billingsgate – the story of a fish market

POSTED 01 September 2011 IN Community

Here at Feng Sushi, we’re all very excited about the opening of a new delivery service in Billingsgate, but no-one more than our co-founder, Silla Bjerrum, who has a long history with the market, and prior to that, with Canary Wharf: “I set up the ever first sushi outlet in Canary Wharf, Nippon Tuk, in 1996. It was a concession of the Birley sandwich chain and I prepared fresh sushi daily on the site.” Silla has been involved with Billingsgate Fish Market since 2005 when she began her sushi-making classes at the Seafood Training School, but before that she experienced the biggest fish market in the world – Tokyo’s Tsukiji market.


Tsukiji is organised chaos – a mad melee of stallholders, restaurateurs and porters on electric carts, all rushing about buying and selling the freshest and highest quality fish for Tokyo’s buzzing restaurant trade. Then around the market there are stands and stallholders where an eager chef like me could pick up utensils, knifes, seasonal ingredients, books with amazing illustrations, as well as Japanese omelette, tempura and some of the best sushi in the world.”

Silla was in Japan training with master fish expert Masaru Shibuichi, her long-term mentor who runs the Michelin-starred Akasaka Totoya Uoshin in Tokyo.

“He taught me so many Japanese preparation and cooking techniques, such as hand-carving the mooli daikon (radish) and cutting and marinating mackerel. At 5am, Mr Shibuichi and I would go to Tsukiji market where he showed me how to choose the freshest and finest quality fish, then back at Akasaka Totoya Uoshin, taught me step by step, how to cut and prepare the fish.”


Mr Shibuichi was born into a family of first-class fishmongers in Tokyo’s Akasaka, an area famous for its Ryōtei – high-class establishments where business and political meetings could be held discreetly and where, if requested, geisha could entertain. In such establishments, the cuisine is the one of the most important aspects of the entertainment but, being small, discreet places, they didn’t always have kitchens so, historically, local fishmongers such as the Shibuichi family, would be called upon to prepare dishes (especially sashimi) and deliver them to the Ryōtei on exquisitely decorated plates.

To satisfy Ryōtei clients, Japanese chefs need to achieve many skills and Mr Shibuichi spent several years training to become just such a high-class food caterer, learning everything from fish carving to an in-depth knowledge of seasonal ingredients, flowers and plants.


At the young age of 23, Mr Shibuichi was called to return to take over the family business – Akasaka Totoya Uoshin – established by his grandfather in 1890. He transformed it into a Kaiseki restaurant where traditional Japanese dinners of up to 14 exclusive courses are served. Kaiseki is considered an art form where every aspect of the meal is important and dishes are often discussed on an individual basis with clients: taste, texture, colour and presentation, even the plates and delicate garnishing are all significant. But above all, freshness and quality of the food is paramount.

In achieving all of these skills, Mr Shibuichi’s Totoya Uoshin restaurant achieved world-class status when, in 2009, it earned a Michelin star.


Like Tsukiji, Billingsgate is inextricably linked to the city and its people, and its history goes back almost as far as the history of London itself…

Where the Millennium Bridge now arrives on the north shore of the Thames is the ancient but now unused site of a Roman dock that became known as ‘Queenhithe’ when Matilda, daughter of King Henry I granted duties on goods that were landed there. However, as merchant ships increased in size, some were too big to sail through the narrow arches of the old London Bridge further downstream and so began to stop at ‘Blynesgate’.

It isn’t known exactly where the origin of the name Billingsgate comes from, but Blynesgate or Byllynsgate could have referred to a gate or wharf just below London Bridge where the goods were landed. The ‘gate’ might have been owned by a man called Blyne or Byllyn – or maybe old Geoffrey of Monmouth was right and the name referred to a King Belin from as far back as 400BC.

The history of Billingsgate as a market rather than a ‘dropping off point’ stretches back to 1327 when a charter was granted by King Edward III: the charter gave Billingsgate a monopoly within London as it decreed that no other market could be set up within 6.6 miles – a distance that the average person might be expected to walk to a market.

