Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Whitebait Taverns


At what period the lovers of good living first went to eat Whitebait at "the taverns contiguous to the places where the fish is taken," is not very clear. At all events, the houses did not resemble the Brunswick, the West India Dock, the Ship, or the Trafalgar, of the present day, these having much of the architectural pretension of a modern club-house.

Whitebait have long been numbered among the delicacies of our tables; for we find "six dishes of Whitebait" in the funeral feast of the munificent founder of the Charterhouse, given in the Hall of the Stationers' Company, on May 28, 1612—the year before the Globe Theatre was burnt down, and the New River completed. For aught we know these delicious fish may have been served up to Henry VIII. and Queen Elizabeth in their palace at Greenwich, off which place, and Blackwall opposite, Whitebait have been for ages taken in the Thames at flood-tide. To the river-side taverns we must go to enjoy a "Whitebait dinner," for, one of the conditions of success is that the fish should be directly netted out of the river into the cook's cauldron.

About the end of March, or early in April, Whitebait make their appearance in the Thames, and are then small, apparently but just changed from the albuminous state of the young fry. During June, July, and August, immense quantities are consumed by visitors to the different taverns at Greenwich and Blackwall.

Pennant says: Whitebait "are esteemed very delicious when fried with fine flour, and occasion during the season a vast resort of the lower order of epicures to the taverns contiguous to the places where they are taken." If this account be correct, there must have been a strange change in the grade of the epicures frequenting Greenwich and Blackwall since Pennant's days; for at present, the fashion of eating Whitebait is sanctioned by the highest authorities, from the Court of St. James's Palace in the West, to the Lord Mayor and his court in the East; besides the philosophers of the Royal Society, and her Majesty's Cabinet Ministers. Who, for example, does not recollect such a paragraph as the following, which appeared in the Morning Post of the day on which Mr. Yarrell wrote his account of Whitebait, September 10th, 1835?—

"Yesterday, the Cabinet Ministers went down the river in the Ordnance barges to Lovegrove's West India Dock Tavern, Blackwall, to partake of their annual fish dinner. Covers were laid for thirty-five gentlemen."

For our own part, we consider the Ministers did not evince their usual good policy in choosing so late a period as September; the Whitebait being finer eating in July or August; so that their "annual fish dinner" must rather be regarded as a sort of prandial wind-up of the parliamentary session than as a specimen of refined epicurism.

We remember many changes in matters concerning Whitebait at Greenwich and Blackwall. Formerly, the taverns were mostly built with weather-board fronts, with bow-windows, so as to command a view of the river. The old Ship, and the Crown and Sceptre, taverns at Greenwich were built in this manner; and some of the Blackwall houses were of humble pretensions: these have disappeared, and handsome architectural piles have been erected in their places. Meanwhile, Whitebait have been sent to the metropolis, by railway, or steamer, where they figure in fishmongers' shops, and tavern cartes of almost every degree.

Perhaps the famed delicacy of Whitebait rests as much upon its skilful cookery as upon the freshness of the fish. Dr. Pereira has published the mode of cooking in one of Lovegrave's "bait-kitchens" at Blackwall. The fish should be dressed within an hour after being caught, or they are apt to cling together. They are kept in water, from which they are taken by a skimmer as required; they are then thrown upon a layer of flour, contained in a large napkin, in which they are shaken until completely enveloped in flour; they are then put into a colander, and all the superfluous flour is removed by sifting; the fish are next thrown into hot lard contained in a copper cauldron or stew-pan placed over a charcoal fire; in about two minutes they are removed by a tin skimmer, thrown into a colander to drain, and served up instantly, by placing them on a fish-drainer in a dish. The rapidity of the cooking process is of the utmost importance; and if it be not attended to, the fish will lose their crispness, and be worthless. At table, lemon juice is squeezed over them, and they are seasoned with Cayenne pepper; brown bread and butter is substituted for plain bread; and they are eaten with iced champagne, or punch.

The origin of the Ministers' Fish Dinner, already mentioned, has been thus pleasantly narrated:

Every year, the approach of the close of the Parliamentary Session is indicated by what is termed "the Ministerial Fish Dinner," in which Whitebait forms a prominent dish; and Cabinet Ministers are the company. The Dinner takes place at a principal tavern, usually at Greenwich, but sometimes at Blackwall: the dining-room is decorated for the occasion, which partakes of a state entertainment. Formerly, however, the Ministers went down the river from Whitehall in an Ordnance gilt barge: now, a government steamer is employed. The origin of this annual festivity is told as follows. On the banks of Dagenham Lake or Reach, in Essex, many years since, there stood a cottage, occupied by a princely merchant named Preston, a baronet of Scotland and Nova Scotia, and sometime M.P. for Dover. He called it his "fishing cottage," and often in the spring he went thither, with a friend or two, as a relief to the toils of parliamentary and mercantile duties. His most frequent guest was the Right Hon. George Rose, Secretary of the Treasury, and an Elder Brother of the Trinity House. Many a day did these two worthies enjoy at Dagenham Reach; and Mr. Rose once intimated to Sir Robert, that Mr. Pitt, of whose friendship they were both justly proud, would, no doubt, delight in the comfort of such a retreat. A day was named, and the Premier was invited; and he was so well pleased with his reception at the "fishing cottage"—they were all two if not three bottle men—that, on taking leave, Mr. Pitt readily accepted an invitation for the following year.

