Fish and Chips

Lily Ellis’s fish shop on Church Street in Woodlesford.

“Fish ‘n chips” has been part of the staple diet of Oulton and Woodlesford folk for more than a century and over the years the two villages have supported more than half a dozen fish and chip shops at any one time.

It was the growth of the railways in the mid-19th century that enabled the deep frying of battered fish with chipped potatoes to become a popular dish. Cod and haddock caught in the North Sea and landed at ports like Whitby, Grimsby and Hull could be rapidly transport to the industrial heartlands of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Many working class entrepreuners then set themselves up as friers, often in the front rooms of their houses converted into simple shops.

By 1910 there were around 25,000 “chippies” across the country and the growth continued between the two world wars as many unemployed families turned to fish frying as a way to make a living.

No listings of “fried fish dealers” are recorded in directories of local businesses up to 1901 but a little later, in the Kelly’s Post Office Directory of the West Riding for 1904, two were listed not far from Oulton and Woodlesford – Benjamin Hepworth at Rothwell and Alfred Gregg in Stourton.

The first mention of a chip shop in Oulton was in the Rothwell Times newspaper on Friday 1 September 1905. It referred to “a fried fish shop” in a wooden building near the United Methodist Free Church just off Aberford Road. Unfortunately the reason it was newsworthy was that it had gone up in flames and burnt to the ground between six and seven o’ clock the previous Saturday evening!

The proprietor was Mary Ann Wrigglesworth. She had only recently been widowed when her husband, Thomas, had died in January after falling into a vat of boiling beer at Bentley’s brewery. She also had to bury her six year old son in April so 1905 proved to be a depressing “annus horribilis” for her.

Mary Ann’s husband left her £51 14s 9d, worth approximately £3,000 today, so with several children still living at home she had obviously invested some of the money in the fish shop with a view to generating an income to keep her family going. It had only been open about three weeks before the fire and she was inside when it broke out.

Presumably it was her inexperience in handling the boiling fat which led to the fire and perhaps the memory of what had happened to Thomas caused her to panic. The damage amounted to between ten and twelve pounds. “This loss so soon after the death of her husband, has caused deep sympathy of the inhabitants with her in her loss,” said the Rothwell Times.

Calamity for Mary Ann Wrigglesworth as reported in the Rothwell Times.

It’s doubtful that Mary Ann attempted to carry on as a fish frier and her name doesn’t appear in any later listings of commercial businesses in Oulton. In the 1911 census she was still living in St John’s Yard with seven of her children, a daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Rent from a lodger, James McMahon, a labourer on the Aire and Calder Navigation, and the wages from four children who were working by then were probably enough to provide for them all.

However, from eyewitness accounts from the 1940s and 1950s, it is known that a site in much the same location as Mary Ann’s hut was used as a fish shop by the Carter family. It was established by Edward Carter in the 1930s. The exact date isn’t known but it must have been between 1931, when he was working as a miner when his eldest son married, and 1935 when he was described as a “fish shop proprietor” on the marriage of his second son.

The Carter’s hut was just next to the Methodist chapel. It was first shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1905 and is in exactly the same location on the revised 1932 edition. It was between Aberford Road and New Row, a terrace of single storey stone cottages, and could also be reached by a path, over an old heap of quarry waste, from the bottom of Claremont View (Titanic Row).

Edward Carter was born in Armley in 1875, the son of an iron turner. At the age of 30 he married Charlotte Clapham, the daughter of a Bentley’s brewery labourer and horse keeper. Their first child, Clifford, was born in Pudsey in 1906 but by the birth in 1909 of their second son, Ronald, they had moved to Oulton to live at 7 Manor Lane near the Old Masons pub. Alice, came along in 1910, Frederick in 1912, and Charles Reginald in 1921. At first Edward worked as a coachman for a cab proprietor, most likely Harry Flockton whose horse drawn carting and cab business was based at Bentley Square.

It’s possible Edward already had relatives locally as there was a George Carter from Holbeck who ran a grocery shop at the end of White Street in New Woodlesford. Living next door in 1901 was George Frederick Raybould, a miner from Dudley in Worcestershire. He later moved to a house on Leeds Road near the Three Horse Shoes and became the sexton at Oulton St. John’s church. In 1900 he married widow Louisa Scurrah and it was her granddaughter, also called Louisa, who Ronald Carter married in 1935. They were also connected through the church congregation as Ronnie was the organist at St. John’s for many years. (Clifford Carter’s wife, by the way, was Sarah, the daughter of miner Abraham Westwood. Reggie Carter became a master tailor. Frederick was a bricklayer and married Ethel Finch in 1938. Tragically he and his young son, Maurice, were killed in a railway accident at Balby near Doncaster in August 1947.) 

