Fishmongers' Hall and Fish Street Hill

Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'Fishmongers' Hall and Fish Street Hill', Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878), pp. 1-8. British History Online [accessed 17 June 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "Fishmongers' Hall and Fish Street Hill", in Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878) 1-8. British History Online, accessed June 17, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "Fishmongers' Hall and Fish Street Hill", Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878). 1-8. British History Online. Web. 17 June 2024,

In this section



The First Fishmongers' Hall—William Walworth—The Wealth and Power of the Old Fishmongers—Their Quarrels—Their Records—The present Hall—Walworth's Dagger—Walworth's Pall—Fish Street Hill—The Churchyard of St Leonard Goldsmith and Monument Yard.

HERE Fishmongers' Hall, that handsome Anglo-Greek building at the west side of the foot of London Bridge, still stands this rich semi-marine Company have had a stronghold ever since the reign of Edward III. It was in this convenient spot, also, that that most warlike and eminent of Fishmongers, Sir William Walworth, himself resided during the reign of Richard II., the monarch whose crown he saved by a single blow of his prompt sword.

Mr. Herbert, who took great pains about this question, says that there were originally five tenements on the site of Fishmongers' Hall. The frontage towards Thames Street was 120 feet, and the depth to the river about 200 feet. The plot of ground stood in Upper Thames Street, between the Water Gate and Old Swan Lane, and lay in three parishes. It was parted into six great slips by five stairs to the Thames, as seen in " The Exact Survey of the Ruins of London after the Fire of 1666." The stairs were—Water Gate (originally called Oyster Hill, and afterwards the Gully Hole), the site of the old water works, Churchyard Alley, Fleur de Luce Alley, Black Raven Alley, and Ebgate (Old Swan Lane), and after the Fire, Wheatsheaf Alley.

Henry III., in order to increase his queen's customs at Queenhithe (Thames Street), prohibited any fish being landed from fishing-vessels except at that port. This led to a great London fishmarket being established in Old Fish Street (near Doctors' Commons), and Knightrider Street soon became famous, as Stow tells us, for fish dinners. The stalls soon grew into houses, and this is why St. Nicholas Coleabbey contained the tombs of so many celebrated Fishmongers.

Edward I., finding the old restrictions work badly, restored the Fishmongers to their ancient liberty, and in the next reign they removed to Bridge Street, thenceforward called New Fish Street. Here the Fishmongers could correspond with Billingsgate, and their other colonies at Fish Wharf, Oyster Gate, and Eastcheap. "The topping men," says Stow, "lived in Bridge Street." The Stock Market was also an early fish-market; in 1545 there were 25 fishmongers there, and only 18 butchers. After the change of market all the great Fishmonger mayors and aldermen were buried at St. Magnus' and St. Botolph's, while the Stock Fishmongers took a fancy to the cool vaults of St. Michael's, Crooked Lane.

Herrings, says Herbert, are mentioned soon after the Conquest, and in the 31st of Edward III. they had become fish of such importance, that a special Act of Parliament was passed relating to them. Whales accidentally stranded on our inhospitable coasts in that reign were instantly salted down and sent to the king for his consumption. As for porpoises, they were favourites with English cooks till after Elizabeth's reign.

Edward I. seems to have been a fish-loving king, for he fixed a tariff of prices. The edict limits the best soles to 3d. a dozen; the best turbot to 6d.; the best mackerel, in Lent, to id. each; the best pickled herrings to twenty the penny; fresh oysters to 2d. per gallon; a quarter of a hundred of the best eels to 2d.; and other fish in proportion. "Congers, lampreys, and sea-hogs" are enumerated.

The same King Edward, the born plague of fishmongers and Scotchmen, forbade all partnerships with foreign fishmongers, and all storing fish in cellars to retail afterwards at exorbitant rates. No fishmonger was to buy before the king's purveyors, and no fish (unless salted) was to be kept in London beyond the second day. The City had limited the profit of the London fishmonger to a penny in the shilling; moreover, no one was to sell fish except in the open market-place, and no one was permitted to water fish more than twice, under pain of fines and the market-place stocks.

