Vic Keegan’s Lost London 48: the Fishmongers’ Hall

by Victor Keegan

For centuries the Fishmongers’ Hall on the north side of London Bridge was the tallest secular building in London. Look at it now! It is more like one of the smallest as it gets lost in the dash for the sky.

The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers has been active for well over 700 years, mainly because for a long time it had a monopoly of fish sales in London. Even today, unlike many other livery companies that have morphed into social and charitable institutions, the Fishmongers Company maintains one of founding missions, monitoring the quality of fish at Billingsgate.

The livery companies, with their opulent halls and and the churches mainly built by Christopher Wren, are the two great survivors of ancient times in the City of London. Since it is much easier to enter a church than a livery company, I jumped at an opportunity to visit the Fishmongers’ Hall. And I was not disappointed.  

There are lots of interesting artefacts inside, not least the famous portrait of the Queen by Pietro Annigoni which, surprisingly looking back on it, was controversial when it was painted in the 1950s. The Fishmongers commissioned the painting but inadvisedly sold the image rights to the Annigoni estate. This means that when films are shot in the Hall the makers have to pay a sizeable chunk of royalties to the estate if they want the painting in the background. In the background of the portrait on the left is a tiny figure in a boat, meant to be Annigoni who, like Alfred Hitchcock, enjoyed appearing in his own productions. He also did a similar portrait of a slightly scowling Duke of Edinburgh which is kept in a smaller room. Wonder why.

On the stairway of the Hall there is a wonderfully detailed statue carved from an elm tree of Sir William Walworth, a grandee of the  Company, raising his dagger to kill Wat Tyler at Smithfield during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Until recently it was thought to be the actual dagger used by Sir William but it turns out it is of more recent origin.

There is plenty of silverwaree around and also a marvellous relic of the medieval London Bridge in the form of a large armchair hewn out of wood from the bridge. The slats across are carved in the shape of the old bridges. Thus is preserved a long link with London Bridge which separates the Fishmongers’ Hall from the old Billingsgate market where it ploughed its trade.

The original building was one of the first to be burned down in the Great Fire of 1666. The present Greek revival version was designed by Henry Roberts. He is not a well-known architect, but his helpers included the illustrious George Gilbert Scott and he worked under the supervision of Sir Robert Smirke, whose works include the main block and facade of the British Museum.

Find all of Vic Keegan’s Lost London pieces here.

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