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Hey Joe! Your Porter Story Sounds Fishy!
By The Viper

“Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that cod in your hand?” Well, in the absence of refrigerated pockets he presumably wasn’t heading down Mexico way. The question is; was he carrying it into, or trying to smuggle it out of Billingsgate Market?

Anybody taking the Joe Barnett Experience on the Casebook message boards between about 4th and 18th September 2000 couldn’t fail to notice the frenzied debate about our man’s employment history. Was he a market porter or a dock labourer, or were those occupations one and the same? If he was a market porter did his duties include filleting fish? And if so, did that inspire him to fillet his Foxy Lady? The ‘facts’ as stated looked contradictory and in some cases plain wrong. Furthermore, nobody was conceding anything. The argument seemed to hinge on Bruce Paley’s interpretation of the Billingsgate Market Porter’s records in “The Simple Truth”. So, it seemed the best thing to do was to take a trip, (to the Corporation of London Records Office at Guildhall, that is) to see just how much information those ledgers would yield up. Coupled with a bit of reading about the history of the market in Guildhall Library, the findings are documented here stone free in the hope that we can dispel some of the purple haze that surrounds this topic.

First, it helps to understand something about Billingsgate Market and about portering. Billingsgate is an ancient market which was based on or near its original site on the Thames until it closed at the end of 1981 to relocate completely to London Docklands. It stood on Lower Thames Street in the City of London, backing onto the river. The market buildings that still stand today were constructed 1874-76, the creation of Sir Horace Jones, who not only designed other Victorian market structures but was also responsible for Tower Bridge. It had 39,000 square feet of floorspace, and was supplemented by the opening in 1888 of a 5,000-sq. ft. dry fish market across the road.

The great London railway termini were built in the period 1835-70 and Billingsgate was quick to adapt to the new possibilities the railways offered. In the 1840s substantial amounts of fish started arriving in London by rail, the most important destinations being King’s Cross and Broad Street. The journey to the market was finished by horse-drawn wagons which created enormous congestion within a quarter-mile radius of Billingsgate on every market day. However, a substantial amount of cargo still came in by boat. In fact, until the 1870s the majority of Billingsgate’s fish arrived by water. In 1848 a total of 108,739 tons arrived by boat and even in 1910 the figure was still 72,000 tons, (but in a bigger market). The sailing boats described by Mayhew in the 1850s had virtually disappeared by the 1880s. True, shellfish from the Essex fleet, (largely stationed around the Thames Estuary) were still brought up in a variety of vessels, but the deep sea fish from the North Sea fleet arrived mainly by fast steamer. Few trawlers bothered to make the journey down the East Coast; their cargoes, if not sent by train, were transferred onto these speedy feeder boats at their operational bases. Feeder steamers sometimes delivered 400 tons of fish a day.

All these boats and wagons needed to be unloaded. That job fell to the market porters. Historically, different grades of porter had existed, and in the mid-nineteenth century that was still the case. The most privileged were the 40-100 (it was seasonal work) Fellowship porters, so-called because they were Freemen of the City of London with residence qualifications (a throwback to the medieval days of the City Guilds). They had the right to carry from the ship to the market all fish or shellfish sold by the tale (number). Next, the Ticket porters had exclusive rights to carry dried fish such as herrings. For this they were able to charge 1 ½d per box. Below these were three types of unprivileged porters totalling about four hundred in number. Those known as ‘foreigners’ were paid to receive the fish unloaded by the Fellowship porters. In contrast ‘bobbers’ were sent out of the market with fish to distribute to local customers. Bottom of the pile were the ‘roughs’, casual labourers who would do any job required of them. That primarily involved helping railway staff to unload the wagons.

There is no mention of gutting fish in any of the porter’s job descriptions found by your correspondent.

Exasperated by the restrictive practices of the Fellowship and Ticket porters, the market authorities introduced a new system of Licensed Porters to make for more efficient handling of fish. License holders were expected to perform any portering task as required. The writer was unable to ascertain the date when the new system began but the records at the Corporation of London Records Office appear to provide the answer. Their ledgers start from 1877, with a substantial number of the porter’s licenses dating from the last few days of December that year, suggesting that the system was operational from 1st January 1878. Licenses held good for one year and were supposed to be presented for renewal in good time prior to the expiry date. The ledgers don’t mention whether a renewal fee was payable or not.

