The Norwood Society

Jellied Eels

Crystal Palace has become a gastronome’s delight. There are eating places of all kinds - Mongolian, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Italian, to mention a few. Amidst this welcome cosmopolitan fare, it is good to see that a London tradition is being upheld for at 14 Westow Hill there is an eel and pie shop owned by Churchill’s, the “Traditional Pie Makers”.

It opened in 1998 and has become a favourite port of call for many who enjoy fresh jellied or stewed eels, a warming dish of mince-beef pie, mash and liquor or, an innovation, vegetarian pies. Open seven days a week, eat-in or take-away, Churchill’s is part of a long tradition of London eel and pie shops.

At one time eels were a favourite dish of the English. In the Middle Ages, Ely in the Fens of East Anglia, had a flourishing trade in eels which were sent, live in barrels to London. Sometimes, rents would be paid in eel pies. The River Severn in Gloucestershire was famous for its elvers and on Easter Sunday there would be contests to see who could eat the most.

In London, too, there were places noted for eel pies. In Islington the “Eel Pie House” and, nearby, ”Highbury Sluice” would welcome holidaymakers who would flood there to buy eel dishes.

Many would go for picnics on Eel Pie Island in the Thames near Richmond which saw a flourishing trade from the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth century.

Eel barges from Holland had been bringing their live catches up the Thames to land them at  Billingsgate fish market since King Edward had granted them the right to trade in 1472.

However, the situation is different today. The trade in eels and eel pies has reduced to such an extent that they have become a London specialty. People think that jellied eels and eel pie, mash and liquor are found only in the East End but at one time there were over a hundred shops in the capital.

Most people know the children’s nursery rhyme:

“Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair…”

This has its origins in Victorian London (some say earlier) when piemen, with trays of pies balanced on their heads, would walk the streets crying out their wares. They sold mutton or beef pies, fruit pies with applies or cherries and, a popular favourite, eel pies which were sold with pea-soup or parsley-sauce. They were popular not only because they were tasty, but also because they were cheap. For London’s poor they provided a nutritious, affordable meal.

At one time there more than 500 piemen in London but their days were numbered when, in 1844, the first pie shop opened in Southwark where pies were sold for a penny. Shops multiplied and eventually the street vendors disappeared and the trade became dominated by a few families.

Pie shops used to have a standardised frontage. On either side of the door would be two large windows which used to open for the take-away trade. Inside, the staff would wear white aprons and hats and would serve customers who sat on wooden benches at marble-topped tables surrounded by tiled and mirrored walls.

The floors were covered with sawdust so that the diners could spit out the eel bones. Everything was spotlessly clean. In the kitchen the pies were cooked in large ovens and, because they have to be cooked soon after killing, there were tanks full of swimming eels.

There would be a limited menu: eel pie, mash and liquor, hot eels served with meat pie, mashed potato and parsley sauce or cold jellied eels., The gelatinous property of the bones and skin means that the dish sets well in its own jelly. Live or freshly-prepared eels were also sold to take home.

It was essentially working-class food for artisans. Closure of the docks, rehousing of people after the Second World War and the influx and growing popularity of other more exotic cuisines such as Indian and Chinese, have caused the number of shops to fall.

Who know whether Churchill’s in Upper Norwood may herald a renaissance in the trade. This tasty, cheap dish may again become a widespread London favourite.

T W Jenkins

The Norwood Review Edition #153.