Fish, Chips & Railways

Fish and chips are now a immovable fixture of British cuisine – but how many people know that the origins of this national dish lie with the establishment of the railways?

Back in the 1830’s, when the railways first sprang up over the UK, fish was not a commodity available to the everyday person on the street – and if it was available, it was far from cheap. But it took over a decade for the connection between fishermen and inland cities to be made – at first fish was seen as a luxury item and was charged high carriage rates. It wasn’t until 1841, when Captain James Law RN decided it was time to bring fresh fish into Manchester. his shop was an instant success, with stock selling out within hours of arriving – the local population had never had a steady, affordable supply of fresh fish.

Railways were still less than helpful with carriage rates and liability insurances, the matter was eventually settled legally in 1855, a battle started by Captain Law. Suddenly fish was plentiful and cheap in inland cities, which had an unsurprisingly large poor consumer base  – including the large influx of Irish immigrants who came to Britain in the wake of the 1845 Potato Famine. Fish was central to the diet of the Catholic Irish immigrants, as Catholicism forbids eating meat on fridays.

Another side effect of the railway network transporting fish was the reduction of fishermen throwing previously unsaleable fish back before landing. Now there was a consumer base that would by this – and although easy transportation had lowered the cost of fish, the quantity of fish increased hugely.

And fish and chips? It’s known that fish-frying was established by 1861 and started in London, with the fryers buying leftover end-of-day stock from fishmongers. Fryers worked on the street, selling from painted trays lined with old newspapers and with salt on hand. The tray and a regular supply of fried fish was bought with a small sum, while sales would bring the seller an eventual return and profit. Fish and chip shops were established in 1876 – chips appeared in the 1860’s, although the exact circumstances that brought fried fish and chips is still a bit of a mystery and to some rather controversial. It’s believed that their popularity stems from working women relying on a quick ready-made meals for their families, as well as the Jewish population of the UK. Jewish families aren’t allowed to do anything that can be considered work between sundown on friday to saturday evening – including cooking. As a result, fried fish was bought and could be kept for the saturday meal without breaking any rules. Of course, this has never been proven. Either way, fish and chips has been and continues to be a Delicious and affordable source of fast food in the UK – after all, what little town doesn’t have a chippy?

British Pathé

Here are a couple of rather lovely little videos I found on the British Pathé website:

“a Revolution in Fishing”

It was a certain Mr Clarence Birdseye, himself an American, who invented and revolutionised the concept of frozen food. Frozen food was a challenge then, not just because of the freezing process, but also because in order to sell frozen products, you also have to convince people to buy a freezer to put the product in. Luckily for Clarence his invention took off and he sold his patent for a ludicrously large sum of money.

Freezing had been around before – but at a relatively high temperature and quite slow. This meant when the product thawed, it was dry or mushy and of low quality. Birdseye created the technology to freeze things fast and at a much lower temperature – an idea he got from the Inuit! When he expanded his inventions to plate freezers, the application for using them on board ships became apparent. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Science in Fishing”

Echo sounder, fish finder, sonar, ASDIC – these are terms that have been common to us in the last 50 years – but sonar and ASDIC have a history that runs on to a century now. Developments were started in the 1910’s, but it was during WWI which really kick-started the whole thing with the sudden need to detect submarines. ASDIC was born and developed In 1916-17. Further developments came in WWII, and it after WWII that detection devices entered civilian usage. Strangely enough, there is no proven origin meaning for the initials ASDIC – the theory is that it was derived from the cover name for the project in WWI, it was kept so secret. Sonar came during the 1930’s, and was primarily an American development.


The one is my favourite though – and was something that had never occurred to me as a possibility in ration-stricken Britain:

“Bigger Fish Stil to Come”