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 in London's Canary Wharf.
Despite a tradition dating back centuries, they have now been stripped of their licenses by the City Corporation of London and will soon be replaced by a cheaper workforce.
This is a story about a dying trade and the disappearance of longstanding heritage and identity.
The Last Of The Billingsgate Porters By Claudia Leisinger
On April 28th 2012 a centuries-old way of life and work will officially come 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) has been trying to change the porters’ working conditions from a collective agreement (which gives them collective protection) to an individual contract and has found a powerful aid in the City of London Corporation, who is currently making the funds (£2.5 million) available to the merchants to buy out the porters.
The question is, what is the motivation to so determinedly get rid of 102 working men?
The Corporation insists this move is purely one of necessary modernization for the market. Others have less optimistic views. Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone claims the move is “yet another example of the downgrading of working-class working conditions.” London Assembly member and Labour party politician John Biggs believes that the Corporation’s withdrawal is a move towards “casualisation” of the City’s workforce. Jim Fitzpatrick and Jon Cruddas, two Labour MPs, express 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.
How is it to work in a job that is physically and emotionally challenging and has negative connotations attached to it? How does one identify with such an occupation? How did they become gravediggers? Do they still use a shovel?
With these questions and many more in mind, I arrived early one morning at Camberwell New Cemetery to meet the cemetery manager, Terry Connor. Before meeting the gravediggers he warned me that most photographers and camera crews have been rejected by the gravediggers in the past.
Fortunately I was accepted and was soon fascinated by their working world, functioning on the outskirts of society. I wonder whether the average person ever even thinks of gravediggers, as typically when we cross their path, we tend to be overwhelmed with other feelings and our attention is elsewhere.
Photographing my first funeral I discovered that mourners tend to stay on for the closure of the grave, which according to the gravediggers is the most difficult part of the job.
Once the coffin is lowered, the gravediggers wait nearby for the end of the funeral. In order not to be disruptive or disrespectful they have developed a way of communicating among each other by whispering and using sign language.
The use of the mechanical digger has been made it impossible not to be too invasive. Fulfilling their motto, ‘You show yourself but you can’t be seen’ is now almost unfeasible.
These gravediggers featured in my project are four of the last seven in the whole borough of Southwark. In other parts of London contractors are employed to do their work. Even though every year they claim that they intend to quit and jokingly say ‘It sometimes feels like a dead-end job’, it is obvious that they have built up a strong mutual bond with each other that they describe as being comparable to a little family.
Thanks to Garry Pearson (21years as digger), Steve Saunders, Steve George (26 years) and Jeff Smith (5years)
Copyright: Claudia Leisinger
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