Fishy business a way of life

NO holidays, collecting fish from the station on a hand cart, cycling round town selling shrimps by the pint, cooking crabs, lobsters and whelks, and smoking fish – this was the way of life for a busy family of fishmongers in Ipswich for a nearly a century.

Fifty years ago there were more than 30 fishmongers listed in the Ipswich street directory. In 1991 H Gibbs & Son was the last wet fish shop in Ipswich to close after 100 years of trading. Now shoppers in Ipswich rely on supermarkets or a stall on the market for fish.

Jane Forsdike (nee Gibbs) has told me about Gibbs wet fish shop, which was run by generations of her family for over 100 years.

Jane said: “Harry Gibbs opened his wet fish shop on Woodbridge Road, Ipswich in 1900. When he died in 1935 his widow carried on the business with the help of their two sons Fred and Eddie, they were a large family of eight children, one of whom died in the 1914 war. Sadly Fred died around the late 30s and Bessie, my grandmother, took over the business, which then was quite a challenging thing to undertake.

“Bessie’s son John, my dad, came into the business after World War Two, when he returned from the Fleet Air Arm in 1947. It was a hard life and my dad used to push a costermongers barrow to Derby Road station and pick up wooden boxes with rope handles full of fish sent from Grimsby by train and push them back to the shop, apparently even through thick snow. In the 1950s he upgraded to a small van to make life easier. Fish from Lowestoft was delivered by lorry.

“My mum also worked in the business helping out part-time and then when my grandmother retired in 1957 worked full-time and was to do so for 40 years until they retired. They worked six days a week and never had a holiday, I would spend my summer holidays with my aunt, my dad’s sister, so I had a holiday, but I never had a holiday with my parents.

At the time I never felt it was strange, I don’t think holidays were so in the forefront of our lives as they are now.

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“My parents also had a large order round where they delivered to the local area. Easter was always very busy when they would work through the night to get the orders made up and then would open the shop between 7am and 7pm and the queue would stretch along the road as most people ate fish on Good Friday.

“I remember my dad and granddad having trade bikes and delivering shrimps in the summer in large baskets that fitted on to the bike. They rang bells so that their customers knew it was them and would buy the shrimps in pint and half pint measures. They also cooked all their own crabs, whelks and lobsters in summer and I remember my dad putting herrings on long rods that would then be smoked in an old smoke house.

“The smell of burning oak was wonderful and that smell still brings back memories of winters at the shop, because we lived on the premises and it was very cold. The herrings once smoked became bloaters. I also remember my dad scrubbing the crabs in big wooden tubs.

“I would help him scrub them before they were cooked. How times have changed, it’s just not the same at a supermarket fish counter! My parents retired in 1991 and the business was taken over by Alan and Jean Coe, although they still traded as H Gibbs & Son. It was the last wet fish shop in Ipswich to close after 100 years of trading.”