Smelling the Victorian chippy 

When I was 15 I got my first proper job in the local fish and chip shop. With my Record of Achievement and newly minted National Insurance card I was interviewed and given a job that paid better than my daily newspaper round. Donning blue and white shirt and paper hat, I scooped chips and served fish, pie, and battered sausages to a evening and lunch time crowd intent on getting their chippy fix. Winks and smiles from regular customers meant that I knew I was considered to be generous in my chip portion. It was here that I also learnt the hard way that curry sauce burns and sticks to your skin. I also discovered a love of sea cucumbers (aka gherkins) that I still have. I liked working there. It was lively, fun and pleasant. I would have stayed longer had the manager not decided to call me ‘Juicy Lucy’: something my proto-feminist self objected to. Reflecting on it now I wonder if this was just his way of christening me as one of team even though, at that stage of my life, I wasn’t even known as Lucy/Lucie. I was ‘Luce’. It was only when I went to university that ‘Lucie’ became my name. Anyway, fish and chips weren’t a regular part of my life until then. As a family we had them on special occasions and when we returned from our hols. They were not a weekly treat. I wasn’t too sad to cross the road and become a shop assistant in Budgens.

Crowd in front a chippy on Petticoat Lane
It’s National Fish and Chip Day on 3rd June. Fish and chips are now an icon of Britishness. Yet, this wasn’t always the case. Rather than viewing them as everyday and mundane food stuff settler autobiographies at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to record horror at the practice of eating fish and chips. London settlers- middle-class men and women who lived in working-class districts- instead used this dish to illustrate class and place difference. It took three weeks tramping around the Alps for one East London settler, Francis Fletcher Vane, to remove the stench from his nostrils.

The entrance of thre boys’ club
Meanwhile, Alice L Hobson objected to the boys of the crypt club eating fish and chips in Lady Margaret Hall Settlement’s boys club in Lambeth. It was forbidden because the paper ‘had a fearfully strong constitution’ and the boys had a tendency to throw inedible bits on the floor (Hobson: 1909, 163). Mindful that the club had no windows- because it was held in the crypt of the local church- she was keen to keep an eye on the ‘the young monkeys’ who hide ‘fish and taters’ in their coats and who hoped that they would be able to eat them in the warmth of the club (Hobson: 1909, 163).

Past experience made her aware of the dangers of the ‘penetrating odour’ of fish and chips. Lady Margaret Hall Settlement girls’ club was once next door to a fried fish shop. But the smell was quickly discovered to be too overpowering for them; the managers were quickly on the hunt for new premises.

As the examples above demonstrate, the smell of fried fish and chips sensorially marked London working-class districts out as different to those previously familiar to settlers (Hodson: 1909, 103).

Hodson also uses her memoir to record her interest in ‘fried fish shops’. Turning tourist guide, she leads her reader through a Lambeth fish and chip shop. Looking through the shop window she reports the heaped piles of whiting, plaice, flounders and sometimes mackerel. At night the Lambeth fish shops were reported to do a roaring trade around 10-10.30. Her outsider status was not only confirmed by her obsession with the smell; her memoir also reveals a fascination with ‘a bottle which is shaken violently over each piece of fish, after it is purchased’. I smile at her observation ‘I have found out now that it is a vinegar bottle’. I wonder how she found this out? Did she ask or buy some fried fish? Her interest in the vinegar means that she was keen to inform her reader of the need to have a hole in the bottle’s cork so that only a drop of vinegar would come out. She seems shocked that the fish is ‘put into a piece of newspaper!’ (Hodson: 1909, 102). Over the smell she conceded ‘There is a sort of fascination about the smell when you get used to it’. They just weren’t allowed in the boys club!

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