Victorian London - Food and Drink - Restaurants - Fish dinners

Whitebait suppers at Blackwall

Punch, 18 August 1849

BLACKWALL. ... The view of the Reach of the river from the Wharf is very fine. Here is Lovegrove's Tavern (the Brunswick), famous for its fish and especially its white-bait dinners. The white-bait is a small fish caught in the River Thames, and long considered, but erroneously, peculiar to this river; in no other place, however, is it obtained in such perfection. The fish should be cooked within an hour after being caught, or they are apt to cling together. They are cooked in water in a pan, from which they are removed as required by a skimmer. They are then thrown on a stratum of flour, contained in a large napkin, until completely enveloped in flour. In this state they are placed in a cullender, and all the superfluous flour removed by sifting. They are next thrown into hot melted lard, contained in a copper cauldron, or stew vessel, placed over a charcoal fire. A kind of ebullition immediately commences, and in about ten minutes they are removed by a fine skimmer, thrown into a cullender to drain, and then served up quite hot. At table they are flavoured with cayenne and lemon juice and eaten with brown bread and butter; iced punch being the favourite accompanying beverage.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

Six hours later we were sitting down to dinner at the Trafalgar Hotel at Greenwich. The management of organised pleasure trips invites the excursionists to a banquet there on the eve of their departure. As one cannot when one is alone witness the sight of such a spread served in the English fashion, I joined those of my compatriots who were still in London as a guest of the "Voyages Parisiens," These touristic organisations obtain special permits for visiting places of interest, which are not always open to the public, a convenient arrangement, which saves much personal trouble. I easily obtained an invitation for this Homeric repast, famous for its thirty fish courses. This culinary experience is most interesting for us as any museum. As with Aesop's tongues, fish is disguised in a variety of ways. Turbot, salmon, sole, sturgeon are served with incendiary sauces that stagger and parch one. These peppery concoctions left me unmoved if not cold - but a friture of whitebait is really a dish to set before a king. As those microscopic gudgeons are only to be found in the Thames, it was a novelty for us and one we are not likely to forget.  The meal was served in a verandah overlooking the river, which shimmered in the rays of the setting sun. Numerous small craft glided to and fro, their sails sharply outlined against the flaming sky. When dessert came toasts were drunk to all political parties urbi et orbi, and a few English people attracted by the shouts of revelry joined in with hearty hurrahs. Even the naval cadets out at practice in rowing boats cheered enthusiastically in their childish treble.

Francis Wey, A Frenchman Sees the English in the Fifties, 1935

Fish dinners at Greenwich and Blackwall were, I think, more in vogue then than they are now; indeed, the latter place, where Lovegrove's, the Brunswick, and the Artichoke flourished, is quite extinct as a dining-place. It was, I recollect, at Lovegrove's that the directors of the then existing General Screw Steam Shipping Company - of which Mr. J. Lyster O'Beirne was secretary-gave, after the launch of one of their vessels from Rolt & Mare's yard, a great lunch, at which Shirley Brooks was present, and which he utilized for descriptive purposes in the opening chapter of "Miss Violet and her Offers," his first contribution to Punch. The only Greenwich house of that day now remaining is the Trafalgar, little altered since it was owned by Mr. Hart, whose rival - Mr. Quartermaine, who established the present Ship - then conducted the Crown and Sceptre, now extinct or very much diminished.
    In those days there were two smaller fish-dinner houses at Greenwich, called, I think, the Yacht and the Ship Torbay. In those days people drove to Greenwich - the rail was comparatively little used by the luxurious-and every summer evening, and especially on a Sunday, there would be a serried phalanx of fifty or sixty horseless carriages, drags, barouches, cabriolets, broughams, and hansoms outside the principal hotels. The laying of the tram-rails on the principal roads put an end to all possibilities of pleasant driving : the charioteers and owners of private vehicles declined to submit them to the unavoidable twists and wrenchings; and the result to the Greenwich tavern-keepers is, it is said, a loss of seven thousand a year. Richmond, as a dining-place, occupied then much the same position as now. The view was always better than the dinner. The old Star and Garter, since burned down, was a much more modest hostelry than the enormous edifice which stands on its site, and competed for custom with the Castle, recently closed. The Roebuck and the Talbot were as they now are; and at Hampton Court, beside the still existent Mitre and Greyhound at either end of the gardens, there was a famous hotel not far from the river called the Toy. Toton's - afterwards Wilcox's - at Mortlake, the Swan at Staines, the Bells of Ouseley, the Cricketers at Chertsey, were well known to the comparatively few men who took interest in the river; while below' bridge Waite's Hotel at Gravesend was largely patronized by eastward-bound passengers who joined ship there.

