A cone of chips in newspaper wrapping is held in the foreground. In the background is W. Bates chip shop at Blists Hill Victorian Town.

Fish and chips is a popular and iconic British dish, and is one of the few trades represented at Blists Hill Victorian Town that is still commonly found in modern Britain. But what are its origins in the UK? The answer is: no one really knows. What we do know is that they started as two separate trades, with vendors selling either fried fish or chipped potatoes.  

It’s believed that fried fish emerged in Soho, brought to the UK by Jewish communities. It dates at least to the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign when one of the earliest literary references to fried fish dealers appeared in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which was first published between 1837 and 1839. Dickens also provided the first literary reference to chips in A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, although there are numerous historical recipes for frying potatoes that predate this reference.  

By 1861 at least 300 people were selling fried fish on the poorer streets of London. It was in the 1860s that fried fish and chipped potatoes were brought together as a meal. No one knows exactly who brought the two components together or when, but it’s likely that it happened in industrial northern towns or in the streets and alleys of London. 

In the early days, fish and chips was thought to be cheap, nasty food for the poor and fried fish dealers had a bad reputation. They were well known for using fishmonger’s unwanted scraps and leftovers, were thought to be dirty and unsanitary, and were seen as ‘abominations to be shunned’. This stereotype lasted until the end of the Victorian era, but over the later decades of the 19th century the quality of fish being used increased massively, and fish and chip shops became much cleaner places!  

Market Street, Oakengates, 1898. On the far right of the photo is William Bates Fried Fish and Chipped Potato Dealer. This shop is the basis for Blists Hill Victorian Town's fish and chip shop.

Fish and chip shops were often family run businesses and the work involved could be hard, messy and unpleasant. Work would start early in the morning when the men of the family would source and buy the raw materials. They did the heavy preparatory work, such as washing potatoes, which required lifting bags that weighed around 60kg/126lbs, and prepared the fish. They would be assisted by any children in the family who would help to wash and peel the potatoes and clean the fish before school, as well as running errands. Meanwhile, women of the family would be cleaning and preparing the shop for business, would serve customers during opening hours, as well as being responsible for most of the childcare, housework and domestic shopping. Owners of fish and chip shops worked long hours and often wouldn’t close the shop until 11pm.  

By the end of the 19th century, fish and chips shops as we recognise them today were commonplace in working class towns and industrial areas across Britain. The development of steam trawlers to catch an abundance of fresh fish in the North Atlantic and steam railways to transport them across the UK in the 19th century meant that fish and chips was a very cheap meal. It could cost as little as two or three pence for a portion of fish and chips (about £1 today) and so was an affordable, substantial and convenient meal for the working class.