WOONSOCKET – In May 1922, six years after opening, Ye Olde English Fish & Chips moved from Olneyville Square in Providence to Woonsocket, seeking larger space in a permanent landing spot. Woonsocket has been home ever since.
Gordon ‘Gordie’ Sowden Robinson, the third generation to own the restaurant, now 83 and passing it on to his own children, said the story of Ye Olde English reaching its 100th birthday in Woonsocket is one of hard work relentless, adapting forever-finishing challenges and, of course, the secret recipe that has maintained a constant – and sometimes overwhelming – line of people entering the doors for a century.
“The recipe hasn’t changed,” he said, nor have the ingredients of family, lasting relationships and deep ties to a community that has loved Ye Olde English from the start.
Robinson’s grandparents, Ethel Hartley Sowden and Harry Pickering Sowden, opened the restaurant, Harry bringing it from his hometown of Bradford, England.
Harry worked for his father in the shipping industry, but his father had a drinking problem. As a teenager, Harry also worked at a local fish and chip restaurant in Bradford. While in Bradford he met and married Ethel. After coming to the United States, arriving at Ellis Island, Harry never consumed alcohol. They settled in Greystone in northern Providence, both employed at Greystone Mills.
After working in the textile factory for a few years, Harry called a family friend in England and asked him to borrow $3,000 to buy a garage and equipment, including four looms. They started a business making corsets, but it soon became a burden.
Harry thought there might be an opportunity to sell fish and chips, and in 1916 he rented a small restaurant in Olneyville Square. It quickly became very successful, but with that success came a lack of space, and they eventually moved to the old Crescent Lunch in Market Square Woonsocket in 1922 and changed the name to River Street Fish and Chips.
In 1930, he purchased the building across the street, which remains the restaurant’s current location at 25 South Main St.
Gordie’s mother, Ethel Mae Sowden, who went by the name Mae so as not to be confused with the other Ethel, worked in the restaurant until she was 95. Many employees have remained for decades, becoming part of the family and many have been mentioned in the new Robinson. book, “The History of Ye Olde English Fish & Chips Restaurant.”
Robinson met his wife Elaine under Woonsocket’s McCarthy Clock in 1956. Sixty-two years of marriage later, they have three children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Robinson writes about how incredibly affordable fish and chips were during the hard times of 1928, with long lines of people waiting to buy a 10 cent meal. The fish was delivered in wooden barrels, which meant filleting, skinning, sizing, and then disposal of the carcasses. All fat had to be removed from the bone waste and melted in large vats, which are still kept in a storage area. Potatoes came in 100 pound bags and had to be peeled by hand.
Robinson said the restaurant had survived so much over the years, but nothing could quite prepare them for the current reality brought on by inflation.
“This company has survived so many hurricanes, so many world wars, but this administration right now, I don’t think we can survive this administration,” he said. “It’s hard to justify staying open.”
Everything is shipped on diesel, he said, and New England fishing regulations have killed off their old supply lines from Boston, Maine and New Bedford. They get their fish from Alaska, he said, where there are far fewer restrictions.
For comparison, Robinson said, they used to pay $70 for a 100-pound bag of potatoes, but now the price is nearly $100 for that same bag. Fish costs nearly $8 a pound and fried clams, previously around $80 or $90 a gallon, are now between $150 and $160.
In addition to food, prices for everything else have risen, he said, from paper products to electricity bills. They raised everyone’s salary, he said, to incentivize them to work.
Some of the processes put in place in those early days helped Ye Olde English survive, Robinson said. His mother, Ethel Mae, graduated from Bryant College as an accountant, and the skills and practices she brought are still used today, held up as an example by listeners.
Prices aside, not much has changed inside Ye Olde English. The unique floor installed in 1932 is still there and in pristine condition, and the pictures on the walls are clear indicators of the importance of family and history to the family that owns it.
After Harry Sowden recovered from some health issues, he and Ethel branched out into a second Woonsocket location, this one called Blackstone Street Fish & Chips. When Ethel’s brother Sam fell victim to the Depression, they turned this restaurant over to him and he and his wife Edith ran it for about 30 years before selling it in the 1960s.
The family once used the floors above their restaurant for a dance hall and an apartment, but today they are used for storage. Their daughter used the third floor for dance lessons, and Elaine Robinson once ran the Woonsocket Gymnastics School in their building next door, which now houses a martial arts studio, physical therapy center and hair salon.
A birthday celebration was originally scheduled to take place last week, but due to college graduations, it took place this week at the restaurant. It was great to see so many old friends stop over the past few weeks, said Robinson, who recently returned from Florida for the season.
A self-proclaimed “car buff,” Robinson says he’s always had the nicest cars in town. He’s always been a “picky bastard” about these cars, he said, but he has a reputation to uphold.
Today, Robinson’s son Steven runs the business as a fourth-generation owner, and his daughter Diane also helps out. David, his eldest son, chose a career in engineering.
When asked if Ye Olde English will last another century, Robinson smiles. No one knows what the future holds, he says, but for now the family is content to cook good food for their customers every day.