Fish and chips has long been considered quintessentially East End food. But did you know the first fish and chip shop in the UK was started right here in Bow – Malin’s on Old Ford Road.
Research from cultural anthropologist and writer Claudia Roden shows that Joseph Malin ran a fried fish and chip shop in Bow from 1860 to the early 1970s, in its place now stands housing.
It might also surprise you to know that fried fish, which you might assume to be a British delicacy, was brought over to England by Jewish people. The addition of chips occurred in the 1800s, and this delicious duo led to the birth of fish and chips as we know them today and the now 10,000 fish and chip shops that came with it.
The origins of battered, fried fish
From the 15th century, Jews living in Portugal were a big fan of peshkado frito – white fish, normally cod or haddock, coated in flour and then fried. Sephardic Jews in particular took a liking to this; they fried fish on Fridays to prepare for the Sabbath (Saturday), when their faith prohibited cooking. The batter was believed to preserve the fish so it could be eaten cold the next day.
In 1580, Portugal fell under Spanish rule. Religious violence towards Jews had been worsening over the years so most of them practiced Judaism in secret and pretended to be Catholic, a religion that, conveniently, also cooked fish on Fridays.
When the environment became too hostile, Jews fled from Portugal. Those who settled in England bought their tender, deep-fried fish with them.
They sold this delicacy on the street to eager British customers, which later led to the establishment of larger venues called ‘fish warehouses’. These were made possible through the invention of steam-trawling boats in the 1870s that brought in reams of white fish from the North Sea ready for consumption, or deep-fat frying.
In Oliver Twist (1838), Charles Dickens refers to these ‘warehouses’.
‘Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee‑shop, its beer‑shop, and its fried‑fish warehouse.’ (Chapter 26)
The pairing of fried fish with chips would go on to be a staple working-class food.
The potato comes to England
During the 1800s, chips mysteriously made their way to England but no one can say definitely quite how. The miraculous marrying of fish with chips is also caked, or should we say battered, in uncertainty.
According to Roden, the first official fish and chip shop was set up on Old Ford Road opposite the Lady Franklin pub in 1860 by Joseph Malin. Its popularity would see it serving up fresh fish and chips for over a century.
Malin’s frontage consisted of blue and white tiles with a large black sign. Little is known about its founder Joseph, who is thought to have been born in 1826 to a family of rug weavers possibly from Cornwall or Jewish immigrants, but the success of his business allowed his takeaway to be passed down the family.
After Joseph, there was Albert – who worked there until it closed, even though he was close to 100 years old – followed by Dennis.
In the 60s, it sold all the classic fish types you’d find in a chippie today, from cod to plaice to haddock, wrapped up in newspaper. Malin’s also opened another shop on Nevill Road in Stoke Newington.
In 1968 Malin’s was awarded a plaque to recognise that it was the oldest fish and chip shop in the UK. Later, TV presenter Michael Aspel also made a BBC documentary there, for his deep dive into the history of the UK’s fish and chip industry.
Despite this, there was some debate over which fish and chip shop was actually the first in the UK. Chips were first created in France but had become very popular in Lancashire. The historian John Walton argues that the first fish and chip shop in England was actually opened in Mossely, near Oldham, in 1863. However, he later admitted he was wrong, leaving Malin’s as the main contender for the UK’s first chippie.
In the 1970s, Malin’s closed to make way for the housing that still stands today. Although it is physically no longer with us, its impact on British cuisine and culture will not be forgotten.
In 1935, there were 35,000 fish and chip shops across the UK. For the working class, the dish was filling and more nutritious than the food they were eating at the time. Thanks to industrialisation and good railway transport from ports to industrial cities, it was also affordable.
In George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which documents his experience of working class life in the north of England,Orwell considered fish and chips among the principal ‘home comforts’ that acted as a solution to the working classes going hungry.
The dish’s importance was also recognised by the Prime Minister. Winston Churchill rationed the majority of foods apart from fish and chips during WWII to keep spirits high. He referred to them fondly as ‘the good companions’.
From Portugal to Bow, fish and chips have made quite the journey to get to what they are today. One thing is for certain though, it won’t be disappearing from Cockneys’ plates anytime soon, and rightly so too. After all, Old Ford is the birthplace of one of the nation’s favourite takeaway.
Hungry for more? Check out our roundup of the best fish and chips in town.
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