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Reasons to be chipper: a history of Harry Ramsden’s

Harry Ramsden is the most famous name in fish and chips across the world.

Harry Ramsden
Harry Ramsden (1888 – 1963) was the son of a fish and chip shop proprietor in Bradford, Yorkshire. He worked as a taxi driver and as a publican before enlisting in the army.

After leaving the army in 1918, Ramsden set up a small fish and chip shop of his own.

Harry Ramsden relocates to Guiseley
After several successful years in Bradford, Ramsden was advised to move to the countryside for the health of his tubercular wife. He borrowed £150 to buy the property and equipment of the Silver Badge Cafe at White Cross, Guiseley in 1928. A former army hut, the wooden building measured just 10 x 6 foot. Ramsden borrowed £400 from his wholesale fish suppliers to buy the surrounding wasteland.

Ramsden had chosen a site that was located next to a tram terminus used by tourists to the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District.

Ramsden built a large 100 seat restaurant in 1931, in an attempt to take his classic working class dish upmarket. Takings were £7,825 in 1937. £5,104 of sales were taken in the first class restaurant, and £2,721 were taken by the second class restaurant and take-away sales.

The former Harry Ramsden's restaurant in 2015
The former Harry Ramsden’s restaurant in 2015

Local mills and factories lacked staff canteens, and would often dispatch a member of staff daily to collect lunch from Ramsden’s.

Ramsden’s nephew, Harry Corbett (1918 – 1989), the creator of the Sooty and Sweep puppets, would occasionally entertain diners with his piano skills.

The business was a considerable success, and Ramsden enjoyed a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce by the 1940s.

Culinary secrets
Ramsden revealed his three tips for cooking fish and chips in 1952:

  1. Always use haddock- there’s no finer fish for frying
  2. Fry the fish and chips in butcher’s [beef] dripping
  3. Mix the batter and allow it to stand for 24 hours

Ramsden cooked his chips for between three and three and a half minutes, depending on the type of potato, and fish was fried for five minutes. He claimed not to know the recipe for his batter as it was supplied to him in powder form by a Leeds company.

Sale of the business
The Yorkshire Post described Ramsden’s as “the most famous fish and chip restaurant in Yorkshire” in 1952, and it was one of the busiest in the world. The restaurant car park could hold 200 vehicles.

The success of the venture was based on a great location and Ramsden’s hard work, perfectionist commitment to quality and his flair for marketing and showmanship.

Ramsden decided to enter into semi-retirement, and to mark this, he sold fish and chips for one day at the one and a halfpenny price his father had sold it for in 1912. 8,000 people were served, including over 2,000 in a single hour.

Ramsden sold the restaurant, with 94 seats and a staff of twenty, to Eddie Stokes (born 1917), an experienced caterer, for £37,500 in 1954.

Like Ramsden, Stokes maintained a high attention to detail and quality. He installed Bohemian cut-glass chandeliers, stained glass windows and replaced the linoleum floor with wall to wall carpeting. He introduced fresh flowers and linen tablecloths. Batter was mixed by hand for 30 minutes.

Harry Ramsden died in 1963 and left an estate valued at £44,177.

Sales at Harry Ramsden’s trebled between 1954 and 1967.

The Sunday Times reported in 1965 that there were queues to get into the restaurant every day. Deliveries of fish arrived daily; 85 percent haddock, ten percent halibut and five percent plaice. The restaurant employed 100 people. By this time the restaurant had a listing in the Good Food Guide.

Associated Fisheries
Eddie Stokes sold Harry Ramsden’s to Associated Fisheries, who owned eight Seafarer fish and chip restaurants in London, in 1965. Stokes remained as managing director until his retirement in 1970.

Associated Fisheries expanded the restaurant in 1969 to make it the largest fish and chip restaurant in the world. It had 186 seats, 150 staff and parking for 400 cars.

1.5 million people were served in 1971, and sales amounted to £300,000.

In 1974 the restaurant used 400,000 lbs of fish, 100,000 lbs of beef dripping, 900,000 lbs of potatoes, 9,000 pints of vinegar, 20,000 bottles of sauce and 26,400 loaves.

John Barnes expands the business
Harry Ramsden’s was acquired by John Barnes, the former managing director of KFC UK, for £3 million in 1988.

Barnes began to build the company into a chain of restaurants, and announced plans to turn the business into the British equivalent of the Hard Rock Cafe. In order to fund expansion, the company went public with a market value of £8 million in 1989. The first international franchise was a 200-seat restaurant in Hong Kong.

Barnes believed that the Ramsden’s brand was underdeveloped. He signed a deal with United Biscuits to produce Ramsden’s branded foods for supermarkets.

In order to cut costs, Barnes introduced portion control and replaced fresh fish with frozen fillets. Customers complained of soggy batter and falling standards.

Subsequent owners and closure of the Guiseley site
Harry Ramsden’s was acquired by Granada, the franchise holder of 14 restaurants, for £20 million in 1999. Granada replaced beef dripping with vegetable oil in 2001.

Compass, who had merged with Granada, sold the chain to EQT in 2006.

Ranjit Boparan acquired Ramsden’s for £10 million in 2010.

The Guiseley outlet had become loss-making, and it was closed down in 2011. The site was acquired by Wetherby Whaler, a local fish and chip restaurant company.

The original Guiseley hut was demolished in 2012, after it had entered into a state of disrepair and was found to contain asbestos.

Harry Ramsden’s was sold to Deep Blue Restaurants in 2019.