THE PRESENCE of street food sellers in London has been noted since at least the early 15th century, with hot peas being sold in the satirical poem London Lickpenny, written around 1410. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor describes a variety of street foods from the mid-19th century with baked potatoes (served with butter and salt) being one of the more lucrative trades.
Jellied eels, along with pie and mash, were emblematic of working-class Cockney life and the East End of London. However, eel stalls and pie-and-mash shops were also found elsewhere in the city, and many fishmongers’ shops had shallow metal trays filled with live eels coiling and sliding over each other.
This 1956 BBC recording (catalogue number 888131) features an eel seller named Joe Pegg at work in Cambridge Circus in London’s West End. He’s recorded talking to customers, raising various sales cries, including the slightly ominous one of ‘Large lumps!’, and is interviewed briefly by a presenter named Bill Latto.
The photo above (reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence from ADiamondFellFromTheSky‘s Flickr account) was taken in 1927 in Whitechapel. The best-known East End jellied eel stall during the 20th century was Tubby Isaac’s on the corner of Goulston Street in Aldgate. It was founded by Isaac Brenner in 1919 and finally closed in 2013, as reported in this article from the East London Advertiser.
Tubby Isaac’s was often mentioned in London guidebooks, including Hunter Davies’s The New London Spy and in the confused historical imaginings of Alf Garnett as related in Johnny Speight’s TV spin-off book The Thoughts of Chairman Alf.
The eels were cooked in a broth which was allowed to cool and set into a jelly-like consistency. They were caught from as far away as the fens of Cambridgeshire and sent alive in boxes to London – a 1961 documentary on the East Anglian Film Archive website shows an eel catcher named Johnny Barnes at work.
Recording © copyright BBC. Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.