Fish and chips is often considered the British national dish but many people may not be aware that the humble meal was considered to be a vital ingredient of the war effort in both the First and Second World Wars.
Sir Winston Churchill called the simple dish our ‘good companions’ and would not ration the dish during the Second World War for fear of sparking widespread discontent.
The British Government safeguarded the supply of fish and potatoes during both world wars to ensure the dish remained a boost to morale and these foods were among the few not to be subject to rationing during both world wars.
So engrained are fish and chips in the national psyche that the dish was used as a code-name of sorts during the D-Day landings.
The aim of rationing was to ensure that everyone received a fair distribution of food like sugar, meat, flour, butter, margarine and milk, plus other items like clothing when they were hard to come by during the war.
During the Second World War, the Ministry of Food issued every one of all ages with a ration book.
Each book contained coupons allowing you to buy certain amounts of food from a designated shop. Each shop was then allocated an amount of food to feed the people who were associated with their shop.
Even Her Majesty The Queen had a ration book. In fact, the then Princess Elizabeth saved up her clothing coupons in order to buy the material for her wedding dress. She married Prince Philip at Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947.
However, the supply of fish and chips remained at the forefront of the effort to keep Britain’s spirits up.
How Fish And Chips Beat Rationing During The War
Fish and potatoes might not have been rationed but that did not mean supplies remained in abundance during the Second World War.
Rations applied to fruit and other vegetables but sometimes, supply could not meet demand.
The government encouraged people to grow their own vegetables, especially potatoes, and fruit in gardens, allotments and even public parks. This practice became known as Dig For Victory.
The price of fish soared during the World War Two as supplies fell - partly because the country's fishing fleet shrank, with many large trawlers being requisitioned into naval service, while others became targets for the enemy and ended up being sunk by German U-Boats.
However, the remaining British fishing fleet managed to ensure that fish supplies, although limited, remained throughout the war.
Kim Jackson, who joined fish and chips restaurant chain Harry Ramsdens in 1996, has worked her way from potato peeler and fish filleter to looking after the franchise and licensing side of the business.
She spoke to BFBS, the Forces Station broadcaster Hal Stewart about the world-famous meal fish and chips and its military connections, confirming the importance of the meal during the war:
“During World War Two, fish and chips was considered to be such a staple that it was one of the few things not rationed.”
LISTEN: Kim talks to Hal about how fish and chips helped the war effort during WW1 and WW2
Kim also revealed another fascinating insight as to how fish and chips, which used to be wrapped in newspaper until it was considered unsafe to do so in the 1980s, helped us during the world wars.
The meal became a lifesaver during the D-Day Landings by becoming a password of sorts. She said:
“The British troops used to call out to each other, and one would shout fish and wait for a response of chips to identify each other on the field.”
It worked as a simple and effective way to ascertain who was friend or foe.
During World War One, it is also thought that supplies of fish and chips helped to ensure troops remained well fed on the battle fields, largely thanks to Belgian forces who were responsible for much of the catering and, with the aim of catering for the British soldiers’ taste for potatoes, served large quantities of potatoes fried in oil – a form of chips.
Professor John Walton, author of 'Fish and Chips, and the British Working Class, 1870-1940', is adamant that fish and chips were vital to Britain’s World War One victory, saying:
“The cabinet knew it was vital to keep families on the home front in good heart.”
The Origins Of Fish And Chips
It is believed that Jewish settlers in the 17th century introduced the idea of frying fish in batter to Britain. There are also rumours that when rivers froze over in winter, potatoes were cut up and fried as a replacement for the missing seafood.
In Charles Dickens’ second novel ‘Oliver Twist’, published in 1838, the Victorian author writes:
“Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee shop, its beer shop, and its fried‑fish warehouse.”
The world-renowned author mentioning fried fish in what became a much-loved British novel is certainly an impressive point in the history of the famous double act - fish and chips.
Who First Sold Fish And Chips?
There is a north/south divide when it comes to establishing who first sold fish and chips in Britain.
It is believed by some that northern businessman John Lees was selling fish and chips in Mossley Market, Lancashire in 1863.
However, others are adamant that Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin sold fish and chips in East London around the same time.