Once a fixture of the East End, surviving shops now serve the people squeezed out to suburban Essex and coastal hinterlands by rising rents.
London’s pie and mash shops are not for everyone. But they never were.
In 1851, London was a divided city.
The air was thick with industrial pollution, and a prevailing west wind blanketed the East End in choking smog. Social classes followed the inky breeze: The rich and privileged moved west, into clean air; the poor were not so lucky. As the working class became established in the East End, so did the food they ate: pig trotters and pies stuffed with beef, mutton, kidney, and eel. The dishes were sold on the street, straight into eager hands: eels that had been writhing in the dank depths of the Thames that morning now steaming on its banks.
In the same year, social historian Henry Mayhew wrote that “men whose lives are an alternation of starvation and surfeit, love some easily-swallowed and comfortable food, better than the most approved substantiality of a dinner table.” In a Victorian society that valued respectability and cleanliness, street food was not “approved substantiality.” While the poorest of the poor had little choice, the aspirational working classes—plumbers, traders, and merchants living on the east side—looked to a newly established, firmly middle-class dining establishment, the restaurant, for inspiration. The workers wanted their comforting grub served within four walls, too. The eel and pie house, which today is called a pie and mash shop, was what they built.
The first opened in 1844, and as photographer and historian Stuart Freedman tells me, pie and mash shops were the first de facto working-class restaurants in London. “It was aping the bourgeois idea of a restaurant,” he says. Freedman has long documented the sociology of pie and mash shops, culminating with his book The Englishman & the Eel.
These places served hot, cheap, and sustaining food: eels stewed or jellied, mincemeat pies, plain boiled mashed potatoes and “liquor.” The latter is not what you’d think, with no alcohol in sight, but an oozy boil of eel juice and parsley, thickened with flour—a pallid green sauce with briny depth. As Freedman emphasizes, these early restaurants were sparkling establishments: White tiles winked, and sawdust was sprinkled on the floor to stop patrons slipping on spat-out eel bones.
Over time, three families took control of the pie, mash, and eel market: the Manzes, the Cookes, and the Kellys.
Joe Cooke was allegedly the first to pair pie and mash with the liquor in 1862, and it remains the archetypal plate to this day. Each of the dynasties still has at least one shop in the city, but history has been unkind. In the 1940s, World War II bombings devastated the East End; 1980s housing policy and gentrification were equally ruinous. Surviving shops now serve the people squeezed out to suburban Essex and coastal hinterlands by rising rents; London proper has very few. Eel prices rise and stocks fall. Bones rarely hit the floor anymore.
Freedman is unequivocal when he states that you can’t reinterpret pie and mash for modern times. “It is what it is,” he says firmly. “It’s a very simple pie, a very simple mash.” His thoughts are echoed by Joe Cooke, owner of F Cooke in Hoxton, East London: “It hasn’t altered. It won’t alter.” Such lived history leaves rules and realities unwritten. Freedman compares ordering pie and mash to entering a betting shop. “If you’ve never placed a bet, it’s quite an intimidating thing to do: What are the rules?” The rules are as follows: It’s a “shop.” Never a “restaurant.” Mash has no butter. Gravy is forbidden. Ask for either, and in Cooke’s words, “You are gone.” Pie and mash is served with a fork and spoon. Request a knife and it’s not unlikely that you’ll be told to fuck off.
A lot of boxers seem to go a bit ripe in their old age – possibly something to do with being repeatedly hit over the head with leather-bound lumps of bone and meat. But somewhere in Tony Burns' bruised peach of a brain the secret to sporting success lurks like a lucky maggot. Of all the amateur boxing clubs across Britain claiming to be 'the Home of Champions', the Repton is arguably the only one with the right to the title. Over the years the club has turned out hundreds of champions – and Tony Burns has personally coached over two hundred of them.
From the outside the Repton doesn't look like very much: a slightly depressing pile of bricks tucked away off Brick Lane that could easily be mistaken for a public toilet. Which, in a way, it once was – inside, the high ceilings, tiles, and elegant arches make the building's past life as a Victorian Bathhouse known.
The raised ring in the middle must be an inspiring, slightly intimidating, place for a young boxer to train. From all four walls, rows and rows of the club's past heroes grin down. There's John H. Stracy, one time welterweight champion of the world with 37 knockouts to his name; Olympic gold medallist Audley Harrison; a trio of former middleweight world champions, Maurice Hope, Darren Barker and Andy Lee (the latter was the first Irish Traveller to hold a world title); Ray Winstone, the tough guy actor who, as a Repton boy, won 80 out of 88 fights; and, perhaps most intimidating of all, the Kray twins.
Ronnie and Reggie Kray are two of the East End's most infamous sons. For their record of arson, robbery, extortion and murder, most remember them as ruthless gangsters. They once reportedly stabbed a rival so many times his liver fell out. So they flushed it down the toilet. Others remember them as community heroes. Aside from the odd spattering of guts and gore, the story goes, they kept the streets clean and the kids safe.
"Every other day there's a hundred kids down here, all boxing and steaming," says Burns, explaining the club's success. "I look at them and I think, you know: he ain't bad, he ain't bad, he ain't bad. They're all talented kids – mainly Travellers. We've always had a gym full of youngsters... There's a natural ability about them." - Tony Burns
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