The History of Fish and Chips

Reading Time: 15 minutes

The Origins Of Fish & Chips

history of fish and chips

Fish and chips are a national institute.

They are about as British as you can get.

Really up there with Tea, Queen Lizzie and poor dental hygiene.

Winston Churchill called both fish and chips good companions. John Lennon covered his chippy tea with ketchup and Michael Jackson always ordered a side of mushy peas with his.

Now I’m not sure if he actually liked the mushy peas or he just used to order it so the kids would have something to eat but that’s a whole other story ey?

Fish and chips are even mentioned in J.R.R Tolkiens, The Two Towers:

“Sméagol won’t grub for roots and carrotses and – taters. What’s taters, precious, eh, what’s taters?’ – Gollum Lord of the Rings.

‘Po-ta-toes,’ said Sam. ‘The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly. But you won’t find any, so you needn’t look. But be good Sméagol and fetch me some herbs, and I’ll think better of you. What’s more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters one of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee. You couldn’t say no to that.’

‘Yes, yes we could. Spoiling nice fish, scorching it. Give me fish now, and keep nassty chips!’ – Gollum Lord of the Rings.

Fish and chips have and continue to feed millions of people up and down the country every week. From chowing down at lunchtime on a seaside holiday to drunkenly burning your mouth on the way home from the pub, few can resist the allure of this tried and tested combination.

When was the last time you had a chippy team milo?

What is your go-to order? Wait, I want you to order it exactly as you would.

“Hello sir, welcome to Canter’s Chippy. What are you having?”

“Sorry mate we are all out of chips, No fish left either. Fancy a boiled egg that’s been in this jar for a year?”

But have you ever stopped to think about where this dish actually comes from?

Or how it first originated?

Or why chip shops even sell pickled eggs?

Well, today we are going to get to the bottom of that and more as we examine the origins and history of Britain’s favourite dish; Fish & Chips.

Listen To The What The Food Podcast

Origins

fish and chip advert

To examine the origins of fish and chips, you kinda have to split the dish in two.

The Fish part and the Chip part.

So we will first look into the origins of the fish, then we will look at the chip and finally, we will look at when the two were first married.

The Origins of the Fish

Around 1.95 million years ago, a group of our human ancestors assembled around the shores of an ancient lake or river in Kenya.

They proceeded to gather fish and other aquatic animals from the shore or shallow water which must have been like watching a group of piranhas go HAM on a piece of meat.

Using stone tools, they deboned catfish, eviscerated turtles, defleshed the foot of a crocodile and ate that stuff up.

We know all of this as their tools and their bones were uncovered by archaeologists and stand as the earliest known, definition evidence of hominins butchering and eating aquatic animals.

A quote from Brian Richmond, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. reads:

“Here we see the first conclusive evidence of hominins eating fish before there were dramatic increases in brain growth,” – Brian Richmond, a paleoanthropologist from America.

But apparently, the diners weren’t picky:

“They also ate antelopes, hippos, and rhinoceros—”any kind of animal tissue they could get their hands on,” – Brian Richmond, a paleoanthropologist from America.

What do we know about eating seafood? It makes your brain bigger.

What happened to us?

We got bigger brains and now we run the show.

Yeah fish. Gimme that sweet sweet Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, please.

Anyway, since that time, our desire to eat seafood has never dwelled.

Now I did think about going into the history of fishing and how it became more and more efficient as time went on, but I thought that would take us too far off course with the origin story we are talking about today plus no one wants to hear me talking about bent fishing hooks and large nets for 30 minutes.

So instead, let’s fast forward in time a bit and set sail to the Iberian Peninsula. To be more specific, we are heading to Portugal around the year 1100.

The Portugese Involvement

The kingdom of Portugal was established in the 1100s after the Reconquista in Portugal.

The Reconquista was a period in history where the Christians of Europe drove out the Muslim Moors who had held the Iberian Peninsula up until this point.

It was a period of Christian expansion and as we have already seen in past episodes, Christians don’t mess around when it comes to expanding.

So after years of both external and internal fighting and bickering between the Moors, local counts and kings, the Kingdom of Portugal was given the privileges and favours that any true kingdom should have by the Roman Catholic Church. King Afonso 1st of Portugal was finally king.

A fun little fact about Afonso 1 of Portugal, he lived until around either 78 or 79 and a year before he died, he helped relieve his Son Sancho who was being besieged by the Moors in a place called Santarem.

Imagine a 77-year-old coming at you with a sword.

There are also mythical stories that it took 10 men to carry his sword, and that Afonso wanted to engage other monarchs in personal combat, but no one would dare accept his challenge.

