TOLLS AND CUSTOMS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London fishmongers guilds regulations commerce bailiff customs fish shellfish imports transportation ships bailiff fees
Subject: Customs and regulations related to fish imports into London
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Albus, ff. 220-221
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Albus. Rolls Series, no.12, vol.1 (1859), 373-77.
Original language: Latin
Location: London
Date: early 14th century


The Hallmoot and statutes of the fishmongers

The men of the hallmoot say that they ought to hold two lawmoots a year; that is, one around St. Martin's feastday [11 November] and the other around Lent. All fishermen and those who are members of the hallmoot ought to be in attendance. Whoever defaults in appearance falls liable to an amercement of 21d. Furthermore, it should be prohibited, on the occasion of such hallmoots, that any fishmonger buy fresh fish before mass has been celebrated in the chapel on the Bridge or at St. Martin's church. They also say that fishermen should sell fresh fish [only] after mass, and salt fish [after] Prime.

Also, none of the fishmongers should go outside the established boundaries for [purposes of acquiring] fish. These are the boundaries: the chapel on the Bridge; Baynard's Castle; Jordan's quay; excepting where fish is set out [publicly] for sale, as at Barking, Northfleet, Dartford, or any other market.

No-one may buy fish from a ship that is afloat until it has been moored.

No-one should declare any fish unless they are his own goods, concerning fish [acquired] for profit or loss.

Men of the said trade are to give their bailiff 26s.8d a year [as salary]; that is, 13s.4d around Christmas, and the remainder around Easter; that is, [in?] farthings, halfpennies and pennies, such as the [toll] collectors are able to collect. The reason for the 26s.8d is because if a member of the hallmoot is impleaded in the [city] husting, the bailiff's duty is to have the plea transferred from there to the husting in the Bridge Street hallmoot, [and his duties also include] distraining their [i.e. fishmongers'] debtors.

The monks of St. Albans are to give the bailiff 13s.4d a year; but the bailiff should go or send for it.

A "spindelers" boat that brings fresh cod or rays shall give from each boat, for every 26 cod and 26 rays, one cod and one ray. If it only carries one type of fish, it shall give two fishes. If it carries ling and some other fish, it shall give half [of the due] of one type and the other half of the other type. If the whole [cargo] is ling, it shall give 26 ling, and a halfpenny for the boat [as wharfage].

A Flemish "hoc" ship gives the same customs for fish, and 2d. for the ship if it drops [anchor] in the Bridge Street soke.

A "mang" boat gives the same customs for fish. One that brings sprats shall give one tandle of sprats, except those of the city of London, which do not pay customs. And for the ship, a farthing.

A ship that brings mackerel shall give 26 mackerel – that is, those from which full customs are due.

[From] a ship that brings fish in dorsers the sergeant may take from each dorser one fish, excepting: cod, rays, conger, dory, turbot, sea-bass, and surmullet.

In the same way, for dorsers brought by land and on horseback, a halfpenny, which is due by tradition.

A boat that brings at least a hundred dabs is to give 26; even if it has more, it need not give more.

A whelk-boat of at least 5 tandles shall give one heaped tandle. If it has more than five tandles, it shall give two heaped tandles, and 1d. for the boat.

One penny is payable on a porpoise; if it is cut up, the bailiff may have the entrails, with the tail and fins in town.

Of conger brought by water, the bailiff shall have as his fee one of the best and another of the second-best, according to what is determined by their sale. If [a boat] is rowed using tholes, it shall pay a halfpenny; if rowed using rowlocks, a penny. If it is from the Cinque Ports, it pays no money.

An oyster-boat rowed using tholes shall pay a halfpenny; if using rowlocks, a penny.

A Scottish ship that brings salmon, [shall give] 2 salmon; if salmon and cod, one salmon and one cod; if salmon and haddock, one salmon and thirteen haddock; if all are haddock, 26 haddock; if all are herring, 100 herring, except on salted herring; and the ship shall pay 2d.

