Oral History Interview - Fred Cooke & Chris Cooke

image w2019-3_fred and chris cooke_supporting_copyright_sarah_ainslie


Audio file


Oral History Interview - Fred Cooke & Chris Cooke

Production date



Audio recording of an oral history interview with Fred & Chris Cooke.

Fred and Chris Cooke are brothers who were born in Hackney. They ran 'Cooke's Eel, Pie and Mash' shop on Kingsland Road in Dalston, originally set up by their grandfather.

Credit line

Image copyright Sarah Ainslie.


Interview with Fred and Chris Cooke (c.1 hour 15 mins)

Q. Starting with Fred tell me where you were born?

I was born in 1940 and I was born within half a mile of here at Milmay Park in the maternity home there.

Q. Chris?

Well I was also born in the Milmay maternity home and I was born in 1944.

Q. Tell me a bit about your parents and family. Both brothers but did you have siblings as well?

Not really only two. I think they had two and thought that was enough

What about your dad?

Well our father, our grandfather actually was proprietor of Cooke and sons and he ran this business here with his son, Fred who is our Pop. And opposite us there was a very famous fish shop and the gentleman who run that was a very astute fishmonger and his daughter was also a member of his staff and I think our father looked over the road and saw this rather nice looking chick and thought, that could be interesting. Hence we had one grandfather on one side of the road and our grandfather here. So two grandfathers trading opposite each other.

Q. Was that common around that time?

Well I can't speak for other people but it certainly was unique for two brothers like Fred and I to have two grandfathers with two very famous businesses trading opposite each other. One being F Cooke and Sons the Pie and Eel shop which is known throughout the world and opposite was one of the finest wet fish shops in London.

Q. What was the name?

It was John Hitchcock, brother of Alfred Hitchcock.

Q. Related to Alfred Hitchcock?

No our grandfather worked for him, so we are not relatives.

Q. What sort of people were your dad?

Very hard working, very down to earth characters. Probably worked much harder than they should have done. Served a lot of time because in a way our grandparents who gave the reins, in a way our parents were committed to work virtually six days a week. And in those days it wasn't so easy for the staff either. I mean staff worked five and a half days a week, they had half a day but our parents didn't even get half a day. Very hard working people but very well known in the area and very popular with the locals. Customers were virtually on first name terms with them as they came in.

But I would add I would think it was almost based on a semi Victorian regime.

Our grandparents were very good hard working type people but they were Victorian tartars and our mother and father did suffer a little bit under the cosh in as much as they were employees not family and it was a hard way of life for them.

Q. Did they pass that on to you?

Yes it did it passed on to us very much so. But as time went on things softened. And when we came into the business I think our parents were still working a six day week, but we had a five and a half day week. But they made the five and a half day week forty eight hours a day.

Q. Live above the shop?

Yes we used to live above the shop and have got very fond memories of living there. The sort of hours our parents used to work it wouldn't have been convenient to have had a private house out of town so they lived above the shop and you could say you was on tap twenty four hours a day seven days a week. But very fond memories.

We both went to local schools, we didn't have high class education. We were very sort of basic but it taught you the streetwise moves and we became very aware of the situation and we were able to move in when our parents or first of all when our grandparents passed on and then also we were able to take over when our parents moved on and took a less active. Our father always maintained and insisted that we never say he retired. He always liked us to say that he took a less active part in the business.

Q. How often did you actually come into the shop as children?

Well I mean to say, how often did we come down? I mean you would come home from the school in the evening and you would be instantly commandeered to roll up your sleeves and stand at the sink and do some washing up or clear the tables. There were various jobs, mundane chores. I think it is very essential that when you are involved in a business you can't start at the top. You have got to start at the bottom where the foundations are. Because now are you going to be able to teach anybody else what to do if you can't do it yourself.

Q. Parents philosophy?

Yes exactly. I think we must have been the best two table clearers and setter uppers in Dalston.

The tips were no good though.

But it was the thing, you were invited to take part in the business and you were taught at a very early age money does not grow on trees and you were invited to take part so you knew where the money was coming from.

Q. How old were you when that started?

Well I think if the department of Employment heard and knew what age we were they would hang, draw and quarter us. I can remember clearing the tables in the shop and in those days they were great big long thick solid top marble tables and I think at the time I could just about see over the top to wipe the marble, but it didn't do me any harm. It taught you and done you in good stead and taught you the ground work for the biz that enabled us to carry on through.

And I can remember in the late forties early fifties we were so busy, one of the jobs I used to do on Saturday afternoon was just fill the vinegar bottles up which would be replaced on the table for our customers to have on their pies and eels whatever and I could barely see above the bottle.

Tell me what you know about the origins of the eel, pie and mash trade? [c.8.00]

Well I will take the bull by the horns here It has been said that it was our grandfather that started the pie and eel trade. No let's go back a bit further, our great grandfather in Slater Street in the East End and we have always been educated that it was our grandfather who carried on and in actual fact started fast food in the Victorian times. Because our grandparents were doing fast food before any of the fast food people that you have got now. Even senses or sniffed or were even a flicker of light on the horizon.