Conclusions to Date – Set A

  • It was stated on the Casebook’s Joseph Barnett message board that Billingsgate was not a wharf. That statement is demonstrably incorrect; it was.
  • The question of whether a market porter’s job included the unloading of fish boats arose. It did.
  • When discussing Barnett’s occupation it was debated whether the term ‘dock labourer’ meant the same as ‘fish porter’. It did not. The licensed porter’s duties included unloading boats, but many other tasks too, like loading and unloading wagons, moving fish around the market and even delivering it to nearby customers. If Barnett were a licensed porter he’d have described himself as such.
  • A porter’s job was to fetch and carry fish. There is nothing to indicate that porters of any grade were expected to gut fish. Gutting would in any case have been a skill in its own right.

The ledgers containing the Billingsgate Market Porters’ Licenses at Guildhall extend over four chronological volumes. They stretch right into the inter-war period. When one was full another would be started. As we shall see, there are inconsistencies and omissions in the way these records were kept. The first volume, dating from 1877, contains details of the four Barnett brothers. These are as follows:-

Badge 213. Barnett, Daniel. Address: 6 Goulston Bdgs, Bermondsey. Age: 26. Height: 5 ft 4 ½ ins. Hair: fair. Issue date: 31/Dec/1877. Renewed: Jun/81, Jun/82, Jun/83. Comments: Changes of address to 9 Aldeny(?) Road; 14 Goulston Rd. Bdgs, Bermondsey and 21 Post Office(?) Lane, Holborn. There is a note saying the badge was lost and old license destroyed. A new one (number 1984) was granted in consequence.
Badge 528. Barnett, Denis. Address: 8 Goulston Bdgs, Bermondsey New Road. Age: 30. Height: 5 ft 6 ½ ins. Complexion: fair. Issue date: unfilled. Renewal dates: 1/Jly/1878 then Jun/81, Jun/82 and Jun/83.
Badge 564. Barnett, John. Address: 5 Goldsmiths Bdgs, Bermondsey New Road. Age: 18. Height: 5 ft 4 ins. Complexion: fair. Issue date: unfilled. Renewal dates: 1/Jly/1878. Comments: An 1883 note stated that his license was in the office, (a comment which also appears against many other porters in that year).
Badge 853. Barnett, Joseph. Address: 4 Osborne Street [sic], Whitechapel. Age: 20. Height: 5 ft 7 ins. Complexion: fair. Issue Date: unfilled. Renewal dates: 1/Jly/1878. Comments: Changes of address to St. Thomas Chambers, 1 Heneage Street, Spitalfields and 4 North East Passage, Wellclose Square.

Osborn Street is the southerly extension of Brick Lane which connects the latter to Whitechapel Road. The eastern side contained some old houses and a factory. In the summer of 1878 number 4 was a printer’s shop. Joseph was probably renting a room above it.

The second volume contains the replacement license for Daniel Barnett. It can be cross-referenced by badge number:-

Badge 1984. Barnett, Daniel. Address: 21 Post Road, Holborn. Age: 33. Height: 5 ft 4 ½ ins. Eyes: fair. Hair: brown. Complexion: dark. Issue date: Oct/1889. Renewed: 24/Apr/91, Jly/92, Jun/93. Comments: A change of address to 9 Provident Place, Clerkenwell. The ‘fair eyes’ entry hints that some of his details may have been entered in the wrong places.

There is a later entry for a Joseph Barnett in the third volume. The handwriting was sufficiently ambiguous to suggest the name Barrett at first, but comparing the letter formation to others in the same handwriting, I’ll plump for Barnett.

