For the last twenty years, I have been looking for a particular type of hat. It is the hard hat worn by the fish market porters in the old BILLINGSGATE market, close to the River Thames in London. I searched antique fairs, junk shops, asked practically everyone I met if they had any connection with the market, looked on Ebay, and never got so much as a whiff of one.
Then one day recently, I typed ‘Billingsgate memorabilia’ into Google; and it sent me straight to Ebay, where to my amazement, there were TWO of these obsolete hats offered for sale ! One was from an Antique Dealer; wanting rather more than I was able to contemplate for it (and selling two other splendid hats as well…both of which are already represented in the collection !) The other, probably not as old, but much more exciting, was exactly what I had long hoped to find. ‘Grandpa’s’ old hat, left lying somewhere in a loft for many years, bung full of old newspaper, desiccated woodlice and fish scales ! The picture above shows it partially cleansed of its detritus. The newspapers inside it were mostly dated 1955.
Even more exciting was the identity of the man who had worn it; together with a couple of snippets of information, AND SOME PHOTOGRAPHS of him at work, wearing this amazing piece of history. His name was William ‘Bill’ Collier.
This picture shows him walking up the gangplank of a ship, with other porters, each carrying a load of freshly caught fish , off the boat and into the market.
Other porters, having delivered their loads, are walking back on board to collect more, using the right-hand side of the gangway, so as not to impede those already carrying the heavy boxes. This must have been quite a large ship, as many porters are hurrying to unload it, whereas the picture below shows a much smaller vessel, with a much narrower plank. Some of the porters were able to carry the boxes just by balancing them, others used one arm to steady the load.
Below is a picture of ‘our’ man Bill Collier. steadying a truly whopping fish on his bobbin hat. Probably it is a turbot or a halibut. Are such huge fish still being caught today, I wonder ?
And here he is, with a mate, holding the same fish, I think. Both their bobbin hats show signs of hard wear and muck and fish scales. The hats were often given a coating of tar to waterproof them even more. Even without the tar and the weight of water saturating them, these hats weigh about the same as a brick ! The porters thought nothing of carrying up to five boxes at once, stacked high on their heads. Their neck muscles must have been like iron. One chap joked ‘I used to be six foot three, but now I am only five foot six’. There is probably some truth in that remark, so heavy were the loads.
Here is a general view of the exterior of the Billingsgate Fish Market at the time these pictures of Bill were taken. They formed a series taken by a Daily Mirror photographer, but unfortunately, the original negatives and details were lost in a fire, when a bomb dropped on the warehouse in which they were stored during WWII, so it has not been possible to get an exact date for them. I am working on it.
As you can see, the streets around the market were congested to the point of chaos. Most of the traffic is still horse drawn, but motor lorries were beginning to appear. By moving the loads on their heads, the porters were able to sidle round the obstructions much faster than if they were carrying or barrowing them.
This strange type of hat is thought to get its name from the ‘bobbin’ or payment , which the porters received from the buyers, when delivering the fish to the distribution vehicles. There is an interesting short film, made by British Pathe in 1949, showing the making of one of these hats by John Williams Fain, who was the last person to craft these specialised items. He had a tiny shop in Lovat lane, near the original Billingsgate Market, and worked there for thirty five years. Each hat took eight hours of concentrated work, and used five pounds in weight of thick, strong leather, at least six yards of waxed thread, and about 400 nails. The hats were formed around a wooden block, but wood does not seem to form any part of the actual hat, despite various comments that it does.
The top, flat piece on which the boxes and crates were carried, was made from four layers of leather, which, like a pair of boots, could be repaired when necessary. In effect, this meant the hat never wore out, and was often handed, like the porter’s job, from father to son. It was estimated that the hat would last for forty years……so apart from some repairs, there was not much repeat trade for the Bobbin Hat makers.
The Market was re-located to a site opposite Canary Wharf in the Isle of Dogs, in 1982. An annual Fish Harvest Festival is held there every year, and traders appear at it, in spotless white overalls and nicely cleaned up bobbin hats, but apart from that, these interesting relics are no longer to be seen.
SEPTEMBER 2016…..a couple of weeks ago I received a message from the lady who sold me the Bobbin hat, saying that the Market Porter’s registration badge had been found, that had belonged to the same man…William Collier…and did I want it ? Silly question ! So now it is back where it belongs…with the hat. I will be trying to find a date for it. The last time I searched for a list of market porters by name, I was informed that the information will not be made public until 2024.
WILLIAM COLLIER’S BADGE