He’s basically just an aggressive, old, dude that wants to fight everyone.

He’s like the Wealdstone Raider.

Anyway with Portugal now firmly under Christian rule and a stable monarchy established, everything ended happily ever after and all religions lived peacefully among one and another forever and ever.

Haha, Joking mate.

Before the Christians took over, under the Moor rule, the Sephardic Jews in Portugal were treated with a level of tolerance that was not often found elsewhere. Whilst this tolerance carried over for a while under the new Christian rulers, after a while, it began to wear thin.

In 1496, Manual 1, King Of Portugal was betrothed to Isabel of Aragon. Now I looked into this marriage in greater detail and pretty much all royal marriages during this time is complicated.

By the way, Isabel of Aragon had several siblings, most notable Catherine, Queen of England who has married to none other than the white Suge knight Himself, Henry 8th.

Basically, before marrying Manual, Isabel was married to another dude called Afonso, Prince Afonso of Portugal, Manual’s nephew. They married thanks to the treaty of Alcacovas which basically put an end to the war of the Castilian succession. Basically an internal war between parts of Spain and Portugal on who controlled which area. Standard middle age bickering type.

Anyway, she was married to Afonso until July 1491 when he was killed in a riding accident. She was quite rightly heartbroken by the incident and get this, became convinced that he had died because God was angry that Portugal had provided refuge for the Jews that had been expelled from Spain when Judaism was outlawed in 1492.

Yup, that’s right ladies and gentlemen.

She returned to Spain after her husband’s death and became even more religious and convinced of the Jewish part in her husband’s death.

After Manual became king, he immediately sought Isabel’s hand in Marriage. God knows why but Manny must have seen something he liked in this antisemite.

Well after much back and forth and her refusing to ever marry again several times, she finally relented and agreed to marry Manual under certain conditions.

In her marriage stipulations, she made it clear that she wanted the expulsion of Jews from Portugal.

She might as well have said, “I ain’t marrying you with those dreidels knocking around everywhere. I could slip and really hurt myself. Also, I’m keto so bagels are a no-no”

What a piece of work.

Luckily for the local Jewish population, Manuel didn’t quite agree with Isabel’s views and felt as though they contributed a great deal both culturally and economically to Portugal. But at the same time, he wanted to marry her, he sought to find a middle ground.

He basically said to them, you can stay here in Portugal if you convert to Christianity.

Which, if you think about it, ain’t really much middle ground at all.

fish and chips

Pescado Frito

Now, some Jews did convert to Christianity and some converted but secretly practised their Jewish faith in secret. These types of people were called Crypto-Jews which is metal as fuck.

Apparently, when they entered a Christian Church they would mutter the following Phrase:

“I enter this house, but I do not adore sticks and stones, but only the God of Israel.” – A Portuguese Crypto-Jew.

But a fair few Jews did not fancy changing their religion and instead, fled Portugal to seek a land where religious freedom was on the table.

They fled all over Europe to places like Amsterdam, Paris and of course, London, especially after Oliver Cromwell lifted the formal ban on Sephardim in the 1650s.

With them, they brought their religion, their culture and more importantly for us today, their cuisine.

One of the dishes they brought with them roots itself into the very heart of British fish and chips.

A dish by the name of Pescado Frito.

Pescado Frito is a selection of fish deep fried in a light flour coating that is actually still incredibly popular in Portugal and parts of Spain today.

It is made by coating the fish, usually, a white fish, in flour and deep-frying it in olive oil. They would season it with a sprinkling of salt and in most cases a wedge of lemon.

It would actually be eaten cold too which is pretty wild. They would prepare the Pescado Frito on a Friday so that they could chow down the following day, their Sabbath.

So the Jews brought this cuisine with them and began selling it to punters of the streets of London. They would stack the fried fish high in trays that were hung around their necks using leather bands.

Kinda like those guys at baseballs games, you know?

Anyway, the fish was most commonly eaten with bread or served with some baked potatoes and eventually became immensely popular with the people of England.

So popular that Charlies Dickens wrote about it in his book Oliver Twist – Fagin lived near a fried fish warehouse and even Thomas Jefferson who, after a visit to Britain wrote in a letter having sampled:

“Fried fish in the Jewish fashion.” – Thomas Jefferson, American President.

Phew. So there we have it. 1 Part of this famous double act has been identified.

But of course, that is only half of the story. We have next got to find the origins of the humble chip and how the match made in heaven began to be.

The Origins of the Chip

Now we are planning a future episode where we go into more detail on the humble chip and of course french fries so today we will just give you a light coating of their origins.

