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Dickens and the Blackwall Whitebait Suppers

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Blackwall 1840s ( National Maritime Museum)

In a previous couple of posts I have published excerpts from Charles Dickens Exploring Expedition to the Isle of Dogs in the 1850s.

It is time for another classic piece of Dickens in which our guide enters the world of Whitebait suppers, shipbuilding and a geriatric horse called Old Hob in Blackwall.

In the nineteenth century there developed a custom that  Cabinet Ministers attended an annual Whitebait Supper at Greenwich or Blackwall, at the height of its popularity in the first part of the nineteenth large numbers of people followed the tradition. To cater for these people a number of inns were built in Blackwall on the riverfront  The most popular were the King’s Arms, Coach and Horses, Britannia, Plough, Artichoke and the George. By  the 1880s the tradition had all but died out.

Unfortunately when the Blackwall tunnel was built, most of the Inns were pulled down and virtually nothing exists from the time Dickens wrote this piece.

Upward and upward we bend our steps until Blackwall begins to take the place of Millwall.

Strype says that Blackwall was so named ” because it is a wall of the. Thames, and distinguished by the additional term ‘black,’ from the black shrubs which grew on it” a theory which strikes us as being rather a sorry one.

However, to Blackwall we do at length come ; and here we find that the Plough, and the Artichoke, and the Brunswick taverns present a degree of smartness which eclipses the other Isle of Dogs’ taverns – they tell of whitebait dinners.

An embarrassing thought now presents itself. Why do Cabinet Ministers eat whitebait ? And why do they eat them at the close of the parliamentary session in a tavern at Blackwall or Greenwich ?

Whitebait, being fish, are cold-blooded animals ; but is there on this ground any analogy between them and Cabinet Ministers ? It is a phenomenon both ichthyological and topographical, this whitebait eating in the Isle of Dogs. Let us see whether Mr. Yarrell’s description of a whitebait will furnish any clue to this subject :

The whitebait, then, is a little fish, something like the young of the shad, varying from two to six inches in length. From the beginning of April to the end of September it is caught in the Thames, seldom higher than Woolwich or Blackwall, at flood-tide. The fishery is of rather a peculiar nature. The mouth of the net has about three square feet of area, with a very small mesh or bag-end. The boat is moored in the tide-way, where the water is from twenty to thirty feet deep, and the net with its wooden framework is fixed to the side of the boat. The tail of the hose, swimming loose, is from time to time handed into the boat, the end untied, and its contents shaken out. The wooden frame forming the mouth of the net does not dip more than four feet below the surface of the water. The further the fishermen go down towards the mouth of the river, the sooner they begin to catch whitebait after the flood-tide has commenced. When fishing as high as Woolwich, the tide must have flowed from three to four hours, and the water become sensibly brackish to the taste, before the whitebait make their appearance. They return down the river with the first of the ebb-tide ; and all attempts to preserve them in well boats, in pure fresh water, have failed.A few whitebait are caught near the Isle of Wight, and in the Firth of Forth ; but they are very little known except in the Thames.

So far, there is very little analogy or apparent connexion between a Cabinet Minister and a whitebait. We will therefore see whether M. Soyer’s account of the method of cooking this fish will elucidate the matter.

” This very delicate little fish,” says the great Gastronomic regenerator, ” is cooked in the most simple manner. Dry them in a couple of cloths, shake the cloths at the corner, but do not touch the fish with your hands ; then have ready an equal quantity of bread-crumbs and flour in a dish, throw the fish into it, toss them lightly over with the hands, take them out immediately, put them in a wire basket, and fry them in very hot lard. One minute will cook them ; turn them out on a cloth, sprinkle a little salt over them, dish them on a napkin, and serve them very hot.” The same authority tells us, that ” these lilliputian.fishes never can be had at home in the perfection you get them at Greenwich or Blackwall, where they are obtained as soon as caught, and dressed by persons in constant practice.” All very nice ; but what about the Cabinet Ministers ?  They (the whitebait, not the Ministers) are served up with cayenne and lemon-juice, and eaten with brown bread and butter ; the savoury morsel being washed down with iced punch. Still we do not see the connexion. And if we take the view topographical instead of the view ichthyological,we are not certain of enlightenment ; for we do not see how the vicinity of ship-yards, chemical-works, and iron-works, with a wafting of pungent odours when the wind doth blow, can improve the flavour of whitebait to a legislative stomach. There seems evidently to have been a rise of fashion in this matter ; for Pennant, after speaking of the whitebait fishery, says, that it ” occasions during the season a vast resort of the lower order of epicures to the taverns contiguous to the places where they are taken.” Lower order of epicures, indeed !