Edmund Yates, His Recollections and Experiences, 1885
[chapter on 1847-1852]

All round the hospital, and indeed in its immediate vicinity, there are strange scenes of life, such as are not unfrequently met with in England. A few yards lower down the stream stands, in aristocratic exclusiveness, the Trafalgar Hotel, which I beg to recommend to every one who wishes to pay for a dinner twice the amount which would suffice to feed an Irish family for a whole week. If you like to take your dinner with people who hail the sensation of hunger as the harbinger of enjoyment, you had better enter this hotel and remain there for a few hours. The wines of the Trafalgar, like the Lethe of old, wash away the cares of the past; for it is here that, according to an ancient custom, Her gracious Majesty’s ministers meet after the parliamentary session. They drink sherry and champagne, and thank their stars that there are no more awkward questions to answer.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

    We return to the Thames and take a steamer to Blackwall on the opposite coast.
    The breeze, the park, and the walk have made us hungry; and thus it happens that, very much against our will, we find our­selves seated at a table which three solemn-looking gentlemen in black dress-coats and white cravats are busily loading with a number of large and small dishes. Each of these dishes—thus English custom willed it—is surmounted by a cover of polished silver, or at least a metallic composition which looks like silver, and each contains some sort of fish. Lovegrove’s Hotel has these many years past been famous for its fish dinners, and the fame is well deserved. Nowhere, except perhaps at Antwerp, does a gourmand find so vast a field for the study of this particular department of his favourite science. But more charming than the most delicious eels, mackarel, salmon, soles, and whitebait, is the view from the dining-room.

It is night. We “take the cars,” as they say in America, and rattle on, over the houses, canals, and streets, to the City. It took us just fifteen minutes to go all the distance.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

The Vessel, well-known Greenwich house, built a few years ago, and rented by Mr. Waterman, erst proprietor of the Ball and Coronet, an old fashioned tumble-down wooden edifice, lower down the street from the 1st of April to the 30th of September. Pleasure's business is in full swing here . . . on the heading of its bills it calls itself a hotel, but you might search in vain in the Vessel's basement for the commercial room . . . [or] the large family bedrooms or the stuffy cupboards in which bachelors are made to pass the night. There are not baths, no billiard rooms, no quaint assembly room . . . [no] rows of boots with number-chalked soles standing outside its chamber doors, nor regiments of bed-candlesticks on its hall table; no "boot" lurks up it stairs at the chilly hours of the morning to call anyone who is going by the first train, nor . . . [is there] a "breakfast order" . . . from its cellar to attic the Vessel means dinner, and nothing but dinner. On its ground floor are its hall, a lavatory, and the coffee-room with its numbered tables and its cheery look-out on the river. On the first floor are large rooms used for city companies, testimonial dinners and such like, at which between two and three hundred guests often sit down simultaneously; above are the smaller rooms used for private parties. Each of these rooms is distinguished by a name - the Nelson, the Beaufort, the Wellington &c. - and the party in each is accredited with the dinner, wine &c. ordered in the following fashion:- In the bar sits the booking clerk at a desk; behind him is a speaking pipe; at his side are two flexible tubes, one descending to the cellar, one to the kitchen. Down the speaking pipe comes a roar: "Wellington - ice pudding, bottle of decent hock" . . . though the cellar contains numerous specimens of rare wines and curious vintages, it is very seldom indeed that they are called for. Punch, sherry and champagne with the dinner - and nearly always champagne - it seems to be a fixed idea with Greenwich diner, more especially with those who seldom indulge in such a luxury, that champagne is a positive necessity. After dinner, by men of the present generation, and at parties where ladies are present, claret is generally drunk; but at the great feeds of the city companies, at the testimonial and presentation dinners, at the annual gatherings of old gentlemen belonging to eccentrically named clubs . . . nothing but East India brown sherry and sound old port ever "sparkle on the board" . . .
    On the first floor is a kitchen which supplies that and the floor above, while the house is pierced with "lifts" for the speedy conveyance of hot dishes and removal of plates, glasses, &c. . . .. The same order and regularity which pervades the rest of the establishment is brought to play on the waiters; to each man the plate is given out and counted and entered on a record; each has his own particular cutlery and glass; each is accountable for everything supplied to him . . .. on every floor, in the secret recesses unexplored by the general public, hangs a written code of laws and a table of fines applicable to waiters' irregularities . . . the majority of the waiters will be found to be foreigners . . . mostly sons of German innkeepers . . . 

