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?