When hamburger was the most common name in Germany.

Our grandparents it has been said and we have always been educated to the fact that it was our grandparents that actually started fast food. And from the different premises they have moved from, from Slater Street to Billingsgate market, to here. We, they were Victorian fast food in a big way.

Q. Why eels and pies and mashed potato? [9.28]

I have often thought why the combination ever started off. I can only suggest that eels were in abundance and easy obtained, a staple diet. Pies which were also a staple diet with meat, served with a sauce, parsley sauce, what could be nicer. Served with mashed potatoes and all of a sudden you have a beautiful combination. You have a minced steak and kidney pie with beautiful fresh cooked stewed eels, a portion of mashed potatoes with parsley sauce. Mmm my mouth starts to water now over it. And that is how I think the combination came about because of the abundance of supply of the raw materials.

And they came together and they probably came together at a time when people didn't have a lot of money, probably pretty poverty stricken but they were able to put together a really first class substantial meal. And in those days very inexpensive. Not unfortunately like today when eels are very expensive, beef is expensive. In those days it was a cheap and easy meal to put together, very nutritious and a good belly filler.

Have eels pie and mash gone traditionally together. Hardly any shops sell eels today, why? [11.03]


Well the price

It has priced itself out of the market you see. Eels become. At one time someone said, our grandfather said one day eels will be dearer than oysters. And when you think of the price of eels now and the return you get for the well it is no wonder. Plus, also you have got a generation, a generation has moved away from stewed eels and jellied eels. I mean to say I know they are a delicacy in other restaurants where they cater for a market. But at one time stewed eels and jellied eels was mega business so there were tons and tons and I don't exaggerate, tons and tons of eels coming into Billingsgate each day of the week. They were coming from every country in Europe, they were fishing them out. The expression ‘eels were coming out of the woodwork’. But it has been overfished, Europe has been overfished so that is why now they have had to resort to eel farming where they can now culture eels. It is a very expensive process and with the lack of the wild eel the proof of the pudding has been in the eating and that is what affected the price.

But eels have declined in popularity. Go back to 1914, 1918 during the war people couldn't get anything else to eat, very few other things to eat. But eels managed to get hold of the eels and eels were a sought after commodity. Then take the second world war, they were hard to get hold of and because they were hard to get hold of, people lost the habit of eating eels and I think after the war because of the cost there was a decline in the demand for eels, but you have got, it is an evolution. Things come along that weren't there before. You have other fast foods that came along that were more palatable possibly to the generations coming along and eels lost their favour, you will find that is why a lot of the shops that used to be pie and eel restaurants don't sell eels. You know the young generation they will jump up and down, pull their hair out because they want a McDonalds.

I think this is significant by the amount of pie and eel shops now that are in London.

But they won't do that for a portion of eels. In actual fact when your modern generations hear or see or hear eels spoken about, I don't like to be unkind, but they make funny noises and pull their noses up in the air and look upon them with disgust.

So to a degree I feel we have lost a bit of our culture because if you go and if you look at sort of Holland and Germany and Italy where they consume so many eels, smoked eel is a delicacy there and let's face it, Japan I think is the largest eel eating nation in the world, but somehow or other England the demand has diminished.

There are other things that have come along, they have superseded eel eating culture of people. There are still a lot of people who eat eels but nowhere near the amount that used to.

Q. At the time when people were still eating eels, tell me about history of the Cooke empire?

Yes I could tell you briefly because there were various members of the family who had offspring's and they were trained like we were in the way of life and in the way of running an eel shop and a lot of the shops that are going now with the same name Cooke are run by siblings of the family.

Q. At the start your grandfather?

That was Fred Cooke and his father the former founder which was Robert Cooke which was our great grandfather.

Q. When did Robert Cooke set up?

Well to the best of our knowledge some of the early shops were in Slater Street but I believe our great grandfather also owned the shop in Tower Bridge Road which is now owned by a family called the Manzies who married into our family and it is said that our great grandfather sold that to one of the Manzy family. A very old, I think they were sparring partners so to speak. Mike Manzy and I think it was our father who helped to get Mike Manzy going which generated the manzy shops that are going now from their offspring's.

Q. Parents who own the shop they pass on to children?

I think what happens is like Fred and I we have been brought up in the business where we have lived above the business and we have had a wonderful education from our grandfather and our dad, I think it is sort of bread into you, so eventually there will come a time when you have got to go out and earn your own living. Well you had served your apprenticeship so you would be more or less offered the tools. The tools are there if you want to come and join us and help, well the opportunity is there for you, Can I say that possibly some people have been given that opportunity and chose to go in different directions, but Fred and I and some of our other relatives we chose to go down a road to be entrepreneurs in the pie and eel trade.

I don't think we made a bad job of it. I mean I think you will find if you check the sporting fixtures my brother and I ran the business between each other for something like over forty years. So I don't think that is a bad track record.

Q. And well known as well. [c.18.40]

I have got a pal that rings up on the television more times than Terry Wogan.

