Fish Auctions

— #01 Fishmarket

Overview Open Air Fish Market The Building Fish Auctions Working Fishwives Pier Parliament The Police Box
3_ 2302 DR-PC 061 Inside the Fishmarket waiting for the auction to begin. Taken about 1900, this was before the orderly wholesale system was instituted. Courtesy of the Ratcliffe Postcard Collection

A Cacophony of Commerce

Where before the open-air market had been organised chaos, after 1896 the covered fish market allowed for a developing wholesale system to be developed. We quote from Chris Garner’s excellent book, “Newhaven: 1928-1978”

“Picture the scene of the market in full swing – or rather listen to the multi-layered tapestry of sounds created by the gathered throng. The symphony starts with the Market Officer clanging the bell at 7 am to announce the start of selling. Almost immediately the insistent chanting of the fish salesman starts up.

“4..4..4.50..5..5..5..5.50..5.50..6..6..6..6.. At 6? 6 Willie. Next box. Haddock. 3.50..3.50..“. But it is not just the droning of one salesman that we hear. In its heyday in the 50s, when up to 40 boats would be bringing fish into the harbour, the market housed around a dozen stances; one for each sales firm. Each firm might have a couple of salesmen. Devlin’s for example employed 3 salesmen and each man would be auctioning his row of boxes simultaneously. So the ritual intoning of rising figures could be coming from 30 or so rasping voices all at the same time.”

Buyers came from all around and would start to arrive from 6am — fishmongers both wholesale and retail, chip shop owners, fishwives (not just from Newhaven but from Fisherrow and other coastal communities, too.)  By 11am, it was all over: the auctions concluded by around 9 o’clock, the market efficiently emptied and the area hosed down ready for the next day’s sales.

3_2011: A Fishmarket token was used to minimise loss of fishboxes. A deposit was paid for these tokens, each one of which allowed the buyer to take a box out of the market. When the box was returned, the token was handed back and the cash was returned.


The fishwives usually had their own small groups. One would be delegated to buy the boxes of fish at the auction — haddock, cod, herring, and so on — and when purchased, a porter would draw each box in turn to the small group.  The fish were then divided one at a time in strict order until each fishbox was empty. In order to further observe impartiality, the fishwives often used a system of “kyling”. An object identifying each fishwife such as a hankie or token or some such would be given to an impartial bystander who would be asked to place one of them on each box.  This would identify which box would be allocated to which woman.

Thereafter the fish were taken away to the water troughs outside for them to be gutted and washed. Heads, tails and fins were not make it easier for the fishwife to de-skin the fish if asked at the customer’s doorstep.

2_3209 Newhaven Fishwives ready for their rounds c1930