a "new market" for the past 50 years. Others just grow sad when changes in the market are discussed.
"It would just break my heart," says Morris Parker, who has spent 56 of his 73 years working in the market. "It's wonderful life here. Nobody looking over your shoulder and you can nip in for a cup of tea whenever you want."
Parker, who can't remember who in his family was the first to work in the market, does remember the days when rows of horse-drawn "trucks" would line up outside the market ready to take the day's fish into the city streets.
"Often you'd walk by a horse and up he'd come with his nosebag giving you a good clout in the head," recalls Parker, his eyes twinkling beneath the brim of his oily, tweed cap. Parker also remembers when the entire area around the market was a village unto itself, catering to the needs of the fishmongers.
"Back in those days you could get a haircut at 7 a.m., or a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner before the sun came up," he says, then rattles off the other conveniences long since gone like the fishmongers' post office where one could send a telegram off as early as 7 a.m. Now, just The Cock, the pub directly across from the market, keeps the fishmongers' strange hours.
Parker and the rest of the old-timers, most of whom took over the job from their fathers, who took it over from their fathers and so on through the ages, wonder who will replace them as few of their sons have chosen their father's trade.
"There's no doubt about it. We're lacking new recruits," says Wiard, pointing out that it's not everyone who wants to get up at 4 a.m. and work in the damp stench of fish.
Another fishmonger blames it on the laziness of the younger generation. "They've had it too easy.They think money grows on bloody trees, they do," he bemoans, his white smock splattered with oily fish scales after a long morning's work.
But most of the old-timers will agree that one thing that hasn't changed around the market over the years is the happy family atmosphere. There are about 100 separate families who rent space in the market and most of them have come through the ages together.
"Oh, we have a swear at each other ocasionally, but it's soon forgotten," says Joe Barton who has been working at the market with his brother Tom for 48 years. "Nobody stays angry for long."
And it's true. Smiles and good humour seem to dominate the market more than the smell of fish. And the foul "Billingsgate language" seems to be a myth or perhaps part of another era.