In case you didn’t know chips are made from potatoes. I’ll just let you digest that mind-blowing fact before going on any further.

Potatoes are not native to Britain. In fact, they are not even native to Europe.

Potatoes originated in the Andes, specifically around Chile, Bolivia and Peru and we have evidence that they have been cultivated for around 8,000 years.

It was only after the Spanish arrived and began the less than peaceful exploration of South America, are potatoes first seen by European eyes.

A quote from one Spanish explorer by the name of Jose De Acosta, wrote in his 1590 work, “The Nature and Morals of The Indies”:

“The Indians use another kind of root, which they call papas, or potatoes….. The Indians gather these potatoes and let them dry in the sun and then mash them to make what they call chuño, which lasts for many days in this form and takes the place of bread…. In short, these roots are the only bread of that land. . . .” – Jose De Acosta, Spanish Explorer.

So naturally, Europeans began exporting these wonderful new potatoes back to their home countries whilst importing lovely new diseases like smallpox and influenza to South America.

A truly great trade if you ask me.

The potato is first thought to have landed in Spain and then spread to the Netherlands and then on to the rest of Europe.

For Britain, some people would have you believe that it was Sir Walter Raleigh who first brought the Potato to Britain. However, this is likely a myth as firstly, his explorations took him no way near where the potato would have been growing at the time.

Secondly, in a book called “Adam in Eden, or Nature’s Paradise” published by William Cole in the 17th century reads:

“The Potatoes, which we call Spanish because they were first brought up to us out of Spain, grew originally in the Indies…” – William Cole, English Writer.

It’s more likely that they would have been imported via the Netherlands or Spain to Britain.

Upon landing on Britain shores, potatoes were actually met with a high degree of suspicion by the British public. See potatoes are part of the deadly nightshade and the plants and leaves of a potato plant are actually poisonous.

So if the leaves are poisonous, why on earth would you eat the weird white thing growing in the ground underneath?!

This suspicion even went as far as the people of Britain actually thought Potatoes caused leprosy, scrofula and syphilis.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this section we will likely dedicate a whole episode to the humble chip so for the sake of fish and chips, the potato’s popularity in Britain grew over time with more and more crops springing up and more and more innovation in cooking methods.

One of these cooking methods was frying.

chips

Frying the Potato

In 1854, we had our first written record of people selling pieces of fried potato to the general public. We can even go as far as to name the first person who did so thanks to W.H Chaloner’s book called Industry & Innovation.

In this book he writes:

It is claimed that Mrs Duce was the first person to fry chips for public sale and that may well be so. – W.H. Chaloner , English Writer.

Who is Mrs Duce you ask?

Well, Mrs. Duce was a tripe seller in the Leeds and Bradford area. Chaloner the author of the book we just mentioned goes on to say that the business of frying chips for sale soon became so popular that people began to produce cooking stations for sale to these shops, so they could offer chipped potatoes along with their tripe.

Get your Tripe and Chips! – An English Trip and Chip Saleswomen.

I mean I think it actually phonetically sounds better but the thought of the two together is pretty grim. The chips would soak up all that lovely stomach juice.

So that’s all the detail we are going to get into today on the Chip side of things. Like I said we will likely dedicate a whole episode to the origins of Chips & French fries so you’ll just have to wait for that one to learn more.

So we’ve got the fish.

We’ve got the chips.

When do these two get together and get down and dirty on us? When do we see the true history of fish and chips?

Well, let’s see, shall we.

The Match made in Heaven

Now as with anything like this there are various different accounts on which mastermind was the first to put the fried fish with the fried potato.

In this particular case, it’s actually a North vs South thing too.

We’ll start with the South’s case first.

In London, it is said that a man by the name of Joseph Malin opened up a fish and chip shop in Cleveland street around the year 1860.

Joseph, a Jewish immigrant himself, actually came from a family of rug weavers that needed to supplement their income. They opened a shop selling fried potato and the young Joseph convinced his family to include fried fish to the menu, which became an instant success.

Sounds pretty straightforward and likely to me, especially as Joseph came from a Jewish background where the fried fish originated from.

Although, I’m not sure I’d want a rug weaver operating the fryer….

Alternatively, we have the North’s claim.

An entrepreneur by the name of John Snow, sorry John Lees is thought to have begun selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at the Mossley Market in Lancashire around the 1860s.

Tbf it might have been a better ending if John Snow just opened up a fish and chip shop in Winterfell and called it a day. Still time I suppose given that Martin hasn’t finished the books yet ey?

