Friday, 28 June 2013

Billingsgate - Carp from the Cussing Crowd

Swearing, Profanity, Market, Billingsgate Fish Market, Bad language, Coarse speech,
Tile art by the rather splendidly talented Paul Bommer


Noun. Spelt B- or b-. Mid-17th century.
[Billingsgate market, a fish-market in London noted for vituperative language.]

1 Scurrilous abuse, violent invective. M17
2 obsolete. A foul-mouthed person, a scold. M17-L18

Billingsgate Fish Market must be a very special place. Not only is it the UK's largest inland fish market, it's one of the oldest markets in the world, operating in various forms since 1400. Presently, it covers an area of 13 acres consisting of nearly 100 stands, 30 shops, 2 cafes, an ice-making plant, an 800 tonne freezer store and the Billingsgate Seafood Training School.

You might want to cover your ears, however - such is the notoriety of the industrial-strength language used by Billingsgate traders that Billingsgate has become a byword for profanity itself. Considering how boisterous London markets are generally, it must have really raised the bar to stand out from the cussing crowd. As for you, if you personally have a penchant for profanity, then you might rightly be called a Billingsgate. This blog is not the place for such obscenity, however, and seeing as I've valiantly resisted making any "talking pollocks" jokes, you can too. So there.

Catherine Chapman, Swearing, Cussing, Bad language,
Mr Roger Barton
"The King of Billingsgate"

(photograph by Catherine Chapman)
Of course, this is not to say that everyone that works at Billingsgate is a Billingsgate. Take Roger Barton, for example, whose one of several nicknames is "The King of Billingsgate". He's worked there as a fish-monger for over 50 years, with his passion for fish and infectious enthusiasm making him something of a celebrity between the stalls. However, seeing as he's also called "The Bastard of Billingsgate" (a name he apparently doesn't object to), it would probably be naive to think that his language is at all times creme de la menthe. Regardless, his charm and charisma are undeniable, and he's definitely on the people-I-want-to-meet list. Also, he shared his squid and chips with the photographer Catherine Chapman after she took his picture, and anyone that's willing to share their squid and chips is alright in my book. 

Right, all this rabbit o' fish 'as left me 'ank Marvin. Next time yer in London, do 'ave a butcher's at the ol' Billingsgate (covering yer King Lears if yer a sensitive soul), and see if you can't meet the ol' pitch and toss 'isself for a lovely bit of Lilian Gish. Avin' never been to Billingsgate, it's defo on me to-do list for the next time I'm in Blighty. Bally-ho!

Have you ever been to Billingsgate? Do you now want to go to Billingate? Do you regularly employ Billingsgate in your everyday speech? 

Do please tell us all about it.
 (without being a Billinsgate please)


  1. I've never even been to London, let alone this peculiar fish market. Adding it to my "things to see when I ever go to London"-list as we speak! It's quite a lengthy list. Think I might have to have to live there for a month until I see all the sights.

  2. Oh Bibi ... London is spectacular! Oxford is only about 60 miles from London, so I'd often get the train in. It's big, loud, dirty and magnificent. I'd never want to live there, but as a place to visit it's unsurpassed. I've never been to Billingsgate, but I've resolved to go the next time I'm in London : o )

  3. I don't know if you saw it, but there was a multi-part (can't remember how many parts!) BBC documentary about the market on TV a little while ago in which Mr Barton, amongst others, featured. It was at the time that the whole porters work / pay issues were blowing up. The employment issues in Billingsgate are archaic and very interesting. You might also enjoy this little story from London's evening paper: "Standard!" (if you've ever spent time in London, you will hear that in the voice of a very loud and gruff bloke in a style very particular to Evening Standard sellers - although it is free these days!):

    1. I heard about this documentary, but I haven't seen it - I will probably be able to find it online somewhere.

  4. Oh gosh! I would love to visit Billingsgate fish market! The history must seep out of every corner!
    Not likely to happen tho!
    So I will be grateful I can satisfy my love of Lilian Gish by being close enough to the coast to enjoy it fresh.

    We have some quaint old characters in the area who indulge in billingsgate, but they are so very apologetic when they see a 'lady' present. Which is way more than I can say for some younger people!

    1. Oh I know - I had heard of Billingsgate, but I've never been. And I don't know why I find this so charming! In everyday life, I really don't like coarse language, but as soon as I was reminded of Billingsgate and the history behind the word, I knew it was an immediate entry into Lexicolatry : o )

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