Hemmed in by the whitebait taverns, is Green’s ship-yard. A notable old place this ; more so, than any other private shipyard,perhaps, in this country. It is no small thing that, for a period of two hundred years, there has been little if any cessation in the making of foothooks and keelsons, bowsprits and sternposts, ribs and beams, decks and masts, in this identical spot ; and all for and by private owners. First, there was a Sir Henry Johnson, who, in the time of Oliver Cromwell, was owner of this yard, and who it seems to have been a great benefactor to the neighbouring village of Poplar. Then, throughout the reigns of Charles the Second, James the Second, and William and Mary, the shipyard maintained its importance, under the ownership, first of one Sir William Johnson, and then of another. Strype tells us about a horse which was owned by the elder Sir William, and which was evidently a knowing old blade. The horse, we are told,was ” wrought there thirty-four years, driven by one man ; and he grew to that experience,that at the first sound of the bell for the men in the yard to leave off I work, he also would cease labouring, and could not by any means be brought to give one pull after it ;and when the bell rang to work, he would as readily come forth again to his labour, which was to draw planks and pieces of timber from one part of the yard to another.” Honour to the tough old horse, who insisted on the proposition, that ” property has its duties as well as its rights.” Old Hob was his name ; and there was formerly a public-house in the neighbourhood which derived its sign from this name nay, not merely was, but is, in Brunswick Street, near the entrance to the yard. Old Hob’s master, and the next Sir William, are said to have built no less than fifteen men-of-war for the Government before the time of Queen Anne. The second Sir William’s daughter married the Earl of Strafford ; and then occurs a blank in the annals of the yard and its industry until a period about a century ago, when Mr. Perry became the owner. In the family of the Perrys the property remained for half a century, during which many vessels of war were built there for the Government.

Mr. Perry built within his estate the Brunswick Dock, the first dock (we believe) which London could boast. Here he had water space for thirty large ships and double that number of smaller ones, cranes for landing guns and heavy stores, conveniences for the shipment of cavalry, warehouses for whalebone and blubber from whale-ships, coppers for boiling down the blubber, a mast-house to aid in masting ships the same venerable black old ugly building which is still a wonderment to those who view Blackwall from a distance.

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Mast House Blackwall (National Maritime Museum)

But at the beginning of the present century the merchants became dock mad ; they built docks, as thickly as we now build railways ; and Mr. Perry’s Brunswick Dock was bought up for, and enclosed by, and incorporated with,the East India Docks. The shipyard, however,remained private property ; and during the long war the stocks and slips were constantly occupied by war-ships being built for the Government, as well as by East India ships and other merchant ships of large size ; for this yard never, until late years, had an equal in importance in any other part of the kingdom. It is among the records of the yard that no less than ten ships of war were launched here during the single year 1813.

In the years of comparative peace which have since followed, the names of Wigram and of Green have been associated with the construction of a vast number of fine vessels. It is only by a little stretch of geography that the Isle of Dogs can be said to contain this Brunswick shipyard ; but, even if it were for the sake of old Hob that true-born British horse we will entice the yard into our island.

At and around the point which may be deemed the eastern “vanishing-point” of the Isle of Dogs, is that strange congeries of buildings, in which the Blackwall railway, the Brunswick pier, the East India Dock, and Green’s ship-yard, all meet in brotherhood.

How the railway ferrets out a path for itself is a marvel. You are conscious that it is near at hand, for the locomotive-whistle betrays it ; but if you look at this point, there is the lofty wall of the Docks ; if at that, there is a road leading to one of the whitebait taverns ;if at the other, there is one of Mr. Green’s ships poking its nose over the wall. There is, in fact, a struggle for place, but a struggle in which the railway wins, as it generally does uow-a-days. The metropolis here comes to its last legs ; here is the end of all things .the ” ultima Thule ” is reached. Here, is the tavern which forms the final stopping-place of the Blackwall omnibuses, after having worked their long and weary way from Knightsbridge.

Here, or hereabouts, are the last ship-yards on the north bank of the Thames. Here, is the last of our docks until the new Victoria Docks in the Essex marshes are formed.

Here, is the last station of the Blackwall railway. Here, is the last struggle of Middlesex for existence : Bow Creek being the only barrier between it and Essex. Here, is the last bend and quirk of the river Lea, before it adds its humble driblet of water to the Thames. And here, is the last and final limit to the metropolis, beyond which, for some miles, we have little else than low-lying swampy ground. Taken altogether, a curious little nook this, lying just outside the Isle of Dogs proper, but connected with it by many ties of relationship.

Other Posts you may be interested in

Dickens visits Terra Incognito

Dickens and the Isle of Dogs – Where did the name come from ?

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