“Cod, chips and mushy peas for two, please, luv. With plenty of salt and vinegar.” What could be more satisfying on a cold, wet English winter’s evening, or indeed on a summer holiday lunchtime? Particularly if it is wrapped in the centre-spread of your favourite tabloid newspaper.
Deep fried fish was first introduced to England in the 17th century, by Sephardic Jews from southern Spain. Fried fish was a favourite Sabbath meal all over the Mediterranean. It is later mentioned by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist (1838) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The dish was cooked in a cauldron of boiling fat over a charcoal fire, in the open street. Because it was cheap, it rapidly became a staple of the working class in London and the coastal towns of southern England, soon spreading to the factory workers of the Midlands and Scotland, then to Ireland and, via Irish immigrants, to America. The trade was supplied by the development of trawler fishing in the North Sea and the railway boom of Victorian England, which linked fishing ports to the expanding cities of the Industrial Revolution.
The first recognisable fish and chip restaurant was opened by Joseph Malin in 1860. Samuel Isaacs, an enterprising wholesaler and retailer, marketed the dish all over London and the south east in the late 19th century and he was first to sell a combination of fish and chips, mushy peas, tea and butter, all for 9p. He advertised his businesses with the slogan “This is the Plaice”.
By the 1870’s fish and chips had reached Scotland and Edinburgh cafes pioneered a brown sauce with vinegar, naming it “chippy sauce”.
So universal had the dish become by the 1940’s, fish and chips was the only food not rationed during the Second World War. The Gordon Ramsey chain of meal outlets was established in 2001 and by 2004 the business was making a profit of over £2 million per year. Fish and chips had certainly entered the middle class. And it had travelled a long way since its adoption by the working poor of the East End.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.