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The Eighteenth Century Fishwife

It seems as if  fishwives had a rotten reputation two centuries ago – renowned for their foul temper, loud voices, and a willingness to strike out at anyone and anything on the smallest provocation.

Here are a few interesting ones:


Shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole site it is in one version described as being “A Member of Parliament quarrelling with a fish woman…” – and in this one as “Hans Turbot quarelling with a fish woman at Southampton in the presence of Count Corkscrew”. It was published in May 1773 and shows the charmless vendor giving as good as she gets from a customer.

aaa3Clearly things sometimes got out of hand, as in this one where the fishwife is shown giving a good thrashing to some poor Frenchie who has upset her. Quite why he is shown in ‘bare-faced cheek’, so as to speak, or why someone is attempting to nip the said cheeks with  a lobster, is unclear.


Here is another, shown courtesy of the British Museum, with the bawling fishwife crying her wares “Rare mackerel Three a Groat, or four for sixpence”. (A groat was fourpence). The servants half-opening the door do not seem keen to purchase, and the cat recoils in horror, presumably because the fish are “off” and even the cat will not eat them.


Another one from Lewis Walpole Library is entitled The Enraged Macaroni. I am unclear why the poor man is being assailed by the fishwife, or why someone is leaning out of the grog shop cutting off his ponytail (or rather, “queue”). He half-draws his sword to defend himself, while his dog helps itself to a flat-fish from the basket on the floor.

While on a similar subject, here is one of George Hangar, a friend of the Prince of Wales, getting his come-uppance at the hands of a Plymouth fishwife.


A newspaper report of the day states: “Major H-gn-r, on his late tour to Plymouth with the Prince of Wales, met with an accident which might have produced very disagreeable consequences. In walking before his Royal Highness to keep off the crowd, a fish-woman, whom he had pushed aside rather disrespectfully, by giving the Major a fisty-cuff, which, unluckily for his situation, knocked him into a kennel, to the no small entertainment of the Prince and his party, who laughed most heartily at the dismal distress of the Major.”

The  ‘kennel’ in question would  have been the drainage channel down the centre of the road, no doubt full of foul effluent. Memo to Mr Hangar: never mess with girls from Plymouth (I speak from experience…).

And to finish with, a rather nice pen and ink sketch from Thomas Rowlandson entitled “Billingsgate Brutes” showing a pair of fisherwomen door-stepping a young girl. She is too ‘afraid of her life’ to argue with the woman who assures her that ‘Madam, the fish is good’. “Smell the fish! What it stinks! Eh? You saucy young brim.”

Billingsgate brutes Rowlandson

(I am at present exploring the delights of South Africa and Mozambique, but will resume normal blogging duties after Christmas).


1 thought on “The Eighteenth Century Fishwife”

  1. Love the collection of illustrations you present.
    The fishwives ofBillngsgate had a reputation for being foul mouthed and rough mannered. A foul mouthed woman and some shrews were described as speaking Billingsgate or as being a Billlingsgate fishwife.

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