In the reign of Edward II. all the London fishmongers had their stalls in Bridge Street, a market of a later date than Billingsgate and Old Fish Street. In the reign of Richard II. the Stock Fishmongers formed a new company, and had a hall of their own to the east of the Fishmongers'. The two companies united in the reign of Henry VI., and held their meetings at Lord Fairhope's house in Thames Street. The restless Stock Fishmongers again seceded in the reign of Henry VII.; but in the reign of Henry VIII. the two companies were again finally fused together, and on this occasion Lord Fairhope's hall saw cups of wine drained to the happy union.

The great tenant of Fishmongers' Hall in the reign of Edward III. was John Lovekyn, who was several times Lord Mayor of London. At the death of Lovekyn's wife the celebrated William Walworth lived there, and carried on his honest but unheroic business of stock fishmonger, a great trade in Catholic times, when fish was in demand for frequent fast-days. To Walworth succeeded William Askham, one of his apprentices, and twice Mayor of London. The building is then spoken of as having a wharf, a loft, and a tower which Walworth had built.

The Fishmongers must have been wealthy in the reign of Edward III., when they contributed £40 towards the expenses of the French wars—only one pound less than the Mercers, the grandest Company; and two years later they again contributed the same sum. In the 50th Edward III. the Fishmongers ranked the fourth Company, as at present, and returned six members to the common council, the greatest number any guild sent.

In spite of Walworth's "swashing blow" and loyal service, the reign of Richard II. proved a vexatious one to the Fishmongers. John de Northampton, Mayor in 1380, obtained an Act of Parliament to entirely throw open the trade, and compelled the Fishmongers to admit that their occupation was no craft, and unworthy to be reckoned among the mysteries. He also went further, for in the year 1382 Parliament, indignant at the frauds of Billingsgate, enacted that in future no Fishmonger should be admitted Mayor of London. This prohibition was removed next year, when the Fishmongers pleaded their own cause in Parliament. During this discussion the Fishmongers prayed for the 'king's protection from "corporal hurt," and pleaded malice in their accusers. Upon which John Moore, a Mercer, angrily charged Walter Sybell, a spokesman of the Fishmongers, with having let the rebels of Kent and Essex, Wat Tyler's followers, into the City. This same Walter, a violent and rash man, was, by-the-bye, afterwards fined 500 marks for slandering Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Even in 1383 the anti-Fishmonger agitation still continued, for we find John Cavendish, a Fishmonger, challenging the Chancellor for taking a bribe of £10 in the fore-named case. The Chancellor freed himself by oath on the Sacrament, and Joha Cavendish, being found guilty, was sentenced to pay the Chancellor 1,000 marks, and was also sent to prison.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD OF LONDON BRIDGE. From Hollar's View. (see page 4.)

Herbert says that the Fishmongers were amongst the earliest of the metropolitan guilds. They were one of those amerced in the reign of Henry II.; and we have seen that charters were granted to them not only by Edward II., Edward III., and Richard II., but by Edward I. They were fined 500 marks as a guild, in the 18th of the latter prince, for forestalling, contrary to the laws and constitutions of the City, and it was soon afterwards found necessary to make fresh regulations for them, which are to be found in the "Liber Horn." These, amongst other things, ordain "that no fishmonger shall buy fish beyond the bounds appointed—namely, the chapel on London Bridge, Baynard's Castle, and Jordan's Key'" This was to prevent their going and meeting the boats before their arrival at London. "No fish were to be brought in any boat without first being landed at the chapel on the bridge; fresh fish was only to be sold after mass, and salt fish after prime." Eight years later—viz., in 1298—the Company displayed their great wealth by meeting the brave king, Edward I., on his return from Scotland, with very splendid retinue and costly trappings. We have already (Vol. I., p. 305) noticed a great affray which took place between the Fishmongers and the Skinners, in the midst of Cheapside, in 1340, which ended in the apprehension and execution, by the mayor, of several of the ringleaders. These quarrels were common amongst the great companies in early times; and in the above, and most other instances, arose from disputed claims about precedency, which were uniformly settled by the Court of Aldermen. Stow's allusion to the ancient amity between the Fishmongers and Goldsmiths, which he charges the former with ignorance for not knowing, but which he himself has not explained, was the consequence of one of these decisions, which were always accompanied by orders for them to alternately take precedence, dine together, exchange livery hoods, and other methods calculated to make them friends, as will be shown to have been the case in both instances. The Fishmongers and Goldsmiths have no commemoration of this amity at present; but the Skinners (who were similarly reconciled after the above affray, of which a notice will also be seen in the account of that Company), when members of their courts dine with each other, drink as toasts the "Merchant Taylors and Skinners," and "Skinners and Merchant Taylors."

