Victorian London - Food and Drink - Restaurants - The Whistling Oyster

On the south side of Drury Lane Theatre, in narrow court leading out of Catherine Street, called Vinegar Yard, is a small tavern—or rather oyster and refreshment-rooms—dear to artists, who are indeed, its chief customers, and, if we may trust the Daily Telegraph, enjoys a reputation of much the same kind as that which in former days attached to " Button's " or " Will's" Coffee-houses. The house rejoices in the fanciful name of "The Whistling Oyster," and its sign is a weirdly grotesquely comical representation of a gigantic oyster whistling a tune, and with an intensely humorous twinkle beaming in its eye. The shop was first established by a Mr. Pearkes, in 1825. " It appears," says a writer in the Daily Telegraph "that about the year 1840 the proprietor of the house in question, which had then, as it has a great name for the superior excellence of its delicate little 'natives,' heard a strange and unusual sound proceeding from one of the tubs in which the shell-fish lay piled in layers one over the other, placidly fattening upon oatmeal, and awaiting the inevitable advent of the remorseless knife. Mr. Pearkes, the landlord, listened, hardly at first believing his ears. There was, however, no doubt about the matter. One of the oysters was disinctly whistling! or, at any rate, producing a sort 'sifflement' with its shell. It was not difficult to detect this phenomenal bivalve, and in a very few minutes he was triumphantly picked out from amongst his fellows, and put by himself in a spacious tub, with a bountiful supply of brine and meal. The news spread through the town, and for some days the fortunate Mr. Pearkes found his house besieged by curious crowds. That this Arion of oysters did really whistle, or do something very like whistling, is beyond all question. How he managed to do so is not upon record. Probably there existed somewhere in his shell a minute hole, such as those with which the stray oyster-shells upon the beach are usually riddled, and the creature, breathing in his own way by the due inspiration and expiration of water, forced a small jet through the tiny orifice each time that he drew his breath, and so made the strange noise that first caught the ear of his fortunate proprietor." As for the jokes and good sayings to which the creature gave rise during its brief span of life, they would fairly fill a large folio; and readers of Punch in its early volumes may even remember the famous picture of the "Whistling Oyster "— drawn, it is almost needless to add, from a purely imaginary point of view, and which those who have not been so fortunate as to have seen can behold reproduced in large upon the lamp which now marks the door of the establishment in Vinegar Yard, Douglas Jerrold's suggestion that said oyster "had been crossed in love and now whistled to keep up appearances, with an idea of showing that it didn't care." Thackeray used to declare that he was once actually in the shop when an American came in to see the phenomenon, strolled contemptuously out, declaring "it was nothing to an oyster he knew in Massachusetts, which whistled 'Yankee Doodle' right through and followed its master about the house like a dog." The subsequent fate of this interesting creature is a mystery - whether he was eaten alive, or ignominiously scalloped, or still more ignominiously handed over to the tender mercies of a cook in the neighbourhood to be served up in a bowl of oyster sauce as a relish to a hot beefsteak. In fact, like "Lucy" of Wordsworth- "None can tell, When th'oyster ceased to be."  But it is somewhat singular that so eccentric a creature should have existed in the middle of London, and in the middle of the nineteenth century, and that no history of his career should be on record: still more strange, we think, that he should have been set up over his master's shop as a sign, and yet that, with all its notoriety, it should have escaped the notice of Mr. Peter Cunningham, Mr. John Timbs, and even Mr. Jacob Larwood, the author of 'The History of Sign Boards.'

Old and New London, c.1880