Monday, 6 April 2015

Old Billingsgate Fish Market, EC3R

Think of the City, the 1980s and Tory politicians, and there doesn't seem much worth celebrating. But Old Billingsgate is an exception – if it were not for Michael Heseltine's listing of the building in 1980, the Corporation of London would have torn it down and buried it beneath steel and glass.

Although the present building dates from 1877, its removal would have meant the loss of a major part of London retail history, as a market had stood on this spot since at least 1000. As it was, only the lorry park suffered that fate, with the erection of the sinister-looking Northern & Shell Building, occupied by porn baron/media mogul Richard Desmond's company. It looks like a mountain of stacked-up TV screens.

According to whoever you believe, the market site was either originally the Gate of Belinus, built in the 5th century by the son of an ancient British king; a wharf owned by a Mr Biling; or Blynesgate to Saxon customs men. Anyway, it had been a market for a long time when Henry IV gave London citizens permission to collect tolls and customs in 1400.

A simple arcaded market building was eventually built, recorded in a 1598 drawing. This burnt down in the Great Fire, and its replacement was frequently repaired and renovated until George the Younger designed a new structure in 1800, which I'm assuming is that seen here (from the Illustrated London News, Nov 10, 1849):

Demands to expand or move the market seem to be almost as old as the market itself, as costermongers and their fishy wares blocked off nearby streets. There was also the smell. Visitors were told to find their way to The Monument and then follow their nose. An edition of the London Spy in 1703 says Billingsgate was renowned as "stinking of stale sprats". One wag suggested the odour was "the best means of defence against foreign invasion".

In 1850, the 1800 structure was replaced with a new building designed by John Jay, of red brick in an Italianate style, seen here:

It wasn't big enough - the market spilled out into the surrounding streets and the stink continued to offend City gents. Angry letters were written to The Times demanding the market's relocation. Some proposed a site just south of Blackfriars Bridge, where if a wharf were built fish could arrive by both boat and train. Shadwell was suggested and a market set up there, but it failed. (Even after the new market was built, there were still efforts to usurp Billingsgate - a Central Fish Market opened at Smithfield in Farringdon in May 1883, but again failed - after all, it wasn't even on the waterside.)

It was decided to go ahead with a redevelopment, and so the current building, designed by City architect Sir Horace Jones, was commissioned. When digging its foundations, 1,000 tonnes of oak, believed to be the foundations of the old dockside, was lifted out of the subsoil. The completed building, which cost £271,407, opened in 1877.

Described by Pevsner as in a French style, it is made from Portland stone with polished grey granite plinths and yellow brick facings between the upper windows. The glass roofs sit on lattice girders spanning 60ft.

The groined and vaulted 24ft-high basement was intended to be used as a shellfish market, the main floor for wet fish - Billingsgate salesmen used to say they could sell "Every fish that swims, except the whale and goldfish" - and an upstairs gallery for the sale of dried fish. This is the basement:

Outside, Britannia sits on the apex of a three-bay central pediment. The pavilions with dolphins on were meant to house pubs for the market workers. Jones used wood and brick mostly, as steel and glass had been found to be prone to overheating in the days before air conditioning. Shops and warehouses lined the east and west walls.

It was extended around 1919 with the building of a mezzanine floor between the ground and basement. An ice-making plant was also installed. This is the market in 1910 (pic from Billingsgate Institute):

And so for the next few decades Billingsgate continued as before, selling fish to London, choking the streets with vans and other vehicles, costermongers and their barrels, being complained about and called on to be moved "lock, stock and fishy barrel" out of the City. Here's the scene on Lower Thames Street in 1937 (picture from AP Photo):

And finally, that's what happened. Plans were made in the early 1970s to redevelop Billingsgate as part of the widening of Lower Thames Street - as in many postwar cities, town planners' ambitions for the motor car bulldozed through the urban landscape. MPs were told the market's days were numbered and it should be moved to a new £5m site in Docklands.

The Corporation of London planned to demolish it and sell the site to a developer, but didn't count on environment secretary Heseltine's listing of it. Save Britain's Heritage and Heseltine have to be thanked for the building's survival, and also for insisting that the riverside be opened up to the public, leaving us with the walkway out front.

But before it could be renovated, it was feared the building could demolish itself - structural engineers said the brickwork in the cellar, buried beneath a build-up of ice feet thick, could crumble away in the thaw, causing Billingsgate to fall in on itself. But after a painstaking melting process, said to have taken up to two years, it survived in tact.

