What Food was Commercially Available to Buy in East London between 1848 – 1913? – Chapter 2: Fish and Chips.

Chapter 2: The Rise of Fish and Chips from 1860 – 1896

Once these Jewish communities really established themselves amongst East London, businesses started to expand into other areas, providing on the individual’s skills or focus. Due to the ubiquity of bakeries, some of the Jewish community was drawn to the pre-established community but chose to branch out into different foods. This is where the start of the fish and chips niche began. Both fish and potatoes have a long history in the U.K. With its many coastlines, fish has been a part of traditional British cuisine for centuries.[54] At this time, the British Empire’s naval power ensured protection for fishermen and merchants, which meant Britain carried a thriving fish trade.[55] As a commercial venture, selling fried fish began roughly in the 1830s with sporadic advertisements in daily newspapers and Charles Dickens mentions Holborn’s ‘fried fish factory’ in Oliver Twist.[56] But up until 1850, only the wealthy could afford fresh fish on a regular basis.[57] To take advantage of the burgeoning trade coming from British shorelines as well as the North Sea and Iceland, small fish markets started to be established along the London docks.[58] But these traders congregated towards London’s main fish market, Billingsgate market, in Poplar. The area had been a place of trade for over a century before architect John Jay built a proper building to host the vendors and rooms to keep the stock fresh. This new refurbished model was officially opened in 1850.[59] The Billingsgate Market acts of 1847 and 1871 allowed the free trade of fish for everyone, and they would come from international trading hotspots. As George Dowd wrote in the Food of London, remarking on the widening variety of options available to East London:

[sic]. . .There is salmon fVom the Tweed, the Tay, the Forth, the Clyde, the Dee, the Don, the Spey, the Ness, the Linn ; there is cod flrom Holland, fhun Korway« ftom the Yarmouth coast ; there are brill, tnrbot, Iialibut, sole, pluce, haddock, whiting, and skate, all trawl-fish (caught by the trawl-net), and brought from nearly the same waters as the cod i there are mackerel from Devon and Cornwall, eels from Holland, oysters fivm the Thames and the Channel Islands, lobsters from the coasts of Scotiond and Norway, crabs from the south ooast, shrimps from the Thames and Boston. . . ’[60]

This passage tells us just how the market was widening for food, especially for the working-class people. When beforehand regular people would survive on only the cheapest parts, with far less variety, now there was an extensive roster, and more opportunity to purchase fish. Because of the sheer volume of fresh, new stock coming from places like the North Sea, the Faroes and Iceland, the price of fish dramatically dropped from the start of the 1850s.[61] With the Billingsgate market so central in East London, businesses soon started buying stock from the surrounding areas for their business to cook and sell in take away houses, like fish houses shops in St John Street, or as far away as the Dalston high street.[62] Fish and chips rapidly became an extremely affordable and available meal. The working masses now had more opportunities to eat both fresh, and fried fish. The main product on sale was cod, but also others such as herring, plaice, roe, and haddock, were bought wholesale mainly from Billingsgate market, around East London, specifically around the Greenwich shoreline.[63] In doing this, variety and quantity became more common for the working people of east London. Due to its location and its popularity, Billingsgate Market would become the world’s biggest market in the nineteenth century. By the 1870s, primarily thanks to the efforts of this market, British fish was one of the country’s biggest exports.[64] Just before the First World War, the number of vendors and porters working from it has been calculated to be around 1,000.[65] It was at this time that people started to refer to these food shops as ‘food made fast,’ which quickly became known as ‘fast food’.[66] This is important to note, as significant as fast food will come on the global stage. Its origins pay tribute to its relationship with common people, needing their food at an increasingly speedy rate to keep up with their industrious labour. It could be possible to stake the claim that fish and chips was one of, if not the, first properly recognised fast-food meals.

These shops ended up ‘tied’ to the area, as supply and demand, something that one commentator at the time called ‘the cash nexus’.[67] By 1861, there were reportedly around 300 independent mongers and vendors in London selling fried or fresh fish, selling primarily in the Bishopsgate and London Bridge eras.[68] Peddlers would sell baked potatoes on the street as a quick and filling meal for the people of East London.[69] During this era, Dickens again documented how convenient they were to eat for the working person; he wrote in his famous novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) that‘Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.’’[70] By this point, it was on the public conscious, people were eating it enough for it to become a well-known meal and Dickens commented on it in his book points out how famous it was becoming.

“. . . this would involve gutting the fish and picking the flesh off the bone, serving the eels would be chopped up and fried. Salt, but especially vinegar would be used as seasoning [. . .] cooks in these stores realised that they could use stock from eels, with parsley and to create a liquor sauce, poured over the three main ingredients. . .”