For a few years, the Premier continued a visitor to Dagenham, and was always accompanied by Mr. George Rose. But the distance was considerable; the going and coming were somewhat inconvenient for the First Minister of the Crown. Sir Robert Preston, however, had his remedy, and he proposed that they should in future dine nearer London. Greenwich was suggested: we do not hear of Whitebait in the Dagenham dinners, and its introduction, probably, dates from the removal to Greenwich. The party of three was now increased to four; Mr. Pitt being permitted to bring Lord Camden. Soon after, a fifth guest was invited—Mr. Charles Long, afterwards Lord Farnborough. All were still the guests of Sir Robert Preston; but, one by one, other notables were invited,—all Tories—and, at last, Lord Camden considerately remarked, that, as they were all dining at a tavern, it was but fair that Sir Robert Preston should be relieved from the expense. It was then arranged that the dinner should be given, as usual, by Sir Robert Preston, that is to say, at his invitation; and he insisted on still contributing a buck and champagne: the rest of the charges were thenceforth defrayed by the several guests; and, on this plan, the meeting continued to take place annually till the death of Mr. Pitt.

Sir Robert was requested, next year, to summon the several guests, the list of whom, by this time, included most of the Cabinet Ministers. The time for meeting was usually after Trinity Monday, a short period before the end of the Session. By degrees, the meeting, which was originally purely gastronomic, appears to have assumed, in consequence of the long reign of the Tories, a political, or semi-political character. Sir Robert Preston died; but Mr. Long, now Lord Farnborough, undertook to summon the several guests, the list of whom was furnished by Sir Robert Preston's private secretary. Hitherto, the invitations had been sent privately: now they were dispatched in Cabinet boxes, and the party was, certainly, for some time, limited to the Members of the Cabinet. A dinner lubricates ministerial as well as other business; so that the "Ministerial Fish Dinner" may "contribute to the grandeur and prosperity of our beloved country."

The following Carte is from the last edition of the Art of Dining, in Murray's Railway Reading:—

Fish Dinner at Blackwall or Greenwich.

    La tortue à l'Anglaise.
    La bisque d'écrevisses.
    Le consommé aux quenelles de merlan.
    De tortue claire.
Les casseroles de green fat feront le tour de la table.
    Les tranches de saumon (crimped).
    Le poisson de St. Pierre à la crême.
    Le zoutchet de perches.
    " de truites.
    " de flottons.
    " de soles (crimped).
    " de saumon.
    " d'anguilles.
    Les lamproies à la Worcester.
    Les croques en bouches de laitances de maquereau.
    Les boudins de merlans à la reine.
{ Les soles menues frites.
Les petits carrelets frites.
Croquettes de homard.
Les filets d'anguilles.
    La truite saumonée à la Tartare.
    Le whitebait: id. à la diable.

Second Service.

Les petits poulets au cresson—le jambonneau aux épinards.

La Mayonnaise de filets de soles—les filets de merlans à l'Arpin.

Les petits pois à l'Anglaise—les artichauts à la Barigoule.

La gelée de Marasquin aux fraises—les pets de nonnes.

Les tartelettes aux cerises—les célestines à la fleur d'orange.

Le baba à la compôte d'abricots—le fromage Plombière.

Mr. Walker, in his Original, gives an account of a dinner he ordered, at Lovegrove's, at Blackwall, where if you never dined, so much the worse for you:—

"The party will consist of seven men besides myself, and every guest is asked for some reason—upon which good fellowship mainly depends; for people brought together unconnectedly had, in my opinion, better be kept separately. Eight I hold the golden number, never to be exceeded without weakening the efficacy of concentration. The dinner is to consist of turtle, followed by no other fish but Whitebait, which is to be followed by no other meat but grouse, which are to be succeeded simply by apple-fritters and jelly, pastry on such occasions being quite out of place. With the turtle, of course, there will be punch; with the Whitebait, champagne; and with the grouse, claret; the two former I have ordered to be particularly well iced, and they will all be placed in succession upon the table, so that we can help ourselves as we please. I shall permit no other wines, unless, perchance, a bottle or two of port, if particularly wanted, as I hold variety of wines a great mistake. With respect to the adjuncts, I shall take care that there is cayenne, with lemons cut in halves, not in quarters, within reach of every one, for the turtle, and that brown bread and butter in abundance is set upon the table for the Whitebait. It is no trouble to think of these little matters beforehand, but they make a vast difference in convivial contentment. The dinner will be followed by ices, and a good dessert, after which coffee and one glass of liqueur each, and no more; so that the present may be enjoyed without inducing retrospective regrets. If the master of a feast wish his party to succeed, he must know how to command; and not let his guests run riot, each according to his own wild fancy."

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. II
London, 1866