Image above: Brentford Aits (Source: Brentford Thru My Lens)

By 1777, the Swan Tavern in Brentford had developed a reputation for hospitality, quality food and entertainment. The proprietors Henry and Elizabeth West – my great, great, great, great grandparents – had acquired a large fortune from the success of the tavern and were able to acquire further property on Kew Green and in Brentford.

The tavern landlord during this period was often a man of substance, ranking above the tradesmen of the town. Surprised foreign visitors found that the English five star taverns were decorated and fitted to a high standard:

‘They found the stairs and landings carpeted. The bedrooms were spacious and clean with good mahogany furniture and immense four-post beds, piled so high with feather mattresses that it needed a short pair of steps to mount into them. There were curtains at the windows and curtains round the beds, wax candles in the sitting-rooms and pictures on the walls.’ [1]

Rosamond Bayne-Powell, Travellers in Eighteenth-Century England

By the end of the eighteenth century, dinner was served in a common dining room or coffee room and there were set menus, however prior to this innovation, diners had the choice of hiring a private sitting-room or having meals with the landlord and his family in the parlour or kitchen. Tables were often covered with large joints of meat, fish and game and there were no napkins, visitors had to wipe their fingers on the tablecloth as the locals did.

The Swan Tavern specialised in fish recipes and even had its own ornamental fishponds for the purpose. In 1746 the Manor of Richmond granted a licence to Henry West to fish for ‘Thames salmon of the weight of fifteen pounds each at the best.’ [2] While some of the salmon may have been sold directly to consumers it was no doubt served as a dish to customers of the Swan.

Recently it was revealed, thanks to a post by R. M. Healey on Sarah Murden’s All Things Georgian blog, that the tavern served a Dutch dish called Vater Zuchee. This was composed of perch, parsley-roots and vinegar, and served to the patron in a deep dish with slices of bread and butter. Visitors who ordered the dish from the menu were required to eat it with their fingers – no doubt using the tablecloth to wipe their hands. [3]

Thanks to a Codicil attached to Henry West’s Will dated 24 October 1783, we know his son James had previously worked as cook at the Swan Tavern. After some squabble, James was dismissed by his two siblings Sarah and Henry who had taken over the business following Henry senior’s retirement. Henry senior ordered they either pay James a pension or reinstate him. Unfortunately we do not know which action they took with regards to their brother. [4]

If James was cooking at the Swan Tavern between 1775-1782, he surely cooked his most famous dish for memoirist William Hickey (1749-1829). Hickey recalled a visit he and his brother made to the establishment in a failed attempt to avoid becoming inebriated:

‘”Let you and I therefore get out of the way of temptation, mount our horses and ride gently to Richmond, Brentford Ait, or any other place within ten miles of London that you prefer, where we might take a quiet dinner, a pint of port each, and jog soberly home in the evening.” To so steady a plan, which I really liked, I readily consented. The event, however, never answered; entirely the reverse. The first excursion of this kind that we made we dined upon the Island off the town of Brentford, where there is a house famous for dressing pitchcocked eels, and also for stewing the same fish, and got so completely intoxicated we were incapable of mounting our horses and obliged to take a post-chaise to convey us to town. The wine being remarkably good, we ordered bottle after bottle until poor prudence was quite drowned.’ [5]

William Hickey, Memoirs
This is thought to be a portrait of William Hickey by Arthur William Devis. Paul Mellon Collection.

What are pitchcocked eels? Hannah Glasse the eighteenth century doyenne of English culinary expertise included recipes for pitchcocked eels and eel stew in her famous, and often plagarised manual The Art of Cookery:

To pitchcock Eels.

TAKE a large eel, and scour it well with salt to clean off all the slime; then slit it down the back, take out the bones, and cut it in three or four pieces; take the yolk of an egg and put over the inside, sprinkle crumbs of bread, with some sweet herbs and parsley chopped very fine, a little nutmeg grated, and some pepper and salt, mixed all together; then put it on a gridiron over a clear fire, broil it of a fine light brown, dish it up, and garnish with raw parsley and horseraddish; or put a boiled eel in the middle, and the pitchcocked round. Garnish as above with anchovy-sauce, and parsley and butter in a boat.

To stew Eels.

Sk1n, gut and wash them very clean in six or eight waters, to wash away all the sand; then cut them in pieces, about as long as your finger, put just water enough for sauce, put in a small onion stuck with cloves, a little bundle of sweet herbs, a blade or two of mace, and some whole pepper in a thin muslin rag, cover it close, and let them stew very softly.

Look at them now and then, put in a little piece of butter rolled in flour and a little chopped parsley. When you find they are quite tender and well done, take out the onion, spice and sweet herbs. Put in salt enough to season it. Then dish them up with the sauce. [6]

Both the dishes appear to have been heavily seasoned in keeping with the English traditions of the day – perhaps the custom of drinking sweet wines and clarets helped offset the strong taste of the food!

Mish J. Holman (c) 2022. Do not reproduce without permission.


[1] Bayne-Powell, Rosamond. (1951) Travellers in Eighteenth-century England. London: J. Murray.
[2] Manor of Richmond. Court Book. 1746. WEST, Henry. LR 3/87. National Archives (Kew), England.
[3] Healey, R. M. (2022) A Georgian Trip Advisor – Part one. In: All Things Georgian.
[4]Testamentary records. England. 12 April 1784. WEST, Henry. Will and Codicil. Prerogative Court of Canterbury Will Registers. PROB 11/1116. National Archives (Kew), England.
[5] Hickey, William. (1919) Memoirs. Vol 2: 1775-1782. London: Hurst & Blackett Ltd.
[6] Glasse, Hannah (1774) The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind Yet Published. [n.p.]: W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, J. Hinton.

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