City traders

London Essays – Issue 5: Food

City traders

London’s wholesale markets have faced relocation, population growth and significant shifts in the city’s sense of itself. And they’re still going strong.

By Richard Brown

At seven o’clock on a drizzly April morning, Canary Wharf is just coming to life. Bankers, brokers and lawyers stream up from the station, ready for a new day of trading and deal-making. But in a low-slung yellow building just north of the gleaming towers, the working day is nearing its end.

Inside Billingsgate Market, traders in long white coats and wellington boots are chatting among themselves as they start to hose down their stalls. Polystyrene boxes packed with seafood glisten under bright fluorescent lights. The market is not as busy at it was earlier but customers still circulate: trade suppliers are keenly comparing prices and quantities alongside a diverse selection of retail browsers – a couple of Orthodox Jews, a Coptic Christian priest, Chinese families, bearded foodies..

There’s fish here from all round the British Isles: from Aberdeen and Grimsby, Brixham and the Shetland Isles, Whitstable and Lowestoft: coley and cod, sea bream and salmon, tiger-striped mackerel and scallops in the shell. Other stalls specialise in ‘exotics’ – species of fish from faraway oceans, many of which I have barely heard of, let alone eaten: redfish, milkfish, catfish, kingfish, needle fish, barracuda, croaker, tilapia, frozen breezeblocks of squid.

London’s streets may never have been paved with gold but they were always dotted with market stalls and filled with food.

Billingsgate, which moved to Docklands in 1982, is the biggest fish market in the UK; 25,000 tonnes of fish a year, almost 100 tonnes a day, pass through on the way from sea to plate. Lorries arrive from 9pm until the starting bell rings at 4am, bringing seafood from UK fishing ports, from airports, from the cargo docks where frozen fish from the South Pacific and Indian Ocean is unloaded. The consignments are split between the 98 stands in the centre of the market and the 30 shops that line its edges, or sent to a freezer store the size of a football pitch at the back of the market.

A direct line back to 1327

Billingsgate is one of London’s five wholesale food markets. The Western International Market at Southall, New Covent Garden at Vauxhall, and New Spitalfields at Leyton all supply fruit and veg; Smithfield meat market remains on its historic site in Farringdon. Three of these – Billingsgate, New Spitalfields and Smithfield – are operated by the Corporation of London, which was granted exclusive rights to operate markets around the City of London in 1327. The Corporation estimates that their three markets handle nearly 900,000 tonnes of fish, meat, fruit and vegetables every year, and turn over nearly £1 billion (though traders are cautious about disclosing precise figures that might lead to rent rises).

London’s streets may never have been paved with gold but they were always dotted with market stalls and filled with food. Shifting patterns of food production, trading and consumption have shaped the city, as much as struggles between church and state, nobles and merchants, industry and commerce.

London’s place names tell this story: Milk Street and Bread Street; Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of London started; Eel Pie Island. Sometimes the old names have been erased: Old Fish Street no longer runs down to Billingsgate; and More London (the development by London Bridge that includes City Hall) eschewed the waterfront walkway’s old name, Pickle Herring Street – a salty reflection of Bermondsey’s history of food processing – opting for the stately The Queen’s Walk instead.

Meanwhile, London’s markets have been transformed. In London: the Biography, Peter Ackroyd describes the street market that formed the spine of the medieval City of London. 3 You can trace the route down Cheapside today, from the bloody shambles of livestock and butchery at Smithfield, outside the city walls at Newgate (near the end of Holborn Viaduct today) to Poultry (the name is self-explanatory) and Cornhill, where vegetables, meat and fish were traded from what would later become the Royal Exchange, the foundation of London’s stock market. South of the Royal Exchange, on the banks of the Thames, Billingsgate was so ancient that the origins of its name are unknown, though it was granted a charter in 1400.

Until the Thames was overwhelmed with industrial and domestic waste, eels and other fish came directly from the river: as the city grew, the River Roding at Barking became home to Britain’s largest fishing fleet. There are records of a fleet at Barking from the 11th century, as Andrew Summers and John Debenham set out in London’s Metropolitan Essex. 4 By 1700, boats would venture to Iceland, and by the 19th century the fleet was 200-strong, their catch cooled by ice harvested in the winter from flooded marshes. From 1850, decline set in, as the railways made remote northern ports quickly accessible by land, and street names like Whiting Avenue are all that preserve the memory of Barking’s seafaring heyday.

