On April 28th 2012 a centuries-old way of life and work officially came to an end. This is the story of the last of the Billingsgate Fish Market porters.
Billingsgate Market began trading exclusively in fish in 1699. It comprised of two main groups: the merchants who sold the fish and the porters, who with their small numbered enamel badges, traditionally worn on their aprons, had sole licence to transport fish within the market. The portering system is based on the merchant paying the porter a fixed retainer and the fishmonger or customer paying a bobbin (today, 18 pence) per stone of fish delivered.
A porter’s work is one of hard manual graft, carrying heavy boxes of fresh fish and working unsociable hours. Yet these men are proud of their enduring role and tradition. The job of porter has often been passed down through family generations, resulting in a very tight-knit community, complete with its own humorous banter and camaraderie. The porters have long been seen as the heart and soul of Billingsgate.
In January 2012, the City of London Corporation – effectively an independent governing institution - withdrew all trading licences from the porters, revoking a bylaw dating back to 1876. Without this protection, the porters could legally be replaced by cheap casual labour.
The LFMA (London Fish Merchants Association) tried to change the porters’ working conditions from a collective agreement (which gives them collective protection) to an individual contract and found a powerful aid in the City of London Corporation, who made the funds (£2.5 million) available to the merchants to buy out the porters.
The question is, what was the motivation to so determinedly get rid of 102 working men?
The Corporation insisted this move was purely one of necessary modernization for the market. Others have less optimistic views. Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone claimed the move was “yet another example of the downgrading of working-class working conditions.” London Assembly member and Labour party politician John Biggs believed that the Corporation’s withdrawal was a move towards “casualisation” of the City’s workforce. Jim Fitzpatrick and Jon Cruddas, two Labour MPs, expressed their fear that “the market – and specifically the porters – stands in the way of its expansion plans around Canary Wharf.”
The last point appears key. This area of London, its financial hub and primarily the venue for the city’s 2012 Olympics, is undergoing massive redevelopment, particularly in regard to transport links - for example, the new Stratford International and Cross Rail stations. As such, real estate values around Billingsgate are at a premium. The porters themselves believe that the fish market will be relocated; and that getting rid of them and their organized, historically protected workforce, was the first step to make this possible.
My interest in the Billingsgate porters’ story stems from a fascination with the disappearance of manual labour; work generally considered menial by our society, yet carried out with a great deal of pride and passion by those small communities involved. These groups have often functioned as their own micro-cultures; by eradicating them, longstanding heritage and identity disappears.
By Claudia Leisinger
Copyright: Claudia Leisinger