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So Long, Tubby Isaac’s Jellied Eel Stall

June 13, 2013
by the gentle author

It is my sad duty to report the news that the legendary Tubby Isaac’s Jellied Eel Stall in Aldgate will close forever on Friday – ninety-four years after it opened. I am republishing my feature about Tubby Isaac’s today as a tribute, and you have until the end of the week to get down there and pay your respects by enjoying a last helping of their delicious seafood.

Paul Simpson

At the furthest extent of Spitalfields where it meets Aldgate is Tubby Isaac’s Jellied Eel Stall, run today by Paul Simpson, fourth generation in this celebrated business founded in 1919, still selling the fresh seafood that was once the staple diet in this neighbourhood. Here where the traffic thunders down Aldgate High St, tucked round the corner of Goulston St, Tubby Isaac’s stall shelters from the hurly-burly. And one morning, Paul told me the story of his world-famous stall as he set up for the day, while I savoured the salty-sweet seaweed scent of the seafood and eager customers arrived to eat that famous East End delicacy, jellied eels for breakfast.

“I’ll be the last one ever to do this!” Paul confessed to me with pride tinged by melancholy, as he pulled a huge bowl of eels from the fridge,“My father, Ted Simpson, had the business before me, he got it from his Uncle Solly who took over from Tubby Isaac, who opened the first stall in 1919. Isaac ran it until 1939 when he got a whiff of another war coming and emigrated to America with his boys, so they would not be conscripted – but then they got enlisted over there instead. And when Isaac left, his nephew Solly took over the business and ran it until he died in 1975. Then my dad ran it from 1975 ’til 1989, and I’ve been here ever since.”

“I began working at the Walthamstow stall when I was fourteen – as a runner, cleaning, washing up, cutting bread, getting the beers, buying the coffees, collecting the bacon sandwiches. and sweeping up. The business isn’t what it was years ago, all the eels stalls along Roman Road and Brick Lane – they were here for a long, long time and they’ve closed. It’s a sign of the times.” he informed me plainly. Yet Paul Simpson is steadfast and philosophical, serving his regular customers daily, and taking consolation from their devotion to his stall. In fact, “Regular customers are my only customers” he admitted to me with a weary smile, “and some of them are in their eighties and nineties who used to come here with their parents!”

Understandably, Paul takes his eels very seriously. Divulging something of the magic of the preparation of this mysterious fish, he explained that when eels are boiled, the jelly exuded during the cooking sets to create a natural preservative. “Look, it creates its own jelly!” declared Paul, holding up the huge bowl of eels to show me and letting it quiver enticingly for my pleasure. The jelly was a crucial factor before refrigeration, when a family could eat from a bowl of jellied eels and then put the dish in a cold pantry, where the jelly would reset preserving it for the next day. Paul was insistent that he only sells top-quality eels, always fresh never frozen, and after a lifetime on the stall, being particular about seafood is almost his religion. “If you sell good stuff, they will come,” he reassured me, seeing that I was now anxious about the future of his stall after what he had revealed earlier.

Resuming work, removing bowls of winkles, cockles, prawns and mussels from the fridge, “It ain’t a job of enjoyment, it’s a job of necessity,” protested Paul, turning morose again, sighing as he arranged oysters in a tray, “It’s what I know, it’s what pays the bills but it ain’t the kind of job you want your kids to do, when there’s no reward for working your guts off.” Yet in spite of this bluster, it was apparent Peter harbours a self-respecting sense of independence at holding out again history, after lesser eel sellers shut up shop. “When it turns cold, I put so many clothes on I look like the Michelin man by the end of the day!” he boasted to me with a swagger, as if to convince me of his survival ability.

Then Jim arrived, one of Tubby Isaac’s regulars, a cab driver who wolfed a dish of eels doused in vinegar and liberally sprinkled with pepper, taking a couple of lobster tails with him for a snack later. Paul brightened at once to greet Jim and they fell into hasty familar chit-chat, the football, the weather and the day’s rounds, and Jim got back on the road before the traffic warden came along. “It’s like a pub here, the regulars come all day.” Paul confided to me with a residual smile. And I saw there was a certain beauty to the oasis of civility that Tubby Isaac’s manifests, where old friends can return regularly over an entire lifetime, a landmark of continuity in existence.

It is a testament to Paul Simpson’s tenacity and the quality of his fish that Tubby Isaac’s lasted so long, now that this once densely populated former Jewish neighbourhood has emptied out and the culture of which jellied eels was a part has almost vanished. Tubby Isaac’s was a stubborn fragment of an earlier world, carrying the lively history of the society it once served now all the other jellied eels stalls in Aldgate are gone and the street is no longer full with people enjoying eels. But leaving all this aside, Paul is open until the end of this week selling delicious and healthy non-fattening food, so this is your last chance to seek him out and try it for yourself.

The earliest photo of “Tubby” Isaac Brenner who founded the stall in 1919.

Tubby and one of his sons in the twenties.

Ted Simpson, Solly and Patsy Gritzman in the forties, after Tubby and his sons left for America.

In Petticoat Lane, sixties.

Ted serves jellied eels to Burt Reynolds and American talk show host Mike Douglas in the seventies

Ted shakes hands with Ronnie Corbett.

Joan Rivers helped out at the stall in the eighties.

Paul Simpson at the stall in 1989, before it became refridgerated.

Tubby Isaacs stall in Aldgate.

You may also like to read about

Boiling the Eels at Barney’s Seafood

Charlie Casey, Fishmonger

Tom Disson, Fishmonger

Albert Hafize,Fish Dealer

The Last Fish Porters of Billingsgate Market

At the Harvest Festival of the Sea

Up the Thames with Crayfish Bob

31 Responses leave one →
  1. June 13, 2013

    how sad. we need a fishy fergus henderson to resurrect this e. end tradition and make eating jellied eels trendy again. and sooner than later. farewell tubby isaacs!

    and yes, i have eaten tubby’s eels and i would only have said: with a shot of malt vinegar and some extra fresh parsley – a bit of alright!

  2. Molasses permalink
    June 13, 2013

    I moan the passing of a historical icon – eating jellied eels, I can do, with a healthy does of bitter, chasing it down!

  3. David S. permalink
    June 13, 2013

    So long and thanks for all the fish!

  4. Greg Tingey permalink
    June 13, 2013

    Will the other manifestations also vanish – because this wasn’t the only one they ran ….
    And why have they decided to close – more information? Please?

  5. June 13, 2013

    This portrait reminded me so much of my mother, born in 1910 and raised in the east end. Jellied eels were her particular favourite and Saturday tea usually included a plate of winkles. Another beautifully evocative account of a vanishing era.

  6. June 13, 2013

    I’m with Greg – I’d really like more info. Why is the stall closing? Is Isaac open to offers from people who’d take it on?

  7. Jenny permalink
    June 13, 2013

    We went to get some a few months ago and it was closed – must not’ve been opening hours! Now I’m even more annoyed as it seems I’ll never get to visit :( Unfortunately I’m not local but if we were me (and my mum!) would’ve been regulars.
    If only one of the ‘celebrity’ chefs had decided to revive jellied eels as the new food fad, then maybe he would’ve been able to keep going…

  8. June 13, 2013

    This is sad but inevitable I suppose. I’ll never forget being driven around (at what seemed to be reckless speed) in the early hours in a Daily Mirror delivery van, a Bedford with sliding front doors, before ending at Tubby Isaacs, which was bigger and crowded in those days. I was 12 I think. My family always had shellfish at least once a week, and I still do. Now I get my cockles and crabs from Mick’s Eels in Downham. But food fashions change. Once many pubs had a shellfish stall outside at weekends, but while people are prepared to eat clams they shun their close relation the superior cockle.

  9. Irene permalink
    June 13, 2013

    Very sad, I was brought up not too far from the stall and we would often stop off on the way home from the West End. Another piece of the East End going! Thank you for documenting these things, without The Gentle Author our kids might never know.

  10. rustyfruitjuice permalink
    June 13, 2013

    It might not be entirely over. If he can pass the trailer and name on to another proprietor and the council let them keep the pitch, there may well be eels on Goulston Street in the future. At present they’ve said there’s a waiting list for that pitch. I find it very hard to believe. Watch that 6ft by 3ft space.

  11. rustyfruitjuice permalink
    June 13, 2013

    Ellie. Yes. He is open to offers!

  12. rustyfruitjuice permalink
    June 13, 2013

    The Walthamstow trailer closed last year (Walthamstow is changing as hispters are priced out of Hackney). Paul travels in from Essex everyday and, what with shifting tastes in the neighbourhood, it isn’t viable for him anymore. I personally have done my hardest to get eels trending again. I had Simon Rimmer on Channel 4′s Sunday Brunch do a feature on them with me a couple of months ago, and I also appeared on Radio4 recently talking about the relationship between taste, distaste and social change in the East End, using Tubby’s eels as an example, but it seems too late. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01smpw6

  13. William permalink
    June 13, 2013

    Sad news. Wish I could say goodbye.

  14. Topsy Turvy permalink
    June 13, 2013

    How very sad. Strangely enough my wife and I bought some of his cockles and herring exactly a week ago. It was our very first visit to Tubby’s and sadly looks to be our last. At the time we didn’t realise that he was about to close for good.

    The food was delicious, and we enjoyed eating it in the warm sunshine in the local park on Whitechapel Road!

  15. Jason Hillier permalink
    June 13, 2013

    Such sad news. I will be down there tomorrow to buy up some prawns etc and to wave goodbye to such a landmark of the east end.

    So sad.

    Jason the knowledge Boy.

    :(

  16. Glen permalink
    June 13, 2013

    End of an era.

    I used to walk past that stall every day on my way to work in Adler St

    Glen

  17. Debra Berryman nee Myers permalink
    June 14, 2013

    Reading your article brought back some wonderful old memories of Tubby Isaacs and the tasty jellied eels I used to enjoy at his stall after a night out. I can still taste the eels and the malt vinegar. I have lived in Antipodes for nearly 40 years however on my rare visits to the UK I would hot foot it to Tubby Isaacs for my fix. I am very sad to hear of the business closing down, another bit of East End history to disappear. My father was a fishmonger and when I was a small child I used to play with the eels in my pram outside his shop.
    I wish the owners well in their retirement. Thanks for the memories and delicious eels.

  18. June 14, 2013

    A very sad day indeed!

  19. john permalink
    June 14, 2013

    a very sad day today! ive been going to the stall for over 30 years and I always used to get there early on a sunday morning for my sea food mix and eels.i remember when the pub next door would open at 9 am on a sunday and I would go and get paul a quick half of guiness.anywayall the best paul!

  20. Pamela permalink
    June 14, 2013

    I moved to Scotland 5 years ago, but am currently writing a book about my life entitled `An Ordinary Life of an East End Girl`, mainly for my Grandchildren. Within the book I have documented how, on a Sunday, my parents would pop over to Aldgate, to Tubby Isaacs, and buy their Sunday tea – Shrimps, Winkles and Whelks. The name Tubby Isaacs is legendary and, although I am many many miles away now – am saddened by the loss of this wonderful business. Thank you for many years of delicious seafood and welcoming hospitality. Pam Hicks x x

  21. June 15, 2013

    Thank you for all your lovely comments. Its a very sad day. A sign of the times!

    Paul Simpson
    Tubby Isaacs

  22. sprite permalink
    June 15, 2013

    Talked with a 93 years old lady today, who sings to us all the East End songs she remembers and gosh, did songs have long lyrics! I told her that Tubby Isaacs was no more as from yesterday. She had know it since she was a child going to school in Algate, then working in Middlesex street for a great part of her life.
    Her mate could never understand how she could eat jellied eels on her way back from work. So one day, she bought some and took it to her friend’s house, summonned the two brothers and asked them to at least try it once, please. They were converted with the first mouthful. Then her mate dared try them as well and from that day onwards, they both would order and eat jellied eels on their way home.

    cockney lives -
    through time as slithery eels
    in the fields of my childhood

    sprite

  23. jimi permalink
    June 15, 2013

    If this was any other great city like NYC or Paris somebody would have bailed them out & relocated this stall in a better area… it is essentially a ‘household name’, an important cultural & historical landmark in London… it should have been moved to Spitalfields & brought up to date… with some outside space, tables, a bigger selection of food and a drinks license etc… this stall’s history should be cherished & maintained, instead it’s going to be forgotten… like all the pie & mash shops being swallowed up by Starbucks, Costa & McDonalds… a terrible shame.

  24. June 16, 2013

    When you live overseas there are things you realy look forward to doing when you come home eating at Tubby’s was always in the top 5 for me :(

  25. Connie Sandamas. Nee ,Barnett permalink
    June 20, 2013

    Just seen the news about Tubbys stall was born and lived for years in Aldgate.
    A real coincidence for me to find this page today. How sad, the news.
    Visited it a couple of years ago.

  26. Anne Buet permalink
    June 30, 2013

    Know Paul very well and how hard he worked. So sorry to see the Tubby’s close Paul know how much it ment to you xx

  27. david gordon permalink
    August 7, 2013

    its a question of price
    , sea food prices have now reached astonishing levels, in WAITROSE cockles are now £22.99 a kilo recently in southend i was charged £6 for a pint of whelks, and in a fish and chip restaurant in islington half a pint of prawns in a half pint beer mug was £8 pounds.

  28. Richard Saville permalink
    August 20, 2013

    Such a shame the stall closed down, used to go here almost daily at lunch until I bought my own home and had to start being smart with money.

    I never quite got into the eels, however Paul’s other products were all top notch. The fresh mussels melted in your mouth. I’ll miss that taste.

    Paul…thanks for the banter, summer “spotting” and top notch grub. It’s a segment of my life that I’ll no doubt tell my kids about when I grow old.

  29. jonny kent permalink
    August 24, 2013

    Sad to hear you’ve finished on clicking on your website it took me back to the good old days in the East end had a polishing shop in Hackney always ventured down on a Friday to get jellied eels. My mum and dad retired down to Clacton originally from Stepney they used to love me visiting them at the weekends when they saw my car pull up they knew they were in for a treat I would take them down to the seafront for a bowl of eels and cockles they loved it they are gone now god bless them all the good things are dying out im opening my fish stool in a couple of weeks time at the Gunmakers Arms Loughton to try to keep up the old tradition hope the quality and service is half as good as yours enjoy your retirement Best Wishes

  30. Len Villa permalink
    August 24, 2013

    I have been enjoying eating Tubby Isaacs delicious jellied eels and all the other great seafood dishes at his stall over the last fifty three years. What a sad loss that such an iconic stall that has given many a gastronomical feast should have to close down, a sad sad day.
    Paul I wish you all the luck for the future.
    Len (Brixton Locksmith)

  31. johnny lowe. permalink
    August 26, 2013

    a staple diet when visiting grand parents in shadwell & limehouse & me dad worked on the island. carried on visiting when having a glass or two of beer in the east end. sadly, as the pubs starting closing down my visits stopped. good luck & god bless.

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