(Above: Harry Ramsden… with his iconic straw boater)

As we approach the spring, it can be instructive to consider examples of how cherished things struggle to maintain vitality – and which ones succeed.

The inevitable cycles of growth, maturity and decay are ever-present. But they are not all-powerful. Business fortunes as well as personal fate obeys certain laws of success and decline.

As a young computer salesman with a (now long defunct) UK technology company named CTL, One of my successes was an organisation called ‘The British Wool Marketing Board – BWMB’, based in Bradford, West Yorkshire. They were responsible for the official auctions that supplied the raw wool from across the north of England and the Scottish Borders – big business in the 1980s, though that boom era for quality British wool was coming to an end, even then.

I had been working with them for about a year and just secured a major upgrade of the technology when they mentioned that the IT department were to have an outing – a ‘do’ (add a ‘w’ after the ‘o’ and you’ll approximate the lovely local twang) to a place called ‘Harry’s’; and would I like to come along?

It was a good sign to be invited, and I accepted at once – but had to admit that I knew nothing of ‘Harry’s …

So they told me the story of Harry Ramsden’s Fish and Chip emporium…

Established in Guisley, between Bradford and Leeds, and on the edge of the fabled Yorkshire Moors, Harry’s Fish and Chip restaurant began life in 1928 … in a hut.

Sadly, I couldn’t find a photo of this original building online. But the modern replacement – now renamed by the present owners – is shown here and through this post.

His excellent meals, served with as much elegance as one could muster in a limited structure, were an immediate success, and he decided to take a huge risk and develop a plot of land on the top of a hill nearby.

Harry’s goal was to lift the spirits of the local people who were languishing in the doldrums of the post WW1 1920s: a very different era for poor folk from the glamorous ‘Flapper world’ so popular with novelists of the time. But that was the key to what Harry did. He warmed the souls of his working-class customers; with theatre, classy props and excellent, inexpensive food.

Library image of the clock at the Harry Ramsden's restaurant in Guiseley. Picture: PA
Library image of the clock at the Harry Ramsden’s restaurant in Guiseley. Picture: PA

For a short time, they were somewhere else, in a world that understood them and their needs.

And cared…

His new large emporium would give the locals a taste of luxury and class as well as excellent and healthy food – with fish shipped fresh from the Yorkshire coast daily. And he supplied all this at a modest price.

The restaurant was built where the trams from Bradford and Leeds disgorged their passengers on the hilltop. To many, who knew only a back-breaking life in pits or the dire textile mills, it must have seemed like an exotic holiday.

Staff were dressed in black and white uniforms reminiscent of a London restaurant, and they were trained in how to make their guests feel special; nothing was too much trouble.

Harry Ramsden was at heart an entrepreneur and a showman who understood his customers’ needs and aspirations. They, in turn loved him and flocked by the charabanc-load to eat his fish and chips. The walk-in queues ‘seemed to snake from the door to the edge of Leeds…’

Harry Ramsden greeted his customers dressed in a wing collar, starched apron and straw boater. A trip to Harry Ramsden’s was an “experience”, something to boast about to your workmates in the mill or factory after a coach trip through the Dales. And back home via fish and chips.

Harry’s continued to prosper, widening its reputation and becoming one of the places to visit.

(Above: not a figure you might have been expecting! Margaret Thatcher paid a prominent visit to Harry’s in the late 1980s)

As a politician keen to display her populist credentials, Margaret Thatcher was keen to visit during a trip to West Yorkshire in the late 1980s. She joined the long list of celebrities who wanted to be associated with Harry Ramsden’s .

My time working with the IT team at the BWMB had ended way back in 1985. I often thought about them. I had loved the ‘do’ at Harry’s, and wondered how the old place was faring.

When passing through West Yorkshire, we had dropped in for supper from time to time over the years. The charm was still there, though I did detect a sense that it was getting ‘frayed at the edges’.

At the end of this last month – February, 2023 – we were due to travel to a motel next to Leeds Bradford airport for an early holiday departure the following morning. We wondered if the old place would be suitable for our evening meal?

Not knowing any of the recent history of Harry’s, I did a few searches online…

In 2019, Greg Wright, a journalist with The Yorkshire Post, had written:

When I moved to Menston in 1999, I was intrigued by Harry Ramsden and his legacy. Did his spirit still guide the chip shop that carried his name? A trip to Harry Ramsden’s at the turn of the new century was a colossal disappointment. After just one visit, I vowed to only return when all other gastronomic possibilities had been exhausted.The magic had gone. The interior was dowdy. The restaurant was almost empty. It was just a dreary fish and chip restaurant close to a big roundabout.

What had happened to this fine example of Yorkshire entrepreneurship?

It turned out that the modern owners had become embroiled in plans for national and even global expansion. The brand was there to be exploited, but in the rush to growth, they had neglected the original showcase restaurant – the ‘heart of Harry’s’

There were always two aspects to the ‘soul‘ of a Harry’s creation. The first was the ‘idea’ of serving fish and chips on such a scale. The second was the sheer presence of that ideal at its home in Guiseley.

In simple terms, the latter had been forgotten.

Nobody was surprised or dismayed when Harry Ramsden’s original emporium closed its Guiseley restaurant in 2011.

But… you might well remark, looking at the glittering images here, everything looks rather chipper, now?

And it does, as this is the fully restored Harry’s, now sporting its Weatherby Whaler logo, but nicely leaving a few choice mementoes to its past

The owners had taken their eyes off the ball as they plotted national and global expansion. Harry Ramsden’s had become a brand that was there to be exploited. But in their eagerness to secure growth, Harry’s successors had neglected the original restaurant.

(Above: Harry’s famous straw boater, in which he would greet his customers)

A visit to the same site today is a very different experience. Under its new owners, the Wetherby Whaler fish and chip group, the old restaurant has re-discovered its sparkle. In the night before our holiday, the service was superb and the tables were packed with diners.

In years to come, students may use the decline of Harry Ramsden’s as a textbook example of how to lose sight of the goodwill generated by such a socially respected brand.

I can’t help thinking that Harry, with his straw boater and cheery manner, would be very pleased with the reinvigorated future of his treasured emporium on the hill. I suspect that what we might call the ‘mind presence’ of what he created was still present in this area and strong enough to invest the new enterprise with its ‘spirit’.

We might say that a human undertaking can afford to lose or modify its ‘outer’, and still survive … as long as the spirit of its ‘inner’ is alive.

©Stephen Tanham 2023

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog

4 Comments on “Decline, Fall … and Renewal

  1. A fascinating story, Steve, and a sobering one. It’s a lesson, I suppose, in what happens when you take the soul out of a thing, turn it into a brand and expect it to have the same sparkle. I was reading a similar thing appears to be happening to the Morrisons supermarkets, now they’ve passed out of the founding family’s hands.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Michael. And that seems to be the key: the handover from heart and ‘passion’ to the cold, dead fist of process; though process can be made to serve, too! Thank you for commenting 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My first visit to the UK was in 1977. My future Yorkshire in-laws took us to Harry Ramsdens near Bradford. I was very impressed. Nice to read the history of this place and glad it’s up and running again. (I bet the locals still call it Harry Ramsden’s)

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a lovely coincidence, Darlene. I suspect the locals will always call it ‘Harry’s’ – and the presence of his treasured boater suggests that the Weatherby Waler folks, who’ve made such a success of it’s renewal, won’t be unhappy with that!!😀

      Liked by 1 person

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