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All Change At Barney’s Eels

September 29, 2019
by the gentle author

Photographer Stuart Freedman was down in Chambers St next to the Tower of London before dawn last week to record the last ever boiling of eels at Barney’s Seafood. In common with many East End businesses operating under railway arches, Barney’s were confronted with an exorbitant rent increase of 400% by Network Rail. Then, once the arches were sold, they were given notice to quit by the end of the month so a neighbouring hotel can expand onto their site.

Fortunately, proprietor Mark Button has taken this as an opportunity to enlarge his business and move to Billingsgate Market on the Isle of Dogs where his regular customers will still be able to pick up their supplies of freshly-boiled eels, thereby guaranteeing the continuing supply of this most traditional of East End delicacies.

I was lucky enough to sit in the office and enjoy a chat over a quiet cup of tea with Mark’s son Harry Button while the phone rang off the hook with eager customers wanting their eels. Mark is the third generation in the family business and passionate to carry it forward into the future.

“I started here three years ago. My dad and uncle work here, and it was my grandad’s before them. There were two brothers Tubby and Barney Solomon, one had Tubby Isaac’s Jellied Eels stall and the other had Barney’s Jellied Eels stall on opposite sides of the road in Goulston St. People swore blind that one stall was better than the other but Barney’s supplied them both. All their eels came from here, Chambers St. This was originally a lock-up for the two stalls but when my grandad Eddy Button bought the business in the sixties he turned it into a factory and a shop.

I’ve been down here since I was knee-high, there’s pictures of me holding crabs as a baby. I spent my summers here. Working with your family isn’t the easiest of things. We have our arguments but we get over it in ten minutes. Today was our last boiling of eels here. It’s a sad day because we have been here so long. Eels have been boiled here in since the nineteen-thirties. We are moving to Billingsgate Market, where we are going to have a shop and we’d love to see our customers there.”

Once we had finished our tea, Ernie Peachum known as ‘Ginger,’ emerged from the kitchen where he had been chopping and boiling eels since five that morning and told me his story.

“I have been here thirteen years. I worked for Mick’s Eels for eight years and then I came here, so over twenty years boiling eels. It’s quite enjoyable. When I left school, my sister was going out with a guy called Dennis who worked for Mick’s Eels. I had a choice to be an electrician or a plumber or go in the eel game – and the eel game has given me three times the amount of money.

The skill lies in not cutting your fingers off. I don’t wear a metal glove because I don’t need to. I use a big knife and I have never seriously cut myself but my stepson who works here nearly took a finger off. Luckily he had not been here that long and did not know how to sharpen the knife, so it stopped when it hit the bone. He was out for a little bit and now he wears a metal glove. You learn to respect the knife but it hurts if you cut yourself.

When I first started, I was scared of an eel but I got over it with experience. I like working on my own, only talking when I have to. It gives me time to think. I start at five in the morning and finish at half one. It’s sad in a way that we are moving but in my eyes things happen for a reason. We are moving to nicer premises and we are expanding.”

Simon Brennan and Ernest ‘Ginger’ Peachum gutting and chopping eels

Harry Button seeks Simon’s lighter

Ernest and Simon

Simon Brennan

Simon boiling eels

Mark & Harry Button of Barneys Seafood

Photographs copyright © Stuart Freedman

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Stuart Freedman’s Pie & Mash & Eels

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Sheila Crowson permalink
    September 29, 2019

    Where do the eels come from, and are they alive when they arrive?

  2. Richard permalink
    September 29, 2019

    Haven’t had jellied eels for years. I feel like some right now. Great story.

  3. September 29, 2019

    Do I have any desire to eat eel? – No. Do I applaud the tenacity of these specialized workers? –
    Most certainly! I was so disappointed to hear about the 400% increase in the rental spaces under the arches — I believe you have introduced us to several of these businesses (auto mechanics, etc) and I’ve always thought it was wrong-headed to force these enduring/practical businesses to leave……only to bring in trendy coffee bars and boutiques. (presumably) I’ve seen the same theory playing out in the US. “Progress” is cloaked in a slick outer façade, forcing workers with grit and tenacity to leave. While customers say…..”Wait — Where’s my mechanic? Or eel merchant? Or baker? Or, or, or?”.
    Thanks for another insightful introduction to a specialized and fascinating world.
    (Well, maybe I really DO need to try some eel. )

  4. September 29, 2019

    Not sure I would ever eat an eel but good to know these guys have not been destroyed by what is going on with the arches. What is going on is no holds barred capitalism.
    Making a living, making a profit: it’s part of life but corporate greed is stinky.

  5. Mark permalink
    October 1, 2019

    Enjoyed that, well done and what great photos.

    I come from a family of Jellied Eel eaters and have enjoyed plenty from the above.

    Although we are South of the river now our roots were Walthamstow, and Shoredich.

    My family from both sides were always at Tubby Izaascs stool.

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