When Alderman Wood, as prime warden of the Company, was examined before the Commissioners of Municipal Inquiry, he stated that till the year 1830 only eight liverymen were made a year, but that year (for election purposes) 400 liverymen had been elected, on signing a declaration foregoing all rights to dine in hall. The fee for coming on the livery was then £25, the purchase-money of the freedom £105; and for translation from another Company double that sum.

The Fishmongers' books do not extend far enough back to give any account of their ancient livery. For many years the Goldsmiths and Fishmongers, as proof of amity, exchanged each others' liveries.

Every year, on the festival of their patron saint, St. Peter, all the brethren and "sustern" of the fraternity went in their new livery to St. Peter's Church, Cornhill, and there heard a solemn mass in the worship of God and St. Peter, and offered at offering-time whatever their devotion prompted them. They kept three priests to celebrate obits, which was one more than is mentioned in any other Company. The ancient custom of electing wardens is still retained by this Company. A sort of cap, fronted with a metal plate, is placed successively on the head of each new warden.

The second Fishmongers' Hall, though usually ascribed to Sir Christopher Wren, was built by a Mr. Jerman, who was also the architect of Drapers' Hall and the second Royal Exchange. Old Fishmongers' Hall was a stately structure, particularly the front towards the river, of which it commanded a very fine view. The Thames Street front was a mere cluster of houses; the entrance, however, was pleasing. It was ornamented with sculptured pilasters, sustaining an open pediment, which had the Company's arms carved in bold relief. The buildings environed a square court, handsomely paved. The dining-hall formed the south side of the court, and was a spacious and lofty apartment, having, besides the usual accompaniment of a screen of Grecian architecture, a capacious gallery running round the whole interior, and a statue of Sir William Walworth, said by Walpole to have been carved by an artist named Pierce. The rooms for business lay on the west side of the court, and those for courts and withdrawing at entertainments on the east, which were ornamented with many rich decorations, and paintings of a great variety of fish, not easy to be described.

In Hollar's large four-sheet view of London, 1647, we perceive two courtyards, evidently formed by running a dining-hall, or refectory—high-roofed and turreted, like that of Westminster—across the original quadrangle. This view also affords a good representation of the Thames front, which appears of an irregular form and unornamental, but to have been at one time regular and handsome. It consists of two wings and a receding centre, the latter having a balcony at the first floor, double rows of windows, a lofty octagonal tower or staircase rising above the roof, and crowned with a sort of cupola; there was also a large arched doorway leading to a small terrace on the Thames, similar to the present house. The wings were evidently, when perfect, uniform square towers, harmonising with the centre; but only the western one here remains in its original state, the eastern one being modernised and roofed like a common house.

In De Hogenberg's earlier plan of London, Fishmongers' Hall appears as a square pile of masonry, with embattled parapets, towers at the angles, a central gateway, and steps leading from the river to one of the side towers.

In no worse spot in all London could the Great Fire have broken out than Pudding Lane. It found there stores of oil, hemp, flax, pitch, tar, cordage, hops, wines, brandies, and wharves for coal and timber. Fishmongers' Hall was the first great building consumed when, as Dryden says, in two splendid lines,

"A key of fire ran all along the shore,
And frightened all the river with a blaze."