In the 1930s both Ronnie and Clifford Carter had jobs at Bentley’s brewery. Clifford lived on Sydney Street and was a malt miller and at the start of the Second World War Ronnie was a labourer living with Louisa at 6 Bentley Square.

Edward Carter died in November 1938 leaving Charlotte to run the fish and chip shop. She may have been helped part time by Ronnie and Louisa but then at some point in the 1940s or early 1950s Ronnie left the brewery to take over the role of fish frier on a full time basis.

Ronnie Carter in his church surplice.

Historians have noted that the fish and chip trade was rarely a way of making a fortune. There were a few successes, like Henry Youngman’s in Leeds and the famous Harry Ramsden’s at Guiseley, but most friers only made a living. They may have become slightly better off than their customers, but not by much.

An indication of Ronnie Carter’s methods comes in an anecdote from Jim Butterick, the son of a brewery drayman. He was born in 1942, living initially in a house in front of the Old Masons. He remembered going regularly to the Carter’s hut as a child. One evening he was sent with his sister with 4 pence (4d), enough for what they thought was two bags of chips. When Jim put the money on the counter Mr. Carter told him to go home for another “tuppence” as a bag of chips had gone up by a penny.

When Jim and his sister got back and told their father what had happened he said to his wife: “Cathy, we are not using that fish ‘n chip shop again.” They didn’t. “How Ronnie, as the church organist, could be so tight was unbelievable,” remarked Jim.

A few years later Ronnie Carter moved his business just across Aberford Road to one of the lock-up shops on “The Parade” next to Brook’s garage where it continued until the 1970s. In retirement Ronnie’s mother lived at 15 Quarry Hill.

Whilst the Carters may have had one of the longest running fish and chip shops locally there were several others who tried their hand at the business with varying levels of success.

Not long after Mary Ann Wrigglesworth’s disaster Harry Arnett was listed in the Kelly’s directory for 1908 as a fried fish dealer in Woodlesford. In the 1911 census he was recorded as a stone getter or “delver” at Armitage’s quarry, a job he’d been doing ten years earlier, so it looks as though the shop was mainly in the hands of his wife, Margaret. The daughter of potter Heman Walker, she had married Harry in 1887 and with six children to bring up at their home on Cross Leonard Street it looks as though they had established the fish and chip business to bring in extra cash. When Margaret was in her sixties the business was taken over by her youngest daughter, Susannah, who married miner Thomas Thomas in 1924. The Kelly’s directory for 1927 lists her as a fried fish dealer and given that their address was 2 Kitchener Street it’s likely that was the location of her shop. In the 1930s Thomas became an assurance agent and they moved to a house on Oulton Lane. 

Harry Arnett became a miner at Water Haigh colliery and at the age of 76 in 1939 was still working there looking after the pit’s gunpowder store. Two of his sons, Fred and George, also worked for many years on the pit’s screens sorting coal. In modern parlance they both had “learning difficulties” and were well known characters around the village. On one of his adventures Fred was discovered one morning in 1950 by some railway platelayers up to his chest in “boggy” ground near the sewage works off Fleet Lane. He was stuck fast and it was thought he’d been there all night. The men had to lasso him with a rope before they could pull him out. He was revived with hot tea and brandy before being taken to hospital.

Over on Church Street in Woodlesford the Ellis’s fish shop was another local institution for over 20 years. Like the Carter’s it was in a wooden hut and situated just below the chapel and opposite the Two Pointers pub. It was opened by Tom and Lily Ellis in the 1920s and the two girls in the photograph above are their daughters – Kathleen, born in 1910, and Annie who came along ten years later.

Tom Ellis was from an old established Woodlesford family whose men had made a living largely in the quarries and coal mines. Lily was from Knottingley but moved to Woodlesford in the 1880s when her father, George Tranmer, came to work as a clay maker at the pottery.

After she left school Lily was “in service” as a domestic servant for the secretary of a Leeds Co-op store in Wortley which is where she may have had the idea for the fish shop. Tom was a quarry man when they got married in 1902 but he later worked as a miner and may have left the pit in his forties when they had saved up enough to start the business.

Many of those who grew up in Woodlesford in the 1930s and 1940s fondly remember the Ellis’s shop in the days when you could get a bag of chips for a half pence and a fish for a penny, in old money that is! They lived originally at 52 Church Street just above the chapel where they brought up their 8 children, all of whom had to do regular stints peeling the spuds and helping to serve behind the counter.

