A Yorkshire tradition which spanned 80 years has finally come to an end – Neil Hudson takes a look at the legend that was Harry Ramsden’s in Guiseley.
Although it has to be pointed out that the Harry Ramsden brand will continue – there are some 35 branches around the UK and Ireland, frozen meals in supermarkets, not to mention restaurants baring his name as far afield as Hong Kong and Australia – the closure of the restaurant is a sad loss, not least because of its somewhat inglorious demise.
The story of the Yorkshire legend began on December 20, 1928, when Harry Ramsden bought a hut for £150 next to a tram stop at White Cross, Guiseley, near two major roads – Otley Road and Bradford Road – and began selling freshly fried fish and chips to mill workers.
Three years later, he borrowed money to create the famous Guiseley restaurant. It became a stopping-off point for people heading out of the city of Leeds into the countryside and the common-or-garden dish took on a rustic charm which endeared it to a new, more affluent market.
Harry, in turn, did his bit by modelling his new restaurant on London’s Ritz Hotel, sparing no expense, decking it out with chandeliers, checked linen tablecloths, silver vases and stained glass windows. The business went from strength to strength. It was a recipe for success and as time went on, the legend grew.
Harry peddled a simple formula, delivering a classic Yorkshire dish to thousands, from the everyday folk of Yorkshire to legends such as Jimi Hendrix, who famously once called into the Guiseley restaurant after playing a gig nearby.
He wasn’t the only famous face to gorge on Harry’s offerings – over the years the likes of Jenny Agutter, Pat Phoenix, Jean Simmons, the late Sir Jimmy Savile, not to mention Margaret Thatcher in 1983 all beat a path to Harry’s door.
It was officially the world’s largest fish and chip shop, seating 250 people and serving almost a million customers a year. People travelled from far and wide to eat there.
The decision by owners Boparan Ventures to close the Guiseley restaurant came in November when they announced a 30-day consultation period – the sign of the famous fish and chip shop came down on December 29. Those who knew the restaurant well mourned its loss.
Morley tour guide Ken Goor vowed never to return to the restaurant after taking a coach load of people from South Wales there last year.
He said: “On my last visit with a coach party from South Wales, I vowed never to visit again. Harry Ramsden would have turned in his grave.
“The staff were dressed in everyday clothing, the smart uniform dress of yesterday long gone. The table tops were bare, the once standard neat table cloths were no more. Although we were the only party in, the food took for ever, compared to the lightning service which was once standard.
“The quality and quantity of the food was also poor, salt and vinegar (standard with fish and chips) was to ask for. Brown and red sauce, which was always available in new bottles on each table, was unavailable.”
Harry Ramsden insisted on the highest standards of service and cleanliness, he was an entrepreneur who never missed a trick, delivering piles of fish and chips to local mills and even turning the clocks back in 1952 to the pre-First World War days, when a meal could be bought for a penny ha’penny.
He sold the business in 1954 for £37,500 to his business partner Eddie Stokes, who, in turn, sold it on in 1965 to Associated Fisheries. Harry died the same year, aged 74.
One of Harry Ramsden’s nephews was Harry Corbett of Sooty fame, who occasionally played the piano in his uncle’s Guiseley restaurant.
In 1952, to prove the extent of Harry’s fame, another nephew sent a letter to: Harry Ramsden, The Uncrowned Fish & Chip Shop King, England. It arrived two days later.
To mark his restaurant’s 21st birthday in 1952, Harry Ramsden served fish and chips at the original prices, selling a world record 10,000 portions in a single day.
The stunt was repeated in 1988, to mark the restaurant’s 50th anniversary, when 10,182 portions were sold, a record subsequently beaten in 1992 in Glasgow when 11,964 were sold (and 12,105 in Melbourne the same year).