Billingsgate was established as London’s principal fish market during the 16th century and recognised as such by a formal Act of Parliament in 1699. Pictured here is a view of ‘old’ Billingsgate Market early in the 19th century, where fresh fish were landed and sold directly on the dockside in rudimentary conditions. As the market for fresh fish expanded to over 120,000 tonnes per year by the early 1800s, a purpose built covered market was required. This was first opened in Lower Thames Street in 1850, and rebuilt just twenty-three years later.
Billingsgate earned something of a reputation for coarseness during the 18th century, partly owing to the early start to the trading that took place there. The market commenced at 4 o’clock each morning and attracted its fair share of all-night revellers. Billingsgate was also noted for the coarse language used by the women who worked there and their propensity for gossip. In this image women can be seen fighting in the foreground and examples of the drunkenness often on show there are also depicted.
Background to the Microcosm of London collection of prints
The Microcosm of London was published in three volumes between 1808 and 1810 as a result of an ongoing collaboration between publisher Rudolph Ackermann, cartoonist and illustrator Thomas Rowlandson and architectural draughtsman Auguste Charles Pugin. The image shown here was first issued as a loose leaf number that was collated later into separate volumes, all of which proved highly successful as a commercial publishing enterprise.
The Microcosm of London tapped into the demand for highly-coloured prints of real-life subjects that proved something of a publishing sensation during the Regency period. As such, the prints stand as a fascinating historical record of London life in the early years of the 19th century. While Pugin’s fine architectural drawings capture the size and shape of the capital’s principal buildings (both externally and from within) Thomas Rowlandson’s keenly observed figures depict the sheer colour and vitality of late Georgian society, rich and poor alike.