Answers to Questions


197 High Street, Watford

& Fried Fish Shops

January, 2008




Sarah  Duce (sarah_duce @t of  Fortrose, Ross-shire, writes: I am wondering if you know anything about  197 High St, Watford. It was home/shop of my G G Grandparents, David and Clara Duce. My Granddad who lived there in 1918, told me that it was on the site of a monastery and that it had priest holes in the yard? He thinks they were investigated and a report sent to the local museum. he also once told me that it had an old vine that was a cutting from one at Hampton Court Palace. I know the building collapsed in 1925ish and was rebuilt. I have been feverishly putting a family history/memory book together for him, and would love to know if his tales are true! And if there are any photos of the building, as I believe it has all long since been demolished.

I don't know of any unambiguous pictures of 197 High Street but the 2nd Edition of The Book of Watford has a pictorial survey of Watford High Street. On page 324 it has a view from the roof of Benskin's Brewery which shows the back of 194 High Street (now the museum) and a number of properties on the odd numbered side of the High Street can be seen beyond it. It also has a closer view of three shops - which include a fish & chip shop called Weston's! However a check in the 1968 Watford Street Directory shows this as being 189 High Street. These shops were demolished in the 1980s as part of major road developments. However I don't know if the High Street has ever been renumbered - but even if this is the wrong shop it shows that there was still a fish & chip shop in that part of Watford some 30 years ago.

However of the author of the book. J. B. Nunn, has his own web site on Watford (No longer available).

In investigating your question I was intrigued to find that your ancestors ran a fried fish shop, and wondered when "fish and chips" take-away meals first appeared - as it was not really a practical activity in Hertfordshire before the coming of fast rail transport and efficient refrigeration. My own childhood memories (from the 1940s in Devon) were of taking unsold newspapers from my father's newsagents to a nearby fish and chip shop and earning the marvellous sum of one penny a pound (approximately 1p a kilogram). In addition there was a man who had a coke-fired fish fryer on a specially built barrow who sold from a spot a few hundred yards down the road.

The National Federation of Fish Friers web site say that in 1839 Charles Dickens referred to a "fried fish warehouse" in Oliver Twist. and Wikipedia reveals that the first combined fish & chip shops appeared in the 1860s in London and the North of England. To find when they appeared in Hertfordshire I carried out a survey of Kelly's Hertfordshire Directories to get some facts.

Nothing is listed in 1886. In 1890 there was only one fried fish shop listed in the whole of Hertfordshire. This was "Smith Thomas, Bucklersbury, Hitchin". There was still only one in 1895 - this time "Farr Alfred, Queen Street, Hitchin". By 1899 the number had increased, and the Duce family first appear:

The 1901 Census lists David (55, fish merchant) and Clara Duce at 197 High Street, Watford - the household including 3 sons (Joseph, Matthew and John Duce) and a nephew (Harry Duce)  all listed as fish fryers. The birthplaces of the children suggests that he had lived in Yorkshire before coming to Watford (where his wife had been born) - and a check shows David is listed as a fried fish dealer at 91 Manchester Road, Bradford, in the 1891 Bradford Directory, suggesting that he learnt the trade in the North of England.

By 1902 David Duce had four fried fish shops in Watford. However the total number of shops in the county had not increased significantly:

The boom in fried fish in Hertfordshire was well underway by 1908:

Out of 20 fried fish shops in Hertfordshire 12 were in Watford and 5 of these were run by the Duce family. The 3 at Hitchin were the only ones in the North and East of the county. The total numbers continued to expand in subsequent years, and I was interested to note that by 1914 George Smith had opened 4 in Berkhamsted (34 George Street, 1 Holliday Street, 14 Gossom's End & 1 Back Lane.)

From then on I only charted the Duce family. The 1912 directory lists the following:

In  1917 Kelly's listed 21 fried fish shops in Hertfordshire including:

In 1922 Kelly's listed

In 1929 and 1933 this had become

By 1937 it was

In the 1960 Watford Directory we have

It would appear that fried fish sellers started to become common in Hertfordshire in the early 20th century - particularly in Watford, and the Duce family were the market leaders.

