Barter Archive

Pat Wong

February 7th, 2021


My name’s Bill Thornton. I’m 71 years old and I’ve been working at Billingsgate now for 50 years. I retired six months ago. But they’re a bit short-staffed this week because some people are having COVID tests. They pulled me out of retirement for a couple of weeks, so I didn’t really want to retire. But unfortunately, it comes to all of us as life goes on. We all have to pack up some time. But, you know, normally no one ever retires down there because everybody enjoys it so much.

When you retire, it’s like losing your family.

It’s just a wonderful place to work and no one ever retires. It’s not like work. It’s like you have a laugh all day long. You get your jobs done, you work with nice people. And the people you work with, you’re with them for so long, they become your family. So when you retire, it’s like losing your family, which is a shame really.

When I first came down here, I was just a young lad. I used to go in and out the chills. I was just a gopher, go and get this, go and get that. And I just went on from there and progressed with the companies.

Years ago, the market has changed a lot. There were a lot more fishmongers around. When I come into the market in the morning and you’d serve the fishmongers, you’d serve the trade. You’d serve the restaurant owners who come down, the chefs who come down and buy their own fish. Yet, now there are not so many fishmongers as there were years ago. And whereas before, you would only serve the trade.

Now it’s changed so much. Now you get the general public coming in because there are not many fishmongers around here. The general public will come down and buy their own fish. So your trade tends to change somewhat. And we now serve the public. They buy wholesale and it won’t be just one fish here, one fish there. If they buy enough, you serve them. But it’s only because there aren’t as many fishmongers around. Otherwise you wouldn’t, because otherwise you’re taking the trade away from the fishmongers, which is not what we’re here for.

People become your friends and we’re all mates.

Over the years we’ve had so many people that have been here but it is like one big family. Because when you’re here all day, you get here about 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, you’re here till about 10, 11 or 12 o’clock. So you tend to spend more time here with your friends than you spend with your family. So these people become your friends and we’re all mates.

Sometimes we go out together for the evening. We go out for a beer or a meal. I’ve known people who’ve had children who’ve grown up together. We used to have beer at quite a few pubs on the old market, but they’ve gone now. But here, where the seafood school is now, used to be a restaurant and a bar.

But you get some of the porters to come up at 6 o’clock in the morning, they’d be paralytic. And then of course, that had to stop. Also with the drink driving, the copper used to sit out there on the roundabout. I remember you used to go out at 9 o’clock, get breathalysed and you lose your license. At 1 o’clock in the morning, there’s no public transport. So you lose your license. So the bar and restaurant are all closed.

I used to work in a bank and it’s all prim and proper.

I’ve never thought of changing my job. When I first started out, when I was a young boy, I started working in the middle of a bank and I just couldn’t hack it. It’s all prim and proper. But down here it’s completely different. Well, there’s all prim and proper, this, that and the other. It’s the type of people, yet here you see, you walk down the market in the morning, you can have a laugh, you tell jokes. It’s just laid back, so laid back.

But you have a laugh with your mates, but the job gets done and the banter between one another. And also when you get the public to come down here, they sort of pick up the banter and they start joining in. And then they’re standing there and have bought a half dozen boxes of fish just because they want to get involved in the banter.

It was a con to get us out of London.

When we first came here, when this was built, when we came in, we were the first tenants. And when we came here, we were supposed to have free rates for ten years. And the council, unfortunately, because we have signed this contract, that contract, the council reneged on it and we never did get ten years free rates, which I think it’s absolute. It was a con to get us out of London.

When we were first here, none of the Canary Wharf buildings was built. All this was where a warehouse is for the docks. They’ve all gone. They flattened it. Then we had to start with about four or five different entrances. First of all, we were coming down the road there, where they had warehouses. When they moved it to the middle there, we came in from this end. So they just moved us around.

While they were building Canary Wharf and over the course of the last 30 years from being a nothing and derelict site. All these have been built and now it’s like the financial center of the world, so they don’t really want Billingsgate Market sitting underneath it. So that’s why we are now moving out to Barking. They’re going to what they’re going to try and do, the City of London Corporation, is to put all three markets together, Billingsgate, Smithfield and Spitalfields, which is fair to them.

It will try and get all the lorries out of London clogging the roads. Because lorries have got so big now they can only get one stop. You’ve got congestion if they’re out of London and they’re down at Barking, where we’re supposed to be going, they’re out of London. So it keeps the roads clear, which is a good thing. I understand as well that the City of London Corporation is trying to use the river more.

They’ve got to try to bring in more goods along the river, which again, cuts out the pollution, cuts out the lorries on the road in London and I know they bought the wharf, they bought the jetty. So they can bring the boats up, unload and cut everybody down.

