The famous Harry Ramsden’s restaurant at Guiseley is set to close after eight decades. Sheena Hastings takes a trip down Memory Lane.
JULY 7, 1952 became know as ‘penny ha’penny day’, with fish being sold at a penny and chips a halfpenny at Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip emporium at White Cross, Guiseley, between Leeds and Ilkley. Yorkshire folk, never slow to scent a bargain, flocked to White Cross from near and far, forming queues that stretched as far as the eye could see.
For one day only, prices reverted to what they had been prior to the First World War, when gifted entrepreneur Harry Ramsden’s father (also Harry) had founded the fish and chip empire in a small way in Bradford.
In 1928, young Harry – whose CV listed mill worker, a barber shop assistant, telegram delivery boy and taxi driver before becoming a publican on return from the Great War - bought a hut for £150 and put it by a tram stop next to two major roads, selling freshly fried fish and chips to local mill workers and families.
Three years later he borrowed money to establish what would fast become a new tourist destination in Yorkshire, a purpose-built restaurant decked out with chandeliers and checked linen tablecloths, silver vases and stained glass windows.
The food of working class people, fish, chips and mushy peas, became gentrified and part of a ‘grand day out’ en route to or from the Dales or as a destination in itself. This once humble fare, served up on china with pots of tea, was often elevated to ‘special event’ status, with birthday and anniversary parties taking over the dining room. The restaurant put Guiseley on the map and in time brought curious visitors by the coachload from all points of the compass. But Harry didn’t forget his takeaway business, even using a motorcyclist and sidecar to deliver piles of fish and chips to local mills like Peats (no apostrophe) and the Silver Cross pram factory.
Curiously, queueing for the restaurant became part of the glamour, with some famished diners claiming that the wait made the eventual experience all the more tasty. And, having finally reached the front of the line to claim your table for four or six, there was always the frisson of excitement about who you might spot at Harry Ramsden’s. For many years celebrities performing at local theatres including Batley Variety Club would make a bee line for the restaurant – as would visiting cricketers, rugby players, footballers and TV personalities. Jimmy Savile was a regular, as was chat show host Russell Harty, who even broadcast live from the restaurant on one occasion.
Harry’s nephew Harry Corbett (he of Sooty and Sweep fame) would do a regular turn tickling the ivories, and dignitaries from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher downwards were keen to associate themselves with a brand that became synonymous with down-to-earth Yorkshire values - despite the chandeliers. We’ll never know how many cockles were warmed enough to vote for Maggie, after she was photographed tucking into a fish and chip lunch with gusto in 1983.
Over the decades the original premises more than doubled in size, eventually accommodating 275 diners.
Harry Ramsden inculcated in his staff his own obsessions with cleanliness and efficiency. He had various pieces of equipment and fittings custom-made, and expected the highest standards of preparation and frying from his hardworking team. In the first ten years in Guiseley Harry never took a holiday, but by 1954 he had grown tired and sold the business to his long-term business partner Eddie Stokes for £37,500. Stokes sold to Associated Fisheries in 1965. In that year Harry Ramsden died aged 74. A subsequent sale, to Merryweathers, saw the transition from a single Yorkshire restaurant to a world famous brand which even had a franchise in Hong Kong for a time.
Back in Yorkshire, many a middle-aged man or woman remembers the special family occasion of being taken for lunch or an evening meal to Harry Ramsden’s in the run-up to Christmas, and receiving a gift from beneath the tree before going home. The magic of Christmas had truly started.
The same could not be said for Harry Ramsden’s at Guiseley this week. A lunchtime visit found the place flat and subdued - not a note of its former ebullient self, never mind a pianist, Christmas tree, bauble or tinsel garland to lift the downbeat mood. How different from the bright, noisy, bustling and sparkling days of yore. The regular haddock, chips, mushy peas and pot of tea (£10.20 a head) was, apart from a tasty batter on the fish, perfectly fine but not up to the taste standards or quantity you would once have expected.
It must be difficult for the 24 staff at HR HQ to keep calm and carry on after the recent announcement that closure talks had started and the famous restaurant will probably be closed by the end of the year. Joe Teixeira, chief executive pf Harry Ramsden’s, which has been owned by Boparan Ventures since last year, said the brand was still strong nationally but the Guiseley restaurant was making a loss and would need considerable investment to make it profitable again.
Announcing a 30-day consultation period, he said he realised “the wonderful, affectionate support” Harry Ramsden’s had received from its customers and staff, but the company had to face economic reality. He added that compulsory redundancies could not be ruled out, but staff would be offered alternative jobs elsewhere in the business. Mr Teixeira said other potential sites for new Harry Ramsden restaurants in Yorkshire were under consideration, and that there are plans to expand elsewhere in the UK.
How ironic, though, that a brand which is holding its own generally, with 35 branches including motorway services around the UK and Ireland, is losing the once-unassailable beacon from which the wider business grew. White Cross’s days are numbered - but Harry Ramsden’s frozen meals will still be in freezers at the supermarket, whether buyers realise the heritage that lies behind them or not.
“I suppose the last couple of decades have seen a lot more competition arrive,” says Vera Firth, of Aireborough Historical Society. “We used to go quite regularly, but haven’t been for years. Other places like Murgatroyd’s at Yeadon opened, and people have many more choices today, such as Chinese, Italian or Indian food if they’re going out for a meal or want a takeaway.”
The duplication of the Harry Ramsden name with dozens of branches possibly dented the fortunes of the Guiseley restaurant, says Dr William Marshall, an expert in Yorkshire cultural history at Huddersfield University.
“It used to be a relatively economical way of eating out, and the whole point was working class food in genteel surroundings. But fish and chips are no longer cheap. Part of me feels a little pride when I see a Harry Ramsden’s at a motorway services, but actually having a chain of them did take away the cachet of the grand and original restaurant.”
MAKING OF A YORKSHIRE LEGEND
Harry Ramsden’s broke the world record three times for selling the most portions of fish and chips in a single day. On July 7, 1952 (the 21st birthday of the White Cross restaurant), Harry decided to sell his wares at 1912 prices. By the end of the day 10,000 portions of fish and chips at a penny ha’penny each had been sold.
In 1988, when Harry Ramsden’s celebrated its Diamond Jubilee, for one day only on October 30, he took takeaway prices back to those of 1931 when the White Cross premises had opened – ie 2p a portion. Naturally enough, history repeated itself and huge throngs gathered from every direction. The Guinness Book of World Records officials were there, and the official count of fish and chip portions sold was recoded as 10,182 – a new world record.
On May 17, 1992, Harry Ramsden’s in Glasgow set out to establish a new world record and served up 11,964 portions in a day, adding to the impressive world-beating record of the business that had started as a ten-foot by six-foot striped takeaway hut by a tram stop.
In the early 1990s, Harry Ramsden’s was serving a million customers a year, resulting in a shopping list that included 264,000 lbs of haddock, 660,000 lbs of potatoes and 20,000 bottles of sauce.
In 1952, to prove the world renown by then enjoyed by Harry Ramsden, one of his nephews posted a letter to: Harry Ramsden, The Uncrowned Fish and Chip Shop King, England.