from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Fish!

May 15.  My household will not go hungry in this crisis.  We have sorted out the supermarket home delivery system.  The shelves of Sainsbury’s are open to us.  But food lacks surprise.  No meals out.  No entertaining at home.  No takeaways in the countryside (we are two miles outside the delivery radius of the enterprising restaurant in Shrewsbury which is sending out prepared meals). 

One of the benefits of living for many years in the same place is that you get to know the local sources of good things.  The best meat comes from Churncote Farm Shop.  The best vegetables from Pomona at the foot of Castle Hill.  The best fish from Barkworth’s stand in the covered market.  The fish in fact is no better than fresh.  The variety is limited.  It is an abiding mystery to me why markets in France, often hundreds of miles from the sea, are so much better stocked than in those in a country where nowhere is more than fifty miles from water.  All these shops are shut at the moment and were they to open I remain ‘shielded’ from the rest of humanity and unable to go out on a Saturday morning to see what I can find.

So, with food, as with travel and many other pleasures, there is nothing to do but read about it.  This week I have been going through, for a history project, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861.  Mayhew was an ethnographer avant la lettre, fascinated by the rituals and behaviours of the common people.  He also loved to count where he could.  At one point he turns his attention to Billingsgate, the London wholesale fish market on the banks of the Thames.  Its business had recently expanded as the new railway network brought in fresh supplies from the coast.  Mayhew set out to calculate, for the first time, the annual turnover of the market:

Table, Showing the Quantity … of the Following kinds of Fish sold in Billingsgate Market in the Course of the Year

Salmon and Salmon Trout                                  406,000

Live Cod                                                                    400,000

Soles                                                                     97,520,000

Whiting                                                               17,920,000

Haddock                                                               2,740,000

Plaice                                                                   33,600,000

Mackerel                                                            23,520,000

Fresh Herrings                                            1,225,000,000

            [Sprats                                                                    4,000,000 (by measure)]

Eels                                                                          9,797,760

Flounders                                                                 259,200

Dabs                                                                          270,000

Barrelled Cod                                                          750,000

Dried Salt Cod                                                      1,600,000

Smoked Haddock                                             19,500,000

Bloaters                                                           147,000,000

Red Herrings                                                      50,000,000

Dried Sprats                                                             288,000

Oysters                                                            495,896,000

Lobsters                                                                 1,200,000

Crabs                                                                          600,000

Shrimps                                                           498,428,648

Whelks                                                                 4,943,200

Mussels                                                            50,400,000

Cockles                                                                 7,392,000

Periwinkles                                                   304,000,000

You read it correctly.  That’s over a billion fresh herrings consumed by Londoners in the middle of the nineteenth century (with a population of some 2.5m).  Almost five hundred million oysters and shrimps.

That’s fish!  Enjoy the sight.

One thought on “from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Fish!

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