In about 1934 Tom and Lily moved further up the street to live at No 36 next to the post office but tragedy was to strike there after they retired. It happened in November 1952 when both of them and their 7 year old granddaughter, Lorainne Hull, were killed by a gas leak while they were asleep.

Four other names of fried fish dealers in Oulton and Woodlesford are listed in Kelly’s directories between the two world wars. Another two were recorded as being in the fish and chip business on National Registration Day on 29 September 1939 when the names, dates of birth, addresses and occupations of everybody in the country was taken and they were issued with identity cards. Three years earlier in his annual report the sanitary surveyor and inspector for the township, Percy Craven Higgins, noted that there were seven fried fish shops in the area, with one having been “discontinued” since 1935. Each of the shops were open at night and several were opening on Friday and Saturday afternoons. The fish came either from the coast of the wholesale market at Leeds on a daily basis and was of good quality. “No complaints have been received of allowing offal to accumulate and the removal by wholesalers relieves a difficult problem,” he wrote.  

Fred Owen was listed in 1927 and appears to have gone into the fish and chip business after working as a bookkeeper and clerk for a clothing manufacturer. He was born in 1876 and was the son of William Craven Owen, a foreman builder who lived at Rose Cottage in Oulton, eventually ending his working days as a bricklayer on the Calverley estate. Going back to the 1640s he came from a long line of Owens who mainly earned a living as quarry owners and stone masons.

In 1901 Fred married Mary Jane Barrett from Methley, the daughter of a horse keeper at Foxholes colliery. By 1911 they were occupying both No 1 and No 3 Roberts Street off Midland Street. She ran a small clothes shop, or drapery. Living with her and helping in the business was her niece, Gertrude Gwendoline Barrett. No 1 was probably the drapery and it’s possible it was turned into a fish and shop by Fred in the 1920s. Fred died in 1932 but it’s not known if his wife and niece kept the fish and chip business going after that.

Apart from Church Street most of the known locations of Oulton and Woodlesford fish shops are on this extract from the Ordnance Survey map revised in 1932. The lock-up shop near the junction of Holmsley Field Lane and North Lane is clearly visible. Carter’s wooden hut is just under the I in the word WITH and their second shop is to the left of the letter T. The Kitchener Street shop can also be seen as well as Scase’s on Aberford Road opposite the Co-op. Click on the extract to see further maps of the area published by the National Library of Scotland.

Another of the interwar fried fish dealers was Edgar Baber. He was listed in Kelly’s directory in 1936 and is probably the Edgar James Baber married to Jessie Louise who lived at 7 St. John’s Street in Oulton, although the location of his fish shop is unknown. Confusingly his younger brother’s full name was James Edgar Baber and he also lived in Oulton in the 1930s, on North Lane. Both of them were born near Timsbury, south of Bristol on the Somerset coalfield, and had come to the Rothwell area to work as miners. In the 1939 Register the older brother was recorded as a haulage contractor whilst the younger one was a pit deputy living at Little Preston with his second wife, Ada, and two sons who were also pitmen.

Along with Carter’s and Ellis’s another of the long running fish and chip businesses before and during the “Great Depression” years was that of Eli Harrison. He was already a “fish trader” when, at the age of 21, he married Hilda Firth at Oulton church in 1922. Initially the couple lived with her parents at 7 Aberford Road where Hilda’s father, George, is believed to have been running his own carting business after spending most of his working life as a miner.

Eli had been born in Normanton and was also from a mining family coming to Oulton at some point after 1911 when his father, John, moved to a job at Water Haigh colliery. By the early 1920s he too had come out of the pit to start his own business and was first listed as a fruiterer and then a greengrocer.

Both the 1927 and 1936 Kelly’s directories have a listing for Eli Harrison as a “fried fish dealer.” Then, towards the end of the 1930s, he became a shopkeeper at 48 Aberford Road in Oulton just across the Woodlesford boundary from Harold and Gertrude Paley’s bakery. The 1939 Register records that Harrison’s shop was a general grocery also selling fruit, vegetables and flowers. Eli was on the West Riding Police Reserve ready to act as a Special Constable during the war. Next door at No 46 was barber Sam Garland. He later swapped shops with television and radio dealer Norman Ellis who’d previously occupied a single storey building on Midland Street.

The location of Eli Harrison’s fish and chip shop isn’t known but the 1939 Register reveals that his younger brother, Benjamin, followed him into the trade. Benjamin was born in 1910 and married Millicent Ward in 1936. The Register records him as being in the “fish and chip business” and her as a “fish and chip assistant” with their address as Harewood Villa, the large house at the top of Midland Street. However the electoral register for the same year says their “abode” was 50 Oulton Lane so this would suggest that their fish and chip shop was in a wooden hut in the yard at Harewood Villa. After the war the electoral register shows the couple had moved to live there but it’s not known if they were still selling fish and chips.

