see Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor - click here
and Henry Mayhew Letter XIII Morning Chronicle - click here
A man passes us, laden with hot peas, and on all
finds ready purchasers. His cry of invitation is peculiar -
though not elegant- " Now then, ere you are! Ot peas!
Ot peas! Fill your bellies, and warm your 'ands - on' y a ha'penny!" and his can is quickly emptied by the
Hebrew gourmands who surround him. But what is this? this
most delectable odour which assails us ?-this bubbling, frizzling sound that meets our ears ?-that makes the nostrils of
Judah distend, the eyes of Israel dilate with joy, while the lips
water with expectation ?-Fried fish. A fish-shop throws its
cheerful glare into the chilly night. We will halt for a moment, and inspect its
interior, - one of many of a similar
character which abound in the neighbourhood.
The first thing which arrests our attention, after having feasted our eyes upon the rows of crisp brown fish that decorate the window, is the large fire within, which has a fiercely jolly look, like the face of a giant who has taken to drinking; but which comforts us nevertheless, till we forget this raw December night, which encompasses us about. The shop is tenanted by a family of five-a mother, her three daughters, and an only son, the heir to the house of Manasseh. The mother, though obese, is comely to look upon, with eyes of melting lustre, and nose, whose size, and lips, whose pulpy fulness, indicate her race. She stands by the fire, the presiding genius of the frying-pan, whose handle she holds firmly, as hardy mariner the good ship's helm. She grasps her fork like a harpoon, and, with steady eye, watches the sea of hissing, bubbling oil. Each moment the fork descends, and transfixes a fish, till one by one the rich brown spoil lies heaped up within the confines of the dish, while the frying-pan bubbles and hisses with impatience, calling loudly, like the horse-leech's daughters, for more. With a look which might become the mother of the Gracchi, Rachel stands among her children; only suspending her labours to use the fork as a weapon of offence upon the curly head of her ill-conducted offspring, Jacob, who, hovering about the fragrant heap, is ever ready to pounce upon the interdicted hut too tempting morsels.
The elder daughter of the house stands near her mother, with the face and presence of her namesake, Judith. She is cutting the fish in slices, preparing them for their hot bath in the hissing pan; and we shiver as we hear the keen knife crash through the bone, and strike the table beneath; we shiver, for we are gazing into those large, dark, scornful eyes, and are thinking of the head of Holofernes. Leah, the second daughter, is carefully sewing some tinsel on an old satin slipper, and is singing a popular song to the interesting accompaniment of the frying-pan. She is the genius of her family, as a very dirty face and extremely slatternly appearance sufficiently testify. She is a "professional," being under an engagement at a neighbouring theatre, where she is suspended nightly, like the coffin of the Arabian prophet, between heaven and earth, as a fairy sylph or gnome, and thus increases the stock of half-crowns in the paternal, coffers. Sarah, the youngest of the Hebrew Graces, is indulging in a series of skirmishes with the unruly Jacob, upon whom - much to that young martyr's disgust - she exercises a vigi lant surveillance.
Hiss-bubble-bubble-goes the pan, as a fresh shoal of fish plunge into it; and- " Come along," says our friend, placing his hand, by force of habit, on our collar. We go along accordingly, though not without another look upon the shop and its contents. O, daughters of Judah, even Mr. Spooner will not deny that there is yet one triumph left you-ye fry fish well!
Watts Phillips, The Wild Tribes of London, 1855