And I think if I can be modest I can say that we took over one of the finest pie and mash shops in the world and we turned it into the finest business of its type in the world.

People would ring up from all over the world and I finished up, I used to answer the phone ‘Cookes England, most famous pie shop in the world, can I help you?’ And whoever it was on the other end, they, if they were strangers they would laugh and they would say ‘Could you say that again?’

Q. Tell me how you are related to some of the more famous shops?

Well our grandfather was Frederick Cooke, he had a brother Robert Co Now our grandfather had two sons, Robert Cooke and Frederick Cooke who is our father. They in turn both had two grandsons, hence Fred and I, son of Fred and we have got two cousins, Bobby and Joe, sons of Bob. They run businesses in Hackney and there is another shop which would be at Waterloo which would be run by our grandfathers brother's relatives. But they really and truly are the only three shops that got Cooke blood.

Q. Related by marriage?

It is a very tall family history and it is said that the Cookes are related to the Manzies somewhere down the line.

Well it is a fact of life that they are.

I don't know if all the Manzy shops are run by Manzies. They get the name over the facia but it doesn't necessarily mean they are family. I think the main strain from the Manzy family they have got businesses in South London. They have got a shop in Towerbridge Road, another one at Peckham and there is another one which they have opened fairly recently in Sutton. So that is the Manzy side of the family, but things are dwindling and ever increasing Overheads and people not having the will to go into follow up their ancestors’ sort of triumphs, it is becoming a very sad state where I think eventually there won't be any pie and eel shops.

The thing is pie and mash and eels but they also sell ham and spam and chips, egg and chips, chips and ham and spam and chips or eggs and tomatoes, eggs and chips and bean and tomato.

When you think about it we, and I am not being big headed, but we in our family must have been very, very good at what we did in the environment in which we lived because we are extremely vulnerable running a two line business, eels and pies. I do not know any other business in the world that could survive on two lines. If you go to a fish and chip shop now and look at their menu, it starts at the top with cod and chips, skate and chips and as you go down, it is chicken and chips, sausage and chips, pastie and chips, kebab and chips. You know they have had to go into so many different lines. When you think we maintained ourselves right the way through on two lines, eels and steak and kidney pie. Along with parsley sauce and mashed potatoes. Now that is a very delicate fine line and I can hear our father saying over thirty five forty years ago that once you start selling other things, other items in your shop, apart from pies and mash it is no longer a pie and eel shop. It is the end of the pie shop. You start selling ice creams it shows that you can't make it on what you are known for and you have got to divert to something else and we weren't prepared to do that. We kept going as long as we thought we could and we did well. We would probably still be here now but there has been a change in the type of people in the area, so we went with the time and it was time to move.

Q. You came straight into the business from school?

Yes really and truly you were always expected to come into the business and that is exactly what we did.

Q. First?

When I first came in I think I was put on the stall to sell live eels. I had already made millions of pies as a young lad, but there was an opening there for the live eel side and it taught me how to clean and gut the eels and cut them up correctly as they should be done and it was an insight into that side of the business. Then you gradually filled in and you were expected to take your part where you were most wanted. Wherever there was an opening and a weak link with staff you were expected to take it up and get stuck in.

I came straight in as general manager! [Laughing] No I think what happened was you done, you had had such a good foundation of learning how to fetch and carry and how to be a general dogsbody there was not a crook or crank where you could not fit into and perform your role. So we were brought up under a very strict regime and you didn't have to be told what you were going to do, you knew what you were going to do before they even thought about telling you because it was in your blood.

Q. Involved?

There wasn't much anybody could tell us about the biz. We could take staff on and there wasn't much that we didn't know that we couldn't tell somebody because you had already done it yourself so you knew exactly how to tell somebody else how to do it.

Q. Things you had already learnt, daily tasks?

Where do you want to start? I mean the bell would go at sort of four thirty and you would get up and go to market and I am talking about now from the late sixties, seventies. Fred and I would go to market and we would come back. No matter what had to be done, if potatoes had to be prepared, you did it, pastry had to be dealt with, you never had a job. The job you had was to be here to be able to do everything that had to be done right from the time of opening the front door for staff to come in. A lot of work that was done before the staff arrived and a heck a lot of work was done after they went. But you name it, Fred and I had to do it. I mean to say there were deliveries coming early in the morning and the drivers would be astounded that we were the proprietors because we would get stuck in and help them. We would be preparing eels, we would be chopping meat. We would be washing parsley. We would be cutting, chopping up suet. We used to have a ton of suet with the kidney knobs and that would have to be prepared for the pastry.

I have and God is my witness when Fred and I have worked twenty four hours, right round the clock and then started work the next day. We didn't go to bed but by the time the following evening came I think I was tired out. You could say really and truly our main object and main task was, we employed staff, we didn't do it all ourself. Our main object was to make sure that the staff were doing the job as it should be done. If we were short of staff and the staff weren't here then there was a slot for us, we slipped in and carried on where the staff weren't. So we could fall into any of their jobs or categories or whatever you name or do. We could do everything in the biz and you could sweep between the staff because we had done it all ourself.

