150 Years of Fish and Chips

This is definitely off the beaten track as far as my blog posts go, but I think it’s Quite Interesting so I thought I’d share it with you. I was wondering the other day where and when the traditional “British” dish of fish and chips originated. The answer is fascinating, and a little bit controversial too.

The practice of eating fried fish in batter started to appear in England during the fifteenth century; it was derived from the  Pescado Frito cooked by Portuguese Sephardic Jews – Marranos – who had moved to Britain to escape persecution in their homeland. By the Victorian era “Fish Fried in the Jewish Fashion” was extremely popular in the working class districts of London, particularly in the East End. Dickens refers to a “fried fish warehouse” in Oliver Twist, which was first published in 1837. It seems to have become available in large quantities with the rapid development of trawler fishing in the mid 19th century.

Incidentally, there is a prominent relic  of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who settled in the East End right next to Queen Mary, University of London in Mile End (see left). The burial ground has, I think, recently been moved but it neverthless provides a timely reminder that immigration is by no means a new phenomenon as far as the East End is concerned.

The traditional way of frying the fish involved oil and I don’t know precisely when the practice of using lard – which is what is used in many modern shops – came on the scene, but it clearly would not have met with Jewish approval and must have been a more recent development.

The origin of chips is more controversial. The first occurence of this usage of the word chip in the Oxford English Dictionary appears in Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities, dated 1859, in the phrase

Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil

Some say the practice of frying potatoes like this originated in Belgium or France, and that chips are a British version of pommes frites or french fries. This style of cooking potatoes could have been brought to London by the Huguenots (French Protestants who settled in the East End of London after being forced out of their homeland). However, there is some controversy about how and why chips became so popular throughout Britain. Some claim the practice of eating fried potatoes was already established in the North of England before 1859. It also seems that fried chipped potatoes were served in working class eating establishments throughout Victorian London. Many working people – especially single men living in lodging houses – lacked the facilities or the ability to cook anything substantial at home, so preferred to buy their food ready made. At an Irish Ordinary you could get a filling meal of beer, meat and fried potatoes for about tuppence (in old money). Such establishments proliferated all over London during the 19th Century as the number of navvies and other itinerant Irish labourers  grew in response to the demand for manual workers across the country.

I think it was most likely the presence of a nearby Irish Ordinary that led a Jewish londoner called Joseph Malin to hit upon the idea of combining fried fish with chipped potatoes. At any rate it’s reasonably well established that the very first commercial Fish-and-Chip Shop was opened by him in 1860 in Cleveland Street and business was so good that it was followed by many others across the East End of London and beyond.

There’s something rather inspiring about rediscovering that Britain is nation whose traditions and institutions have always been so reliant on foreign immigrants. Even Fish and Chips turns out to be from somewhere else. Makes you proud to be British.


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12 Responses to “150 Years of Fish and Chips”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m in London and this has inspired me to have fish and chips tonight.

    The awful King Edward I expelled England’s Jews and officially there were [was?] none here until they petitioned Oliver Cromwell and were told that they were welcome. Unofficially, plenty came before that – as this piece implies.

    When I was a lad in northern England (copyright Geoff Boycott) lard was invariably used in chippies, but most nowadays seem to use oil.

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Apparently the word Marrano means something like “secret Jew”; they were forced to convert to Catholicism but secretly adhered to Judaism. Apparently many arrived in England after the expulsions from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s but had to live secretly here for much of the time. There certainly were Jewish merchants living in London during the reign of Elizabeth I although technically I suppose they must have been illegal immigrants.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Indeed; most people don’t realise that the Spanish [branch of the Roman Catholic] Inquisition was aimed mainly at Conversos rather than practising Jews. Fernando and Isabella, whose marriage unified Spain, ordered Spanish Jews to convert or leave the country, and those who professed conversion were monitored microscopically. They not only had to profess Christ but also renounce all practice of Jewish culture, and any evidence to the contrary was taken as proof of inauthenticity. It probably was, too; but any form of Christianity that uses coercion to seek conversion is by scriptural definition not authentic.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I was interested to learn that fried fish was produced by a Jewish community in England in the 15th century, given the standard historical interpretation that there was no significant Jewish population in England between the expulsion of the late 13th century and the readmittance in the 1640s, for the reasons Anton explained clearly. That interpretation is obviously too simplistic, as Peter has explained in the comment above.

