This blog is all about the ways in which fish was part of the diet of working class people in the UK.

It might seem obvious that a relatively small island served by the Atlantic Ocean, the North and Irish Seas would have traditionally been reliant on fish. A 16th Century commentator and physician named Andrew Boorde, originally from West Sussex travelled extensivly around Europe and it’s universities reporting back to his employer Thomas Cromwell. He wrote one of the first books which could have been called a guidebook called  the ‘Fyrste boke of the introduction of knowledge’.

He had this to say about the fishing industry

“Of all naychons and countries, Engleland is beeste served of fysshe – not onely of al manre of see-fysshe but also of freshe water fysshe – and all manre of sorts of salte fysshe.”

Fishermen in biblical references and folk tales are usually portrayed as simple hardworking folk, but generally as a community rather than people working alone. This was partly due to the enormous dangers faced particularly at sea when few people working fishing boats could swim, but also because the work required people to work together and whole villages and later towns developed an identity based on this industry.

Most freshwater fish were protected by strict laws of land ownership and major landowners or religious orders could ensure a plentiful supply of fish to ensure that they were able to observe the eating of fish on the ‘holy’ days of the week  - Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays. As a result, even land locked communities miles from the sea actually relied on salt water fish and seafood as a vital and affordable part of their diet. These would usually be salted such as kippers, or kept alive like herrings in barrels of salt water, brought by pack horse from the coastal villages and ports. Salted cod was so common and cheap that it became associated with something of low quality and the term ‘Poor John’ given to it became an insult to hurl at someone who might have offended you.

Culturally in the UK, people tend to associate pilchards, herring, mackerel and other trawler caught fish as being something that you get in a tin, and this was because even with the development of infrastructure and refrigeration, the poor would only be able to afford to buy and store the cheapest preserved goods, and in the 19th century this was generally preserved in brine or fat, such as fish paste or ‘potted’ shrimp.

Compare a recipe from the 16th Century for Haddock to one from the 19th Century (notice that it is not haddock being served in the second one):

“Wash it clean and roast it with salt, ground pepper, saffron and bread with some ale. While this is grilling, mince you some onions and fry and add to that fish in plates and the curry above and give it forth.” *Curry here means the sauce in which the food is cooked and does not refer to South Asian dishes.

“Take catfish called ‘finney haddock’ which is dipped in pickle and dyed yellow. Lay it down and slice in a bake pan (over a fire) just cover enough with milk and water  - half and half and cover the bake pan for around half an hour. Serve it and pour over the white gravy and eat it with brown bread or mashed potatoes.”

By the time co-operatives were growing in the UK in the second half of the 19th Century, tinned fish was becoming a staple on the tables of working class people. While some salted fish like kippers could be sourced locally, supply still relied on fishing communities to bring in enough for the preparation and canning in huge factories particularly in Scotland. The factories which were part of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale society were able to supply the smaller co-ops with tinned pilchards, herring and mackerel at a much cheaper price than the cost of meat and as canning processes became safer, without access to home refrigeration, tins of salmon and fish past for sandwiches became staples of the working class family’s larder.

One of the branding decisions of the federation selling to other co-ops was to use a character called ‘Jennie Herring’, who was based on the occupation of young women in Scottish fishing communities who would prepare and sell the catch from baskets. ‘Jennie’ appeared on packaging, but also as statues, on giftware like spoons and dishes, even on sporting trophies where canning works like CWS Lowestoft encouraged competition away from work. Part of the appeal was that customers might feel that they were supporting traditional industry and culture by buying co-operative even if they didn't live in a fishing community. *

However the growth of intensive fishing and developments in new technology meant that there were tensions in the industry and the Co-operative News reporting in 1926 claimed that the British federation of trawlermen were putting pressure on the Ministry of Trade to prevent Icelandic fishermen landing fish around the coast and campaigning  - appealing to housewives to buy British. The reverse argument was that this made prices higher and fish more difficult for households to buy. The balance between supplying working class people with good cheap food and protecting livelihoods was a difficult one and the application of regulations and the relationship between governments over the issue had never been an easy one.

In the twentieth century, co-operative solutions have been applied in the fishing industry, in more remote communities unable to compete against larger organisations. Co-ownership of boats and local supply chains particularly around restaurants and domestic tourism in places like Cornwall has been one way for people to continue to use their skills and keep a connection with traditions. In other communities, fishermen, particularly in the coastal villages of the Mediterranean have formed new co-ops to turn their small vintage trawlers into leisure boats to provide services to the tourism industry although due to the pandemic these solutions are also under threat.

*If you have any memorabilia with 'Jennie Herring' or memories of working for co-operative fish processing plants we are interested in these for our museum collection so please get in touch with us by email.