The building on the river-side was reduced to a shell. Even the hall itself, which was at the back, with a high roof and turret, was entirely destroyed, as well as two sets of stairs, and the houses round the Old Swan and Black Raven Alley. After the Fire, the building committee met at Bethlehem Hospital. Sir William Davenant (Shakespeare's supposed son), describing this part of London before the Great Fire, says: "Here a palace, there a wood-yard; here a garden, there a brewhouse; here dwelt a lord, there a dyer; and between both duomo commune." A strange, picturesque spot, half Dutch, half Venetian, this part of the river-side must have been before the Great Fire.

The present Fishmongers' Hall, at the northwest foot of London Bridge (says Timbs), was rebuilt by Roberts in 1830–33, and is the third of the Company's halls nearly on this site. It is raised upon a lofty basement cased with granite, and contains fire-proof warehouses, which yield a large rental. The river front has a balustraded terrace, and a Grecian-Ionic hexastyle and pediment. The east or entrance front is enriched by pilasters and columns, and the arms of the Company and crest. The entrance-hall is separated from the great staircase by a screen of polished Aberdeen granite columns; and at the head of the stairs is Pierce's statue of Sir William Walworth a Fishmonger, who carries a dagger. In his hand was formerly a real dagger, said to be the identical weapon with which he stabbed Wat Tyler; though, in 1731, a publican of Islington pretended to possess the actual poniard. Beneath the statue is this inscription:—
"Brave Walworth, Knight, Lord Mayor, yt slew
Rebellious Tyler in his alarmes;
The King, therefore, did give in liew
The dagger to the City armes,

In the 4th year of Richard II., Anno Domini 1381."

A common but erroneous belief was thus propagated; for the dagger was in the City arms long before the time of Sir William Walworth, and was intended to represent the sword of St. Paul, the patron saint of the Corporation. The reputed dagger of Walworth, which has lost its guard, is preserved by the Company. The workmanship is no doubt that of Walworth's period. The weapon now in the hand of the statue (which is somewhat picturesque, and within recollection was coloured en costume) is modern.

Amongst celebrated Fishmongers and their friends we must mention Isaac Pennington, the turbulent Lord Mayor of the Civil War under Charles I.; and Dogget, the comedian and Whig, who bequeathed a sum of money for the purchase of a "coat and badge," to be rowed for every 1st of August from the "Swan" at London Bridge to the "Swan" at Battersea, in remembrance of George I.'s accession to the throne.

In Fishmongers' Hall there is an original drawing of a portion of the pageant exhibited by the Fishmongers' Company on the 29th of October, 1616, on the occasion of Sir John Leman, a member of the Company, entering on the office of Lord Mayor of the City of London, and the following portraits: William III. and queen, by Murray; George II. and queen, by Schakleton; Dukes of Kent and Sussex, by Beechey; Earl St. Vincent (the admiral), by Beechey; Queen Victoria, by Herbert Smith; the Margrave of Anspach and Margravine, by G. Rowney; the late Lord Chancellor Hatherley, by Wells.

"The Fishmongers," says Herbert, "have no wardens' accounts or minutes of an earlier date than 1592, their more ancient ones having been either destroyed in the Fire of London or otherwise lost. The title-deeds of their various estates commence as far back as 9 Edward III., and are finely preserved, as are also their Book of Ordinances and some other ancient documents relating to the Company. The minutes remaining—or, as they are termed in this Company, 'court ledgers'—consist of eight folio volumes, separately dated."

