Fish and Chips

views updated May 11 2018


FISH AND CHIPS. Fish and chips has a strong historic claim to the status of the national dish of industrial Britain. Perhaps fittingly, in postindustrial and postcolonial times it has been hit hard by competition from a proliferating variety of ethnic restaurants and takeout restaurants, especially Indian and Chinese, and by the rising cost of the traditional fish species to which its loyal adherents are firmly attached. Its origins coincided with the sustained rise in working-class purchasing power that was ushered in by falling prices in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Although the identity of the first fish and chip shop cannot be confirmed, it was either in London's East End or in the textile factory districts of northern England, and it opened in about 1870, combining two commodities, fish fried in batter and chipped potatoes, which had previously been hawked through the streets as separate entities. It was a cheap and filling dish, enlivened with salt and vinegar, and it began as a latenight snack for revellers on the way home after the pubs had closed. By the turn of the century, however, the fish and chip shop had become a general feature of the urban industrial landscape, selling to women and families as well as to men, and to factory workers (and housewives) in the midday break as well as in the early evening and at night.

By 1910 there were about 25,000 fish and chip businesses in Britain, almost all of them single-family operations (the success of the Harry Ramsden chain in the late twentieth century was novel and anomalous). By 1927, as the industry reached its peak, there were perhaps 35,000. Fish and chips provided the dominant market for the catches of the steam trawler fleets that were rapidly expanding at the turn of the century. The business also consumed huge quantities of potatoes and generated a major specialized engineering industry to supply frying ranges and related products. It was both mocked and celebrated in music-hall song, and different British regions took pride in their own preferred species and specialities, especially "jumbo haddock" fried in beef dripping in the coal-mining and woollen-manufacturing districts of West Yorkshire.

As a labor-saving foodstuff, prepared outside the home and often defying the "civilising process" by being sold in newspaper wrapping and eaten in the street with the fingers, fish and chips attracted a lot of snobbish and pseudo-scientific criticism. Social reformers associated it with slovenly domestic habits and claimed that it was expensive, while local government medical officers alleged that it spread illnesses, and in many towns it was regulated as an "offensive trade" alongside soap boiling and rag picking. In Scotland, where many of the fish friers were Italian immigrants, authority was particularly suspicious. But the balance of the evidence suggests that it provided a valuable and palatable boost to working-class diets, while taking some of the strain off hard-working domestic labor and providing an outlet for aspiring petty capitalists in working-class communities. It was even claimed that fish and chips played an important part in winning World War I by sustaining morale and stamina on the home front, and by the 1930s it was becoming increasingly acceptable to middle-class consumers, although by that time it was beginning a long, slow decline that still continues at the turn of the millennium.

See also England; Fast Food; Fish; Fishing; French Fries; Potato.


Priestland, Gerald. Frying Tonight: The Saga of Fish and Chips. London, Gentry: 1972.

Walton, John K. Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 18701940. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1992; reprint, New York: Continuum, 2000.

John K. Walton

fish and chips

views updated May 29 2018

fish and chips • n. a dish of fried fish fillets served with French fries.