Who invented fish & chips?


IKBApril 9th is it? That’s Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s birthday, that is. So in honour of the great engineer’s birthday let’s look at fish and chips.

In my capacity as an Insufferable Smartarse, I am often approached by people who want to know who invented fish and chips.*

The answer is: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

(Actually, it so isn’t, but humour me here. It’s his birthday after all.)

Brunel did not invent railways, but he built one of the best ones. The line from London to Cornwall, which would eventually all fall under the control of the Great Western Railway, was a masterpiece of engineering, and a complete system fully thought through from trackbed to locomotives, from signalling to booking offices. A fantastic achievement, was God’s Wonderful Railway.

The only problem was that it was built to Brunel’s “broad gauge”, which is to say that the track was wider than the standard gauge which everyone else was using. Brunel maintained his system was better, but every other rail company opted for standard anyway. Betamax versus VHS, kind of thing (ask your parents).

In 1892, long after Brunel had died, the Great Western finally gave in and converted the whole system to the standard gauge in the space of a single weekend. An army of 5,000 workmen fuelled by thin gruel and a free issue of 2oz of baccy from WD & HO Wills of Bristol, changed the lines to standard gauge and shunted all the old broad gauge engines and rolling stock into 15 miles of sidings in Swindon. The whole system was operating normally on standard gauge by Monday morning.

The very last broad gauge train to travel on the GWR was a goods train which left Penzance carrying 80 tons of mackerel.  That’s one of the things railways did. It was now possible for fish caught off Britain’s coasts, and even in the deep sea, to be landed and transported to major population centres before it had gone off. The railways made cheap fish a part of every Briton’s everyday diet.

Some people in cities set up in business selling fried fish, and when their oil grew too hot they would throw pieces of potato in to cool it down. Soon their customers were asking for these “chips” as well. By the 1880s, “fried fish and chipped potato” shops were a feature of many English cities.

So really, you could say that Brunel helped invent fish and chips, couldn’t you?

Except that you couldn’t really, as all the evidence suggests that fish and chips were invented in the north of England, where the fish was being caught in more northerly waters, and shipped in on railways that Brunel had had nowt to do with.

But as it’s his birthday, let’s say he was slightly responsible for fish and chips.**

* NB: When I say “often”, what I actually mean is “once”.

** “What is this inconsequential blog entry all about?” you ask. It’s an experiment. You know what the most looked-at thing on this here blog is? It’s this thing from ages back.  If you Google “who invented the blanket?” then that’s what comes up first, and there are plainly many, many people around the world who each day ask themselves who invented blankets. So I figured even more people would ask who invented fish and chips. So let’s see what happens.


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