Shortly after the above text was posted it was "googled" by a distant cousin of Sarah - who supplied a copy of a personal family letter written about 100 years ago - from which the above letterhead is taken.

See also Hodgson & Hankin - A Fishy Tale of Old Hitchin

July 2010

Andy Elsen (estragoner @t writes: I went to Watford Library in search of further information n the death of my great great uncle Harry Doggett, who according to his death cert expired from ptomaine poisoning in 1908 at the age of 33.  I found a Watford Observer article from 15 or 23rd of May 1908 on the inquest, which mentions Duce's fish shop as the suspected cause of Harry Doggett's demise. The jury called upon Harry Duce to give witness. The jury eventually decided against carrying out a post-mortem on the body and the Coroner summed up with "Mr Duce had given his evidence very straightforwardly, but it might have happened that one odd piece of fish had escaped notice" and had thereby caused Harry's demise.

One of the frustrating things about local newspapers is that few have been digitised or indexed and while Andy could find the details of his relatives death from the details given on the death certificate, Sarah would have found it very hard to find the reference to Harry Duce d without reading the paper from cover to cover year by year!

August 2010

Andy kindly sent a transcription of the newspaper report (and I have edited it to make the questioning clearer).


The Coroner (Mr T J Broad) held an inquest at the Workhouse on Saturday morning concerning the death of Harry Doggett, aged 33, a brewer's labourer, of 88, Harwoods Road. Mr H Morten was elected foreman of the jury. Mr H Lomas, solicitor, represented Mrs Duce, from whose fried fish shop in the High Street the deceased was stated to have bought fish for his dinner on the day he was taken ill.

The Coroner said it appeared that on Friday May 8th, the deceased came home from his work at Messrs Benskins, and complained of sickness. He said that he had had fish for his dinner from Duce's fish shop, and after he had eaten it he felt pains in his stomach, and was drowsy and sick. He also vomited after he got home, and as he did not get better Dr Burnett was called in. Deceased was under treatment until he died on Friday morning about half-past 5. Dr Burnett was clearly of opinion that death was due to ptomaine poisoning, and what was the cause of that poisoning it was for the jury to enquire. Dr Burnett was so confident as to the cause of death that no post-mortem examination was ordered, but if the jury thought such an examination desirable it should be held.

Bessie Doggett, widow of the deceased, stated that on May 8th, about 6.30pm, he came home from work; he did not come home to dinner at midday in consequence of the distance. He looked very white and complained of sickness, adding that he was sleepy. He told her that he had been to Mrs Duce's fried fish shop for dinner, and that afterwards he felt pains in his stomach; and had been sick whilst at the [Benskin's] Brewery. In the evening he was sick, and went to bed about 7 o'clock. He did not sleep, but walked about the room part of the night. He had pains in his stomach, and felt doubled up. In the morning she went to Dr Burnett, who prescribed a dose of castor oil, which was administered. On Saturday evening she saw the doctor again, and he gave her some medicine. Deceased did not get better, and on Sunday the doctor was fetched. Medicine was given, but deceased got worse every day. His vomit was always green, and he kept saying "Oh, no more fish". On Thursday he became light-headed, and the pain continued. Early on Friday morning he became worse, and passed away about 6 o'clock.

By Mr Lomas: She did not remember what he had for breakfast that morning, but he generally had bacon and eggs. He took his breakfast with him. She did not know of his movements that day.

By a Juror: She could not remember what he had for breakfast that morning. They had no fried fish in the house, but she had been in the habit of buying kippers. Deceased had been a healthy man. He did not take his dinner with him on May 8th, as she gave him money for a fish dinner overnight, because she thought it would be a change from meat all the week.

Catherine Mary Doggett, 4 Harwoods Road, said that last Friday evening deceased while on his way home, told her how bad he felt. She helped his wife during the illness.

