The Whistling Oyster

Whistling Oyster
The Whistling Oyster, a small tavern and refreshment rooms popular with artists, was first established in 1825 in a narrow court called Vinegar Yard near Drury Lane. Its sign, painted on the large gas lamp over the door, as we can see, was a weirdly and grotesquely comical representation of a gigantic oyster whistling a tune, and with an intensely humorous twinkle beaming in its eye.

So how did the tavern get its strange name? The Daily Telegraph reported that in about 1840 the proprietor of the place, which had a great name for the excellence of the oysters it served, heard a strange and unusual sound from one of the tubs in which the shellfish lay piled in layers one over the other, placidly feeding on oatmeal, and awaiting the inevitable advent of the remorseless knife. Mr Pearkes, the landlord, listened, hardly believing his ears. But there was no doubt about it. One of the oysters was distinctly whistling! It was not difficult to find this phenomenal bivalve, and he was put by himself in a spacious tub with a bountiful supply of brine and meal.

The news spread through London, and the lucky Mr Pearkes found his house besieged by curious crowds. How the oyster managed to whistle is not exactly known. Probably somewhere in his shell there was a minute hole, and the creature, breathing in his own way by the inspiration and expiration of water, forced a small jet through the tiny orifice. One wit suggested that the oyster had been crossed in love, and now whistled to keep up appearances, with an idea of showing that it didn’t care.

The novelist Thackeray used to declare that he was actually in the tavern when an American came in to see the phenomenon, and after hearing the talented mollusc go through its usual performance, strolled contemptuously out, declaring that ‘it was nothing to an oyster he knew of 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. Was he eaten alive? Or was he ignominiously handed over to the cook to be served up in a bowl of oyster sauce as a relish to a grilled steak? Whatever happened to him, he deserves to be more widely known. 

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