What’s the Catch?
As proud as I am of Catch, I’ve got to say that it’s only the latest of many Robert’s family fish and seafood businesses that span nearly a century! My goal is to bring the same passion for fresh fish that my family before me have used to great success.
The story started way back in 1919 when ‘Old Granny’ Roberts started the Roberts family fish business. ‘Business’ probably wasn’t the word that came to Granny’s mind as she sold kippers from her front parlour window in Hartlepool. During the post war depression, any way to earn a bit of extra money was welcome, and it turned out that the people of Hartlepool loved fresh kippers! Little did she know at the time, she was starting something much bigger.
During the next twenty years, along with ‘Old Granny’s’ help, the two eldest brothers, Arthur and William Roberts, grew the family business into a local institution. By 1939 they had two fresh fish shops, a wholesale business, and three fish and chip shops! As long ago as I can remember, my grandfather would tell me just how busy the Stockton on Tees ‘chippies’ were. Any elders of my family (I’m counting myself as one!) could point to the exact spots where our shops stood on Yarm Lane, Dovecot Street & Station Road.
As you can imagine, things changed dramatically for the business when the War started in 1939. The men of the family were called up, leaving their wives and sisters to run the shops. It turned out the Roberts women were just adept as their husbands and brothers, and successfully ran all of the shops, as well as overseeing the task of moving hundreds of stone of fresh Hartlepool to Stockton on Tees!
“Efforts during the war meant that Robert’s Fish and Chips had become the best known in the area. By 1967, William and Arthur had opened a purpose built restaurant and takeaway at a cost of £40,000.”
During the war, most fish and chip shops in the area fell on hard times. There was a national shortage of dripping fat, which was used by everyone to fry their fish. Shops were only able to fry for a couple of hours, whilst our shops managed to stay open all day. Despite being reported to the authorities, the key to their success has remained a secret until now. The Roberts women had quickly realised that they needed an alternative to dripping and had turned to vegetable oil. Whilst everyone else had dismissed it as being too expensive, the ladies were smart enough to understand the value of keeping the shops open. The business thrived in these times, with Dovecot Street frequently seeing queues around the block!
Efforts during the war meant that Robert’s Fish and Chips had become the best known in the area. By 1967, William and Arthur had opened a purpose built restaurant and takeaway at a cost of £40,000. This included a frying range built by Halifax firm Frank Ford & sons which cost £3,500. For reference, you could buy a three bed semi at that time for £3,000!
The business continued to thrive throughout the decades with William and Arthur active in the business until their retirement. My Dad, William Roberts (Jnr), took over the business until his own eventual retirement in the 90’s.
My own involvement began back when I was a young teenager. I worked side by side with my Dad, who taught me everything from filleting, buying the fish at the auctions and what can only be described as a ‘love’ for selling fantastic fish. I remember I particularly used to love boiling crabs, mussels and langoustines. The aroma that filled the room when you lifted the boiler let the steam out was simply divine. It’s a strange thing to describe and only a fresh fish merchant or a skipper of a boat can explain how much they love to sell something so fresh, knowing how much the customer will appreciate it. Maybe it can be likened to the love of the produce that a farmer sends to market?
Sadly for me, during the 1990’s, the fish quotas were reduced to such an extent that there simply wasn’t enough fish reaching Hartlepool fish markets. Our only reasonable choice was to sell the business. The scarcity of fish was such a far cry from my early childhood memories that it was really sad to see. I still have early memories of visiting our filleting bay on Hartlepool Quay. I would be able to hear my Father’s voice, but not see him, as the fish crates were stacked so high they towered above head height of even the tallest filleters!
“Roberts Fish Bar quickly became my pride and joy, and we were credited with the Highly Commended award by the Seafood Industry Authority within a year of opening.”
After successfully operating pubs and restaurants in the local area, I decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and open my own fish and chip shop in Stockton on Tees in 2012. Roberts Fish Bar quickly became my pride and joy, and we were credited with the Highly Commended award by the Seafood Industry Authority within a year of opening. As much as I loved the shop, I was simply too far removed from everything we were doing back in Calderdale. It took a heartfelt decision to sell the shop just two years after opening and return to look after The Fleece at Barkisland.
Despite our great success at The Fleece and The Milestone, seafood has never been far my mind (just ask anyone I work with!) I’ve looked at more sites than I care to mention, with a view to opening the latest Roberts business, but none had the potential that I needed. When I heard that Victoria Mills in West Vale was being converted, I knew this was the chance that I had spent the last couple of years looking for.
Negotiations progressed, plans were made, and it was decided that the family business would continue! I will be taking the values that served ‘Old Granny’, and all my family after her so well and pouring them into our newest business. We will continue to source the freshest seafood that our coasts have to offer, on a daily basis, and serve it to the highest standards.
Lee W Roberts