Real Life: Going from rags to fishes

From a horse and cart to bubbles and Belugia, it’s been quite a journey for this family of fishmongers. On the grandest scale. . .

Fresh fish on the table
Fresh fish on the table

It started with a humble stall on Bilston market. These days, it’s caviar, Champagne and an immaculate black-and-white-fronted shop in affluent Ludlow.

Back in Annie and Bill’s day, it was cod piled high and sold cheap. Now it’s dressed lobster and fillets of halibut or blue fin tuna.

During the Willis family’s 66-year tenure as the region’s number one fishmonger, things have changed.

“But some things stay the same,” says Louise Hackney, a third generation fishmonger from the family. “Back then, we were all about quality and giving people a good service. That’s the same today.”

Then she catches herself as her thoughts turn to her late grandmother. She laughs. “Yeah, you’re right,” she says. “Annie wouldn’t know what to make of it all. It was hard in her day, really hard.”

Sale is on - times have changed from the Bilston market days
Sale is on - times have changed from the Bilston market days

The Willis family started selling fish in 1947. They had a horse, a cart and a stall on Bilston market. They sold from a barrow and did a good trade.

The stall was bought by Annie’s husband from another fishmonger who he used to help during the 1940s. When Annie’s husband fell ill, she took over. “Annie ran it,” says granddaughter Louise

“My granddad helped my gran by collecting the fish from the station and, later, from Birmingham Wholesale Market until he became too ill to drive, that’s when my dad took over.

“Gran was based in Bilston High Street and she’d be there in all weathers. She was the driving force. Her husband, Leonard, took ill and didn’t really work again. But Annie carried on. My gran had three places in Bilston where she used to sell fish, she worked almost every day. She had a small shop on Oxford Street, the barrow and the market stall. She was a real grafter.”

What was she like?

“She was lovely. She was a lovely, lovely woman. She was as straight as they come. She didn’t mince words. She’d tell it like it was.

“She was a big woman, a round woman, and people loved her. She was really kind to us. My mum, Kath, would be the strict one in our house but we could get round her by going to gran.”

Annie moved indoors when Bilston built a new market. She’d endured a tough start to adulthood, being responsible for the upbringing of her son, Bill, when her first husband died.

Bill moved into the trade when he was old enough. His daughters: Carole and twins Louise and Alison, all followed.

“Dad took over during the 1970s, when we were at school. He wasn’t sure at the time if he could carry on because the profit he was making wasn’t enough to pay the rent and support his family, but he worked hard and turned it around.

“We went to Hall Green High School, in Bilston, and after school we’d go to the market and start scrubbing.

“We didn’t have child care, or anything like that. After school, we’d go to work. I worked in fish until I was in my early 20s. It was all about helping the family.

“It was cold. That’s the thing I remember most.

“We were by the back door in the market and there’d always be a gale blowing through. It was blooming freezing. We had massive queues on a Friday. People would buy fish on Friday and my dad would sell 20-stone of cod. Imagine that? Twenty stone. He’d pile the boxes high and people would come in and take the lot. That was what people wanted.

“We worked on unrefrigerated counters. The big change happened when refrigeration came in. I remember my dad spending a lot of money on a refrigerated counter. That was a big thing at home, whether we should go down that route. It was expensive, but he said it was the best thing he ever did.

“My dad was all about a high turnover and a small profit margin. He would pile it high and sell it cheap. People loved him for that. It meant they could get a bargain.

“My dad’s the bee’s knees. He’s the nicest man you’ll ever meet. Me and Alison would scrub the floors and the counters for him and then on Saturdays he’d buy us a new pair of jeans.”

Brisk - the family business used to pile it high and sell it cheap
Brisk - the family business used to pile it high and sell it cheap

The Willis family continued to trade, though Louise jumped ship – or, rather, jumped country – and headed to France.

She’d started a career in IT, working as a system tester, and become very successful. She spent much of her time on the road, moving from contract to contract.

“My job then was as far removed from the fish trade as it’s possible to be. I was a white collar worker in a responsible position.”

She met her husband, Andy, who’d been working as a sales and marketing manager for a printing company. That was in 1994 and soon the couple moved away, creating a new life in Brittany, across the Channel.

Louise’s career continued to flourish and she regularly flew back to the UK to work on IT projects. Andy, meanwhile, created a successful business as a personal trainer and planned to open a gym.

“The French told him he had to take his fitness qualifications all over again – but they told him he had to do them in French. It was their way of telling him he couldn’t open a gym, so we came home.”

The Black Country would have seemed like an obvious destination in which to build a home, but Louise had other plans.

“I’d seen Kirsty on Location, Location, Location and she’d done a show about Ludlow. It had been a while before we moved back, but I remember watching it and saying to Andy: ‘We’ll live in Ludlow one day.’

“We used to go to Ludlow when we were kids. My dad would take us there for day trips.”

Louise decided to take the plunge after visiting the south Shropshire town and trying to buy a piece of fish. “We’d gone there shopping for the day and I wanted to buy something for supper. I asked around to see where the fishmonger was and there wasn’t one.

“I couldn’t believe it. Ludlow is such a foodie town. People all over the country know it. It’s got an international reputation. But it didn’t have a fishmonger. After that, I knew I had to open a shop.”

Louise consulted Annie before opening The Fish House. “We opened three years ago. Annie told me I was mad. But I think she thought I’d be working like she used to. The Fish House is different. We’ve advanced beyond the horse and cart. People in Ludlow love fish and we have a little restaurant in the shop, where people drink Champagne and eat oysters. I tell you, Annie couldn’t believe it when I told her people would be doing that. She thought I was off my rocker.”

From a modest market stall to Bollinger and Beluga, it’s been quite a journey.

The family still has its Black Country roots. Sister Carole married a fishmonger, Gary Wildman, and he’s got a unit in Tipton, near to Mad O’Rourkes Pie Factory. Carole kept the market stall going and said she’d keep it on until Annie died. “We lost Annie 18 months ago and sold the pitch after that.”

But Louise is keeping the tradition alive.

“Working as a fishmonger is tough, even in Ludlow, but things are improving. People used to go to the supermarket – some supermarkets does a kilo of salmon for £9. We do a kilo for almost twice as much, because that’s what it costs us, but the quality is 10 times better. People are getting used to buying a little less, but enjoying much, much better quality.”

Louise’s fish is often swimming the seas less than 24 hours before finding its way on to her refrigerated slab.

“We get our stock from Whitby, Brixham and Scotland.”

Ludlow has a reputation for great restaurants – but even the local pubs now sell fresh fish.

“They realise it’s worth it. Their customers turn their noses up when they get stuff out of the freezer.”

Andy Richardson