Frozen fish, a Cumbrian discovery

Frozen fish, a staple of any domestic freezer, was a 20th century discovery by Clarence Birdseye.

Or was it?

Well, no. But this isn’t a blog about native Canadians, or how the Romans invented underfloor heating and the world forgot about it for centuries… 

This is a post about how some Cumbrian Characters put frozen fish on the menu in 1861.

But first some other stuff about the Cumbrian Lakes freezing in 1871.

Ice, ice, baby

The past has been a week of severe and biting weather. Without any interregnum, King Frost has reigned supreme and bound in his iron grasp the lakes and ponds in the neighbourhood.

So wrote the Cumberland and Westmorland Advertiser and Penrith Literary Chronicle, in its edition of January 31, 1871.

Towards the close of the week:

the lower reach of Lake Ullswater was congealed into a marble pathway from Pooley Bridge to Howtown.

The literary side of the paper was in full flow:

On Sunday, the lake presented all the appearance of a fair: skaters glided hither and thither, venturseome youths on velocipedes crossed from one side to the other, and the presence of a large concourse of ladies imparted a pleasing feature to the scene.

It has been a severe winter, reminiscent of:

the old-fashioned winters of thirty or forty years ago, when oxen and sheep were roasted upon Bassenthwaite lake and hundreds of loads of stones were carted over the ice for the purpose of building the park wall which encloses the pleasure grounds of Armathwaite Hall. 

But nothing about frozen fish? Patience, that story comes later in the post.

Looks pretty, can be fun – but also deadly

In January 1861, Windermere was a ‘pathway of ice’. Robinson Martin, 18, the son of the landlady of the Stag’s Head, Bowness, and Thomas Benson were crossing the ice to get to the ferry when it gave way. Both were drowned.

Robinson Martin was the son of James Martin and his wife Mary. The 1851 address is ‘the Stagg’s Head Inn,’ (with two gs). It looks at first glance more like ‘the Haggis Head’!

By the 1861 census, Mary Martin had lost both her husband (likely in 1853) and her son. Mary didn’t outlive them long. She returned to her native Bardsea, where her son John was a farmer – dying in 1868.

1861, Bowness, also shows Sarah Dixon Benson, 27, widow, living with her widowed mother Jane Gill and brother Dixon Gill. Sarah has a son, John Dawson Benson, aged one, and is earning money as a bonnet maker. The story is even sadder: Sarah was pregant when Thomas Watson Benson died. Daughter Sarah was born a few months after the tragedy.

At least she looks to have got by ok: on 1871, she was a dressmaker in Undermillock, with the children – but also two apprentice dressmakers, presumably lodgers.

And finally, the frozen fish!

Also in January 1861, the break-up of the ice in an old waterourse at Bridge End Farm, Kirby Thore revealed a lot of dead fish and eels – all frozen to death.

After some boys found them and took them home, there was something of a rush by others to avail themselves of the rest.

The Penrith Observer recorded that when cooked, they were found not to be any the worse for the freezing process they had gone through.

Thus folk in Westmorland discovered, well ahead of the rest of Britain, the joys of frozen food!

(You can read how frozen food went on commercial sale in Britain for the first time in May 1937 here).