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British Fish Porters Protest Proposed License Changes


NPR's Philip Reeves's just visited Billingsgate and found it simmering with anger.

ROGER BARTON: Chrissie, A.H. Cox 20 sprats; J. Bennett, Jr., five.

PHILIP REEVES: Roger Barton has worked in Billingsgate for half a century. When he talks about the market, he still sounds as excited as a school boy.

BARTON: When you go on the floor, you get parrot fish, flying fish, shad, pike, freshwater, seawater sea trout, fresh salmon out of Scotland. If it's in season, you will get it in Billingsgate Fish Market.

REEVES: Barton is behind his stall, in a straw boater and a white coat.

BARTON: Thank you very much and God bless you. How much? One fifty.

REEVES: His fish are selling fast.

BARTON: It's a hard living because you have no social life. I've lost two wives. Good women, women that really that I should have stayed with, but I was married to the business. You are married to the job and you are half-married to some of the guys.

REEVES: There are other drawbacks.

BARTON: If you wait in a bus queue or you're in a train where it's warm or in the bank, people go...


BARTON: ...can you smell fish? I say it's him. It's him over there.


REEVES: A mountain of fish passes through Billingsgate every day, often to be ruined, says Barton, in Britain's kitchens.

BARTON: British people have never been a fish eating nation, and they don't even know how to cook fish 'cause they overcook it. You mustn't overcook fish. It's like squid - you only cook squid as long as you can hold your breath. The minute you let your breath out, that's when you take the squid out the pan and it won't eat rubbery. It'll eat lovely. It's got a lovely texture to it.

REEVES: Roger Barton sounds like a happy man, yet Billingsgate is not a happy place. One hundred and forty porters work here.


REEVES: They move through the aisles, weathered-looking men in white smocks, pushing trolleys stacked with boxes full of fish packed in ice. Under a law from Victorian times, each must hold a license. That's the problem, says Billingsgate fish merchant, Mohammed Ayub.

MOHAMMED AYUB: What we need is a modern market. The practices are outdated.

REEVES: Ayub wants the licensing system scrapped. He says his stall's losing money because porters' wages are too high. He says it costs his business $60,000 a year to hire one porter. The porters are all union members. Ayub says they won't permit him to use unlicensed porters, or to deliver the fish himself.

AYUB: They will come and stand in front of you and it impossible to move the trolley. I mean if you get a guy standing there and another behind you, and all that, and it won't be allowed.

REEVES: Change is underway. City officials are preparing to get rid of the licensing system. They say it's obsolete and restricts freedom of employment. Billingsgate is crackling with tension.

AYUB: I mean we got a porter walking past us, right? And I mean, they're all looking at us. You're interviewing me. And they don't know what's going on and its worrying them.

REEVES: In a market cafe, breakfast is served. Brian Holmes has been a Billingsgate fish porter for 23 years.

BRIAN HOLMES: If you spend any time down here you, you will find that, well, it's more a family which is being destroyed by what's taking place at this moment in time.

REEVES: Holmes says fish porters work unsocial hours, they know their clients and their needs, and they are not, in fact, particularly well paid. He says they're also a precious part of history that should be preserved.

HOLMES: It's like doing away with the Beefeaters at the Tower of London. I mean to do away with the fish porter at Billingsgate is doing away with a whole heritage part of London.

DAVE TURNBULL: Is it wrong for ordinary working people to aspire to something better?

REEVES: Dave Turnbull is an official with Unite, the trade union to which the porters belong. The union is fighting the changes. It says 20,000 people have signed a petition supporting the porters. Turnbull believes London's history doesn't only belong to the rich and famous.

TURNBULL: It's not just about kings and queens and generals, and people who get statues made to them. It is about ordinary working people providing a service to the restaurants that make this a great city, and expecting some reward and recognition for doing it.

BARTON: The red mullet: seven quid.

REEVES: As he fields phone calls from his customers and boxes of fish fly off his shelves, Roger Barton's well aware of the ill-feeling gripping the market he loves. No matter how this dispute resolves itself, he thinks this ancient London market will pull through.

BARTON: Yes, it's going through a tough period. We will get over that. It'll change and we'll go on. And Billingsgate will go on and Billingsgate will be here when I am dead and gone.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.