The fish formerly caught in the river above and below bridge were sturgeon, occasionally salmon, salmon-trout, trout, tench, barbel, roach, dace, chub, bream, gudgeon, ruffe, smelts, eels and flounders, and last and least, whitebait.
The Ship Tavern at Greenwich was long famous for the ministerial dinner which was held there and marked the end of the Parliamentary Session. It generally took place in August, but fell into disuse until revived for a time by Lord Beaconsfield, and has now again been dropped.
Billingsgate for a long time was great market for fish. There was a natural haven here not unlike Queenhithe, but not so large, where boats could unload. Its derivation from Belin's Gate is correct enough, but the building of the gate by "King Belin" is purely mythical.
Originally it was not exclusively used for fish, but as a general wharf for small trading vessels, but the Fishmongers' Company, which included the Stock fishmongers, had their Hall in the neighbourhood and gradually absorbed the trade. The Old Fish market was in Old Fish Street. It was long famous for its fish dinners, and was a favourite resort of Londoners.
Strange fish are sometimes found in the river; porpoises are not infrequent, and even a small whale has been imprudent enough to try to ascend. But on the 1st of January, 1787, the strangest take of all is recorded. Some fishermen fishing off Poplar with much difficulty drew into their boat a shark; alive, but apparently very sickly.
When it was taken on shore and opened, they found in the inside a silver watch, a metal chain, and a cornelian seal, with some fragments of gold lace, supposed to have belonged to somebody who had unfortunately fallen overboard. The rest of the body had been digested, but these articles remained, and were perhaps the cause of the sickness of the fish, from which, and from the effects of the Thames water, it would doubtless have died.
The watch bore the name of Henry Warson, London, and the number 1369, and the works were very much impaired. When these particulars were published Henry Warson recollected that he had sold a watch to a Mr. Ephraim Thompson of Whitechapel as a present to his son going on his first voyage on board the ship Polly, Captain Vane, bound for abroad.
About three leagues off Falmouth, through a sudden heel of the vessel during a squall, young Thompson fell overboard and was no more seen. The news of his being drowned reached his family, who little thought that they would ever hear of him again.
Mr. Thompson, senior, bought the shark, not for the sake of having it buried in consecrated ground, but to preserve it as a memorial of so singular an event. It was the largest shark ever remembered to have been taken in the Thames, being from the tip of the snout to the extremity of the tail 9 feet 3 inches.
From the shoulder to the extremity of the body measured 6 feet 1 inch; round the body in the thickest part, 6 feet inches; the width of the jaws when extended, 17 inches; it had five rows of teeth, and from that circumstance was supposed to have been five years old. This extraordinary account appears in the Annual Register of 1787, under the head of "Chronicle", page 227.
A large specimen of the true or Greenland Whale was caught off Greenwich, June 3rd, 1658. Evelyn describes it (Bray & Wheatley's Edition, vol. 2, page 101) :
"A large whale was taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenewich which drew an infinite concourse to see it, from London and all parts.
It appear'd first below Greenewich at low water, for at high water he would have destroyed all ye boats, but lying now in shallow water incompass'd with boates, after a long conflict it was killed with a harping iron struck in ye head, out of which spouted blood and water by two tunnells, and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died.
It length was 8 foote, heighth 16; black skinned like coach leather, very small eyes, greate taile, onely two small finns, a picked snout, and a mouth so wide that divers men might have stood upright in it, no teeth, and a throate yet so narrow as would not have admitted the least of fishes."
The wind had been northerly near six months. Others have been caught from time to time, smaller and not the true whale.Next page: The beauty of the Thames