London’s fishy history: A tale of the Thames

Cockles, kippers and whelks, all now symbolic of a London long gone. No more the east-end geezer necking Truman’s Brewery pints, chuffing Woodbines and gulping jellied eels down on the dock. His libations have been drowned out by a gourmand city, that guzzles salmon, sea bass and lobster.

Daring tourists have now replaced locals in consuming the gelatinous, wobbling goo of jellied eel. But the culinary history and maritime culture of the city is disregarded by locals as outdated and disgusting. Even the Thames itself is much maligned, the brown lacquer of its tidal ebb and flow staining the river, landing it a repulsive reputation. Yes, the river was declared biologically dead. Yes, it was riddled with cholera and the expelled carcasses of pigs. Yes, it also now contains a constant saturation of urinary cocaine. However, it sure is making progress. It is now the cleanest river flowing through any mega-city on earth after years of improvement to sewers, as well as industrial practices and regeneration schemes.

At one time in history the Thames was so industrialised, so congealed with the excesses of booming trade that you could walk from Rotherhithe to Shadwell, not by bridge, but by barge to barge, boat to boat. A raucous scene, reminiscent of Conrad-era dockland London.

 

A sea of sails made way for fleets of steel, the vessels bringing produce up the Thames grew increasingly swollen, laden with raw materials and a lot – a gruesome lot – of fish. Good Friday – the Christian commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion that forbids eating meat – once meant pure massacre for the Channel and North Sea, as it drove Londoners to eat even more seafood. This attack was even more savage than the scramble of pensioners bickering for the last serving of boil-in-the-bag kippers on Good Friday evening.

A gruesome lot of fish

 

In Victorian-era London, Billingsgate Market alone saw around one-hundred and twenty-thousand tonnes of fish delivered a year. Over three hundred tonnes of fish a day – the deliveries executed mostly through waterways and sea – for a city then approximately a third of the population of modern day London.

Construction of Tower Bridge, 1886-1894

It begs the question, when, along the way, did tastes change and when did we stop celebrating the fact that we live surrounded by some of the most incredibly fertile coast lines? For a Londoner, the idea of whelks or cockles will be met with a revolted eye-roll. Yet interestingly, the average consumption of fish here in England hasn’t changed much over the decades. The National Federation of Fish Friers – a genuine establishment – found that three-hundred million portions of fish and chips were consumed in 1999. This and similar statistics show we haven’t actually started eating less fish… we’re just eating increasingly less local fish.

 

As supply to London boomed from catches hauled in the North Sea, and fish farms further afield, the market was dominated by seafood brought from an increasing distance away. Dover sole, flounder, mackerel and mussels were becoming unfavourable, with haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns brought in via gargantuan fishing operations becoming the favourites. In 2018, Greenpeace discovered that two-thirds of the United Kingdom’s seafood quota is hoarded by a meagre twenty five businesses. More than half of Ireland’s quota is caught by one vessel alone.

A loot of Haddock

London’s change in eating habits were not a result of personal choice, but of shifting industrial patterns. The reaching arm of conglomerate fishing fleets and quotas forever meddling with what fish went where. Small boats in the UK make up for 79% of the fleet, but are only entitled to 2% of the catch. Little wonder we see less of certain things; on the one side there’s the callused elderly hand prying cockles and shucking oysters; on the other, some unknown oligarchy pillaging like pirates for a loot of haddock. With the smaller vessels from the fleet left to rot in the dock, the finicky, fiddly, time-consuming catch got kicked off the scene.

Billingsgate porter
The old Billingsgate Market

No consumer should be judged for changes made that they did not construct. New seafood was welcomed with curiosity and what, for most, came cheapest. Jellied eels were once masterminded because they were easy to make, nutritious and low cost. Boiled in water, vinegar and seasoning, eels provide the protein and essential fats and the jelly provides collagen, (the stuff that anti-aging creams promise you). The seafood London has locally today is leagues away from the unpleasant image upheld of the antiquated meal of eel.

 

Mackerel, pole and line caught, on the South-West coast? Dirt cheap. Dover sole from the channel? Dirt cheap. Flounder – this is a good one – caught in the Thames. Dirt. Cheap. These fish are full of flavour, local, and a genuine pleasure to learn to cook. Hopefully, under the excuse of Good Friday, a taste of what we’ve all been missing can be enjoyed.

 

As stated the Thames was declared biologically dead. It is now home to one-hundred and fifteen species of fish. Billingsgate market even has its own resident thieving seal, locked in a barter for first picks on buckets of fish heads. London has changed, and changed again; fish and seafood are always in the perpetual rhythm of change as well, rising and falling with the flow of the tides. Go sniff out the change at your local market, with its cacophonous camaraderie, it has some secrets to share.

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