The first herring-laden ship arriving from Yarmouth which ought to pay full custom shall give 200 herring. Other ships that arrive afterwards and which ought to pay full custom shall give 100 herring. From a cart bringing salmon the bailiff may take the second-best, and 2d. for the cart. If it brings mackerel, it shall give 5 mackerel; if it brings ling, it shall give 5 ling; if it brings herring, it shall give 5 herring; and 2d. for the cart. If it brings eels, nothing [is due]; but 2d. for the cart. From a cart which comes to the marketplace, the fishmongers' bailiff shall have a fish, but no money, except in Bridge Street and in the fishmarket in the west.

A ship with bulwarks which anchors owes 2d. A ship with bales which anchors owes 1d.; if it does not anchor, it need give nothing.

Anyone bringing fish by land after mealtime is allowed to warehouse his fish, and the following day to display it in the king's marketplace.

Whoever informs on any member of the hallmoot who shall have gone outside the boundaries to buy fish, he may have half of the confiscated fish and the bailiff the other half.

No stockfishmonger nor apprentice ought to board a ship for purposes of buying fish; nor should any porter, unless summoned.

No outsider should buy [fish by retail] from an outsider.

No outsider should board any whelk-boat unless summoned; rather, the boatman, or the man who owns the whelk-boat, should have them weighed [i.e. before the whelks are sold].

No-one should retail fish on the quayside.

No-one should carry about cooked whelks with the purpose of selling them [in the streets]; whoever does so shall be amerced and his whelks confiscated.


Fish being such a staple of the diet of the average medieval town-dweller – because it was plentiful and fast-days of the church often restricted consumption of meat – the accessibility of fish at cheap prices was a matter of public concern. It can easily be imagined that those involved in commerce in fish would likely have been numerous, somewhat organized, and protectivist at an early date. A fishmongers' gild, first heard of in the thirteenth century but possibly existing by the twelfth, was particularly powerful in London and had its own court for dealing with cases involving its members – a degree of independence from the city courts (despite the fact that the city sheriffs presided) which, together with abusive or fraudulent business practices, caused a good deal of resentment in the community and was one reason behind reform movements such as that of John de Northampton, who tried to break the fishmongers' monopolistic hold over their trade. The importance of the trade in fish within the city is reflected by a list of 93 Londoners involved in the trade who, in July 1290, were pardoned (after payment of the huge fine of 500 marks) for forestalling and other forms of illegal commerce in fish, a list that included members of several leading families, such as Fulham, Chigwell, and Lambyn. Fishmongers were attaining aldermannic status at that period, mainly in Billingsgate and Bridge wards, although it was not until the second half of the fourteenth century that they superseded goldsmiths and spice-merchants as featuring frequently among the city's mayors.

Fishing-vessels are thought to have originally made use of the wharf at Billingsgate, for landing and selling, as well as Fish Wharf and Oyster Gate, which were on either side of London Bridge. Henry III, however, required fishermen to land their catches at Queenhithe; as a result grew up the (western) fishmarket in Old Fish Street. Edward I removed this limitation and in the early fourteenth century the fishmongers transferred back to the vicinity of Bridge Street, in which they set up stalls, so that it also became known as New Fish Street; this allowed them to take advantage of the proximity of Billingsgate and the main shopping street of East Cheap. Later the indoor Stocks market became a third official site for sale of fish. The fishmongers owned their own hall by 1310 (earlier than most gilds), but its location is uncertain. What became known, by the close of the Middle Ages, as the Old Fishmongers Hall was placed between Thames Street and the western fish market, while a later hall, in property acquired by the fishmongers' company in 1434, stood close to Bridge Street, at one end of London Bridge. A reference in the above (undated) ordinances indicates that at that time the hallmoot met in some building in Bridge Street, though this could have been rented prmises.

A set of ordinances very similar to those above, in French, was copied into Liber Albus immediately after those above; they were said to have been enacted ca.1280, and may represent an set of regulations. There are a number of points of comparison in the document here translated with the list of tolls from mid-thirteenth century, notably the sections concerning tolls levied at London Bridge. Several of the remaining provisions of this document are concerned, in essence, with the forestalling of fish before it had reached the city, or before ships coming to city quays had docked.

