By Tyler Lewis
Header image by Tyler Lewis
BBC Music’s Sound of 2017 Ray BLK sings, “meet me at Morley’s, best fried chicken is in South” on her breakout track, My Hood. For those that don’t know, Morley’s is a popular chicken shop only found in South London which has recently turned 30.
The Chicken shop holds a special place in the hearts of South Londoners. With the mentioning of Morley’s appearing across different grime songs, and the rise and popularity of YouTube stars such as the Chicken Connoisseur, it’s clear that for the residents of South London the chicken shop is a staple of the area.
The temperature at a small market in Brockley is low. Locals hustle around in big coats, scarves and gloves looking for the best thing they can find from the independent sellers. Harry Milburn, now known as Prints Harry, is a one-man design studio and has a stand for his prints. Having grown up in South East London Harry’s prints feature ideas and imagery which are all considered staples of the area. Amongst the prints he’s selling are many chicken shop themed pieces.
“The chicken shop thing has only really blown up recently, but I did a few prints of South London scenes with different areas where I wanted buildings that meant more to people than the big landmarks in that area. So I included a Morley’s and I heard people getting very excited at craft fairs by the fact Morley’s was on a print and buying them off the back of that. I don’t even eat meat myself so it’s a conflicting thing for me to be working on, but people seem to love them.”
South London Club, a scheme which provides residents with a card that gets them discounts in independent businesses, has recently started selling Harry’s chicken shop prints as well as an entire section for chicken shop t-shirts.
“South London club have only recently started stocking my prints and the one with various areas reimagined as chicken shop logos sold well when they put it up, but there were lots of requests for t-shirt versions, so that’s what they’re currently selling.
“I’ve had a few Instagram comments before saying things like ‘there’s more to South London than chicken shops’ which I’m well aware of too, and I think some people do get a bit fed up with other Londoners thinking that South London is just about the chicken shops.
“I think chicken shops have a cool aesthetic which is that they all look very similar, use the same colours and all seem to take cues from each other on names and logos. I know there’s a Mowley’s near me. It ends up being quite a consistent style in all chicken shops, lots of red and blue!”
Kieran Irvine is an aspiring photographer from Reading who currently lives in London.
“I think the aesthetic is great. I think there’s fake niceness to it, a façade of fine dining. Everything feels a little bit tacky but it works.”
It’s a Monday night and he’s interrupted normal service at his local Morley’s for a photo shoot. Shooting on a Mamiya RB67, which is a large analogue camera on a tripod, and using black and white film he seems extremely out of place amongst all the children in uniform. He has three models, one man in leather trousers and a Hooters t-shirts and two women in fur coats and trainers. In one shot the male model sits on a table between the two young ladies and seductively feeds a piece of chicken to each. It’s soft-core chicken porn.
“New York has its pizza, Chicago has its hot dog, South East London has its fried chicken shops. They’re quintessential to South East London. Where I’m from in Wokingham, you’ve got chicken shops but nothing to the extent that it is here. You have one in the town centre at home, usually a KFC, and everyone goes to the same one after a night out at 4 o’clock in the morning. Whereas, let’s say in New Cross, you’ve got nine chicken shops across the high street.
“I see so many kids that have just come from school that are going to the chicken shops so they must have a peak time around 3:30. But of course, heading throughout the evening, they’ve got late opening hours when people have been drinking. I remember walking past once, it was packed full of people just trying to get chicken, it must have been about 3 o’clock in the morning.”
As Kieran said, one of the many diverse groups of people that take a trip to the chicken shop are those that have had a heavy night out. Kasey is one of those people and is sitting in the Morley’s in Ladywell at 1AM. His chicken seems to have absorbed most of the alcohol in his system and he’s now working his was through a heavily salted box of chips with sauce dolloped on top.
“One-pound chicken and chips, they don’t do that anymore. They did it when I was like thirteen, eight years ago. It was the thing that I had to get everyday after school, it’s was just like standard. When I was fourteen I would finish school, eat Morley’s, go home and say I hadn’t, then eat dinner.”
Kasey grew up on the road opposite the Morley’s that he’s currently sitting in. After moving to Brighton for three years for University, he’s moved back to London this week and has been catching up with old friends. The fruit machines which never seem to be played are flashing behind him and clusters of young men and women sit and stare into their boxes of chicken attempting not to fall asleep.
“I love Morley’s, I still happily come here, I just haven’t really had the chance too. Good food varies so much between Morley’s. Some Morley’s are alright; some Morley’s are just shit. But it’s cheap and cheerful, chips and burger sauce ya know? If you’re gonna get chicken, you may as well get side breast. No one wants a leg right? It’s fundamental to South London.”
Morley’s is very aware of it’s own significance and is not hesitating in utilising it. As well as jumping onto social media and appearing in pop-up form at many recent grime gigs, Morley’s has taken the plunge into an alternative fine dining experience for Valentines Day. Indira Kaler is head of marketing at Morley’s and explained how this came to be.
“We are paying close attention to social media this year. Based on our research Morley’s was trending on social media significantly around Valentines day, we took this opportunity to engage with our ‘customers’ whom we refer to as our ‘supporters’.
“Pop Up restaurants have also become a great trend in and around London, we thought it would be best to do something in our first successful shop in Sydenham. We are paying tribute to ourselves in this sense whilst appreciating the support we have received over the years from our supporters, as you can imagine we wouldn’t have come this far if it had not been for them.”
And on the response it’s received, well the event sold out within one week of being announced.
“The response has been great, with both a mix of excitement and confusion from many, this is far from what the public knows of Morley’s but we are steering our marketing in a new direction with the aim to reach out to our existing supporters whilst also engaging and introducing Morley’s to those who may not be familiar.”
Chicken shops are a part of South London’s identity and are a strange and obscure commonality to all the people that live there. Although their face may be changing, chicken shops remain an important part of South London to it’s residents. As Harry mentioned there is more to London than chicken shops, but they offer an environment that’s familiar and accepting to all. In the words of rapper Stormzy, South London is the land of “wings and chicken fillets”.