The arrival of the railways was pivotal for London’s food supply and urban development. Beforehand, most of London’s food was grown on its doorstep. In 1796, Daniel Lysons’ survey of the suburbs 5 estimated that there were 5,000 acres (the same area as the Royal Parks) of market gardens within 12 miles of the metropolis, plus 1,700 acres of potato fields and 800 acres of fruit trees. Barges brought manure from London’s stables to feed the soil and returned food to the city’s markets. Ackroyd writes of “cabbages from Battersea and onions from Deptford, celery from Chelsea and peas from Charlton, asparagus from Mortlake and turnips from Hammersmith”.  The railways untethered London’s growth from its geography by dramatically extending supply lines: the population was no longer constrained by the availability of food within a few miles of the city, and the market gardens of the suburbs could make way for housing.

One walled market garden, between the City and Westminster, served the convent and abbey at Westminster. Covent Garden was seized by Henry VIII in the dissolution of the monasteries and granted to the earls of Bedford. In the following century, the 4th Earl began developing the land, with Inigo Jones designing the arcaded piazza and St Paul’s Church – a prototype garden suburb for prosperous Londoners. For a period the area flourished, but in time, Roy Porter writes, “the fruit and vegetable market also operating in the square sapped its smartness and the aristocracy quit, migrating to Mayfair”.

The railways untethered London’s growth from its geography by dramatically extending supply lines: the population was no longer constrained by the availability of food within a few miles of the city, and the market gardens of the suburbs could make way for housing.

Covent Garden slid into seediness, but the fruit and vegetables market flourished particularly after 1666, when the Great Fire destroyed the City’s markets. In Victorian times, with new market halls in place, the market boasted 1,000 porters. 6 In 1974 the market relocated to Vauxhall, after an epic battle between conservationists who wanted to preserve the old buildings and the Greater London Council, who proposed a comprehensive redevelopment in the worst traditions of 1970s car-based urbanism.

Every Day But Christmas, Lindsay Anderson’s 1957 documentary about Covent Garden, 7 begins late at night in the fields of Sussex, where lorries are loaded with lettuces, mushrooms and roses, and set out through the darkness to London. The film records the quickening tempo of the market, as vegetables arrive, then flowers, then porters and customers (including London’s last female market porter and last flower girls, successors in trade to Eliza Doolittle), then cleaners and scavengers. The streets are a jumble of lorries, pallets and people.

Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

There’s a calm interlude in the film, between the unloading and the stacking of the produce and the arrival of the customers, where the market workers retire to a café for a break – a cigarette, a cup of tea and a bacon roll. They are not the only nighthawks in the café. The camera lights on a group of gay men, chatting and shooting nervous glances at the camera (we are still 10 years away from the partial legalisation of homosexuality), and fixing elaborate coifs. Narrator Alun Owen intones archly: “Not everybody in Albert’s works in the market. Some of them, you wonder where they come from.”

Market workers would have been less naïve. Before London’s current redefinition as a 24-hour city, markets also stood out as permissive places, where the loud and the louche mingled with the traders who kept the city fed. As well as being a place of butchery and executions, medieval Smithfield was the location of St Bartholemew’s Fair, a notorious three-day debauch that ran for 700 years before being suppressed in the 1850s. In modern times, too, markets and nightlife enjoyed a curious co-existence: as in the Meatpacking District in New York, Smithfield and Vauxhall became hubs for clubbing, away from the potentially censorious gaze of London’s daytime population.

From near-collapse to rediscovery

20 years ago, says David Smith, Director of Markets and Consumer Protection at City of London Corporation, wholesale markets looked like a spent force, a relic from a pre-modern era. Supermarkets were establishing their own supply chains and their own warehouses on the edge of London; the wholesale markets’ niche would only become narrower. In 2002 and 2007, reports recommended the slimming down of London’s markets, proposing that Billingsgate and Smithfield be closed and their business consolidated to New Spitalfields and/or New Covent Garden. 8

These plans foundered in the complexity of legislation and commercial interests, but then the wholesale trade experienced a revival: today, the Corporation’s markets are fully occupied and returning a small surplus. Three factors threw the markets a lifeline: one was London’s phenomenal boom in dining out, encompassing everything from opulent Michelin aspirants to inventive street food pop-ups. A city whose food had traditionally served as the butt of other people’s jokes became one of the world’s great dining destinations.