But really and truly our main object was to engage good quality staff, keep our eye on the staff and make sure the job was being done properly. And I think I can really honestly say that there wasn't a moment in time that there wasn't either one of us on scene and I think that is the secret of our success. We didn't engage managers, we did it ourself. We run the shebang ourself and we would very seldom come here unless there was one of us on duty keeping an eye on staff, keeping an eye on things and making sure that everything that went into the shop was exactly as it should be. And I think really and truly that is the secret of our success, making sure that everything was right.

Q. That was your philosophy. Before did that echo your father?

Yes very much so. We were drilled by our parents, dad and grandfather that you have got to keep your eye on things. You don't go off to the races and leave the staff to sort it out. That is a one way decline. So we were very considerate and very honest in our thoughts and we looked after the business to the best of our ability and I think that is the secret of our success, keeping an eye on things. It wasn't left to other people to run.

Often imitated, but never equalled.

Q. Was it your ambition to take it over?

No not really because it was such a fast buzzing outfit that we were sort of picked up on the merry go round of it but unfortunately in 1950-51 our father had heart problems and I think that really kicked my brother and I into touch. We were going to have to go down that road. So being very conscious, we were very. Our father was the b-all and end all. We loved our dad. That we would always try to everything to help him and throw as little stress on him as necessary. So I think we automatically funnelled into the line. We didn't have to be ambitious because we had got the jewel in the crown to work with.

Q. Outside of the shop as young men?

Two young guys working at fantastic business, doing very, very well. What more could you ask for? Yeah we did have little time to ourselves, but it was worth our while to do what we were doing and we both got stuck in and thoroughly enjoyed it, we were on a high.

Q. Remember?

Brilliant. Lots of cinemas, the area was buzzing with people in the East End in the post war days. People were working hard, there were lots and lots of thriving businesses, it was wonderful. And the night time we would be up in our living quarters above the shop. So at ten, ten fifteen you would think there was half the British army walking past the front of the shop. But it wasn't, it was the cinema turning out, people walking down the high street.

Yes you could hear the movement of feet.

The wonderful community and wonderful sense of community and a lot of very, very dear people.

We had five cinemas in the area, at least five.

It could be six if you go a little bit further on. And then when they turned out all you could hear was a movement of people, you could hear marching.

Q. Local area? [33.34]

Yes local, there were a lot of factory workers in the area and come say twelve thirty, one o'clock our shop would be like a bee hive with people trying to get served for their lunch because they only had limited time. I think you used to get half an hour then and you have to get back to work. So it was really, I think the expression like a madhouse. We tried to provide these people with lunches so they could get back.

And it was a bit of a meeting place as well. If people only had a limited amount of time, if they didn't go to the canteen for their food, they chose to come here they would make a rendezvous with other people and have half an hour chit chat whatever, have their meal and buff off they go to work.

Q. Lunchtimes?

Walking on their heads.

And the same in the evening time. People who lived in the area and they would come from far and wide so it would be absolutely packed and buzzing. People you know would come from forty, fifty miles in the evening just to have pies and eels and they became regular faces that you knew and you knew where they lived and that was a compliment to you to think that people have come all that distance to savour our wares in our little restaurant with two lines.

You can go and get fish and chips anywhere, normally you get a lot of Chinese in the area, but you couldn't go anywhere and get what we were selling. And a lot of the shops weren't open of an evening like we were. We were open right the way through and I think our latest times were half past eleven.

People would come after they had had, been for a few drinks in the pub, they really wanted a few of the eels and a pie and mash and there wasn't anywhere else to come to but us.

Yes our times were half past eleven and our shop would still be full up at quarter past twelve,

A lot of public houses now they all sell food and it is a different world. They are not pubs now they are restaurants but you go there one time and the licensing hours at the pubs. They come from the pubs, had their six to eight pints of whatever they were drinking and we used to get them. Sometimes good and sometimes not so good, we used to have to deal with other peoples trouble sometimes.

Q. Tell me about Dalston at that time? [36:20]

Yes traders used to come in three times a day. Traders used to come in for their breakfast, come in for a few eels for their breakfast after they had been down the market, loaded their stall up, then they would come across and have a few eels, mash and liquor for their breakfast, they would probably come in for a pie and a few more eels lunchtime. Then when they finished doing their biz, five o'clock half past, they would all pack up and go home and they would probably have a few beers on a Friday evening and then you’d see them half eight, nine, ten in the evening again. Some people come in three times a day.

To the best of my knowledge Ridley Road was set up to provide employment for the servicemen that came back from the 1914-18 war so that relates a little bit to our period here as well. The facts I am telling you now are passed on by our grandparents. So Fred and I we have grown up here and we have grown up here in Kingsland High Street and we have possibly known two or three generations of costermongers from the market so we knew the boys in the market, the parents and the grandparents. But what a way of life, a wonderful part of our heritage.