Before the war just a few yards away there was another fish shop at the end of Kitchener Street so there must have been some stiff competition between the two establishments. By then, with the influx of men to work at Water Haigh, the combined population of Oulton and Woodlesford had grown from about 3,200 before the First World War to about 5,700 so perhaps there were enough customers to satisfy both proprietors. The small terraced houses on the streets of New Woodlesford were also occupied by larger families than they are now and by 1939 there would have been a growing demand from the residents of Green Lea who had recently moved into their new council houses.

By 1939 the fish shop at No 2 Kitchener Street was run by George Brady who moved there from outside the district in 1937. Records indicate he was the son of a miner born in Morley in 1882. In 1911 he had been married to Florence Addy for six years and employed as a “gas engine man” for a railway company. Florence died in 1913 and the 1939 Register lists George’s wife as Lucy Brady, born in 1891. Curiously Lucy’s surname is crossed out and replaced by Popplewell which was normally only done when a girl got married after 1939. In this case it appears to show that George and Lucy were in a “common law” relationship and Lucy was still legally married to a man called Popplewell. The nearest “fit” in the records is a Lucy Keighley, born in Guiseley in 1891, the daughter of a farmer turned pub landlord. She married Walter Popplewell in 1911 and was living at the Northern Hotel in Morley in 1915 when he enlisted in the army. George Brady died in March 1945 and a Lucy Brady was listed in the electoral register still living at Kitchener Street in 1947 but the death of a Lucy Popplewell, with exactly the same birth date as recorded for Lucy Brady in 1939, was registered in Leeds in 1971. Maybe there were some domestic secrets behind the salt and vinegar!

The next occupants of 2 Kitchener Street were Leonard and Gwendoline Carris Wright who moved in in 1947. He was the son of a policeman and was working as a motor mechanic when they married at Potternewton in 1923. Her maiden name was Cullingworth. Living with them was Elsie Price but they only stayed for a couple of years.

Then came the Hoys and the Gills who had the shop throughout the 1950s. Audrey Hoy was Tom and Lily Ellis’s granddaughter so it appears likely the Church Street business, or at least some of the expertise, was transferred to Kitchener Street. Audrey’s husband, James, was born in 1923. As a young man he was an underground pony driver at one of the local pits and continued to do colliery work whilst technically owning the fish and chip business with his wife and mother-in-law, Edith Gill, running the shop.

That’s confirmed from an incident reported in the Yorkshire Post on Wednesday 19 April 1950. The previous evening the hot fat in the frying range at Kitchener Street had burst into flames and Edith was taken to the Leeds General Infirmary with burns to her hands and face. Luckily there were lots of neighbours and passers-by around and they had almost extinguished the flames before the fire brigade arrived. Edith was reported to be “comfortable” in hospital.

Born in 1902 Edith was Tom and Lily Ellis’s eldest child so it looks likely that she had learned the fish frying trade working with her mother in the Church Street hut. She married Adolphus Ellis Gill, known as Billy, in 1925 at Oulton church and Audrey was born in 1927. As well as having an unusual name Adolphus came from a slightly exotic place – Ramsey on the Isle of Man. Possibly they met whilst she was on holiday there or even on a day trip by train and ferry from Woodlesford via Heysham. In 1911 he lived with his maternal grandfather, a labourer on the Isle of Man electric tramway, who had previously been a mariner. Perhaps he had struck up a conversation with Edith as her surname was the same as his middle name? In 1939 the Gills lived with the Ellis’s at 36 Church Street with Tom working as a labourer for a “public works contractor” and Adolphus as a general labourer at Armitage’s quarry. This supports the supposition that it was the women in the family who were the mainstays of the fish and chip shops with their husbands helping out in the evenings and at weekends.

Whilst not directly involved in the fish and chip business James Hoy’s father, Albert, is also worth a mention as he had an interesting past and was probably quite a colourful local character between the wars. By 1911 he was a platelayer and lengthman on the railway through Woodlesford but had been born at Little Canfield in Essex. His army record shows he served with the Essex Regiment in the Boer War in South Africa and at Bangalore in India before marrying Ethel Croft at Hastings in 1908. By then he was a goods porter on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway but in October 1908 was sacked after being “worse for drink and abusing the Superintendent.” Quite why he moved his young family to Woodlesford where he joined the Midland Railway is unknown but it’s possible he may have known two of the Calverley brothers from Oulton Hall who were officers in the Essex Regiment. At first Albert lived with his family on Alma Street before they moved to Holmsley Field Lane. He died in 1940. 

