Situated in the heart of Docklands and a mere line’s cast from Canary Wharf, one of the last vestiges of the City of London commerce scene, remains alive and kicking in the form of Billingsgate Market, the iconic, bustling, and historically alluring centrepiece of the capital’s fish trade, carrying out its business five days a week, as it has done since the late 1600’s when an act of Parliament deemed it; “a free and open market for all sorts of fish“.
Presiding over the quality and saleability of its produce therein, since those times, has fallen to the Inspectors or “Fishmeters” of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, one the Twelve Great Livery Companies of London, which has existed in its current form for over 700 years. Originally charged by James I, under charter, to examine all fish sold there and “survey wither the same be wholesome for Man’s body, and fit to be sold or no”, the inspectors have carried out their remit, diligently and wielding their not insignificant powers to absolute effect, condemning and instituting proceedings where, their exacting criteria for saleable fish and shellfish are not met.
In more recent times and since the market premises moved to their current location adjacent to the North Dock in 1982, the inspectorate of the Fishmongers Company have maintained a presence daily at the market and the current cohort has been led for the last 30 years by Chris Leftwich, MICEH, DMS, their inimitable Chief Inspector.
This month will see Chris hang up his market coat and close the inspectorate door behind him for the last time, on what will be seen by many as a defining era, not only for him personally, but as a legacy bearing icon who has not only managed the health and safety of the market, but brought Billingsgate into the 21st century, whilst deploying the statute of the Company with the integrity and zeal that befits his authority.
To learn a little more about how this one, dynamic, individual has been able to shape and influence the development of the current site, whilst amassing what can only be described as a profound and critically detailed knowledge of the seafood industry. I recently met Chris at his office at Fishmongers’ Hall at London Bridge, overlooking Old Father Thames and soon discover that, both the Fishmongers’ Company and Billingsgate Market are losing a man who carries both weight and respect in equal measure in a sector, where his name is recognisable in fish markets the length of our Isles, from Peterhead to Newlyn.
I start by asking how, as an A level student aiming for a place at Imperial College to study computer science in 1970’s East End London, he came to be determining the food health status of fish destined for the tables of the City and beyond.
“Basically I’d flunked my exams and didn’t get the required grades” he grins, “I then set my heart on accountancy, but those prospects evaporated in an instant when I discovered that they would not pay very much during the training. I was then fortunate that through a contact from my local swimming club, I managed to get a day out with the Environmental Health Officers at Tower Hamlets and basically loved the variety of work and the contact with people. I immediately applied for the post of a student EHO which was being advertised. Another guy, who had better A level grades than me was offered the position, but he rejected it and as I was next in line, I was offered the post and eagerly took it.”
Four years of study at Tottenham Tech followed, with Chris being paid £20/week to go to college and learn the craft. Placements and practicals at various slaughterhouses and working visits to the Old Billingsgate soon instilled a passion for food quality and following the successful passing of the demanding EHO exams he qualified aged 22, joining the Tower Hamlets team on the princely salary of £5k/year on a Principle Officer contract, making him already, one of if not, the highest paid inspectors in 1975 for his age.
Soon running his own district in Limehouse, Chris wasted no time in amassing detailed knowledge of food retail, premises hygiene, drainage compliance and air and noise pollution, attributes that would serve him well in the forthcoming Billingsgate years.
After a few years Chris decided to move into the food department and specialise in its quality and hygiene. It was in this department that he got to know the fish inspectors, as Billingsgate market had now moved from its ancestral home in the City to its new site in Canary Wharf. It was during this time that he was approached by Gerry Watkin, the ebullient and larger than life, Billingsgate Chief Inspector, who was nearing retirement. Although only 56, Gerry was not in the best of health and Chris identified an opportunity, as neither of Gerry’s assistants possessed the necessary EHO qualification for elevation to that rank.”I got on very well with Gerry” muses Chris, “He could be a difficult bugger, but we hit it off immediately and he taught me a lot and after a 9 month handover period, I was ready to take the baton from him.”
