Can there be anything more appetizing than the smell of really good fish and chips drifting down the queue as you waited outside Pescis on a Friday, hoping there would be a wing of skate left for your lunch?
Fish-n-chips have almost disappeared as part of the English diet, haven’t they, but there was a time when Barking had several fish-n-chip shops plus a couple of fresh, or as we used to call them, wet-fish shops. King of the fish-n-chip shops, though, was undoubtedly the Pesci family. Fish by name and fish by trade, was what the owner and man who started Pescis used to say to his children.
Giacomo Pesci didn’t start out as a fish and chip shop owner, but came first to Wales in 1912 to work as cheap labour for the Burni Brothers (of Burni Inns fame). It was hard work: 7 days a week for 5/- (five shillings), but he enjoyed living in Wales – until the start of WWI when he returned to Italy in 1914 to join the army. He was later captured by the Austrians and eventually ended up in a prison camp in Russia. At the end of the war the Bolsheviks asked him if he wanted to be repatriated to Italy or to stay and join the Revolution. What he really wanted was to go back to Wales so he asked to be returned to Italy.
Giacomo was born in a village in Bardi in the Apennines, northern Italy. It was a farming family with roots going back to the 14th century. Following tradition and local custom, he married a girl from the same village. To marry a girl from outside the village was unthinkable. It was a simple and happy, but hard life. So when the Burni Brothers came to the village looking for workers Giacomo’s father Giovanni told him that if he stayed in the village he could be assured of a roof over his head and food on his table, but nothing more. Life was hard and there was no chance of advancement. The only chance of realising that was to leave the village and to go abroad. So Giacomo decided to take up the offer of working for the Burni Brothers who owned an ice cream business in Wales. He and his wife moved to Wales, to Merthyr Tydfil, where their two sons Charles and Mario were born. Charles in 1927; and Mario in 1934.
Giacomo wanted to branch out on his own, but there was little opportunity for that in Wales. There was, however, a shop available in Barking so the family moved to Barking in 1934. That shop was in the Broadway opposite the Barge Aground pub. Business went well for the next five years until the council decided to compulsory purchase the property the Pesci family were occupying. Fortunately a shop became available at 26 Ripple Road and the family moved there in 1939 just before the start of WWII. At the time, with two small children and a business, it was an upheaval, but the move proved to be a good one. The centre of Barking gradually moved focus from having been around the Broadway to an area around Blake’s Corner and Pesci’s Fish & Chip Shop soon became an essential part of Barking life.
When Giacomo and his wife retired, their sons Charles and Mario took over the business and ran it until 1997, when they too retired. Neither of them ever married. They did everything together and were inseparable. On retirement they planned to move back to Italy. Though they had been born in Wales and lived in England most of their lives, they always felt more Italian than British so it seemed natural to want to move "back" to the village their parents had left 85 years earlier. Tragically, Charles died at Christmas 1997 leaving Mario alone.
My own experience and contact with the Pesci family began around 1997. I was on holiday in England and had decided to visit my old hometown Barking. I have lived in Sweden since 1975 and left Barking for good in 1970. It was quite a shock to see the changes that had taken place and were still taking place. It was clear that major changes were afoot and it was also clear that I would soon no longer recognise the town I grew up in. I never knew the Pesci family personally, but everybody was familiar with Mr and Mrs Pesci and I regularly saw their two sons in the shop as well, though in my memories they are still schoolboys, just as I was at the time. In fact Mrs Pesci was such a tall and handsome woman that I always assumed she was an elder daughter in the family. It was therefore very sad for me to find in 1997 that Pesci’s shop door was shut and locked. Whether it had closed for good or was just temporarily closed I couldn’t be sure and I was only passing through so thought no more of it. I took some photos of the outside for my album and went back to my London hotel.
After arriving back in Sweden I started thinking again about Pescis and decided to write to the shop and ask what their plans were and also if they could tell me a little of the history of the family. Time passed and I thought I would not receive a reply, but then one evening, just after Christmas, the phone rang and I found myself talking to Mario Pesci. He was very upset. His brother had just recently died and he seemed to be in need of somebody to talk to. He had my letter and simply picked up the phone. He then told me most of the above story and it seemed to help his state of mind to talk about the family. He was obviously devastated at the death of his brother Charles and didn’t know what to do. I suggested that he continue as they had planned and that he should return to Italy, since he felt more at home there. It was a disturbing and frustrating conversation.
I’m not sure how long afterwards it was before I returned to Barking again. By then the demolition had started and Pescis was now the last shop in the row before the new road widening. The shop was still there, intact but locked. I approached a neighbouring shop owner and asked about Mario. "He’s in there but he won’t answer if you knock,"was the comment I got to my inquiry. But I knocked just in case, and also called my name through the letterbox and said who I was. The door soon opened and there was Mario inviting me in.
Mario Pesci, photographs taken inside 26 Ripple Road, Barking
by Vic Howard in 2004
I was surprised to find him still there. He hadn’t moved and was still not sure it was the thing to do. We talked further about the shop and exchanged reminiscences and he allowed me to take photographs. I even sneaked a couple of Mario himself. It was very sad to see the place exactly as it had been the moment the doors had finally shut, years before. Even the old price list was still on the wall. The wonderful windows that were so familiar made me shudder at the thought that might lie in store for them. I even wondered if I could somehow rescue them myself, but could neither think of a solution nor dare suggest one to Mario. He now had much bigger fish to fry.
We parted and that was the end of my brief encounter with a Barking legend. Recently, I stumbled across the Barking Historical Society website and saw to my relief that Pesci’s windows had been rescued along with some other items. I have no idea what happened to Mario Pesci, but I hope that he too was in some way "rescued" and is now happy, if not in this life, then in the next.