Originally the market sold everything – corn, coal, wine, salt, even iron were all being shipped into the city, and between 1600 and 1798 the number of ships using London more than quadrupled from 3,000 to over 14,600. The market’s association with ‘solely’ fish didn’t begin until the 16th century and in 1699, William III declared it to be ‘a free and open market for all sorts of fish’. By then, fish was the staple food of London’s poor and the market was expanding rapidly.

The population of London grew by 50% between 1800 and 1830, and by 1850 the first purpose-built fish market was on Lower Thames Street. The original building was demolished and replaced with the listed building designed by Sir Horace Jones that stands there today.


On 15 November 1857 Nathaniel Hawthorne’s entry in ‘The English Notebooks’ described the market as:

‘A dirty, evil-smelling, crowded precinct, thronged with people carrying fish on their heads, and lined with fish-shops and fish-stalls, and pervaded with a fishy odour. The footwalk was narrow, as indeed was the whole street, and filthy to travel upon; and we had to elbow our way among rough men and slatternly women, and to guard our heads from the contact of fish-trays; very ugly, grimy, and misty, moreover, is Billingsgate Market, and though we heard none of the foul language of which it is supposed to be the fountain-head, yet it has its own peculiar­ities of behaviour.’

The work in the market was hard and women working there gained a reputation for being tough and rather coarse, so Billingsgate soon became associated with ‘vulgar tongues’ – so much so that in Martin’s Dictionary (2nd edition, 1754), ‘Billingsgate discourse’ was defined as ‘opprobrious, foul-mouthed language’.

And it wasn’t only their language that raised eyebrows: in order to supplement their meagre salaries it is said that some of the tougher women earned extra income as bare-knuckle fighters!


The market has expanded enormously and these days handles 25,000 tonnes of fish and fish products with a value of £200 million. Billingsgate moved to its current site in Docklands under the shadow of Canary Wharf and covers an area of 13 acres. It is second in size only to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

Just as now, reduced fish stocks could send the price of fish sky-high; and so it was in the 19th century:

‘In consequence of the gales which have recently prevailed, the price of fish has risen so much, that cod-fish fetched the enormous sum of £1 15s yesterday morning in Billingsgate market.’ (The Times, Nov. 9, 1859).


Today, over-fishing and unsustainable fishing methods have seen entire fish stocks under threat, which is why the Billingsgate Seafood Training School is so important. The school is a charitable company that was set up in 2000 with a view to educating kids about seafood as part of a healthy diet. The current director, CJ Jackson, is totally dedicated to spreading the net even wider (if you’ll pardon the pun) and is keen to raise awareness of issues surrounding sustainability and responsible sourcing. Regular events include parent/children cookery days where kids learn how to prepare salmon nigiri sushi and stir-fried oriental squid, and the ‘Celebrating Sustainable Seafood’ project – an opportunity for chefs to visit the market and find out about alternative fish species along with fish preparation and recipes.


Silla shares CJ’s passion for sustainability, and in September will be opening a Feng Sushi delivery service within the market.

“Opening a sushi outlet in Billingsgate seems like natural progression; working in Canary Wharf taught me valuable skills about volume and quality, while teaching at the Seafood Training School familiarized me with the market as well as introducing me to the wonderful people behind the school. I’ve also met such interesting students; restaurateurs from the South coast who wanted to make sushi with the locally landed fish, a bomb disposal expert on leave from Afghanistan, keen gourmets, a Kenzo designer with a passion for all things Japanese, and a Yorkshire farmer who is interested in growing mooli (Japanese radish)!’

So, with fond memories of Tsukiji market and a passion for promoting UK sustainable fish, Silla will be buying the freshest most sustainable fish daily from the market and serving the finest quality sushi to the hardworking population of Canary Wharf.

And, just as in Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, there will be five or six seats at the bar where passers-by can have a cold beer or a green tea and eat sushi beside the bustling fishmarket where it was bought a few hours earlier.