Whitebait: the young, especially, of the sprat (Sprattus sprattus)

Image: Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and Bellot Memorial.


(Victorian Web): “The editorial cartoonist John Tenniel again deploys a pun on party as he had the year before in “Before the Trial”. Looking up whitebait, I discovered that they are tiny fish who live in the Thames and considered a delicacy — my wife already knew this —  but was at a loss to understand the cartoon until the ever-knowledgable Jacqueline Banerjee directed me to the “Georgian Gentleman” site, which explains that

Over time it became the practice of the leading political parties to partake of whitebait in their favourite hostelries. The Michelin Green Guide to London tells us “In the Nineteenth Century Blackwell was associated with political whitebait dinners. The Brunswick Hotel and Tavern was built in 1835 by the East India Company and was patronised by members of the Fox Club (followers of Charles James Fox); their political opponents headed by William Pitt the Younger, Gladstone and their Whig followers dined at Greenwich (where the tradition of whitebait dinners still thrives at the Trafalgar Tavern.)”

The point of the cartoon is that Lord Derby (with Disraeli standing at his side) invites Gladstone and his ally John Bright to join the Tories, probably in celebrating the 1867 Reform Bill, and an annoyed Gladstone points out that they should have been invited earlier.

From: Rosebery – Statesman in Turmoil (2005), by Leo McKinstry:

“So unsure of himself was Rosebery that he made simple logistical errors: when the Cabinet held a Whitebait Dinner at Greenwich, he contrived to miss the official ministerial steamer from Westminster pier and had to go out to the boat by police launch.”

From: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer (1894):

Whitebait Dinner

The ministerial dinner that announces the near close of the parliamentary session. Sir Robert Preston, M.P. for Dover, first invited his friend George Rose (Secretary of the Treasury) and an elder brother of the Trinity House to dine with him at his fishing cottage on the banks of Dagenham Lake. This was at the close of the session. Rose on one occasion proposed that Mr. Pitt, their mutual friend, should be asked to join them; this was done, and Pitt promised to repeat his visit the year following, when other members swelled the party. This went on for several years, when Pitt suggested that the muster should be in future nearer town, and Greenwich was selected. Lord Camden next advised that each man should pay his quota. The dinner became an annual feast, and was until lately (1892) a matter of course. The time of meeting was Trinity Monday, or as near Trinity Monday as circumstances would allow, and therefore was near the close of the session.”

Jasmine Dotiwala wrote at huffingtonpost.co.uk on 15.10.16. that:

“…(the) historical White Bait Supper dated back to the late 18th century, when it became the custom for parliamentarians wanting a secret location for a private dinner conversation away from the prying eyes and ears of Westminster. They would apparently travel to Greenwich where several pubs made a specialty of whitebait, with Charles Dickens being a fan of the fresh fish caught in the Thames.

Whitebait suppers were first held by the Commissioners of Sewers, who oversaw the engineering projects carried out, in and around Dagenham, after the great flood that inundated local marshland around the Thames in 1713.

This eventually led to a tradition of grand and formal political Whitebait Dinners, with ministers going by boat from Parliament, Liberals to the ‘Trafalgar Inn’, and Tories to the ‘Ship’. Unfortunately when the Blackwall tunnel was built, most of the Inns were pulled down. The last Whitebait Dinner was in 1894.”

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