Above: A small part of a map of 1754 showing the position of Billingsgate Dock to London Bridge.
In telling the history of this location, it might be best if we start with the name ‘Billingsgate’ before moving on to the subject of the dock itself. The site known as Billingsgate – historically bound up with Billingsgate Market – is one of only two place names beside the Thames in the City of London which still carry the word ‘gate’. Billingsgate is one of the names, probably of Saxon origin, which is also the name of a City ward. The other name is Dowgate, the name of another City ward and also found in the name of the thoroughfare called Dowgate Hill.
The Roman Wall
To understand the connection with a ‘gate’ we need to consider the Roman settlement of Londinium. Nearly 200 years after the Romans had first settled beside the Thames, they decided to build a massive stone wall around their township. The wall ran around the landward side of Londinium – hence street names like toady’s London Wall, where part of wall ran on the north side of the City, and the street called Houndsditch, which was named after a ditch on the outside of the Roman Wall.
The wall completely encircled the settlement, extending to the Thames at one end, where the Tower of London stands today, with the other end quite near today’s Blackfriars Station. The wall also ran beside the river – providing a defence along the Thames. In the east, it joined the Roman Wall at a point inside today’s Tower of London. In the west, it joined onto the landward part of the Roman Wall at a point now covered by Baynard House, near Blackfriars. It is not known why the Romans suddenly felt so insecure that they needed to build a wall. On the landward side were several gates which were named in Saxon times or later and are known to us today as Aldgate, Bishopsgate and Ludgate – along with others.
By building a wall beside the Thames the Romans, no doubt, felt safe but the wall was also a problem for them. Plenty of heavy cargo was brought into Londinium by vessels from many ports on the continent. Unloading a boat carrying large pots of wine or olive oil onto a quay when there is a wall in the way presents problems – to say the least. The solution was to build several gateways through the riverside part of the wall, to aid the loading and unloading of ships. The gateways probably had strong gates which were closed at night. These gateways were both upriver and downriver of the Roman version of London Bridge.
In Roman times, the Thames was wider than it is today. The Roman Wall along the river ran along a line that would be just south of today’s Lower Thames Street and Upper Thames Street. In that wall were gateways – one at the site of today’s Billingsgate; one was just west of London Bridge, called Oystergate; another gate was over the mouth of the River Walbrook, where it meets the Thames, known as Dowgate; and there may have been as many as 13 water-gates in total. The names for these gates, that we know them by today, were given to them in Saxon times.
The Name of Billingsgate
We do not know what the Romans called any of their gates. Those facing the land and those beside the Thames owe their names to later Saxon settlers and in some cases to the Normans. To return to the subject of today’s blog, a well-known story recounts that Billingsgate was named after Belinus, a legendary king of Britain who is said to have held the throne from about 390 BC. He is credited with erecting London’s first fortified water-gate. Make of that what you will. Probably the earliest mention was in the Laws of King Ethelred. Early forms of the name are ‘Bilingkesgate’ in the 12th century and ‘Billynggesgate’ during the time of King John (1166-1216)
Above: Part of the Rhinebeck Panorama, 1806-07, looking down on Billingsgate Dock. The northern end of old London Bridge is to be seen on the far left.
Billingsgate Dock was one of two docks (the other being Queenhithe) that were cut out of the river bank in AD 866. They allowed wharves for ships to load or unload cargo. The inlet called Queenhithe remains today and is upstream of London Bridge. Billingsgate Dock was just downstream of London Bridge but was filled in during the 19th century.
The earliest representation of Billingsgate Dock is shown on the Agas Map of c1561. At the time of that map, the principal imports at Billingsgate were corn and coal. Its association with the landing and sale of fish did not come until the late 17th century. Billingsgate Market was not formally established at the dock until an Act of Parliament in 1699 when it was then used for the loading and sale of fish.
Above: View of the building by Horace Jones opened in 1877 and still to be seen beside the Thames today.
In 1848-53 the dock was filled in. The fish market had consisted only of ‘shed buildings’ standing around the dock. New premises for a market were designed by J B Bunning, the City Architect. By 1872 Bunning’s building had become too small and the City Corporation obtained an Act to rebuild. Work began on a new building, designed by the City Architect Sir Horace Jones, which was opened on 20 July 1877. That building is still there today. Some of the fish was brought by boats on the Thames and landed at the quayside. In 1840 a terminus was constructed for the Great Eastern Railway at Bishopsgate Station and most of the fish then arrived at the market by railway. In 1874 a new railway terminus at Liverpool Street Station was opened which was even closer to the fish market. Billingsgate Market continued in use in the City of London until 1982, when it was relocated to new premises on the Isle of Dogs, at Poplar.
Being empty from 1982 onwards, the building in the Grade II listed building was refurbished by architect Richard Rogers, originally to provide office accommodation. The premises are now used as an events venue and remain a major London landmark.