    The Jewish cemetery labelled in the map that Peter provided actually covers only a small part of the map’s green region, and it remains there today, surrounded by the Queen Mary campus. A second Jewish cemetery lies on the southwestern edge of the map north of the Mile End Road, though is not indicated on the map. Both are well kept and cared for. A third Jewish cemetery lies on Bancroft Road, just off the western edge of the map, but it is in a very sorry state, and I have wondered whether that state is the result of Second World War bombing.

    A founder member of the Royal Astronomical Society, Benjamin Gompertz, was buried in “the Jewish Cemetery, near Victoria Park”, but I have not been able to locate that cemetery on a map.

    • telescoper Says:

      Bryn,

      Yes, I meant to say that the Jews started arriving in the 15th Century after the expulsions from Spain and Portugal. I think they came in much larger numbers after 1640, but there is evidence that some were living in London in the early 16th Century, whatever the law happened to say!

      In fact, a group of Marranos is even known to have worked as musicians at the court of Henry VIII, and it has been suggested that the “Dark Lady” that features in some of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was Emilia Bassano, who was descended from them.

      Roderigo Lopez, surgeon to Queen Elizabeth I, was also a Marrano. He was executed for treason after being accused of trying to poison the Queen, although he was almost certainly innocent of any crime. This episode caused a considerable wave of anti-semitic feeling in England, although at that time the country was xenophobic in more ways than you can count, and the fact that he was of Spanish extraction couldn’t have helped.

      Peter

  3. My understanding is that ‘chips’ came over from France/Belgium with the Hugenots http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huguenot , exiled for maintaining their Protestantism.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Huw,

    The Huguenots also settled in large numbers in the East End of London, especially in Shoreditch, which is very close to Brick Lane, a predominantly Jewish area until relatively recently. It’s certainly possible that they starting making chips in that area when they settled and this passed onto the locals.

    However, that doesn’t explain why chips also to have separately developed in the north of England in the early 19th Century too. I suspect that it was the large number of itinerant workers who took the habit around the country. It’s no coincidence that this was the time of large-scale industrialisation, and of construction projects involving, predominantly, Irish navvies and other workers.

    I think this all demonstrates what a melting pot that part of London has been for many centuries. Brick Lane is now an area dominated by people of Bangladeshi origin, and many of them took over tailoring premises previously run by Jews. It’s quite strange to see all the colourful signs written in Bengali over shop windows on Brick Lane and then look a bit higher up and see a Star of David still there.

    Incidentally, I should point out that Joseph Malin was not himself of Spanish or Portuguese descent – he was of Eastern European extraction. It also seems may have been selling fish and chips on the streets from a handcart or even a tray around his neck before his shop actually opened.

    Peter

  5. I went to QMC as an undergrad in 1987 (before the new library and medical centre) and was told that they were slowly digging up the Jewish cemtery as they could only touch it once the oldest grave in a section was > 100 years old.

    • telescoper Says:

      I believe some of the graves have been moved elsewhere, and that there’s been considerable consultation with the local Jewish community to ensure proper observance of the relevant laws and customs.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I recall a few years ago the then Principal of Queen Mary (Adrian Smith) stating that the college was forbidden at present from building on the Jewish cemetery, though he did not mention that it might be possible in the future. My own strong opinion is that the cemeteries should be preserved indefinitely as a tribute to the people interred there. Land for academic development could eventually be found elsewhere.

  6. Neil Beckingham Says:

    Joseph Malin was my great great grandfather and the family fish and chip business developed into a multi location business around north and east London reaching its peak in the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s. The business remained with my uncle until the 1970s when the last outlet, in Old Ford Road, Bow, was pulled down for redevelopment into flats.

    Joseph was a Romanian Jewish immigrant who had started business in London selling chips and then another selling fish. Deep frying food is still a fire hazard but in the mid 1800s the frying ranges were coal fired and the risk was higher. Fish and chips in combination was invented when Joseph’s chip shop burned down and he had the idea of keeping his customers by serving fried chips from his fried fish shop while reconstruction was undertaken.

    • Martin Pointon Says:

      Neil
      I am a student at Warwick on a Food:Critical Perspectives course. Fish & Chips are covered. Have you any documentation relating to your Joseph Malin information, or can advise who in you family passed down the story. Regards

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