Selling Billingsgate { 37 images } Created 5 Mar 2012

At 7am the sun begins to rise between the commercial towers of Canary Wharf in London's East End, casting an inky glow over Billingsgate Fish Market that rests just beneath. The market porters have been here for five hours already. In white overcoats and boots they look like ghosts in the gloom, unloading fish and setting up stalls. Here the inner workings of a capital city whir, a part of history otherwise ignored. Early morning gears turn beneath working-class camaraderie and the bottom rung of the human food chain is made.

Billingsgate is the oldest fish market in Britain, and by the 1800s it stood as the largest in the world. For over 300 years self employed market porters and cart minders have been the veins of Billingsgate, ferrying fish by hand from truck to stall, from stall to buyer, and minding the vehicles of customers. But times are changing. The city is closing in around Billingsgate with inevitable severity. The shiny façades of The Bank of America, Citi Group and Barclays loom overhead, and skeletal cranes multiply behind it's yellow vaulted roof. In ten years the value of the land beneath Billingsgate has rocketed from £13 million to £900 million. At the end of April the City of London Corporation will revoke the age old by-laws and licences that allow market porters and cart minders to operate, claiming that they're out of date. The livelihood of over one hundred men is threatened in an effort that many think will lead to the sale of the market, along with a large slice of everyday-English-heritage.

“It's all coming to an end. We've been down here for donkeys years, you've heard the way we talk, we're like a family,” says Grant in a gravelly slurred London accent. Sitting in one of the market cafés, he sneaks a rare rest to grab breakfast. He pushes food around a chipped plate, talking while chewing bread and baked beans. “I don't know what we'll do when they get rid of us. But it's not about us older guys, it's about the youngsters, the ones with mortgages and families to support,” he says. The porters are synonymous with life here, offering banter and East End charm. They know each customer personally, having developed relationships and trust over the years. “Billingsgate is like a way of life, you either do a year, or the rest of your life,” says Mick Durrell. He's now 62 but, like many, began working as a porter at 16, “I grew up with most of this lot,” he says.

On Christmas Eve of last year each market porter received a letter of unemployment from the City of London Corporation. Since, they've been fighting for their right to work the market, with the help of their workers union, Unite. This month the City of London Corporation offered each market porter a compensation cheque of around £25,000 for the abolition of their licence. All have accepted loss, unemployment, and agreed to the compromise. “You can't win against someone who can change the law,” said Grant.
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