History Hunters

Fishmongers' Hall

London Bridge, London, EC4R 9EL

Jacqueline Day

Fish was a very important part of the Christian diet, as it was forbidden to eat meat on Fridays, Holy Days and regular fast days, which were most Saturdays and Wednesdays. Eggs and other dairy foods were also forbidden during the period of Lent. (Black M, 1985). These restrictions meant that for about half the year people had to eat fish to get a nutritious meal. For these reasons, the sellers of fish, fishmongers, were a vital part of everyday life and its economy.

King Edward I’s Royal Charter of circa 1272 established the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers’ as one of the earliest guilds in the City of London, although the Fishmongers of London were already recognised as an organised community well before then. With an unbroken existence since that time, it remains one of the Twelve Great Livery Companies, ranking fourth in order of precedence (The Fishmongers’ Company & British History Online, 2010).

The aim of the company when it was founded was to control and regulate the sale of fish, to ensure freshness, and to restrain profit, which was limited to one penny in the shilling. Despite these limitations, and due to the constant high demand for fish from the population of London, the wealth and political power of the guild increased.

Following a sudden downturn in its fortunes during the reign of Edward II, the Fishmongers’ Guild lost much of its political power but was reformed by the Great Charter as the ‘Mystery of the Fishmongers’ of London’ in Edward III’s reign. This gave the Guild the authority to regulate the catching of fish in the Thames and a monopoly over the crying and selling of fish.

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Fishmongers' Hall coat of arms. (Diana Briscoe)

The Guild continued to expand in the 14th century, owing to its monopoly on the sale of fish. It became even more influential, not only taking a prominent part in the affairs of the city but had its own Court of Law (Leyhalmode) where fish-based disputes were settled. By the 15th century the Company had gradually lost
its monopoly and its immediate involvement with buying and selling fish (The Fishmongers’ Company & British History Online, 2010).

New wharves and warehouses were built for medieval marine trade on man-made ground built out from the Thames riverbank. One portion of land between Thames Street and the river became both the domestic and commercial premises for three prominent fish merchants and Lords Mayors, John Lovekyn, Sir William Walworth and William Askham. This range of buildings, secured in 1444 for the Fishmongers’ Company, could be accessed both from the street and by the river and included a great hall large enough for the Company to meet. The Company had sole use of this wharf until 1666 when, on the 2nd September 1666, Fishmongers’ Hall due to its close proximity to Pudding Lane, was the first of forty Livery Halls to be burnt down in the Great Fire of London. Fortunately the most important documents, the iron money chest and the Company silver were safely carried away by boat.

A new Hall was built after the fire from a design by Edward Jerman and approved by Sir Christopher Wren, Charles II’s Surveyor General. It was among the first important buildings completed along the riverfront after the Great Fire and was included in several paintings by the artist, Canaletto (The Fishmongers’ Company, 2010). In 1828 a section of the Hall’s site was apportioned for the building of the new London Bridge (British History Online, 2010). As the interior of the Hall needed to be refurbished due to water and fire damage, it was felt it would be more appropriate to build a completely new Hall. A competition was announced to encourage architects to submit a suitable design. The winning entry selected in 1832 was a design by Henry Roberts and built with Portland stone and Devon granite featuring both the Roman and Greek style of architecture. The building work completed, the Hall opened in 1835.

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Fishmongers' Hall. (Diana Briscoe)

On the 4th September 1940 the Hall suffered great bomb damage during the London Blitz. Fortunately most of the Company’s records and treasures had been removed to a place of safety beforehand. Restoration of the Hall was completed in 1954 (The Fishmongers’ Company, 2010). The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers’ remains associated with fish and fisheries and sees this as an important part of the United Kingdom’s national identity. It is one of the few Livery companies still linked to its historic trade and continues its tradition of quality control, ensuring that the fish sold at the United Kingdom’s main fish market, Billingsgate, is fit for human consumption. Through its Fishmeters (inspectors who have performed these duties since 1604) it has the power of inspection and seizure. (The Fishmongers’ Company & City of London, 2010).

Today, the Hall itself looks out of place surrounded by modern buildings and sits awkwardly and cramped, at the foot London Bridge and could easily be overlooked. However, its position and exterior belies its stunning interior used today as a venue for meetings and banquets. It is hoped that the amenities offered by the Hall will be put to full use during the period of the 2012 Olympics.The original social and economic conditions which gave rise to the guild have long since changed due to the development of industry and commerce, but the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers’ maintains its position as an important member of both an ancient and current institution.

History Hunters’ photos from Fishmongers’ Hall: