In twentieth-century Hull, thousands of women worked in the city’s food processing industry, salting cod, ‘bashing spuds’, smoking kippers and packing boxes in the Victorian fish houses and modern factories surrounding west Hull’s docks. Known locally as the ‘Pattie Slappers’, they were ordinary women whose everyday lives were a world of hard work, rivalry, friendship, and community.
A decade ago, writer Nick Triplow and social enterprise CERT set out to capture the stories of the ‘Pattie Slappers’ in a series of oral history interviews with men and women who had worked for companies like Summit and Birds Eye.
Ten years on, Hull Maritime have brought this story back to life by publishing the women’s stories on pop-up posters in fish and chips shops around Hull, East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire.
Each pop-up poster features a memory shared by a woman who worked in Hull’s food processing industry.
Here are some of the women and their stories:
Traditional patties and fish cakes were hand-made by women like Margaret and Jackie. The process of mixing, shaping, moulding, and crumbing by hand gave the ‘Pattie Slappers’ their name:
"You had a metal ring holder and you’d bring it down. You’d have a red ring on the palm of your hand, ‘cos it was red hot and you was doing that all day, pattie slapping. And it went from there to being half-cooked and breaded." Margaret
"The forewoman was a friend of me grandmother’s, but me hands weren’t really big enough, so when I was slapping ‘em it was coming out between me fingers. I ruined ‘em, so they put me on packing the fishcakes, ‘cos it was easier." Jackie
As well as making patties and fish cakes by hand, Hull’s ‘Pattie Slappers’ would often also eat them for dinner:
“When it was dinner time and break time they used to do a special mould that they put all the best fish in for you to have a pattie for your break. They used to say, “It’s break time.” And we used to get our patties, but do them whatever size we liked, so you did them a bit thinner or bigger. Then they used to fry them and you would go upstairs and put it in a bread cake. And there was a table with all mugs on, and the woman who made the tea, she had a great big silver tea pot and she literally used to tip it across the cups in one motion.” Beatty
Margaret similarly recalled lunchtime rituals:
"In our dinner hour, we used to go over Hessle Road and get half a dozen bread cakes and guess what we had for dinner? Pattie sandwiches. There was a little staircase you went up and a little room with a well-scrubbed wooden table and chairs, and we used to sit there and have our pattie sandwiches.
"Another day, we’d go t’fish shop and get chips and have pattie and chips. At the end of the week you could buy a box of these fishcakes for ‘alf a crown and take ‘em home. So I used to buy a box of a dozen, wrapped in greaseproof paper, and share ‘em with me granny – she lived down Harrow Street – and me granny used to have some and me aunt Alice and me mum." Margaret
Pattie Slapping and food processing was often a family trade. Before working as one of Bird’s Eye’s highest paid v-boners, Ivy lived with her grandmother opposite a smokehouse on Witty Street. The women came from generations of ‘Pattie Slappers’, including Ivy’s mother:
“My aunties and mam used to work at these fish houses. When I was about seven or eight my Mam used to fetch kippers home in tracing paper – that’s what they wrapped them up in. She did that on a night and braided fish nets in the day.
"In the living room where the stairs was she had two hooks. When it was raining, that’s where she braided. We used to thread the needles for her and when the sun was shining she’d take it outside. She’d have spent quite a few hours in the day doing the nets and a six-to-ten shift on the night.” Ivy
Other women were sometimes completely new to the trade – although the women who worked as ‘Pattie Slappers’ could have a formidable reputation that often preceded them. Pearl described the challenges of entering the industry for the first time:
“They were ordinary people, but they’d always done that kind of work. I’d never done a job like that. I’d never touched wet fish unless me father’d said, “Take this to your mother.” It was the first time I’d ever worked in a fish house, because in my family they used to say, “You’ll end up in a fish house.” I’d say, “I won’t, I won’t.” That was the worst place to work. It was cold and hard and it smelled. And they weren’t nice girls in fish houses. It was hard work and they was hard women.
"But when you went to work at Birds Eye, they was posh. You had a uniform, you didn’t go in your own clothes. The women used to get made up, you’d think they was going out. They used to do their hair, used to have their rollers under their turban, with a roller out the front." Pearl
As you might imagine, working by hand was hard work, and it took dedication and skill to master the art of pattie slapping:
“There were men who boiled the fish and then it was just emptied onto a stainless steel bench and the girls did it by hand, they were perfect. They’d get this mixture in their hands and there were girls lined along here that would slap them and then put crumb round them. The boss would measure and put them on the scales and there was never anything out.
Everything was done by hand and then you see there was a line of you putting the crumb on and slapping: that was pattie slapping.” Lilian