The two separate foods of cooked potatoes and fish were sold separately for centuries prior.[71] However, the combined meal of battered fish with chips only started to take off in East London in the mid-1850s. This is a concept credited to Joseph Malin, a businessman and Jewish immigrant, who bought fish wholesale and fried them in a traditional Jewish – Sephardic – style, and potatoes to cook and sell separately. The details as to why he combined the two are not known, but around the late 1850s, he began to sell them together as a meal. It was remarked upon that the traditional Kosher recipes for frying fish ‘the Jewish way’ was a new method to cook trawl, which would have been previously unknown to the local population. The Jewish writer Israel Zangwill, who wrote about Jewish culture and living in East London, documented in-depth the specific ‘kosher’ method of cooking fish in his account of Jewish communities in East London, in The Children of Israel (1862). This recipe got reprinted in the more popular publication of Alexis Soyer’s Shilling Cookery (1854), a cookbook which is dedicated to thrifty meals specifically for the working class.[72] This involved a detailed way of deboning, cooking, seasoning the fish which became quickly adopted as the de facto way of cooking for the fish and chips in the area. British food historian Panikos Panyai described it as ‘the marriage of fish and chips.’[73] The meeting of kosher fried cod with a French-inspired way of cooking potatoes – “chipped” – once again contributed to a hybridisation of British food that became a national dish. Could it be possible to conclude that this new way of cooking fish became a novelty to the local population? Or did it successfully taste that good?

Malin’s shop, founded in 1860, on 78 Cleveland Way, Bow, christened and sold the meal ‘chipped’ potato and fish.[74] (Although plenty of customers referred to them as ‘taters.’[75]) Cod was the main fish used, but they also sold haddock, herring, plaice, roe and other fish that he could purchase. These shops had the advantage of the decreasing prices of cooking oils too.[76] The fish was fried in batter in makeshift cauldrons on top of a heated coal furnace encased in brick underneath.[77] However, this was typically economically minded, and these shops preserved specific ways of extending the shelf life of their stock. For example, vinegar was used to season the meat on top of the batter, which might be several days, if not weeks old.[78] This was then placed on top of slices of fried and heavily salted potatoes, before getting wrapped in old newspapers and being sold. Towards the end of the day, with all the collected bits of left-over batter that had fallen off the fish fried that day use it for ‘scrag ends’ or scraps to put on top of the batter.[79] These restaurants would also offer pickles, fried or buttered bread, and mushed peas as a side dish.[80] These meals would normally sell for anything between six to ninepence, varying due to portion size and stock demand.

After Malin’s initial innovations, chipped potato and fish soon started to outgrow his business and began to take on a life of their own. We can see this from the rise of mentions in newspapers of ‘chipped potatoes and cod’ as the popularity started to spread across East London. Burdett’s shop, which was ‘famous all over the Nichol and Bethnal Green’, which specialised in smoked haddocks, kippers and most cheap herrings [and] eels.[81] A. Arthur’s fishmonger shop on Old Ford Street soon began copying the recipe, and the idea of a fish and chips takeaway began to take off throughout the rest of the decade.[82] By the 1870s, other prominent shops originated from East London, using the market as their source for stock. Such as Simpson’s, in Billingsgate, whose ‘fish dinners have acquired celebrity on account of the reasonableness of the charge of the unquestioned excellence of the fish.’[83]

Some of these early take-outs, knowing their clientele, had one or two chairs and tables for a small number to sit in but were more focused on street food and takeaway.[84] It was not until 1896 that one of Malin’s main competitor, Samuel Isaacs, the first-generation son of Whitechapel Jewish migrants, born in 1852.[85] He created the first fish and chip restaurant, in Shoreditch, focusing on a dine-in experience and a full table service, with luxuries such as proper lighting, crockery and cutlery.[86] These shops quickly became so popular that he expanded his business into more central city locations. The working class, drawn to the social aspects of dining out, flocked to these places, and became so popular among them that they took to calling these shops fish ‘palaces’.[87] Other landmark shops opened into areas such as the Golden Dragon in Stoke Newington, and Shadwell’s Fish Bar.[88] When they first began these fish and chips shops were concentrated in the east end of London, before spreading outwards due to the popularity of the dish.[89] Fish and chip houses became so widespread that the smell of frying fish permeated the air, so much so that public health inspectors regularly investigated restaurants for complaints of pollution.[90] By 1910, they would become a national dish, with an estimated 25,000 – 30,000 locations throughout the country.[91]

While not strictly following traditional Jewish recipes for fish, Malin’s and Isaac’s innovations have made fried cod and ‘chipped’ potatoes was a Jewish invention. If there was evidence that migrants contribute towards their adopted home in significant ways, we can surely use the story of fish and chips as evidence of such. However, the popularity of ‘fish houses’, or palaces followed an interesting boom, where after the explosion in popularity, the local interest in this dish seemed to fade, or more seep out of the area unto the national scale. With Edmund Yates reminiscing in 1885: Fish dinners at Greenwich and Blackwall were [. . .] more in vogue then than they are now; indeed, the latter place, where Lovegrove’s, the Brunswick, and the Artichoke flourished, is quite extinct as a dining place.[92] But there is one meal that truly became synonymous with the working classes of East London.

“. . . These people would especially prep pies themselves, placing them in tin dishes, then carry them around freshly made in portable ovens, to be sold immediately to the general public. . . ”

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