The Fishmongers' greatest curiosity is their pall, commonly although erroneously described as "Walworth's pall;" it is in three pieces, like the famous pall of the Merchant Taylors, and exactly resembles in shape one belonging to the Saddlers'—namely, that of a cross. It consists of a centre slip, about 12 feet long and 2½ feet wide, and two shorter sides, each 8 feet 11 inches long by 1 foot 4 inches wide, and when laid over a corpse must have totally enveloped the coffin, but without corner falls, like our modern palls. In the style of ornament, workmanship, and materials, this is one of the most superb works of its kind of ancient art, and in this country, as a relic of the old Catholic faith, has probably no parallel. The pattern of the central part is a sprig, or running flower, which is composed of gold network, bordered with red, and the whole of which reposes on a smooth, solid ground of cloth of gold. The end pieces and side borders to this middle slip are worked in different pictures and representations. The end pieces consist of a very rich and massy wrought picture, in gold and silk, of the patron, St. Peter, in pontificalibus. He is seated on a superb throne, his head crowned with the sacred tiara. One hand holds the keys; the other is in the position of giving the benediction. On each side of the saint is a kneeling angel, censing him with one hand, and holding a sort of golden vase with the other. Each of these end pieces is perfectly similar; and the materials, which are beautifully worked, are of gold and silk. The angels' wings, according to the old custom in such representations, are composed of peacocks' feathers, in all their natural vivid colours. The outer robes are gold, raised with crimson; their under-vests white, shaded with sky-blue. The faces are finely worked in satin, after nature; and they have long yellow hair. St. Peter's vest, or under-robe, is crimson, raised with gold; the inside of the hanging sleeve of his outer robe, or coat, azure, powdered with gold stars. A golden nimbus, or rather glory, encircles his head; and in his lap is placed an open book, having the following inscription in old English black-letter on a silver ground: "Credo in Deum Patrem, Omnipotentem," at the one end piece; and at the other similarly, "Credo in Deum Patrem, omnium." The pictures of the side pieces are divided into three compartments. The centre is Christ delivering the keys to Peter, the latter of whom is kneeling, and habited as in the end pieces, but with only a glory encircling the head, and no crown (he not being crowned Prince of the Apostles). The Saviour is habited agreeably to the usual representations of him as regards costume. His robe is crimson, raised with gold; the inner vesture purple, and very rich. Around the head is a superb circular glory, jewelled and coronetted. He graciously stoops to deliver the two golden keys of heaven and hell with one hand; while with the other he poises the golden orb of sovereignty, surmounted with the cross. A label proceeding from the mouth has inscribed, in black-letter and on a silver ground, as before: "Tibi dabo Claves Regum Cœo'm." Both figures stand in a beautiful arched recess, within Gothic-pinnacled buildings and ornaments. On each side of this middle picture (which is the same on both sides) the decorations are made up of the Fishmongers' arms, richly and properly emblazoned. The supporters (merman and mermaid) are worked in their natural colours. The merman wears gold armour. The mermaid's body is of white silk thread, beautifully worked; her long tresses of golden thread. A superb jewel hangs by a gold chain from her neck. Her mirror reflects a head like that of Christ or St. Peter, The entire pall has a fringe two inches deep of gold and purple silk threads, and is lined inside with black silk. The weight of the whole, owing to the quantity of gold and silver worked into it, is very considerable; and it is in the finest preservation.


The Saddlers' Company also still have a valuable pall, though not so costly. It is of crimson velvet. The centre is of yellow silk, forming an elegant sprig pattern. On one side of the pall there is embroidered in raised work of gold thread, in the old English character, the words, "In te Domine speravi;" and on the other side, worked in like manner, the words, "Ne me confunde in aeternam." The head and foot of the pall have embroidered on them the arms of the Company, and four kneeling angels surrounding the letters I.H.S. encircled by a glory. The whole is bordered with a broad gold fringe.

LONDON BRIDGE, 1756. (From an Old View, taken shortly before the Demolition of the Houses.)