A city whose food had traditionally served as the butt of other people’s jokes became one of the world’s great dining destinations.

Another factor was immigration: supermarkets work at scale but the choice they offer is heavily circumscribed. ‘International food’ aisles have been outpaced by the growth in specialist suppliers of everything from Chinese greens to curry leaves to Polish sausage to pomfret. At Billingsgate alone, ‘exotics’ are now reckoned to make up 40 per cent of turnover. New Londoners have revitalised the city’s markets as well as its cuisine.

The third factor was a change in food-buying culture and a resurgence of middle-class interest in authenticity and provenance. The markets increasingly operate at the edge of mainstream consumption, providing specialities for minority cuisines and exquisite ingredients for epicureans, as well as acting as a secondary market for produce that is just a little too gnarly and imperfect for the supermarkets’ exacting aesthetic standards.

But the irony of London’s voracious appetite, for land as much as for food, is that the city is forever devouring its edge, driving markets and other food services further from the centre. Rational planning pushed Covent Garden, Billingsgate and Spitalfields out of central London, narrowing their focus to wholesale trade and relocating it to fringe industrial areas, but today these locations – alongside the massive redevelopment of Vauxhall, next to Canary Wharf’s new Crossrail Station and at the edge of London’s Olympic Park – are far from peripheral. Yesterday’s remote trading outpost is today’s property hotspot.

The City of London Corporation’s Markets Committee have asked for another strategic review, and at Billingsgate rumours of relocation abound. Moving to New Spitalfields is still discussed as one option, but space there is short; relocation to a new facility in Barking is another possibility. Meanwhile, at New Covent Garden (currently owned by central government), a joint venture is in place to build a new 500,000 square-foot market, together with 3,000 homes and 135,000 square feet of offices.

Curiously, the market that feels most secure is Smithfield, which has occupied the same site for the best part of a millennium. As London grew around the livestock market, Smithfield became increasingly controversial, not just for what one Victorian campaigner described as the “cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights” of the market itself, but also thanks to the chaos caused by driving animals through the narrow streets. A new cattle market was opened in 1855 in Islington, and Smithfield was re-established as a meat market, with carcasses delivered by underground railway.

The 42 traders at Smithfield today have successfully battled against redevelopment, the most recent proposal for which was rejected in 2014, following a public inquiry. The now-disused General Market, alongside Farringdon Road, is earmarked for the relocation of the Museum of London, but the Victorian East and West Markets and the 20th century Poultry Market are all listed, severely limiting the scope for profitable redevelopment, especially once the costs of relocating traders are taken into account.

The possible future for London’s wholesale markets is not simply survival or displacement. Markets could become re-absorbed by the city in their new locations, rediscovering the mix and urban quality that was lost in rezoning. The plans for Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea see New Covent Garden as an essential component of local character, and include proposals for a new ‘Garden Heart’ of workspaces, with a ‘Food Quarter’ of specialised shops and restaurants alongside it. On page 28, Henry Dimbleby outlines plans to bring the Street Feast model to Smithfield.

The story of London’s wholesale markets is rich in anomaly. Trading animal carcasses and crates of fish on the doorstep of Europe’s leading financial centres is certainly a surprising use of prime real estate. But the markets’ survival should be celebrated, as should their continuing capacity for re­invention. In a city endlessly seeking novelty, variety and traceability in its diet, wholesale markets make visible the sinews and circulatory system of consumption, and draw a line connecting medieval trade in beasts, fowls and fish with the complex assets and derivatives that are bought and sold in financial markets today.

  • 3 Peter Ackroyd, London: the Biography, Chatto and Windus, 2000
  • 4 Andrew Summers and John Debenham, London’s Metropolitan Essex: Events and Personalities from Essex in London, Summersbook, 2013.
  • 5 Daniel Lysons, The Environs of London: Volume 4, London, 1796. Accessed through British History Online.
  • 6 Roy Porter, London: A Social History, Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • 7 Watchable at
  • 8 Nicholas Saphir, Review of London Wholesale Markets, Corporation of London, 2002, and URS Corporation Ltd, London Wholesale Markets Review, GLA, 2007.