The location of two markets within EC3 was due to the River Thames. Billingsgate fish market and the Corn market operated from riverside quays.
Near to the fish market was the meat market that operated on Eastcheap and north of that was Leadenhall market which still exists.
In medieval London Eastcheap was the site of a meat market and it was here that the city’s butchers plied their trade.
It was a longer street than present day Eastcheap as it extended a short distance west of Gracechurch Street. The west section was called Great Eastcheap and the east, Little Eastcheap (as shown in this map of 1720).
In Nicholas Pevsner’s ‘The City of London’ he writes “Recorded by c.1100 and called after the medieval market (chepe) held here. East, in contrast to Westcheap or Cheapside, is the principal London market.”
When King William Street was built in the early 19th century Great Eastcheap was absorbed into Cannon Street.
John Stow mentions the butchers in Eastcheap in ‘A Survey of London 1598’ and five years later in his 1603 Survey of London he wrote:
"This Eastcheape is now a flesh Market of Butchers there dwelling, on both sides of the streete, it had sometime also Cookes mixed amongst the Butchers, and such other as solde victuals readie dressed of all sorts. For of olde time when friends did meet, and were disposed to be merrie, they went not to dine and suppe in Taverns, but to the Cookes, where they called for meate what them liked, which they alwayes found ready dressed at a reasonable rate, as I have before shewed."
The Worshipful Company of Butchers built their second hall in Pudding Lane, off Eastcheap in 1668 and when that was destroyed by fire in the 19th century, they moved to a site in Eastcheap before having to relocate to their present site in Bartholomew Close EC1 in the 1880s because of the new underground railway.
Until 1750 London's two great corn marts were Bear Key and Queenhithe. The latter was the chief market for the malt of the upper Thames valley. Bear Key was probably the greatest corn market in Europe, to which "comes all the vast quantity of corn that is brought into the city by sea, from the counties which lie commodious for that carriage. It was sold on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays."
Prior to 1747 corn was traded in the market at Bear Quay which was one of the ‘Legal Quays’ sited between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. These twenty quays were created by an Act of Parliament, during the reign of Elizabeth I.
All cargoes entering the Port of London were unloaded and checked only at these quays under the supervision of Customs Officers who collected the duty payable. After these quays were established in 1588 the amount of duty collected doubled.
By the mid-18th century, the market at Bear Quay could no longer handle the volume of trade and a number of corn merchants collected together to establish a corn exchange.
From the mid-18th century through until 1987 Mark Lane was the home of the Corn Exchange. Corn merchants and farmers met at the Exchange to set prices for the sale of wheat, barley, and other crops.
The first Corn Exchange building in the 18th century, was designed by George Dance the Elder, the architect responsible for the Mansion House in the City of London and Surveyor for the City of London.
Dance’s Corn Exchange was built around an open courtyard, also a feature of his Mansion House.
A rival exchange was set up next door, in the 1820s designed by George Smith with a Doric colonnade.
Dance’s Corn Exchange and The London Corn Exchange, continued to trade until they were amalgamated in 1926. Both buildings suffered bomb damage in 1941 and a new exchange was built on the site of the former two exchanges. In the 1980s trading was moved to the Baltic Exchange.
Today, 55 Mark Lane stands on the site of the Corn Exchange and the building is named Corn Exchange.
There is also a nearby bar called Corn Exchange.
Today, Billingsgate fish market is located in Poplar, East London, where it relocated in 1982 from its original City of London site on Lower Thames Street.
When it was in the City, Billingsgate market traded from a very impressive building in Lower Thames Street, designed by City of London Architect and Surveyor Sir Horace Jones.
His building still stands on the site today alongside the river Thames between the Custom House and London Bridge and is now a venue for a variety of events.
In the book, London: The Illustrated History, a Museum of London the authors Cathy Ross and John Clark write:
“At Billingsgate, an 11th century document records the Royal duties payable on ships coming to port and goods being unloaded, not just on goods from overseas but of fish, on baskets of chickens and eggs, and on butter and cheese”.
Billingsgate became a general market for corn, coal, iron, wine, salt, pottery, fish, and miscellaneous goods. Nicolaus Pevsner, in his book on The Buildings of England, London 1: The City of London writes that “the first representation of a market building is an arcaded structure shown on a drawing of 1598”.
It wasn’t until the 1690s that an Act of Parliament declared it a free and open market for all sorts of fish. In the 1760s architect George Dance the Younger succeeded his father to become the City of London architect and in 1777 he designed a new market building for Billingsgate.
Another new market building followed in the 1850s designed by J. B. Bunning, the then City of London Architect whose market hall is illustrated.
Italianate in style it quickly proved inadequate to cope with the increasing amount of trade and was replaced by a building designed by Horace Jones in the 1870s who had experience of designing market buildings. In the 1860s he designed Smithfield Market for the City of London.
In the 1880s Horace Jones was to design yet another market building for the City of London; Leadenhall Market and all three of his market buildings still occupy their original sites today but only Smithfield continues as a trading market continuing to sell meat.
There is much information online about the history of Billingsgate market and there are films on YouTube of the old and new markets in action but ‘The Last Fish Porters of Billingsgate Market’ is particularly interesting.
The City of London has plans to relocate Billingsgate, Smithfield, and New Spitalfields Markets to a new site at Barking Reach.
If you are interested in visiting the market in Poplar, you need to be up early. It trades between 4.00 a.m. and 8.30 a.m. Tuesday to Saturday.
Leadenhall market dates back to the 14th century and stands on the site once occupied by the Roman basilica and forum in the city of Londinium.
The existing market building was designed in the 1880s by the City of London architect Horace Jones, who designed the market halls for both Billingsgate and Smithfield markets.
Today it is probably best known as a location used for filming Harry Potter and for its pubs and restaurants.
It is also a popular watering hole for City workers.
See History of Leadenhall Market for more information about its history.