On the Waterfront: Sunderland fish trade

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LITTLE is known about Sunderland’s fish trade until the early 19th century, when a fish market of sorts served Low Street riverside on what became Ettrick’s Quay.

The foundation stone for a later fish market at Custom House Quay was laid on August 22, 1866, by Councillor George Barnes, chairman of the Borough Markets Committee.

East End fishwives were prominent at the ceremony, among whom was the redoubtable Peggy Potts – a notable Sunderland character of the era.

Concerned that the Mayor, himself, was not laying the stone, Peggy elbowed her way through the crowd with trowel in hand. As Councillor Barnes gave the stone its customary tap, the fishwife did likewise, to everyone’s great amusement.

Built by John Riseborough, at a cost of some £700, the new market measured 88 feet six inches by 30 feet, with accommodation for 24 stalls, each rented at five shillings and six pence.

It was an open building, surrounded by irons railings; its proximity to the river allowed fishing smacks to discharge catches directly ashore. Stone tables at one end served the retail market, while the wholesale trade was conducted at the opposite end.

Formally opened by the Mayor, John James Kayll, on February 4, 1867, the market fulfilled a longstanding need to provide proper facilities on the Wear, the likes of which had never previously existed.

While some felt it a waste of public money, the Mayor was convinced it would be a lucrative venture. Once more, Mrs Potts was at the forefront of the occasion.

Lifted onto a table amid the cheers of spectators, the popular lady patriotically addressed the crowd, saying “God bless our fishermen, pilot and sailors, and when they return from the deep water, may they reach the port in safety. God bless our working men and may they have plenty of work and good wages to buy fish and support their families. God bless the Prince of Wales and all the Royal Family. God save the Queen.”

Peggy Potts died at her daughter’s home near Low Quay on October 9, 1875, aged about 70 years. She claimed to have been second cousin of General Havelock, Hero of Lucknow.

Immensely well-liked by townsfolk, this stout old lady could usually be seen going about her business wearing a blue bed gown and flannel petticoat, together with a silk black bonnet, silk neckerchief and spotless white apron. Her command of local dialect “gave zest to every word she uttered.”

In September, 1878, several supporting pillars and part of the Fish Market roof fell into the river after a high tide undermined their foundations.

A replacement fish quay was completed in the Hendon Channel of the South Outlet in 1879.