The last local fried fish dealer listed in the interwar Kelly’s directories was John William Scase. His shop was at 22 Aberford Road opposite the Co-op in Woodlesford at the end of a row of terraced houses built by the Armitage company mainly for their quarry and brick kiln workers. Renumbered No 138 in the 1960s it is the same shop as the one now run by the Farndale family.

Once again the main protagonist in the Scase fish and chip business was John William’s wife Rosena. She was born at Allerton Bywater in 1882, the daughter of William Harding, a miner who had migrated to Yorkshire from Walsall in Staffordshire. She probably met her husband in Allerton Bywater and after marrying in 1905 they lived in Castleford for a while before moving with their four children to Woodlesford in 1910 where they lived on Bernard Street. He was also a miner, born at Seacroft in 1876, and no doubt came to Woodlesford to work at the newly opened Water Haigh colliery.

John William Scase wasn’t listed in the Kelly’s directory until 1936 but his family moved to 22 Aberford Road in 1921 so it looks as though the fish shop was in existence throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It was certainly there by 1927 when he was described as a “shop proprietor” when his daughter Dorothy married miner Benjamin Paley in 1927.

John William died on Christmas Day 1938 leaving Rosena £415, worth about £12,000 today, a tidy sum and probably mostly profit from their business. In the 1939 Register she was listed as a fish frier whilst her son, Walter, was a motor driver and a member of the Auxilliary Fire Service for Oulton and Woodlesford which had its base just a few yards away in the council yard at the bottom of Midland Street. Rosena’s daughter, Mabel, was a “brusher off” in a clothing factory before she married William Hartley in 1941. Also living with them throughout this period was Robert Barrett, a general labourer at Water Haigh. He was the same age as Walter and had lived with his family on Bernard Street when he was a child but after that the Scase’s appear to have looked after him for the rest of his life.

At some point during the Second World War Mrs. Scase seems to have made an arrangement with Harry and Alice Parker who lived in Rothwell. Harry’s father was a quarryman and he had been born on Baden Street off Midland Street in 1903. He married Alice Jakeman in 1923 and their son Eric was born in 1926. Just before the war Harry was a miner living in a modern semi-detached house at 72 Willans Avenue in Rothwell. The electoral registers indicate that at some point in the next few years he and Alice swopped houses with Mrs. Scase and her family. It looks likely therefore that a deal had been done whereby Harry and Alice took over the Aberford Road fish and chip shop. They ran it throughout the 1950s until about 1960. Later it was taken over by James and Evelyn Macdonald and run by them for many years although they didn’t live on the premises.

An advertisment from 1975. Click on the ad to see Facebook comments.

One location not mentioned so far is the lock-up fish and chip shop at 59 Holmsley Field Lane currently known as G.J.’s. The building, originally divided into two shops, has been there since the nearby council houses were built after the First World War. From the late 1920s the fish and chip business is believed to have been owned by Tom Ellis’s brother, Arthur, who lived nearby at 48 North Lane. Once again the mainstay in the shop appears to have been Arthur’s wife, Martha, as he worked as a hewer at Armitage’s quarry. Previously, for about 15 years, the couple had managed the working men’s club at Highfield House near Woodlesford school where Arthur was the steward whilst also continuing to do quarry work.

From the mid-1960s the Holmsley Field Lane shop was run by Paul and Rose Burke who lived next door in a new house at 65 Holmsley Field Lane. By 1975 Douglas Kent had taken over and he was still there in the 1980s when the shop was known as “Dougie’s.” Older residents also remember the small sweet shop next door run by Nellie Sharpe who lived on Farrer Lane.

Back in Woodlesford the Kitchener Street fish shop was still going strong in the 1960s run by Bill Rigby and his wife Jean. Bill was born in 1936 and his father, also called William, was a local butcher married to Frances Sigsworth. They lived initially with her parents on Bernard Street.

Lastly it’s back to Church Street where the Lotus Chinese takeaway used to be a fish and chip shop owned by Ken and Catherine Thompson in the 1960s and 1970s. Again, it’s not known who had the shop before them, if at all. In the 1950s the house next door was occupied by Orenza Smith who was born in Swillington in 1886 and died in 1962. In 1939 he was listed as a bricklayer.

Sources: Fish and Chips and the British Working Class by John K. Walton. 1939 Register on Find My Past website. Census and other records on Rothwell Times on microfilm at Leeds Central Library. Wakefield Express newspapers on microfilm at Wakfield Library and the British Library. Other newspapers online at the British Newspaper Archive.