Photographer and Writer Stuart Freedman is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this social documentary photography. These images are from his book ‘The Englishman and the Eel – London’s Eel, Pie & Mash shops‘. To see Stuart’s body of work click on any image.
A dark, ponderous sky full of summer rain hangs over the back yard of Cooke’s Pie and Eel shop in Hoxton market. Surrounded and overlooked by grim, low-rise council estates, this is the buffer zone between the East End of Hackney and the unspeakable riches of the City of London.
Joe Cooke, a hearty, big man who swears more frequently than a docker, is fumbling for eels in a deep plastic tank that burbles and splashes in front of him. Expertly tipping the slithering prey into a bucket, he turns to sharpen a long, wicked knife on a rasping steel. In the bucket, a reflection of the sky. A dark, swirling mass of chaos. Six or seven eels turn over each other desperately thrashing: trying to bury themselves. A foaming sea of slime and muscular shiny flesh.
Big drops of rain spot the paving stones of the yard. The eels thrash and whip furiously. One makes it to the blood-stained chopping board and Joe’s fingers caress it. Something strange happens. The creature is soothed: massaged – almost hypnotised – calmed. It lays straight, delighting in itself, thinking of a faraway sea, almost asleep, forgetful of its fate. A mercy.
Joe’s long knife takes the off the head and expertly slits the belly removing the guts in one long slice. Globs of dark flesh and innards fleck his thick fingers.
“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid on my Dad’s stall,” says Joe, 64. ”Beautiful creatures ain’t they?”
A translucent blue-black skin like an oil slick cut into jeweled pieces spotted with rain. The sky opens and we retreat into the cozy world of pie, mash and strong dark tea.
The Englishman and the Eel is a journey into the culture of that most London of institutions, the Eel, Pie and Mash shop.
Eels, long a staple of London food were synonymous with the city and its people. In a capital, dominated and bisected by the River Thames, they were once cheap and nutritious. The first recorded eel and mash shop appears to have been Henry Blanchard’s in Southwark in 1844 but it took an Italian immigrant Michael Manzi, a peasant from Ravello to open what is recognised as the first shop that sold eels together with a traditional street food – meat pies – in 1902.
Manzi’s (and subsequently Cooke’s) were in effect, the first self-defined working class restaurants selling food in clean and importantly, respectable surroundings.
Today, these simple spaces hold within them the memories and a rich, largely undocumented cultural heritage of generations of working-class Londoners in a city whose only constant is change.
I grew up in East London in the 1970s, then a byword for poverty now a metaphor for gentrification. The streets then were navigated by pubs, rough, cheap cafes and eel, pie and mash shops. Often elaborately decorated with ornate Victorian tiling, many sold live eels in metal trays that faced the street to the fascination (and sometimes horror) of passersby. Inside, warm comfort food. Steam. Tea. Laughter. Families. Already in decline by the mid-century, the shops were still dominated by a handful of families and passed down through generations. By the turn of this century only an echo of former glories remained and today, just a handful of traditional businesses operate. The decline of the eel (a “muscled icicle” as Seamus Heaney has it) mirrors the sense of dislocation and fragmentation of traditional communities that the shops serve. Today’s eel, pie and mash shops are now havens for what the East End once was.
This book however, is no rosy description of the Cockney – that music hall, heart-of-gold caricature but an affectionate and serious look at what the East End and its people has evolved into.
Class remains resolutely with us, as deeply entrenched in Britain as it was fifty years ago: the white, working-class is sometimes demonized, often ridiculed. Always taken for granted. This is where I’ve come from and I’ve tried to make an honest a picture as I could. The East End is now a de facto multicultural melting pot – as it always has been – but it retains a pride and an energy and, despite what the tabloids tell you, a welcome. My grandparents would still recognize these shops. Somethings don’t change.
The work is however, expansive: I’ve traveled to Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland to photograph eel fishing. I’ve made work at both Barney’s and Mick’s Eels, the two companies that process the fish. I’ve photographed and written about Millwall fans (who sing of the eel) and recorded those that now eat their pies and eels at home, too elderly and frail to journey to the shops. Lastly, I have followed the bleed of the East End to it’s new spiritual home in Essex where Pie and Mash shops are undergoing something of an renaissance. Identifying as they do with a re-imagined and distilled working-class culture that is geographically separate from their traditional roots.
The Englishman and the Eel is not an encyclopedic record of every shop, rather I’ve documented what I believe to be most interesting and significant ones to make a book that I hope is a tribute to a changing institution and I’ve used the eel as a metaphor and symbol of that cultural change.
Book by Stuart Freedman