During that period it necessitated getting to know the traders, porters and their foibles and routines that so identify Billingsgate, while at the same time checking and scrutinising fish and shellfish (often by the lorry load) to ensure compliance for sale. He also spent time visiting the industry around the UK and going on training courses at the infamous, now sadly disbanded, Torry laboratory in Aberdeen.”In those days” he reminisces “95% of the fish entering the market were from our home ports with the only real imports being cold water prawns and a bit of red snapper” A statistic that has dropped by over 30% compared to today’s figures, where over a third of Billingsgate’s produce is now imported and exotic.
Over the ensuing years, Chris’s understanding of not just the quality and provenance of seafood, but also the complex and highly legislated fisheries that supply the market, have led him to acquire an accomplished and highly attuned mastery of technical detail, which has spawned a growing demand for his skills and guidance, both in UK and all around the world. As a government adviser, past- President of IAFI, (the international body representing seafood inspectors) and holding board positions with leading fishery organisations such as the Humber Seafood Institute and the Sustainable Eel Group, his wise counsel has been in wide and international demand, with no sign of it allaying.
Moving swiftly and purposefully forward, having succeeding Gerry, one of his first tasks was to sort out a major problem with cockles coming into the market which were causing masses of food poisoning. Casually elaborating further on this problem, he describes how collaboration with medical science proved crucial to the task.The industry was also going through a period of change due to the introduction of EU directives on fish hygiene and shellfish
“The Company had a close relationship with the consultant microbiologist at Guys hospital and between us we used to test the bivalve shellfish coming into the market for E Coli to ensure that they were safe for consumption. The test we used in his early days was developed by the Fishmongers’ Company at the turn of the 20th century. It was the original microbiologists at Guy’s that came up with E Coli as an indicator organism, that would set the standards for the future in determining whether shellfish were fit for human consumption. This was embodied into the new EU regulations and The “Most Probable Number test” that was adopted we still use to determine the safety of the shellfish.”
This pioneering work, especially when coupled with the considerable flow of imported and exotic species into Billingsgate, (as restaurants and tastes becoming more aligned with a progressively cosmopolitan society), became ever more important, with product quality increasingly being needed to be certified at source rather than on arrival in the UK
As a part of the UK team that helped turn the EU directives into domestic regulation it naturally followed that he was asked to help set up quality control systems in all countries engaged in exporting wild and farmed seafood to the UK market. Trips made to Tanzania, Kenya, Oman, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia, culminated in processing factories being able to self-certify and monitor the quality of their exports, a vitally important aspect of the traceability process. In Sri Lanka, he helped train local inspectors in the correct use of the histamine test as a first line of defence against poisoning in tuna. He also ran numerous training courses in Romania and India teaching food hygiene and HACCP. More recently he has been training inspectors in Turkey, Croatia, Pakistan and Gambia. This level of expertise and far reaching understanding has garnered him both global respect and renown, qualities that have secured his esteem back home in the corridors of Fishmongers’ Hall.
I’m keen to know if he feels that the international acclaim has been the work that has defined his career. But a smile and a nod to the river, tell me that ultimate pride and satisfaction lie back in Docklands and upstairs at the market, where his vision for a training school for fishmongers evolved into the Billingsgate Seafood School, that operates there today, providing training and support for not just fishmongers, but chefs, local authorities and caterers and fosters a keen educational bias, providing schoolchildren and teachers alike with the necessary knowledge and skills to purchase, prepare, cook and consume seafood as part of a responsibly sourced diet, all ably overseen by the hugely experience ex-Leith’s chef CJ Jackson.
Beaming now, it’s obvious that this facility is his pride and joy.
“I wanted to instigate a project that would, as a charitable body, be able to contribute to the progression and furtherment of seafood education. I guessed that with the right level of support in the City and the backing of the Fishmongers Company, we’d be able to generate enough investment to bring the concept to fruition.”
With £200,000 funds raised, including donations from the London Docklands Development Corporation, the City of London, Sir John Cass Foundation as well as the Fishmongers’ Compnay, this provided the platform to build and launch, with the merchants picking up the service charges, and extra funds rolling in from Sainsburys and Seafish. “Our biggest challenge was to keep the funding going” he accepts, “but with an astute Board of Trustees and some influential characters in the wings, we’ve managed to build on a basic concept that has now flourished and developed into the centre of seafood excellence that many companies are now benchmarking their standards against.”
