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Lee's or Malin's... who was first?As British as Fish and Chips

Fish and chips are the undisputed National dish of Great Britain, becoming a cultural and culinary symbol of our country, instantly recognised as British the world over.

The origins and development of the dish in the mid -19th century are closely associated with the industrial revolution and it has maintained huge popularity as the original, affordable and nutritious takeaway ever since.

Where did fish and chips originate?

Fish and chips were first served together as a complete dish around 1860 - the Malin family of London and the Lee's of Mossley, near Manchester both staking claims to be the first.

Photo:  Malin family of London (bottom) and the Lee's of Mossley, who was first?

However, the fried fish and cooked potato trades had existed for many years before this.

Fried fish was first introduced to London by Jewish immigrants from Portugal and Spain probably as far back as the 17th Century. American President Thomas Jefferson described eating 'fried fish in the Jewish fashion' on a visit to the capital at the end of the 18th Century and even Charles Dickens makes reference to a fried fish warehouse in Oliver Twist. Fried potatoes as chips probably originate from Belgium.

Dickens was indeed an early advocate of the trade also recounting 'Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil' in 'A Tale of two Cities', published in 1859.

Elsewhere in the British Isles; in Scotland, Dundee City Council claims that "...in the 1870s, that glory of British gastronomy - the chip - was first sold by Belgian immigrant Edward De Gernier in the city's Greenmarket."

In Ireland, legend has it the first fish and chips were sold by an Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Cervi, who mistakenly stepped off an America-bound ship at Cobh (then called Queenstown) in County Cork and walked all the way to Dublin. He started by selling fish and chips outside Dublin pubs from a handcart.
 
He then found a permanent spot in Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street). His wife Palma would ask customers "Uno di questa, uno di quella?" This phrase (meaning "one of this, one of the other") entered the vernacular in Dublin as "one and one", which is still a way of referring to fish and chips in the city.

Industrial influence

A typical 'Fried Fish Saloon' of the 1920'sFrom the 1870's the fish and chip trade spread rapidly, especially in London and the cotton and woollen manufacturing towns of the Pennines, and soon became a readily accessible hot, nutritious meal for many factory and mill workers.
 
Photo: A typical 'Fried Fish Saloon' of the 1920's

During this time the growth of fish and chips can be attributed to mechanisation both at sea and on land.

The develpoment of trawl fishing in the North Sea provided unprecendented supplies of white fish. The development of the rail network, connecting ports such as Grimsby and Whitby to the Nation's major industrial cities meant that fresh fish could now be readily transported to the heavily populated areas with legions of hungry workers to feed.

From the 1880's onto the post-war years, fish and chips sustained and cheered the lives of people who could just about afford it, providing a meal that all the family could share as a crucial supplement to the most basic of diets.

By 1910 there were perhaps 25,000 fish and chip shops around the country, peaking at 35,000 by 1927 and between the wars most industrial towns boasted a fish and chip shop on almost every street.


Feeding the nation

Prime Ministers David Lloyd George & Sir Winston ChurchillProbably the most interesting and patriotic claim is that fish and chips helped win the First World War!

Lloyd George's war cabinet recognised its importance to the Nation's working classes and ensured supplies were maintained off ration. It helped feed munitions workers and kept the families of the fighting men in good heart.
 
Photo: Prime Minister's David Lloyd George & Sir Winston Churchill
 
By the inter war years the trade consumed around two-thirds of the British wet fish catch, and the demand for the cheap fish captured by the trawler fleets of Aberdeen, the Wyre and the Humber necessitated the development of further rail links, which in turn fuelled the development of the great industrial fishing ports.
 
At the outbreak of the Second World War the deep sea trawling industry in turn provided experienced recruits for the wartime Navy.
 
Again, reprieved from rationing during the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to fish and chips as 'Good Companions'.
 
British soldiers identified each other during the 'D' Day landings by calling out 'fish' and the response or password was 'chips'. Any other response and they would have certainly had their chips.

To the present day

Since the end of the Second World War, the food landscape in Great Britain has changed in many ways and although its unlikely the number of fish and chip shops will ever again reach the levels of 1920's and 30's the demand for the dish has remained the same. Today some 10,500 businesses provide the Nation with a similar volume of fish and chips to those of the post war years.

In the 21st Century, many businesses are family owned independents, some 2nd and 3rd generation and are the focal point of many communities. Collectively these businesses 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. A total of 62% of fish sold in fish and chip shops is cod and 25% is haddock. 90% of shops use FAS fillets - these fish are caught by large modern trawlers operating in carefully managed fishing grounds in the icy, clear Arctic waters of the Barents Sea and North Atlantic, caught by Icelandic, Norwegian, Russian and Faroese vessels. Stringent, science-based and strictly enforced regulations have ensured good management of cod and haddock stocks in these waters, and the catches from this area accounts for 97% of the total Northern Hemisphere cod quota.

From humble beginnings 'British' fish and chips are now a global phenomenon and still growing. The NFFF has members throughout Europe, Australia and South East Asia and this trend is only going to continue.

For more background on our National dish please see the facts and figures page or have a look at our handy fish and chips timeline