Memories of a fish and chip shop
Muriel's grandmother, Mrs Colwell
Acquisition of a fish and chip shop
My grandma's first husband (who was my mother's father) died after just two years of marriage - the cause unknown. She was remarried at 26 to a widower, Reuben Gillam, who I think came from a well-known local fishing family.
In 1895 he procured the lease of 93 Trafalgar Street and also of 49 Redcross Street (which was around the corner and backed onto No 93) for a period of 21 years at a rental of £64 per annum to be paid quarterly. I have the original document in my possession and it is fascinating in the amount of detail it includes, itemising every cupboard, door, fireplace, shelf etc in every room of each house and all handwritten in archaic legal language.
Both houses had a yard at the back with what is described as a 'wash-house', and it was these which became the outhouses where the preparation and frying of the fish took place. Reuben was given permission to adapt the premises for use as a fried fish shop on condition that, on leaving, they would be returned to their original state. They never were of course.
Sadly he also died after five years of marriage (again I don't know what from), having only been at No 93 for two years, and my grandma was left at 31 years of age with the business, together with a 6-year old daughter (later diagnosed with a dislocated hip), a 3-year old son (who had become deaf from measles) and two teenage stepchildren. It must have been at this point that she made the decision to stay and carry on the business on her own.
Remarriage to a railway guard
She married again at 32 (she seems to have been a very attractive woman in her youth from the few photos I have!) to Alfred Colwell. He was a railway guard working at Brighton Station at the top of the road and obviously would have passed the shop constantly on his way to and from work. However, he wasn't involved in the business but I guess at that period a woman on her own would have felt she needed the protection of a man's name to give her respectability. She once told me - in a rare moment of telling me about her early life - that she only married him because he pestered her so!
93 Trafalgar St
Meals at 93 Trafalgar Street
The reason why I have such strong memories of No 93 is that for the first 18 years of my life I spent most of my time there, although we actually lived in Grantham Road. My father had his own furniture shop round the corner at No 48 Redcross Street but business was bad. It was the time of the 1920s/1930s depression (I was born in 1924) and, although my mother did part-time office work, we were really hard up. So my grandma had us all at the shop for meals every day except Saturdays, to help out. My cousin and her parents also joined us for dinner and tea every Sunday.
Layout of the shop
My memory of the shop itself is that there was a high marble topped counter over which the fish and chips were served and also fixed wooden counters against two of the walls where some customers would stand and eat - a forerunner of 'eat in or take away', but no plates! Behind the serving counter was a small iron wall oven for cooking baked (jacket) potatoes; also a small shelf near the window where my grandma always had two or three small vases of flowers - real in the summer and artificial in the winter. The living room was immediately behind the shop.
Preparation of the fish
Most of the fish came by rail from Grimsby and my uncle, who worked in the business, would fetch it in the early hours from Brighton Station on a porter's trolley, although occasionally he would buy it at Brighton fish market. It was then put into large vats of salted water.
I remember as a child being intrigued by the various shapes and colours of the different types of fish. It was gutted and cut up on wooden trestle tables in the outhouse area. This was outdoors, in the open apart from roofing, and was a very cold process in winter.
Most of this work was done by my uncle and another man but sometimes my grandma, who was a very 'hands on' lady, would do it herself because, as my older cousin remembers, she wanted to make sure the portions were cut to the right size. She took a pride in giving value for money.
The price of the fish
I think a piece of huss cost tuppence, cod and haddock a bit more and skate was the dearest. Children would often come in just for a 'pennyworth of chips'.
The actual frying took place in the outhouse where there were two brick built 'ovens' (as described in the lease) which used coke and the large, round pans of oil were directly on top of this open fire.
The only fire precaution I can recall was a bucket or two of sand kept at the ready.
When the fish was cooked, it was put on trays and carried, as speedily as possible and in all weathers, through the open yard, then through the kitchen and the living room into the shop and set out in the window.
Potatoes for the chips were washed in a smallish rotating drum, then chopped on a simple hand operated machine - just one potato at a time.
One of my special treats when I was young was being allowed to operate the lever, standing on a stool to reach it and being closely supervised so as not to catch my fingers!
The open area was hosed down and scrubbed every day.