Fish brought to the city in carts or on packhorses may well have simply been landed at points higher up the Thames (e.g. Barking, Dartford), to sell what could be sold there, and bring the rest on to London. The wholesale marketing of fish brought by water was expected to be undertaken during the morning; that brought by land could be sold in the afternoon, or put in storage until the next day. A separate set of ordinances required that cargoes of fish arriving at night not be brought ashore until dawn of the following day. The same ordinances emphasised that all fish landed should be exposed to public view, except for that belonging to the masters of the fishmongers' gild, who could (under the surveillance of the sergeant) carry it off to their warehouses, to be brought to the next market and sold.



"hallmoot" "lawmoots"
A lawmoot (in some places referred to as a lawday) was a general court session at which all owing suit to the court were expected to attend, and one of the principal purposes was the presentment of offences against the community. In the present context it refers to the judicial dimension of the fishmongers' gild. The gild administered itself through assemblies of members, known as hallmoots, because held in a hall near the Thames used as the gild's base. All members were expected to attend at least those two annual hallmoots that had the function of lawmoots, dealing with trade offences involving, or disputes between, members, or non-members who engaged in the fish trade within London. The hallmoot court was also convened once a week to deal with disputes arising in the fishmarkets, and could sit more frequently – like a court administering law merchant – when outsiders were involved in cases. The officials of the fishmongers' court could claim jurisdiction over cases related to their trade introduced in the city's husting court; however, the city retained appeal jurisdiction in such matters.

"fishmonger" "fishermen"
The document appears to make a deliberate distinction between piscatores and piscenarii; so my working assumption is that the former refers to fishermen, the latter to fishmongers, although the terms were sometimes used interchangeably.

"chapel on the Bridge"
St. Thomas' chapel, situated midway along London Bridge.

"St. Martin's church"
There were several churches of this dedication in medieval London. It may refer to St. Martin Orgar, which lay between Thames Street and Candlewick Street, just west of Bridge Street, or to the church of St. Martin on Thames, situated in the vicinity of Old Fish Street and the western fish market.

The hour of Prime was about 6 a.m.; the restriction on selling salt fish before that hour was elsewhere specified as applying only to fish owned by non-freemen. The mass referred to would have been Matins, celebrated just before dawn.

"purposes of acquiring"
That is, forestalling fish outside the boundaries specified. Those boundaries clearly pertain to the Thames, indicating that forestalling was effected by intercepting fishing-boats bringing their catches to the city by river.

"for profit or loss"
I.e. fish intended to be resold, with the hope of making a profit but risk of making a loss. The thrust of this clause is to make it clear that pretending the goods of others to be one's own was prohibited in cases where toll would normally be payable (i.e. on fish acquired for resale, rather than personal consumption).

To the list of duties of the bailiff of the fishmongers' gild, the copy of this document in the Liber Custumarum adds "or to do whatever justice dictates."

The special fee paid the bailiff by the abbey of St. Albans was for the privilege of buying fish directly from fishermen, so long as it was only for feeding the monks.

"Spindeler" (spinlere in another copy of this document): query, connection with spinnaker?

Riley suspected that ling (merling) might refer to whiting, known to zoologists as Merlangius merlangus; Tingey followed this in his translation of the Norwich list of tolls. However, during the Middle Ages the term could have referred to various types of sea-fish.

A measure, quantity now unknown, specifically applied to fish and shellfish; it appears that 5 tandles – which were probably some form of basket – was a typical capacity of a whelk-boat.

Baskets designed to be carried on the back (of humans or horses). It seems they held about a bushel.

"tholes" "rowlocks"
Tholes were wooden pegs set in pairs into the gunwale on each side of a boat, to support oars. Oarlocks, or rowlocks, implied a larger boat.

"bulwarks" "bales"
Bulwarks were the protective siding which extended above the upper deck of a ship, bales were rings attached to a ship for tying ropes that supported other elements of the vessel. These features are used here as criteria for differentiating a larger from a smaller ship.

A dealer in stockfish, which were fish (particularly cod) cured by drying them in the cold air, until hard, and then (it is theorized) beating them with clubs or "stocks" to soften them up. When cooking them it was likewise advisable to tenderize them by beating with mallets and/or lengthy soaking in water. The stockfishmongers formed their own company in the time of Richard II, and had a hall near that of the main fishmongers.

Other ordinances specified that whelks could be bought directly from the fishermen.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: January 8, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2019