A Fried Fish Shop in London

ocean steamer

“At last, after so many years, I am about to realize the dream of my life–a visit to lands beyond the sea,” James Hale Bates, the American originator of the mercantile registry business, wrote on May 1, 1889. He recorded his adventures on the high seas in Notes of Foreign Travels, which he published privately in 1891. “This cool, bright morning, at half-past six, finds me with wife, daughter Betty and niece Mary on board the huge steamer ‘City of New York,'” it begins, “which at the above hour slowly swings from her mooring into the Hudson at Pier 43, and carefully feels her way down the river and harbor, through the Narrows, into the broad Atlantic.”

That cool, bright May morning also found Bates and his family, who represented four of the some three hundred and sixty-four first class passengers on board the ‘City of New York,’ surrounded by the most delectable treats, the gifts of friends and well wishers. “[F]lowers, fruits, wines and delicacies, which the kind thoughts of the donors suggested might relieve the tedium or illness of travel by sea,” greeted the family in their stateroom.

Little did those kindhearted donors guess just how tedious the Bates family’s voyage would prove. Relentless fog and rain spoiled most of their plans for outdoor activity. “The warmest wraps are needed on deck to protect from the raw air,” Bates writes, “and the entire aspect of sky and water is dreary.” On May 2 Bates complains of the heavy rain which drove the first class passengers “under cover of the state-room and rather insufficient public sitting-rooms.”

meal on deck of steamship

Only the antics of a “pert English sparrow” brought the Bates family relief from the tedium of bad weather. Their time on board Bates describes as the “laziest imaginable.” The more privileged passengers spent their days either reposing on deck, weather permitting, or consuming excessive amounts of food. “We stroll about or lounge, reading, in the steamer chairs,” Bates writes, “[we] eat with relish not only the three regular meals at table, but of the many dishes frequently brought about by the cabin boys.”

These cabin boys were the minions of the ship’s stewards, industrious caretakers who saw to it passengers like Bates were adequately sated and indulged on their trans-Atlantic voyage. It is the steward, an article in a 1904 edition of Booklovers Magazine reports, who “orders the supplies for the voyage, has a minute knowledge of what the store-rooms and refrigerators contain, and sees that the menu for each meal is ample, well cooked, and daintily served.” An energetic fellow, the steward flitted over the ship like a seafaring sprite, maintaining order from stem to stern. One moment the steward might be “in his office, just off the grand staircase,” the next, in the storerooms checking provisions, noting the temperature of the ship’s refrigerators, or watching the butchers “with the precise knowledge of how meats shall be cut.”

steward in the purser's den

Despite constant demands from passengers and cabin boys alike, the steward’s life was lonely. You can frequently hear the ship’s steward, the Booklovers Magazine article relates, discussing his plans to leave the seafaring life “so that his children shall grow up knowing him.” One steward confessed to the Booklovers reporter that he would like nothing better than to live among his family and own a “little fried-fish shop in the purlieus of London.”

Whether this “honest, tactful, willing servitor on the high seas” ever succeeded in setting up a little fried-fish shop remains unknown. If he did, we could imagine that he likely dished up delectable planks of golden fried fish like this one from Barbara Wallace Gothard’s 1878 manual Lessons on Cookery, for Home and School Use.

Fried Fish

Frying.—It is a subject which, a few years ago, was very little understood, but the art is reviving amongst the people, and we have fried-fish shops in London and the provinces, where the poor man can, for a halfpenny, obtain a little piece of fried fish as well cooked as in any German, French, or American town, and infinitely superior to the fried fish one often meets with in houses which boast of a “Good plain Cook.” In frying fish, or similarly cooking any article of diet, it is proper to use a frying-kettle, which is nothing more nor less than a large deep stewpan, oval or round, as the case may be, and according to the requirements of the family. For all general purposes an eight-inch wide stew-pan, at a cost of 2s. 6d., is sufficient, and a wire frying-basket to match, at 1s 3d.; the meshes not being too fine, or the wire too heavy and coarse. Into the frying-kettle is put about 2 lbs. of good dripping (bought lard should be avoided), which is suitable for all ordinary purposes. Oil may be used where it is preferred; indeed, food cooked in oil is most wholesome, has a finer flavour, and is more crisp. Oil can attain greater degree of heat without burning than any other known fat, therefore it can be made hotter before the article to be cooked is placed in it.

To Fry Fish.—Flounders.—Choose nice fresh, bright-looking fish. Wash and wipe them dry, dredge them with flour, dip in egg, and then toss in bread-crumbs. When the fat in the kettle is boiling, then place the fish in the basket, plunge it into the fat (or oil), and when the outside is a nice golden brown the fish will be ready. Drain it on kitchen paper and sprinkle with a little salt. The proper garnish to fried fish is fried parsley. It is simply ignorance, or, worse still, slovenliness when cooks do not fry the parsley, but dress fried fish, cutlets, rissols, &c, with uncooked parsley.


Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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