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All the Year Round, October 10th, 1863

    For White Bait: Lovegrove's, and the Royal Brunswick Blackwall; The Ship, and the Trafalgar, Greenwich; and Palliser's, Gravesend.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865

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Fish Dinners. — The typical fish dinner of London is the extraordinary entertainment offered at Greenwich—perhaps the most curious repast ever invented by the ingenuity of the most imaginative hotel-keeper. Main courses of fish prepared in every conceivable way, followed by ducks and peas, beans and bacon cutlets, and other viands, so arranged as to stimulate a pleasing if somewhat expensive thirst, are washed down at these Gargantuan feeds by the choicest brands at the highest prices known to civilisation. The effect at the moment is eminently delightful. The sensation experienced when the bill is produced is not so pleasurable and it has been said that there is no “next morning headache” like that which follows a Greenwich dinner. But there is no doubt that a Greenwich dinner is a very excellent thing in its way—especially if you happen to be invited to dine by a liberal friend, who knows how to order it, and pay for it. Only two houses can be recommended for this kind of sport—the “Trafalgar” and the ‘Ship.” It may be noted that when the labours of the session are over, the Ministers of the Crown dine at the “Ship,” and congratulate each other on their continued existence in office. A fish dinner of quite a different and more digestible class, although 11 kinds of fish, and a selection of joints, are included in the bill of fare, is served twice a day—at 1 and 4 —at the “Three Tuns Tavern,” Billingsgate, at 2s. —about the price you a expected to give the chambermaid at Greenwich when you wash your hands. But although the price is low, and the accommodation a little rough, the dinner is excellent. Saturday afternoon during the winter months, or the very early spring, may be specially recommended for the excursion. The flavour of the old fashioned tavern dinner and after-dinner entertainment still hangs about Billingsgate. Of quite a different sort again is the fish dinner at the “Burlington,” Regent-street (5s.) which is worth a trial, especially during Lent. A good fish dinner is also to be had at Pur fleet during the season.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

    Across the river at Greenwich were the historical Trafalgar and Ship taverns, where the famous fish dinners, served in the very best style, were procurable. Only fish, but prepared and served in irreproachable form; beginning with boiled flounder, one progressed by seven stages of salmon in various forms, filleted sole, fried eel, each with its special sauce, the whitebait plain and whitebait devilled found the wayfarer well-nigh exhausted.
    It was only then that the folly of ordering dinner on a hungry stomach became manifest, and when the duckling that the smiling waiter had suggested made its appearance it was almost with tears that one turned away from its pleading savour and reluctantly confessed one inability to do it justice. And then the coffee on the lawn, and the scrambling for coppers among the water arabs in the surging mud below, were adjuncts that never failed in the completing of enjoyable evenings now for ever gone.
    Why the resort went out of fashion seems an enigma. Forty, thirty, aye twenty years both taverns were the almost daily resorts, during the summer and autumn, of the highest in the land. In one private room would be heard Her Majesty's judges, cracking jokes as if they were incapable of judicial sternness; in another legislators by the score, who had travelled down by special steamer to eat and drink as if no such things as fiscal questions existed; whilst in the public room cosy couples dined, and roysterers smoked and joked, and yet all has passed like a pleasant dream. The Trafalgar has long since been pulled down, the Ship, if not closed, is very much changed for the worse, and Londoners swelter annually with the patience of Job, and are apparently indifferent to the delightful resorts they have lost.

'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908