In the fifties after the second world war, mid fifties to the late fifties things were really humming in the area, you had guys who had been out fighting for king and country and they were so pleased to be able to come back to the country, get their demob suit off, buy theirself a decent Saturday rig out and on a Friday and Saturday night they were out having a few beers, enjoying life that they fought for and it was a really humming time in the area, pubs used to
ave to shut in those days at ten or ten thirty. They didn't serve food, it was just drinks or whatever and after they had had a few drinks and were hungry they would come and see us, give us a visit and we would absolutely be thronged out, they would be standing, standing room only and they were only too happy to stand and eat. To think they had been out fighting the war, lucky to get back, getting going again, come from the East End and they were so pleased and starting to live life again, it was a really humming, buzzy time.

And you know I can remember public houses in the area where you didn't have karaoke and disco music, but all you would hear is the crashing, bashing of a piano and people singing the old songs and going back I can remember there was one old chap who used to come in the shop and he used to stop outside and he would leave his barrel organ outside and he would come in the shop and have his pie and mash or whatever and then he would put his cap on, go outside and get between the shafts of his barrel organ and pull it up the road to go and play some music somewhere else. That is how people earned their livings then.

And it was unusual on a Saturday to see a group of guys call then a band, coming along and they were ex-British soldiers, sailors, airmen playing their instruments, trumpet, bugle, a drum an accordion, whatever they can play to own a sheckle or two. And always it was our mother she loved the tune, "A bunch of coconuts" and as soon as they came on this side of the road and they got alongside and they were just getting to us, you could hear them stop playing the tune they were playing and all of a sudden - I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts would strike up. Mum would run out with a tip, a two shilling piece or whatever in those days and give the boys a drink. And as they went past us it had got to be - I have a lovely bunch of coconuts. And I can see these characters now. One limb, one leg, stump or whatever trying to get a few bob. You don't see it now. But that used to happen along the high street you would get these characters come along try to earn a few bob, whatever they could playing an instrument.

Q. Different from now?

That is right, but I can see these characters they would go along that side of the road and have their signs on, blind or whatever and all of a sudden they would change over and come along this side of the road and when they got to us – I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts.

Q. Talking about six day week, long hours, what were your interests and activities outside the shop, socialise?

I think really and truly we were pretty much to use the expression, under cosh until after our father had had major heart surgery. Because although he was a good dad he couldn't spend as much time with us as he would have liked to have done, but when our father had his mitre valve replacement he was very good to us and provided us with the funds to be able to do mostly whatever we wanted.

Q. Stay in the area?

No we still stayed in the area, but we were involved in everything, water skiing and our father enjoyed it.

But we maintained our roots still here.

Oh yes, we went off and done other things but we were always back here again well in time for Sunday evening, Monday morning to kick start the whole biz again.

This was you could say really and truly this was the most important thing in our life.

Q. How your grandfather met his wife?

That was our dad

Q. How did you meet your wives?

Well I was married once before. And I met my second wife in Barbados.

My wife, it was a thing for the local lads to go off dancing a couple of times a week. You try and pull yourself a bird. And I pulled myself a bird, I had a result and I have never looked back since. It is one of the best things I have ever done. I started to take my wife out, we courted for a very long time. Dad went through ill health which we just had to sit back and watch go through, hopefully get him through to the other side which we did. My wife came into the business in the meantime and we got married and we lived on the business, we had a lovely flat out the back so we weren't far away from our job and my wife came into the business and worked in the shop, moreorless look over from where my grandmother had been. And my mother she suffered ill health and she wasn't able to carry on so it was a brilliant opportunity for my wife to be introduced to the business to come in and we have always been educated to the fact that to run a business like this, the way it is, is a two sided thing. One of you needs to be outside keeping an eye on the staff and seeing that the product comes up as it should do as we have said. And it is the job of the other half of the team to be in the shop to see that the shop side of it, the restaurant side is run properly, the money goes in the till and things are run at that end perfectly. So we have always been educated that it has got to be a husband, wife team relationship. Which it was in our grandparents time, was in our parents time and we carried it through. And when we closed the business our two wives were beside us to pull the curtains down. You know, what more can you say, family run business, team job, the wife wasn't sitting upstairs doing her knitting, wife was expected to do her half, her share of the business and I don't know where businesses are today that carry on like that. I don't know if they carry on like that, but it is how we did it and it paid off.

It has always been a thing in the biz where the wives do their part.