Anyway, Mr Lees’ business opened up and was an immediate hit with the Northern locals. So much so that he moved to a permanent shop across the road and set up residence for good.

He even went as far as to put an inscription in the front of his shop’s window which read: “This is the first fish and chip shop in the world”.

Now I admire Lees’ entrepreneurial mindset, but for me if you need to clarify it then to me, you are compensating for something right?

Now that you’ve heard both sides, who do you think was first?

I mean just going on the facts in front of us, it’s impossible to definitively say who was first but what we do know is that from that point on Britain was hooked on Fish and chips.

english chippy

The Boom of Fish and Chips

After the first fish and chip shop, it wasn’t long until the second opened, followed by the fourth and fifth and really, they just never stopped opening. In Britain today, it’s said we have around 10,500 fish and chip shops that are currently operating up and down the country.

To put that into perspective, there are 1,300 McDonalds in the UK and 900 branches of KFC.

A fish and chip shop would, in most cases, small family run businesses that were often run from the front room of the family house. They would basically convert their living room into the shop which is mad if you think about it.

During these boom years, fish and chip portions were often wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper as a way to keep prices down and provide a method of grease-proof transportation.

This practice was carried up well into the 1970s until someone realised that when the hot grease came into contact with the ink on the newspaper, the toxic chemicals from the ink would leech into the food.

It is actually a UK law now that fish and chips cannot be wrapped first and foremost in newspaper.

Anyway, through the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the fish and chip trade expanded greatly to satisfy the needs of the growing industrial population of Great Britain.

It’s thought that at the peak of fish and chip popularity, around 1927 there were 35,000 fish and chip shops open in the UK.

In fact you could say that the Industrial Revolution in Britain was fuelled partly by fish and chips!

The development of the steam trawler bought fish from all over the North Atlantic, Iceland and Greenland and the steam railways allowed easy and fast distribution of the fish around the country.

Fish and chips became so essential to the diet of the ordinary man and woman that one shop in Bradford had to employ a doorman to control the queue at busy times during 1931.

During both WW1 & WW2, the fish and chip shop was invaluable in supplementing the family’s weekly diet. This was mainly because fish and chips were among the few foods not to be rationed. Queues were often hours long when the word went round that a certain chip shop had fish!

On one occasion at Brian’s Fish and Chip Shop in Leeds, when fish was scarce, homemade fish cakes were sold – along with the confusing, and slightly worrying, warning:

“Patrons: We do not recommend the use of vinegar with these fish cakes”!! – Yorkshire Chip Shop Owner.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to fish and chips as ‘Good Companions’. And British soldiers identified each other during the ‘D’ Day landings by calling out ‘fish’ and the response or password was ‘chips’.

We can safely say that by the 1940s, fish and chips are deeply rooted in British culture and are a part of everyday island life.

But after the second world war, the food landscape of Britain began to change and the overall demand for fish and chips began to decrease slightly. This has compounded further in modern times with the better focus on diet and eating smaller quantities of fried food.

Fish & Chips: A National Insitution

an old english chippy

However, that is not to say that fish and chips are not still an integral part of British culture and Britain’s economy. In fact, according to the NATIONAL FEDERATION OF FISH FRIERS, established in 1913:

Fish and Chip shops in the UK use 10% of the UK’s potato crop and 30% of all white fish sold in the UK and the industry generates a turnover of around £1.2 billion every year.

Just so you are aware the NFFF’s mission statement is the following:

Our aim is to unite all fish friers within an organization which can speak with one voice whenever and wherever necessary, promoting and protecting the interests of fish and chip businesses and associated trades – NFFF Spokesman

Basically trying to create an army of fish friers which would be a pretty intimidating army if you ask me.

So there you have it, the history of fish and chips.

So the next time you find yourself tearing into that grease soaked newspaper, unable to contain your excitement for that first mouthful of chippy tea, after listening to today’s episode you might look at the dish in a whole different light.

A dish that was brought to you because of religious persecution and famine. A dish that was sampled by presidents and the greatest literary figures of mankind.

A dish that contains ingredients that were once thought to cause leprosy and syphilis and a dish that was so important to British morale that Winston Churchill himself, refused to ration it throughout the entirety of World War II.

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Andy Canter

Andy

Ever since I started cooking I’ve been fascinated by how different people’s techniques are and how they best utilise the ingredients around them. Even the person living next door will have their own unique way of frying an egg or cooking a salmon fillet.

This fascination led me on a journey across the globe to discover the countless practices and traditions the world of cooking has to offer. I thought you’d enjoy and find value in sharing that journey with me so I created Cooked Best!