Before the arrival of pie and mash shops, pie and mash was sold by itinerant pie-men and eels by street sellers of pea soup and hot eels. The first pie and mash shops were seen in London in the middle of the nineteenth century.
In 1851 Henry Mayhew, a social historian, studied the occupations of London’s poor, published as ‘London Labour and the London Poor’. It is a classic account of London’s street life and characters. His fascinating descriptions shed light on life around the streets of Victorian London and here he writes about the ‘street pie men’ and ‘the street-sellers of pea-soup and hot eels’.
Pie men travelled the streets, visiting taverns, summer fairs and the races. It was common practice to toss a penny for the pie; if the pie man won the toss he received the penny and handed nothing over, but if the customer won he would keep both pie and penny!
The sellers of hot eels and liquor sold from stalls in the streets. Eels were purchased from Billingsgate having been brought up the Thames by Dutch eel vessels. According to Mayhew around five hundred sellers of eels could be seen on the streets on a Saturday. The most successful trader dealt in Clare market which was near the Strand. ‘The price of hot eels was a halfpenny for five or seven pieces of fish and three-parts of a cupful of liquor’.
Around the middle of the nineteenth century the street sellers came under threat from newly opening pie and mash shops. Mayhew writes ‘a few years ago the street pie trade was very profitable, but it has been almost destroyed by the pie shops. The penny pie shops, the street men say, have done their trade a great deal of harm. These shops have now got mostly all the custom, as they make the pies much larger for the money than those sold in the street.’
Victorian London saw a huge growth in population: a movement of poor and agricultural workers from rural areas, Irish immigrants fleeing the great famine and refugees from political and religious persecution in Europe. These were poor families living in appalling slum conditions and probably with no access to cooking facilities. The new pie and mash shops selling the combination of pie and mash and eels in liquor provided hot food cheaply and business flourished.
By 1874 the business directory ‘Kelly’s’ listed thirty-three pie and mash shops.
Taken from our extended history.
Want to know more about liquor? Have a read of What’s that green stuff? Liquor explained.