Q. Taking over the reins from your father, how did you change it?

Very small diversions. What with the progress of time and people liking a drink with their meal, people would come in and we didn't sell drink at all. Not at all. The only change I can remember we ever made was that people liked to have a drink with their meal and they would bring a ring pull can in and a coca cola or orange and we thought we may as well serve them a drink. So we started to sell cold drinks. There was also a request for hot drinks. So we introduced teas, coffees, chocolate as a hot drink. Really and truly they were the main and only changes that I can recognise that we introduced into the biz other than what had been going on since 1910 when it first started. And that was purely because of request by general public. We were getting
es, coca cola fighting to get in. They used to send their hard men round to get in. But our attitude was, we didn't need someone sitting at the table sucking on a straw with a coca cola while you had two or three people walking around with a big bowl of steaming stewed eels and mash and nowhere to sit, so what can you do? But then our attitude changed because we weren't prepared for our customers to consume a fizzy drink sitting at our tables that they had brought in with them. So buy it off us. And also we didn't like the idea in those days, the earlier days, coca cola was in bottles. Before you had draught drinks, but when this guy eventually came round and I started and we started to wane a little bit, we were influenced by having canisters of coca cola and you didn't have to have someone checking all the empty bottles and boxes, just canisters of coke, press the button and bingo.

Q. You built on hard core of regular customers, some every day, any individuals that stand out?

Alfie Bass was a very frequent customer. He always used to come in the back, park his car, hello boys, he would have food in the shop, perhaps stuff to take away. Then you had Chas and Dave, they were a couple of celebrities that parked their vehicle or whatever they were in in the backyard and come through, we were on first name terms with them, and they would com through and all of a sudden people in the shop would stop them and ask for their autographs and they were very accommodating, yeah they would write their autographs and sit down and have great big platefuls of eels and mash and pie and mash or whatever and take great big tartan bags full of gear home. I can remember Arthur Mullard was a good customer too. He liked to come in, very unassuming chap, a bit of a big monster his character and he would sit there and eat his pie and mash and no, fond memories. I mean Barbara Windsor she used to be one of our customers, nice person Barbara Windsor, she used to have quite a big order for her public house out in Amersham and she would come along with her poodle. Quite a few names of (21 secs people who used to come in.

Q. Not famous but just people who lived in the area? [51.04]

People who lived in the area. A real compliment when they go out, they go up to the counter and if I was standing there with my wife or whatever, they would come up to you, they didn't have to, they paid for what they had, then come up to the counter and say – that was absolutely delicious, beautiful, thank you very much. What a compliment for people to go out, no reason, no ulterior reason to come up and speak to you, they had paid for what they had, done their bill, no reason to come up other than their pure satisfaction and enjoyment and their way of showing affection and appreciation for what they have been servedy Many times I have stood up where my wife have been serving and people come in, give their order across to my wife or counter staff. And if you look at their face you can see their lips are starting to water, their tongue starting to go to work and they are watching what is happening and they are going like that with their lips because they know what they have come for, they know what it is going to taste like and they are so looking forward to it their mouth is watering. What a lovely story to tell. You stand at the counter people give their order and their mouths start to water.

You get a bit blaze to it really.

I actually, my wife and I actually went on a phone in with LBC on a Sunday evening and I had to prepare some of our wares purposefully because we are not open on a Sunday so it was all prepared properly. We went along and had a phone in with people ring in and we had so many people ringing in. When they first asked me if I would like to go on, I said, are you sure, twelve o'clock Sunday night. They said - Mr Cooke you will be very surprised how many people listen at that time, LBC, listen to the phone ins and actually respond to it and come on the phone to us. I said, okay and we were in. And we had so many people on the screens that by the time we had done our session there were still people queuing up that they couldn't take on board to do ti
interview with us. It was amazing, but the Monday morning when we opened up the first customer that came in said - Heard you on the radio last night, how about that, amazing.

Q. How you developed the business, why have eels always been important?

Well a real true pie and eel shop has got to sell eels and we used to term it in a way that a pie and eel shop that hasn't got eels is like a pub that has got no beer. The two compliment each other. Somehow or other down the line we always make sure we have an adequate supply of eels to suffice because it wouldn't be a pie and eel shop if you didn't have eels. And I always used to
say, agreeing with what Fred is saying there, we never used to profess to be the cheapest in the trade but we used to supply very, very good food to the public and to a degree we always had eels, we were never without eels. And the price was soon forgotten but the quality wasn't. And that was one of our yardsticks. We can always provide the public with what they wanted.

Q. Tell me how you did that? [55.32]

Well we had an area out the back there, very labour intensive, but we could carry up to about seven or eight tons of live eels and we used to build up our stocks from the late summer, early autumn through to the back end of the autumn with a considerable amount of live eels which we would depend on using and that would partly get us through the winter time because you see European eel is not caught in the cold weather because they go off to feed once the temperature drops. So we will make sure that we had quite a substantial stock out there, seven or eight ton and during that period of when you are talking about, December, January, February, March, we would supplement that with eels we buy in Billingsgate coming from other continents, ie from America or New Zealand. So we were never without eels, but once or twice it was a little bit shaky.

Q. Always live eels as well?

Yes live eels right the way through. We were never without.

We were famous for it and I think really and truly that is where we created our epitaph and you could always go to Cooke's and get eels, live eels. You go to a fishmonger they wouldn't have eels. They will get you some eels, come back next week and we will get what we want, but people could come to us any day of the week and there would be eels there, we had people coming from all over the place because they knew they could always have eels cooked in the restaurant or live which they bought by the pound. They were cleaned, chopped up in front of their eyes and they took them away and cooked them however they liked and probably you got to the point where we were probably the only people in London where you could go and guarantee one o'clock two o'clock whatever time of the day you would get eels.