Badge 739. Barnett, Joseph. Address: 18 New Gravel Lane, Shadwell. Age: 49. Height: 5 ft. 7 ½ ins. Eyes: blue. Hair: grey. Complexion: fresh. Issue date: 16/Aug/1907. Renewal dates: 30/Jun/08, 29/Jun/09, 30/Jun/10, 30/Jun/11, 28/Jun/12, 31/Jly/13, 24/Jun/14 and 1/Jly/15. Comments: There are changes of address to 60 Red Lion Street and 1 Tench Street, Wapping. There is a faded, illegible comment in the margin which may refer to the late renewal of this license in 1913. A new application number was entered for that year. In 1919 this badge number was recycled to an 18-year-old man from Dalston called George Owen.

Conclusions – Set B

  • The four Barnett brothers did not all receive their licences at the same time, as Paley stated erroneously in his book, though Denis, Joe and John did all get theirs on 1st July 1878. Nor is Paley correct in his statement that “only Denis managed to escape from the East End” as any careful reading of the address data shows.
  • The Joseph Barnett issued a license in 1907 (not 1906 as Paley says) is not a cast iron certainty to be the same man who worked at Billingsgate in the late 1870s, though there is sufficient similarity in age and height to suggest that it probably was. The reasonably common nature of the name doesn’t make it conclusive, however.
  • It is noticeable immediately that both Daniel and Denis renewed their licenses several times. That is proof that they were portering in the early 1880s.
  • It is equally noticeable that neither Joseph nor John had any renewals listed against their licenses. This throws into question immediately their occupation after the summer of 1879.

Are Paley’s assertions about Joe Barnett’s Billingsgate career, and with it his theories about losing allegedly well paid jobs and knowledge of fish’s anatomy, unworthy of serious consideration due to the lack of evidence? At first sight it might appear so, but as so often with this case, things are not be quite as they appear!

As one inspects the Billingsgate ledgers it becomes obvious that the record keeping was patchy. The quality of the book keeping would have depended upon the diligence or otherwise of the administrative clerks employed over the years and the fussiness of their supervisors. For instance, a quick, random scan of the license renewals column turned up none for 1880, yet it is noticeable that there are a lot of entries dated 1881-83. These tail off during 1884 and in the period 1885-89 there are very few entries at all. Generally speaking, from the 1890s the record keeping becomes more meticulous over time as can be seen by the greater level of detail in Badge 739’s entry (above) which was issued in 1907.

An examination of John Barnett’s license record indicates that the modern researcher must tread warily before jumping to any conclusions. No renewals are listed for John, yet the note about his badge being in the office in 1883 – a year in which records abound in the volume 1 – demonstrates that he must still have been licensed. Why not Joe too then?

It is necessary to consult the other evidence we have and that’s very limited. But there is an independent verification of John Barnett’s activities because the 1881 Census describes him as being a fish porter. P. Birchwood’s posting to the Casebook message board on 9th September 2000 (see Ripper Suspects/Specific/Later 1910-/Joseph Barnett) tells us:-

Dwelling: 1 Horatio Street
Census Place: Bethnal Green, London, Middlesex, England.
Source: FHL Film 1341089 PRO Ref RG11 Piece 0411 Folio 98 Page 26.
Name, Married, Age, Sex, Birthplace.

Joseph BARNETT U 22 M Whitechapel
Rel: Lodger
Occ: General Labourer
John BARNETT U 20 M Whitechapel
Rel: Visitor
Occ: Fish Porter

This doesn’t help Paley’s case at all. If Joe Barnett was lodging in Horatio Street, Bethnal Green there is no mention of it in the Billingsgate records. More tellingly, he’s described as a general labourer and not as a fish porter. That is the single most important pointer that Barnett wasn’t working as a market porter in 1881.

Additionally, Barnett’s lodgings were well north of the Thames and would have entailed quite a long walk to work at Billingsgate. In no way is this point conclusive, but cheap lodgings were available in more convenient areas for a single man with a regular income. Whilst examining addresses, what do we know of Barnett’s abodes? Well, his later press utterances place him at the following addresses in the eighteen months he spent with Mary Jane Kelly: at George Street, Paternoster Row, Brick Lane and Miller’s Court. None of these or his 1881 address from the Census is detailed in the Billingsgate ledger. So, no notified address changes except the undated Heneage St. and Wellclose Square entries to add to no license renewals – it isn’t looking good at present. If we were going on the evidence so far the only reasonable conclusion would be that Barnett hadn’t been a Billingsgate porter for years.