Harry Perkins, 82 Hagden Lane, deposed that he was employed at Benskins. On May 8th witness went to Duce's fish shop and bought for deceased twopennyworth of fried fish and onepennyworth of potatoes. Witness had half of one piece of fish and made the remark that it tasted rather funny. Doggett replied "Yes, I think it does". Witness ate all his except a little piece, and deceased finished his. Witness saw deceased again about ten minutes to 5 when he complained of pains in his stomach. Witness walked home with him as far as Harwoods Road. Deceased had nothing but the fish and potatoes for dinner. Witness did not feel any pain at all.

By Mr Lomas: It was when they started on the fish that the witness remarked about the taste. The fish was hot and was taken out from the frying place.

By a Juror: Witness did not know whether Doggett was sick in the afternoon. He did not say anything about the fish. Witness threw about two mouthfuls of his fish away, and did not feel any pain afterwards. They did not call in anywhere on their way home in the evening.

The Coroner: Have you been ill at all since Friday?

Witness: No sir. I had my own dinner as well.

Dr J D Burnett gave evidence as to his treatment of the deceased. He found Doggett in bed suffering from great pain in the stomach and was told of his sickness. Witness visited him each day. at intervals he felt better but the pain always returned. At 4 o'clock on Friday morning witness was summoned and found deceased very ill.

The Coroner: Did you examine the vomit?

Witness: No.

The Coroner: Did he tell you what he had had or attribute his illness to anything?

Witness: He did not tell me had had fish but I think I did hear him remark once "No more fish for me"

The Coroner: What do you think he died from?

Witness: All the time I have been attending him I have thought he had been suffering from some irritant poison, as the result of eating some food.

The Coroner: Do you attribute his death to that poison?

Witness: Yes.

Mr Lomas:  When you were seen on the Saturday, you didn't then understand that he was suffering from some irritant poison?

Witness: I understood he had had some irritant in his food.

Mr Lomas:  You did not go to see him?

Witness: No we are often consulted about this sort of trouble.

Mr Lomas:  You were not asked to go and see him?

Witness: No

Mr Lomas:  There has been no post-mortem?

Witness: No.

Mr Lomas:  You did not see the vomit the first day you went?

Witness: I don't think I did

A Juror:  Death was due to poisoning by ptomaines, where (sic) are generated in putrefying food?

Witness:  Yes

A Juror:  They can be generated even in healthy food?

Witness: Yes. In fish and food which appear to be healthy they can be present.

A Juror:  You don't mean to say definitely that he died from eating putrid fish?

Witness: In my opinion he died from ptomaine poisoning but I don't know what caused it.

A Juror:  In that case in order to know the actual cause of death would you suggest a post-mortem and bacteriological examination?

Witness: It would be much more satisfactory

Mr Lomas then called Harry Duce of 197 High Street, Watford, who said that he helped his aunt to manage a fried fish business. The fish came fresh every day by train from various ports. On its arrival witness examined the fish, which was then washed and passed through four other hands. It came to him last and he cut it up for cooking and he then examined it again. Supposing any bit was wrong it was cast away. On May 8th the consignment of 40 or 50 stone of fresh Haddocks came from Aberdeen. It was all cleaned and cut up that morning and some of it was cooked for midday. The whole was consumed and they had had no complaints.

By the Jury: The fish was despatched from Aberdeen the previous evening. They had no fish left over which was fried the previous day. They re-cooked fish sometimes, but very seldom.

A Juror:  Would it not be possible for the fish to become putrefied?

Witness: Not in the time. It is not possible.

Mr Lomas mentioned that everyone would be sorry to hear of this young man's death, but he could not admit that there was any responsibility on his client's shoulders

The jury decided, with one dissentient, that a post-mortem examination was not necessary.

The Coroner said that Mr Duce  had given his evidence very straightforwardly but it might have happened that one odd piece of fish had escaped notice. That however was a matter more for the jury than for him.

Watford Observer, Friday, 22nd May 1902

This case demonstrates how useful inquests can be in giving background information  - as it throws light on how the fish shop was managed.

If you can add to the information given above tell me.

July 2010   Initial information on inquest
August 2010   Press report of inquest