Q. Shop?

Yes we got into a situation where we finished up buying and being able to buy more eels than we actually needed ourselves and we sorted of created a situation where we were selling eels to other people, other restaurants, other members of the family. Other times we would sell them onto Billingsgate, we would use Billingsgate as kind of pressure mouth. When we had more eels than we needed we would open the valve release them onto the market not getting as much out of them as you would putting them through the restaurant or whatever but at least you were moving them through and making room for more eels to come through because you mustn't refuse anything because if you did someone else would step in the same place.

And as a point of interest, I think if we were still here trading now I think we would be serving Shanghai because we used to serve some of the finest Chinese restaurants in town.

We did push out a bit because we had an abundance of suppliers there was no sense in buying them unless you could sell them so you know yes we could buy them and people would buy them off us.

We had Chinese restaurants up in town who would buy a couple of hundred pound two or three times a week.

Yeah they would come in, bring their vehicle in the back and fill up out the back there.

Q. How long can you keep eels for?

Well we used to turn them around every two months. They keep up to two months but then it was better to let them go.

Q. Who would you say your competitors used to be compared to more recent? [59.50]

Well at one stage you had fish and chip shops and a few cafes and that was that.

And other pie and mash shops which you respected because you were all in the same sort of trade, but in the fifties you had the advent of the Wimpy bar and Chinese restaurants and then with air fares being cheaper and package holidays and people being able to fly further distances. So they would go and they would eat kebabs and this, that and the other. So hence when they came back to the UK there was an opening there for people to open up a kebab
or whatever. So in the end there were quite a few people and also you are living in an area or day and age they want different foods.

And it was turning very cosmopolitan and people wanted when they came home the type of foods they had on holiday so there was a complete change around. I mean fish and chips are okay in your pie and mash shops but they were looking for other things as well.

Q. People had previously been here every day because they liked pie and mash?

Can I just say politely there was a change of trade.

Q. Because of that, that had a negative effect on the numbers of people coming through the door?


Q. When I first met you you were fairly innovative in the way you marketed this place. If you saw an opening you would take advantage. So what did you do?

People were queuing up to come in to do an interview, do a film shoot, fashion show.

It is true, we have had Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell on one fashion shoot on one Friday afternoon. We had Kate Moss's brother with a totally female crew, photographers, sound, all the rest. And people, it caused so much intrigue. This was the in place to be interviewed.

One thing led to another. Our dad bless him. One of his best publicity stunts he got involved in I think was to go on television, BBC, when I think there was only BBC with Richard Dimbleby on the old Panorama programme and the old man bless him, went on, they came here, they filmed eels being delivered in boxes, eels being cut up, eels being cooked, eels being sold, eels being eaten and the old man done this purely because what a privilege it was to be asked by the BBC to do it. We finished up getting so much of the similar sort of thing with a much more varied type of clientele aspect. We were charging them. Depending how big they were, depending on where it was going to go we charged facility charge plus VAT. As I say, if you go back before that, I mean Panorama was significant, but before that our pop went up to the old Alexandra Palace where he was filmed with the famous, one of the famous foremasters of "Can't Cook Won't Cook" Philip Harben. Some people don't even know the name of Philip Harben. But I am sure if you speak to somebody of our generation Philip Harben would be the Warrell Thompson of that era.

When the BBC were broadcasting in from Alexandra Palace.

Q. You were saying something about this being the place to be interviewed?

Yeah, I mean to say BBC used to be very pro F Cooke and Sons. They used to bring down pop groups and they would be interviewed in the shop. And different people like Let Loose and E Seventeen and this was the venue. Joe Brown, this was the venue, this is where they wanted to get in. This was a foothold, it had the architecture and the ambience to be able to portray and get over what they wanted. You know can I say if anyone could equate it, it was liked to two smashing pies and mash with steaming hot liquor.

Q. To the BBC it represented the East End?

This was the place

Like Andy Peters, Andy Peters. We used to be on first name terms with Andy Peters.