Why then is it so widely believed that Joe was a fish porter until a few months before Mary’s death? The answer lies primarily in Barnett’s own words. We will start with his statement to the police made on 9th November 1888. It is frequently quoted as beginning thus:-

“Statement of Joseph Barnett now residing at 24 and 25 New Street, Bishopsgate (a common lodging house). I am a porter in Billingsgate Market, but have been out of employment for the past 3 or 4 months…”

And here’s the official record of his inquest testimony on November 12th:-

“I reside at 24 and 25 New Street Bishopsgate which is a common lodging house. I am a labourer and have been a fish porter. I now live…”

Note that in his statement Barnett uses the present tense, sounding as though he still is a fish porter who just happens to be on hard times currently. His statement clearly implies that it was his last job three or four months previously without stating the fact unequivocally.

There is something worth pointing out concerning Barnett’s statement that is sometimes overlooked. The bracketed words “a common lodging house” have been crossed through hastily (whoever did it didn’t even quite manage to run his pen through the words “lodging house”! The pen stroke passes below them.) Above is written the word “labourer”. The statement then reads:-

“Statement of Joseph Barnett now residing at 24 and 25 New Street, Bishopsgate (labourer). I am a porter in Billingsgate Market, but have been out of employment for the past 3 or 4 months…”

That’s closer to Barnett’s stated testimony at the coroner’s inquest, though it’s now slightly contradictory. This raises the question about what correction to the text was really intended, but to discuss that here would create a diversion we can well do without!

In an attempt to verify the missing and conflicting details we must consult the only other resource available to us – the newspapers. Here is a selection of relevant comments lifted from the contemporary press:-

From the Manchester Guardian, 10th November, “M'Carthy said deceased's husband was a fish porter, employed in Billingsgate…”

From the Daily Telegraph, 12th November, reporting Barnett’s interview with the Central News Agency, “I was in decent work in Billingsgate Market when I first encountered her [Kelly], and we lived quite comfortably together…”

From the Daily Telegraph inquest report, 13th November, “Joseph Barnett deposed: I was a fish-porter, and I work as a labourer and fruit-porter…”

From the The Times inquest report, 13th November, “Joseph Barnett was then called, and said he was a labourer working by the riverside…”

From the Illustrated Police News inquest report, 17th November, “Joseph Barnett then deposed - I was originally a fish porter, but now I am a labourer. I work at the river side, and carry fish…”

At last all room for doubt is removed. Joe Barnett was definitely working at Billingsgate in the period 1887-88. Not only do we have his Central News Agency statement in which he gives his occupation when he met Kelly at Easter 1887, but there is some independent verification that he was still there in 1888. Unless he knew his landlord, John McCarthy, prior to taking up lodgings in Miller’s Court (possible but unlikely), we must accept that he had told McCarthy of his occupation after February 1888, probably when he first secured the room at 4s. 6d a week rent. What’s more, if he was working at Billingsgate Market in the spring of 1888, the implied comment in his police statement that it was the porter’s job that he had lost three or four months earlier checks out well.

Conclusions – Set C

  • The porter’s license records are so incomplete that no positive assertion should be made based on them alone. An independent verification must always be sought.
  • The weight of evidence is substantially against Joseph Barnett having worked continuously as a Billingsgate porter between 1878 and 1888.
  • On the premise that he didn’t work continuously at Billingsgate, it is impossible to predict from the known sources the length of time that he worked elsewhere.
  • Barnett was a Billingsgate porter in the period between April 1887 and approximately July 1888. A conclusive case can be made by referring to his own statements to the police and to the press. The most important documents here are Barnett’s Central News Agency interview and John McCarthy’s press comments.
  • By the time of Mary Kelly was murdered, Barnett was a casual labourer finding work wherever he could. It seems he tried his hand at various things.