It was a shame because it was historical.

Well, I’ve been there all my life, but on the other hand, the time this market moves, I’ll probably be pushing up daisies, you know, so it won’t really affect me at all.

But it’d be a shame, like when we left the old market, it was a shame because it was historical. In the morning, you get the office workers in the city, and they come down the road, we’d have banter with them, we’d have a laugh. But because they’re inner city now that all that’s gone, you only have to laugh with the people that come and buy their fish now, the general public. They’re not walking by anymore. But we used to have a laugh with them. As I say, everything changes. So life, you know, moves on.

I understand there’s a lot of companies which have older personnel that are getting near retirement age. By time the market moves, they’ll be near retirement and they don’t really want to go. There will be a few companies that won’t go. But on the other hand, if there’s a waiting list for companies that want to come in, so they’ll go and the other companies that want to come in, will take their place so the market will still carry on. It is because everybody got to eat fish or meat or vegetables so the markets will stay. It’s just that you’ll sell your meat and fish in different ways because, but as I say, same as everything.

I presented Princess Anne with a salmon.

Various people come down here and you can have a laugh. Sometimes a lot of actors come down, one year I actually presented Princess Anne with a salmon, which is a peppercorn rent for the Tower Hamlets from the City of London Corporation. And what a lovely lady she is. And that was an honor for me to present her with the salmon. And then afterwards we went upstairs for breakfast with her and presented with a few bits and pieces.

And she’s a lovely lady and she said, ‘thank you very much for this but I tell you what I’d really like.’ Then we asked, ‘what would you like ma’am?’ And when she said, ‘I’d love a box of kippers and one of the chaps.’ He had his own smoked company. He went downstairs and got them. He said, ‘here you are ma’am.’ She said, ‘how much do I owe you?’ He said, ‘nothing.’ She called her lady-in-waiting and said, ‘these go home’ and she meant it. Oh, what a lovely lady.

And then one year as well, Prince William came down and he walked around the market and tried some jellied eels, down at Micks Eels and he said, Oof.. and he went round and round. He’s not too keen on jellied eels. But it was wonderful. And what a lovely man. One really lovely man, he went into the cafe and sat with people. He had his breakfast in the cafe. Oh, lovely man. I didn’t take a photo with him but in the cafe downstairs, there’s a picture of Prince William with Big Greg, his arm around him. There is a big picture there of him. Actually, Big Greg is in the market today.

‘Listen, boy, people remember quality.’

There’re lots of people that come down and they’re just nice. I’ll always remember once I was only a young lad in the firm. And there’s a fishmonger and he was super serious. People couldn’t get on with him when he came around with his clipboard and half rimmed glasses that he looked over. The price of a skate one day had gone through the roof and I said, oh, listen, Ted, I said, sorry, mate. I said the price of skates went through the roof. He looked over his glasses and he said, ‘listen, boy, people remember quality.’ He said long after they’ve forgotten the price, he said, ‘don’t you ever forget it.’

And I haven’t. All these years ago. I’ve never forgotten it. You give people good stuff, they’ll go and buy it again. Or they go out to a restaurant, you say well how much was that? Well I don’t know but it was good. You give people a bit of crap and you’ll only do it once and they’ll tell everybody. So the man was so right and I’ve never forgotten it. So that’s why I trade. You give people good fish, they’ll come back.

He’s long retired. I’m going back a lot of years now, you know, I’ll tell you his name was Teddy Bot. And he had a shop in Gerrards Cross and the shop’s still there and the shop is still just as good. And it’s a fantastic shop. But Teddy’s not there, he’s been taken over by somebody else. But again, they’re very, very good. They only buy the best. You buy good fish, you don’t have to sell it. It sells itself.

If you chuck something he didn’t like, he’d chuck it right back.

Years ago in the dock, we used to have a seal. And every morning, the seal would hear the market start up. He used to pop his head up and we’d chuck salmon over to him, we’d chuck mackerel over to him and he’d actually go down and bring it up. He’d skin the salmon and he’d eat the head and eat the skin and chuck the rest, you just see the rest go down. But you’d see him dive then come up you know. Fantastic. And then he eats the mackerel.

If you chuck something he didn’t like, he’d chuck it right back. He didn’t want it. It had to be good stuff. Obviously been here for ten or twelve years or more, but unfortunately the seal passed away. So it’s a shame really. It’s only the one thing. I can’t remember what they named it. I think they did name it, but I never did.

But you used to come out with your steel capped boots, when you bang on the side and wherever he was, he’d come up. And over it went. I’d see him every morning, he’d be here every morning. When the market started and when it finished, he’d be off. Brilliant.

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