We had Boy George down, he came down. Boy George. Because we used to charge a facility as I said, but I slipped up with Boy George. They came on the phone, BBC or ITV and they said – Mr Cooke? Yes right. Could we come down and do an interview at your premises at Dalston? When were you thinking? Well this afternoon, Monday afternoon, right. So getting back to the story. Yeah okay, who are you going to bring down? Well we are going to bring down an artist and his presenter and his dress designer. I said right, any idea how long you will take? They said half an hour to three quarters. 1 said okay well Monday afternoon, it I isn't all that busy, you are going to be in the shop half an hour, how about if we charge you thirty five pound plus the VAT? So the character I was talking to he was a little bit cute, he said could we put it all in VAT included? | said okay you are only going to be half an hour, three quarters. Yeah alright thirty five pound and we get a bit of publicity as well. About half past two or whatever a shout goes up, got Boy George in the shop. So it is Boy George and I think his presenter, Paula Prentice and his dress designer. They were here for about an hour and a half, two hours. They completely slaughtered the shop, people trying to get in, we had to shut the doors. When they had finished their business and they had done the girl came across to pay me. I wrote here a receipt out. And she said, Mr Cooke thirty five pounds. I said yeah can I just say to you yo lady, I said there are not many people who have taken me for a ride, but you can put yourself right on the top of the ladder. She said - Why is that? I said well quite honestly you said you were coming down with an artist, presenter and dress designer. I said if you had actually said to me it was going to be Boy George and you were going to entertain millions of young people with an interview, I said it would have been ten times that. But never the less my word is my bond you have got it. But it will just teach me to be a little bit more curious in the future. But I turned it to my advantage because what I did. I got a thirty five mil camera with hundred and eighty degree fisheye lens which I got Boy George to stand right in the doorway as his mini cab turned up and I took his photograph. I had it blown up into a thirty six by eighteen poster size, put it up behind the counter. Now there to have Boy George standing in our shop doorway, what would it cost us to get Boy George to stand there and have his photograph taken? So alright they done me for thirty five quid but I think I got a result.

Q. You managed to get listed status?

No that was purely by the Department of Trade and Industry, that was their decision because places like this were being obliterated. The regulation whatever you call it was brought out for listed buildings and they became much more conscious that these listed buildings mustn't be allowed to disappear. So there was a DTI listed building order put on the property.

Q. Was that good for you?

We felt it could be a set back if we tried to sell because of the inability to try to change. But at the end of the day I think we were very satisfied with the transaction that occurred. They got what they were paying for and we were satisfied with what we were paid for it.

And we were advised it could be a very positive point as well.

It had its fors and againsts

Q. If it hadn't had that it might not have retained as many features?

No so it is very good.

We are pleased with it.

And the ideas and genuine hard work that went on in previous generations has been retained in a situation like you see, it has been passed on to somebody who appreciates it and will keep it like it.

Q. Reasons for selling up? [1.10.25]

Quite a conglomerate of reasons really. Basically there is no one else to carry on after Fred and I are gone. I have got my step children mostly living in Barbados. Fred has got a son and daughter. They were doing their business and there was no one else to carry on when we were finished. So we got to the stage where, when is the right time to pack up? Do you wait and wait until you are old and decrepit and can't do it or even worse there is only one of us here to do it, wind things up? Or do you say well let's learn from the experience of our predecessors and let's go now and let's try and enjoy a little bit of what we have done in the past, for what we have done in the past.

And in our opinion the way we have been educated and drilled, it isn't the type of business you can leave to a manager. It needs personal supervision like | said before. So regards carrying on but putting managers in, you are going to kill the goose that is laying the golden egg.

Q. You went out with your reputation in tact?

We went out with all guns firing and all flags flying and I think we went out with a good reputation, a reputation that had been passed on through our grandparents, our parents. And I think we created a bit of a impression ourselves with our flair and ability to attract all these different people who came down and wanted to film this, there, film this, film that.

And although we have gone and we are not here, somehow or other I feel there is just a little bit of us still here.

So watch it Andrew we are watching you.

Q. What were your feelings after you sold up?

It was alright when it was happening, but when all of a sudden the breaks came on and you realised what had happened it was a great sacrifice we had had to make but it was inevitable, we are not immortal. We are not immortal.

There is no one going to come in and take over. The ability to find decent, good quality staff was becoming more and more of a problem and you can't do it all yourself. So we felt maybe it might be better to call a halt.

Why wait until you have got to do it? Don't you think it is better off to do it when you want to do it and you can do it regardless of the situation. There could become a time when there was either, god forbid there was one of us that was unable to function or even worse move to another planet. There are so many reasons. You pays your money and takes your choice. And there is never a right time or wrong time to do it. You do it and you put your money where your mouth is and hope you made the right decision.

It was an extremely hard decision to make but it is a situation which is inevitable,

Q. Once you had finished and passed it on, how did you feel? [1.14.40]

I think relieved that we had found a buyer who was going to respect something that had been our heartfelt indemnity through life and our parents and grandparents, somebody who looked like they were going to carry on and hopefully do as good a job in their way as we had in our way. And I would compliment Andrew and David for their efforts in what they are doing and achieving in their way, the same quality of standard as we tried to accomplish and achieve in

I don't think I can improve on that. As far as I am concerned I am sitting here now and the only thing that seems different to me now is the napkins, glasses on the table and some of the acoustics. To me I close my eyes and it is exactly as it was.

There is always going to be a bit of us here. You cannot spend virtually a lifetime in a property and business in the way that we have without always feeling some of this is still mine, ours. We are still here.

That might be what keeps them on their toes.

Q. How does a return visit to Dalston and this shop make you feel?

Well Dalston has changed so much over the years. It is a different place to what I grew up in and what I remember. But coming very quickly now to 41 Kingsland High street, it still retains the ambience and charm, character and warmth that it ever did.

Object number


On display?


Back to top