The way people would grab a takeaway in Victorian London was to purchase a pie from one of the 600 piemen that walked up and down the streets. You could choose between a meat pie, a fruit, fish or an eel one, these would be sold straight off their trays, the transaction was done from the pavement as most couldn't afford the outlay for a shop to sell their goods from.
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!
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’.
The piemen would have to wake early and row their boats over to the British and foreign vessels that moored up on the river Thames, from here their stock of fish would be transported over to the legendry Billingsgate Market, established in 1600s. The piemen were after the eels being sold, which was part of the staple diet of Londoners, these eels were in fact very healthy to eat as they contained the omega oils, which helped to reduce cholesterol.
Once they had bought their preferred choice of eels the race was on to get them back home to make the pies and sell them while they were still fresh. They were sold with vinegar flavouring, or pea or parsley sauce, this is where the original recipe of pie 'n' mash came from. These pie men gave poor, working class families the chance of a hot meal at an affordable price. This was the Londoners rice.
About 1850 the first dated record of an Eel and Pie shop was recorded, it had sold mashed potato as well as pies, this would start the demise of the street piemen. These shops would have stalls outside, selling live eels for families to take home and cook. Inside was kitted out with marble floors and tables together with pictures and mirrors which hung on the walls, the floors would be covered with sawdust, to gather up the eel bones that were spat out.
Everything was kept very clean indeed and needed to be to attract custom as more and more shops took to opening up new branches, most were located near markets, thus bringing business from the working class stallholders, dockers and factory workers. When the war came it bought with it rationing, food was hard to come by, but the pie shops helped with this by supplying food to people with nutritional value. When the war had finally finished, London enjoyed itself and beer and pie 'n' mash would be consumed like never before. It was a busy time for all.
The mid 1950s saw a swift rise in rent, and so a lot of the factories moved out to the Home Counties, taking with them the local working class population in pursuit of jobs. Convenience foods took a grip on the high street and the decline of Pie'n'Mash shops in London had slowly started as a consequence.