"A curious relic of the old shows," says Mr. Herbert, "is kept by the Fishmongers. It is the original drawing for the mayoralty procession of their member, Sir John Leman, in 1616, and which, from containing allusions in it to the story of Walworth and Wat Tyler, has been called, in the most modern accounts of London, 'The Procession of Sir William Walworth in 1380.' The representation occupies a roll of strong paper several feet in length, filled with characters and objects six or seven inches high, well drawn, and all properly coloured, emblazoned, and gilt. The pageants have inscriptions over them in the handwriting of the time, from which we learn that it was the custom to suspend them from the roof of the hall when done with, for future solemnities. Several of the Companies still possess remains of their old shows, in particular the Grocers. The scenes were painted like those of the theatres, in distemper, and the animals, or 'beasts which drew the pageants,' were fabricated so like what are used there, that there seems little doubt that the latter specimens, at least, were the work of theatrical artists. Those who had no pageants (which were confined to the twelve) have many of them other articles which were used in their processions. We saw in the old pageant-chamber at Brewers' Hall the fittings-up of their state barge, with various other relics; and in a corner of the room stood silk banners and streamers, covered with dust and dropping from their staves—a melancholy memento of former splendour."

Fish Street Hill was formerly called New Fish Street. The Black Prince once lived there, according to Stow. "Above Crooked Lane end, upon Fish Street Hill," he says, "is one great house, for the most part built of stone, which pertained some time to Edward the Black Prince, son of Edward III., who was in his lifetime lodged there. It is now altered to a common hostelry, having the 'Black Bell' for a sign." Here, too, was the scene of Jack Cade's utmost fury, when he let slip the dogs of war, and, according to Shakespeare, shouted out his cruel commands of "Up Fish Street! Down St. Magnus' corner! Kill and knock down! Throw them into Thames!"

The churchyard of St. Leonard marks the site of a church of no interest destroyed by the Great Fire. Many of the Doggets were buried there.

In Ben Jonson's time King's Head Court, near the Monument, was a tavern, celebrated for its wine, and much resorted to by roysterers. He mentions it in that wretched play of his paralytic old age, The Magnetic Lady; and "Fish Street dinners" are especially noted as luxurious things in one of the Roxburghe ballads.

Any spot in London that can be connected with the name of Goldsmich becomes at once ennobled. It was in Monument Yard that the poor poet, on his return from his foreign tour, served as shopman to a chemist. "He went among the London apothecaries," says Mr. Forster," and asked them to let him spread plaisters for them, pound in their mortars, run with their medicines; but they asked him for a character, and he had none to give. 'His threadbare coat,' says the 'Percy Memoir,' 'his uncouth figure, and Hibernian dialect, caused him to meet with repeated refusals.' At last a chemist of the name of Jacob took compassion upon him; and the late Conversation Sharp used to point out a shop at the corner of Monument Yard, on Fish Street Hill, shown to him in his youth as this benevolent Mr. Jacob's." Of his struggles at this time Goldsmith himself tells us, in his "Vicar ef Wakefield." "Upon my arrival in town, sir," he says, in his delightful novel, "my first care was to deliver your letter of recommendation to our cousin, who was himself in little better circumstances than I. My first scheme, you know, sir, was to be usher at an academy, and I asked his advice on the affair. Our cousin received the proposal with a true sardonic grin. 'Ay,' cried he, 'this is indeed a very pretty career that has been chalked out for you. I have been an usher at a boardingschool myself; and may I die by an anodyne necklace, but I had rather be under-turnkey in Newgate. I was up early and late; I was browbeat by the master, hated for my ugly face by the mistress, worried by the boys within, and never permitted to stir out to receive civility abroad. But are you sure you are fit for a school? Let me examine you a little. Have you been bred apprentice to the business?' 'No.' 'Then you won't do for a school. Can you dress the boys' hair?' 'No.' 'Then you won't do for a school. Have you had the smallpox?' 'No.' 'Then you won't do for a school. Can you lie three in a bed?' 'No.' 'Then you will never do for a school. Have you got a good stomach?' 'Yes.' 'Then you will by no means do for a school.'"

It was from his rough training here that Goldsmith was afterwards enabled to start as a humble physician, taking care to hide the holes in the front of his coat with his hat when he paid his visits.