The building was sold in 1982 for £22m, to the London & Edinburgh Trust and W Berisford, and the site (mostly the lorry park next door) was archaeologically excavated before being redeveloped.

Here's the Lower Thames Street side of the building:

Today it is a popular events space - I've attended a couple of awards dos there, but at dinner I wasn't served fish...

Sunday, 25 January 2015

WHSmith, Broadbent Street, W1K

Wandering through Mayfair the other day, I snapped a quick couple of pictures showing the location of the first WHSmith store, back in 1792. This is looking north from the bottom of the street:

The street – today Broadbent Street – was called Little Grosvenor Street when Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna opened their news vendor business. 

There's no evidence of its existence, and almost all of the buildings are new. The street also used to run further south before it was abbreviated by the construction of Grosvenor Hill Court.

But it's interesting to see how such a big retailer started out in such a small street, and this was 56 years before the company opened a news stand at Euston station, kicking off a rapid expansion on the back of the growth of the railways.

Here's a pic standing on Grosvenor Street, looking south to the top of what was Little Grosvenor Street: 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Fox Umbrellas, 118 London Wall, EC2

Good late-1920s and 1930s shop fronts are few and far between in London. It's not that there weren't many of them - the big shopfitting firms were kept busy installing modern frontages that were all about a clean, uncluttered look with straight lines that simply framed the stock on display. But until the later 20th century there was little respect for these shop fronts - it was easy come, easy go, as they were ripped out and replaced in the post-Second World War decades.

Which is why 118 London Wall, constructed on the ground floor of an early 19th-century terraced house for Fox Umbrellas in 1937 by shopfitting firm E Pollard & Co, is such a rare survivor and has a Grade II listing. This exquisite shop front was the height of modernity at the time, with a Vitrolite front and curved, non-reflective glass, an American invention for which Pollard held the English patent. It looks like a shop from an Edward Hopper painting, dropped into London.

This 'invisible' glass, which was was very expensive, allowed passers-by to see much further into the shop and made the stock on display more visible at a time when interior lighting was duller and less sharp than today. It works, according to British History Online, by using a steeply curved concave glass to deflect light towards matt black 'baffles'. E Pollard & Co installed the same type of glass at Simpsons of Piccadilly, where it is still in place today (the store is now Waterstones).

Vitrolite, a coloured glass, was manufactured by Pilkington Brothers in the UK. Black Vitrolite was commonly used on facades between the 1920s and 1950s, but being glass it's a fragile material, prone to cracks and chips, and was costly to replace.

Stainless steel surrounds frame the fascia, windows and panels, and a band describing Fox's business is positioned above the window, below four Vitrolite panels. The fascia's centrepiece is the stainless steel and red 'FOX' sign, fronted with red neon lighting to set it aglow, with reliefs of foxes running towards it from each side.

As the shop isn't currently in use, I couldn't get any pictures of the interior, but English Heritage says it retains its polished wood and glass fittings. There's some very nice pictures of the interior here by photographer Quintin Lake, as well as a couple taken in the twilight, with the red neon sign switched on.

Fox Umbrellas started life in 1868, when Thomas Fox began making and selling umbrellas from a premises in Fore Street - which was later renamed London Wall following the post-World War Two reconstruction of the area.

Brollies used to be made at 118 London Wall, in the upstairs and basement workshops. The company is responsible for British City gent classics such as the GT9 Whangee, as wielded by John Steed in The Avengers.

Other famous customers included Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy.

The company is still trading, producing own label brollies and also supplying upmarket brands such as Alfred Dunhill and Ralph Lauren. Its factory is in Shirley, near Croydon - see the Once Was England blog for pictures of a factory visit.

However, 118 London Wall was closed in 2011 due to poor trading. Footwear retailer Author since moved in, but went into liquidation in April 2014 The shop front's listed status means it could not be changed, although the outline of a small 'Author' sign is visible on one of the four glass Vitrolite strips. The whole building, which dates from the 19th century (the first floor was originally a barber's shop), is currently up for rent at about £70,000 per annum.

As for the original shopfitter, E Pollard & Co, the company was founded in 1895 in Shoreditch and grew rapidly until it had a number of showrooms, two factories, and branches in Bristol, Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin. The business still exists today in Enfield, north London, as Pollards Fyrespan. The City showrooms that were built for it in Clerkenwell in 1919-20 are still standing, at number 29 Clerkenwell Road.

Monday, 4 August 2014


Marriage plans have taken over my life these last few weeks.... I will start posting again soon!