A statement I wholeheartedly endorse, having recently donned my apron and whetted my knife, under the expert tuition of filleting afficianado, Adam Whittle, on the “Gut, Fillet & Shuck” course, one of many industry workshops held at the School where Chris continues his stewardship as trustee and company secretary.
So to see first-hand the daily travails and deliberations of the modern Billingsgate inspector, I next accompanied Chris on a tour of the market and its glistening, ice strewn aisles, in the penultimate week of his tenure. Not for the first time, I might add, having become ever so slightly addicted to the establishment and its fishy halls over the course of the last year.
The jostle and thrum of London City commerce here hasn’t really changed that much. Faces and individuals come and go, as the walls of the market cafe, suitably adorned with black and white snapshots of traders, porters and buyers attest. As we stroll amidst resplendent boxes of gleaming Scottish whitefish and baskets and nets of prime and still-moving South Coast shellfish, I sense that the man I’m accompanying and his long-acquired pescatorial knowledge, are going to be sorely missed.
Chris Leftwich is one of those select people in life, who’s skill and understanding of his subject need no questioning. With a story hanging on his lips for every chapter of his career and a profound respect emanating from those we meet on our tour, it’s clear that he has covered every base that exists in the world of seafood quality, many times over. Traders laugh, joke and swear in time-honoured tradition, as we peruse their slabs and displays, but also, they stop to chat, to wish him well, and convey their best, in a touching and enquiring display of respect and goodwill.
Stopping at one beautifully ordered array, he points out nonchalantly, that the squid, lying white and tubular in front of us, probably has only a few hours shelf-life left, before becoming unfit for sale and potential condemnation. I enquire as to why and am informed that the merest change in tint on the outer membrane, betrays its apparently pristine condition.
Another stall further on, I remark on the incredibly dark dorsal colouring of a batch of fine plaice. Again, drawing on his colossal reservoir of knowledge, Chris points out that these fish hail from Icelandic waters, where the colder seas and a different seabed, compared to that of our home-fished grounds, produce an entirely different coloured specimen. In the adjacent box, lemon soles lie both stiff and slippery, rigor mortis still apparent, indicating that they still swam, literally hours ago. Chris picks one out and gestures to me to smell the freshness. I remark on the sweet, ozonic, scent and the fact that like much of the market, fish is not the overriding aroma.
Onward we patrol, discussing everything from the likely effects of the new EU bass regulations to his deep seated loathing of the ubiquitously farmed and invasively marketed Pangasius, a fish in his mind, that although a staple for many, has usurped many of our notable home-fished wild species as a cheap and tasteless alternative.
It’s the constant striving for quality and the upholding of standards that becomes the trademark of establishments such as Billingsgate. Rigorous policing of food hygiene accompanied by a comprehensive understanding of the fisheries sector and a mastery of seafood preparation, have afforded this man an esteem within the industry that exists way beyond the bounds of Docklands and the liveried corridors of Fishmongers’ Hall. The market inspections will continue, the experienced eyes and hands of Chris’s compatriots, Barry O’Toole and Robert Embery, ensuring continued compliance, but, a void will undoubtedly be left.
As my tour comes to an end and the workers sweep away the last traces of the daily market in a miasma of scales and slush-ice, we make our way up past the Seafood School, the Committee Room and the offices of the Inspectorate; corridors of expertise and prowess that have governed this hub of London trade for so long.
In a few weeks the market will still be trading and Chris Leftwich will be embarking on a well-earned and deserved retirement, but his eminence will not be lost that easily. Another chapter awaits. Another step in a career that is still evolving and evidence that the industry won’t be bereft of his skills just yet. The thirst for advice beckons to him from all corners of the globe.
I can’t wait to see what he’ll land next.
NB My grateful thanks must go to my son, Tobias Warner, for the superb photography at the market.
© Mike Warner
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