No 49 Redcross Street provided a back entrance to No 93 and was used solely for storage. There were the sacks of potatoes, which were supplied by a local market gardener called Mr Clow. There were bundles of greaseproof paper and unused newspapers (for the wrapping up), which came from the firm of Dawson's (which I think still exists). The salt was delivered in very large blocks and had to be chopped and crushed for the salt shakers on the counter - a task which I enjoyed doing sometimes.
The vinegar bottles on the counter had to be regularly refilled from casks kept in the yard.
In those days of course there were no refrigerators but once or twice a week a man would deliver blocks of ice and carry them in on his back, which was protected by coarse sacking.
Coke had to be delivered on a regular basis and I vaguely recall there being an 'offal' man.
So there was always plenty of coming and going at the shop - never a dull moment!
The shop was open, I think, Mondays to Saturdays, from about 5.30pm to 11pm and grandma served in the shop each night. She had one or two other women to help with this, including the live-in housekeeper who undertook the household work of cooking, washing, cleaning etc. Grandma kept all her accounts herself and usually did her weekly book-keeping at a desk in her bedroom on a Sunday morning. After that she would attend meetings at the Salvation Army Congress Hall (near the Level), where she acted as treasurer for 30 years. She never took a holiday - she said she loved her customers too much!
Indeed many of her 'regulars' became real friends. A few of these regulars actually came from London and grandma used to say they came down to Brighton just for her fish and chips because they were the best! But I guess they were people who came down to Brighton as visitors and would naturally pass the shop en route back to the station.
One such customer gave me the most beautiful doll I had ever seen. (Apparently, when I was quite young, I was in the habit of peeping round the door from the living room into the shop and in so doing attracted this person's attention.) The doll's body was made entirely of velvet and so were its clothes - a dress and matching hat in gorgeous purple velvet. I can see (and feel) it even now!
George Hart in his furniture shop in Redcross St
Although, as I've said, my grandma never had a holiday, she did have some respite from the work of the shop. In the early 1920s she bought a car. It was a 'Clyno' and came from Skidmore's Garage in Beaconsfield Villas.
Her son and my father both learnt to drive it and on a Tuesday or Thursday (their respective half-days) would take her out. When I and my cousin were children, we grew up with outings in the car. We would go to Worthing or Eastbourne or Henfield common for a picnic, or further afield to Tunbridge Wells or sometimes just through the countryside where, according to the time of year, we would pick primroses, bluebells, rhododendrons or blackberries. It's only in recent years that we have realised how lucky we were then. Grandma later change the Clyno for a Wolsley.
Several of the shops in Trafalgar Street remain clearly in my memory. There was 'Edgar Jones' the chemist nearly opposite; 'Hays' the electricians on the upper corner of Redcross Street; 'Marchants' the furniture shop next door; the 'Belgravia Dairy', where one bought not only milk and cream but a variety of butters; 'Gillhams' (with an 'h') the newsagents below Pelham Square, run by two maiden ladies; 'Hilders' the tailors, which became 'Strongs' the hairdressers; 'Bundocks' the drapers, on the corner with Pelham Street; and 'Eltentons' the grocers on the corner of Trafalgar Street and London Road, where my grandma often took me when she gave her weekly order. This was then delivered the next day by their errand boy on his bike.
All these shops were individually run by their owners and were part of the community.
There was also at one time an abbatoir in the street. It was almost opposite No 93 and I have this distinct memory of sheep being brought there in lorries and of one escaping and being chased down the road; also of my picking up several stems of wild flowers, including sanfoin, which had fallen from the lorry onto the road. But most of the time I remember it as a garage.
There were of course several public houses and I remember being very aware when passing them of the pungent smell of stale beer. There was also the particular smell of hops being brewed, which emanated from Tamplins Brewery, which had its premises in Richmond Place, the other side of St Peter's Church.
A woman of substance
I believe that before she married my grandma worked as a dressmaker but from that modest beginning she developed into a woman who achieved much. When her daughter and her son got married, she bought each of them their own house. She invested in property, buying several small houses around the town. She became well known as a successful businesswoman, highly respected in her community - a woman of substance, kind, generous, and of an enterprising and independent spirit. I loved her dearly during her lifetime and now have unbounded admiration for who and what she was. She died aged 72 from a heart condition, never having retired.
[Peter Crowhurst's original interview with Muriel Hart, now expanded above by Muriel herself, was published in the North Laine Runner, No 178, January/February 2006]