Photography by Jimmi Ho © Barter Archive
CultureLife & living

Billingsgate fishmonger, Bill Thornton, receives BEM for serving the community in Docklands

This January, Bill Thornton of the Billingsgate Fish Market in Canary Wharf was awarded a Medal of the Order of the British Empire (BEM) for serving the community in Docklands.

Go down to the Billingsgate Fish Market in Docklands, ask after Bill Thornton, and you’ll see the expression on everyone’s face light up. Born just across the River Lea, Bill has worked at the market for over 50 years.

Bill is ‘over the moon’ to have been included in the New Year Honours list, receiving a Medal of the Order of the British Empire (BEM) for serving the community in Docklands. He hasn’t failed to notice it’s the new King’s very first one, either.

Talking to Pat Wong, who set up the digital Barter Archive to preserve the collective memories of the people working at Billingsgate, Bill insists, ‘no one ever retires down there because everybody enjoys it so much’.

Supposedly retired himself, Bill still helps out with the odd shift for his former employer, James Nash & Sons Ltd, conducts market tours, and is at the helm of the market’s charitable output. 

On Saturdays, Bill has been known to organise donations of fish to be driven from the market to the Carpenters and Dockland Community Centre, a foodbank for the homeless in nearby Stratford.

For the annual Harvest of the Sea festival, Bill arranges for the merchants of Billingsgate to donate their best fish to the church of St Mary-at-Hill, just up the cobbled hill from the Old Billingsgate market in the City of London, to be blessed and given to charity. Last year’s donation provided for over 170 people at the Tower Hamlets Mission on Mile End Road.

Bill’s work has caught the attention of outside eyes before, earning the Freedom of the City of London and appearing on Songs of Praise in 2016. Friends and colleagues at the market, on the other hand, have generously assured him, ‘if you think we’re bowing to you you’ve got another thing effin coming’.


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