The Fish Market in Bergen has been a meeting place for traders, fishermen and locals since the 12th century. However, the iconic market has not always been situated where it is today.
The Fish Market is first mentioned in the City Law from 1276. It was an open square where the town´s inhabitants met and the market traders sold their goods. It was centrally located in the town of Bergen, which stretched from the fortress on Holmen to Vågsbotn in the innermost part of Vågen. The Nikolai Church and the town hall were also in this area. At the end of the 12th century, the Fish Market moved to Nikolaikirkealmenningen on Bryggen.
The Fish Market and the Hanseatic League
During the 13th century, the Hanseatic League came to Bergen and the wharfs and areas around the Fish Market were filled with German traders. Bergen grew in size, with more buildings in Vågsbotn and Nordnes.
The local market traders continued their activities for more than 200 years alongside the Hanseatics. However, in 1541 the citizens of Bergen demanded that the Fish Market be moved. They no longer accepted Hanseatic control of the marketplace in their own city. The conflict escalated in 1556 when the shoemakers in Vågsbotn built a wharf outside their quarters and would not allow others to use it.
Lord Christofer Walckendorf saw the opportunity to move the Fish Market from Breidalalmenningen to the area around the shoemakers´ wharf. A small building boom followed, as a new town hall was also built. The quarters in the innermost part of Vågen were opened and the Fish Market became the heart of a new central area in Bergen.
In the following centuries, Walckendorf´s market grew in importance. The water of Vågen was filled to make room for expansion and, as the area grew, the Fish Market became the most important passage along the innermost part of Vågen.
After the city fire of 1702, wooden houses were built. But another fire in 1855 led to another change. The area was more prosperous then and the wooden fronts were replaced with brick, but many houses still retain the wooden structure from the 1700s.
Selling fish from boats
Trade at the Fish Market has not always taken place on dry land. The fishermen usually lived outside the city and they rowed to the market and sold their fish directly from their boats. Most of them sold fresh fish in a fishcasket – a casket full of holes that was dragged behind the boat. Fish was transported and sold on the Fish Market like this for several hundred years.
A common place for the fishermen to land was the Triangle in Vågsbunnen – right beside Zachariasbryggen. A wharf built on poles, the Triangle was originally built for a visit to Bergen by King Christian VI in 1733.
The wharf was 13 metres in length and had many different functions over the next 200 years. It was removed in 1911 because the seawater from in innermost area of Vågen had become so polluted by sewage that it was no longer possible to keep live fish in it. Today, flag poles form a triangle in honour of the wharf that was central to the fish trade in Bergen for several hundred years.
The face of cold liver oil
When you think about the Fish Market, you naturally associate it with the fishmongers. However, the fish carriers were also important. They transported fish to the homes of rich families in Bergen. These boys worked at the Fish Market before and after school. But they couldn’t carry the biggest fish: that was a job for grown men.
One of these men was known as “Himmelfarten” because his name Hardi Felgenhauer Sinchelberg was long and difficult to pronounce. Himmelfarten worked as a fish carrier on the Fish Market from the 1790s until his death – and he is remembered as the face on every bottle of Scott’s Cod Liver Oil, a well-known brand around the world.
Towards the end of the 18th century, a Bergen photographer named Marcus Selmer took a photo of a fish carrier, inspired by stories about Himmelfarten. In the 1890s, this picture was “stolen” by English producers and used to market English cod liver oil. Even today, the picture of Himmelfarten is well known to children and adults all over the world.
Much has happened since the death of Himmelfarten and it is safe to assume that in his wildest dreams he could not have imagined how the Fish Market would look today, more than 200 years after he worked here.