Fish & Chips, a classic British double act - Hilton Smythe

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Fish & Chips, a classic British double act

Yet they started life as solo performers.

And their roots are not as British as you might think.

Fried fish was first brought to England by Spanish Jews, settling in England in the 17th century. They would coat the fish in flour then dip the fish in a batter consisting of flour mixed with liquid, usually water but sometimes beer.

Deep-fried chips (slices or pieces of potato) as a dish may have first appeared in England in about the same period: the Oxford English Dictionary notes as its earliest use of “chips” in this sense the mention in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859): “Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil”.

Who first had the bright idea  to combine fish with chips remains the subject of fierce controversy, it was somewhere in England, but arguments rage over whether it was up north or down south.

Some credit a northern entrepreneur called John Lees. As early as 1863, it is believed he was selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in industrial Lancashire. Others claim the first combined fish ‘n’ chip shop was actually opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, within the sound of Bow Bells in East London around 1860.

However it came about, the marriage quickly caught on. At a time when working-class diets were bleak and unvaried, fish and chips were a tasty break from the norm.

Outlets sprung up across the country and soon they were as much a part of Victorian England as steam trains and smog.

Italian migrants passing through English towns and cities saw the growing queues and sensed a business opportunity, setting up shops in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

To keep prices down, portions were often wrapped in old newspaper – a practice that survived as late as the 1980’s when it was ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without grease-proof paper in between.

Since the end of the Second World War, the food landscape in Great Britain has changed in many ways and although it’s 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.

A century and a half on, this great British staple still goes down a treat.

  • There are currently in the region of 10,500 fish & chip shops in the UK
  • These dramatically outnumber other fast food outlets: 1,200 outlets (McDonald’s)  840 outlets (Kentucky Fried Chicken)
  • British consumers eat 382 million portions of fish & chips every year
  • Annual spend on fish and chips in the UK £1.2 billion
  • 80% of people visit fish & chip shops at least once a year
  • 22% of people visit fish & chip shops every week
  • 56% of people buy fish & chips to eat in the home as a family meal

Source: National Federation of Fish Friers

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