It’s now time to address the issue of Barnett’s alleged dismissal from Billingsgate. The porter’s license contained a clause stating “… if and in case the said [name to be filled in] shall at any time hereafter be guilty of dishonesty or drunkenness, or do any other act which, in the opinion of the Markets Committee, shall be in violation of either of such Bye-laws…”}. This makes it pretty clear that the Billingsgate management saw theft and intoxication as two serious disciplinary matters worthy of a specific mention as dismissal offences. Other incidents could be dealt with according to their perceived seriousness but with the get-out clause that a miscellaneous offense (“or do any other act”) could result in the sack if deemed serious enough. In reality this isn’t so different to a modern British contract of employment.

Paley, it appears, uses the above words to assume that Barnett must have been dismissed from Billingsgate a few months before the Miller’s Court murder for a serious breach of the rules. That assumption represents a quantum leap. Until evidence turns up that Barnett was dismissed for contravening the bylaws and thereby the terms of his porter’s license, no weight should be attached to his speculative statement.

After checking random pages of the ledgers at Guildhall, it can be stated that details of the non-renewal or suspension of porter’s licenses are very scant indeed. Here and there an entry has the word ‘dead’ written across it. A number of records are crossed through in brown crayon, but with no accompanying explanation. The writer must confess to not having investigated the reason for these lines (which might just have been administrative, such as transferring the entry to another ledger). In rare cases there are other notes, such as against badge holder 215 where it is noted, “Returned one month… for supposed picking pockets by the Palace Sep ’98.” It must be stated that none of these things apply to Joseph Barnett’s record. By and large, notes on license termination are rare even after 1890 when the clerical procedures improved. Apparently, maintaining details of this sort was always a low priority – at least as far as these documents were concerned. Common sense says that many other licenses must have lapsed or been revoked in the years covered by the ledgers.

On the Casebook’s Joseph Barnett message board it was questioned whether an economic downturn could have resulted in porters being laid off. Given that the 1880s saw a trade slump that is quite possible, even in 1888 (the bottom of the trade cycle was 1886). Another possibility is competition. From 1885 onwards Billingsgate had direct competition from the privately run Shadwell Fish Market just a couple of miles downstream. Though this market was a long-term failure and was tiny in comparison, 7,777 tons of fish were landed there in the year ended June 1888, with 9,094 tons landed a year later – enough to take away the work of a few Billingsgate porters, one would think.

Another thought comes to mind here. Three or four months prior to early November means July or early August. Joe Barnett’s badge, number 853, was due for renewal on 1st July each year. Had there been any need for Billingsgate to ‘let go’ of porters this could have been handled by failing to renew licenses when they became due. Alternatively Barnett could have lost his license through his own failure to renew it in good time, the result of his own neglect. There are any number of alternative explanations to Paley’s assumption that he was summarily dismissed.

Conclusions – Set D

  • No known evidence exists to prove that Joseph Barnett was fired from his fish portering job at Billingsgate. Since Paley didn’t give any other source for this assertion, it is reasonable to assume he was guessing here.
  • The reasons for people losing their jobs in 1888 were as varied as they are today. No assumptions ought to be made about this detail.

Sources Consulted

Jack The Ripper – The Simple Truth, by Bruce Paley.
England’s Markets, by Mary Boxer.
The Markets of London, by A. Forshaw and T. Bergstrom.
Bygone Billingsgate, by C. Manton and J. Edwards.

Contemporary Documents:-
Billingsgate Market Porters’ Licenses.
Inquest of Marie Jeanette Kelly 1888, ref. MJ/SPE/NE/376.
Kelly’s Directory, 1879 and 1889 editions.

Newspapers referenced:-
Daily Telegraph.
East London Observer.
Illustrated Police News.
Manchester Guardian.
The Times.

Casebook – Jack The Ripper (Press Reports, Message Boards).
Casebook Productions Inc.

With Acknowledgment to:-
Peter Birchwood Esq. (census data).
Alex Chisholm Esq. (press cuttings).
The staff of the Corporation of London Records Office, Guildhall, City of London.

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