Chipping away at the history of fish and chips
Walk London’s cobblestoned streets, cross centuries-old bridges and amble through celebrated covered markets – before the morning drizzle has given way to afternoon sun, history will have unfolded before you. More than just postcard images, the city’s smoking chimney stacks, ubiquitous black cabs and red double-decker buses all have long and tangled stories that are deeply embedded in London’s traditions. So too do fish and chips.
Former British prime minister Winston Churchill famously called fish and chips “the good companions”. A 2010 celebration of the iconic dish by the Independent newspaper revealed the dish to be more iconic to England than the Queen or The Beatles. And the takeaway food has even been credited with promoting industrialisation and staving off revolution. To dig into fish and chips is much more than ticking off a list of things one must do in London; it is to engage in a national treasure.
More than 229 million portions of white fish fillets are sold each year in England, each one coated in a light batter and deep-fried, and served alongside fat fried slices of potatoes. For many English people, fish and chips are best served wrapped in newspaper and devoured with a combination of a two-pronged wooden fork and greasy fingers, preferably seaside. But most historians agree that it was in London, not on the coast, where the first fish and chips shop (called a chippie) opened its doors. It was here too that the city’s working class propelled the dish into popular culinary culture. And it is in London that one of the oldest surviving chippies still stands today.
Smack in the heart of London’s bustling Covent Garden is Rock and Sole Plaice. Dating from 1871, this popular spot lays claim to being London’s oldest chippie still in operation. The flavourful batter on its fish is nicely crisped, its hand-cut chips are tasty and thick, and for historical value alone, it is worth a visit. But it is further east where fried fish first met the chip.
In London’s East End, somewhere between today’s Bethnal Green and Bow neighbourhoods, the first chippie was born. Credit is given to young Joseph Malin, who hailed from a family of rug weavers and began frying chips in the family home to help supplement their income. Genius struck when the 13-year-old married said chips with fish from a nearby fried fish shop, which he likely sold from a tray hung around his neck before opening his own shop around 1860. For more than one hundred years, the Malin family ran that pioneering chippie until closing its doors in the early 1970s.
But Malin’s pioneer status is often debated, and Lancashire, a county 500km north of London, tells a different story. Lancastrians argue that a local entrepreneur, John Lees, was the first to sell fish and chips likely around 1863 – out of a wooden hut at a market in Mossley, a small town in present-day greater Manchester.
“We don’t really know who was first. Several places popped up around 1860 and nobody knew at the time that something important was beginning,” said Professor John K Walton, author of Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1940.
Wherever fish and chips were serendipitously coupled, both pre-date Lees and Malin. It was in the 16th Century that Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Portugal and Spain landed in London, bringing with them a taste for fried fish. Former US president, Thomas Jefferson wrote about eating “fried fish in the Jewish fashion” after a visit to the English capital in the end of the 18th Century. And in 1837, Charles Dickens, in his London-based novel Oliver Twist, refers to a “fried fish warehouse”, the forerunner to the modern chippie where bread or baked potatoes were served alongside the fish.
Turning to the origin of chips, historians credit Belgian housewives in the 1680s with this culinary invention. When the Meuse River froze during winter, resourceful women fried potatoes in place of scarcely available fish. By the 1830s, the imported staple of fried potatoes was implanted firmly among London’s poor. Cut to 1860 and England’s first chip shop opened on the present day site of Tommyfield Market in the town of Oldham, 350km north of London.