ID: DJG_OYS / Douglas J. Gurton

TitleOyster Culture and Dredging
AbstractIt is accepted locally, but not generally known that there were oyster fisheries in these parts prior to Roman times, and one historian jocularly suggested that one of the reasons which prompted Julius Caesar to invade these shores was that he had been told that the delicate and succulent bivalves in these parts were unsurpassed. However we de know from the amount or oyster shell round in ancient foundations, roadworks, etc., that oysters were plentiful in the old days, and possibly not regarded as the delicacy they are today. In Domesday Book 1068 it is recorded that there were oyster fisheries in the Colne and Blackwater, and one such fishery had been established at "Tolesberie". For centuries past the men in these parts have been employed in the cultivation and fishing for oysters, although have not used the Roman artificial means of placing "fascines" (bundles of twigs) or "tiles" in the water to promote the growth of "spat" from which oysters are formed. In a paper to the Royal Society in 1667 on "Oyster Culture" a Dr. T. Spratt gave an excellent description of "oyster spat", and to quote he said :-

"It is like the drop of a candle, and about the bignefs of a fmall fpangle. This Spat cleaves to ftones, old oyfter shells, pieces of wood, and fuch like things at the bottom of the fea, which they call Cultch."

Referring to mature oysters, Dr. Spratt suggested that on the flood tide the oysters laid with their hollow shell downwards, and on the ebb they turned over onto the other side. This supposition has been disproved. Oysters as such do not move unless there is unless there is some outside physical influence or tidal disturbance.

In April, May, Midsummer and Michaelmas the oysters cast their spawn, and the "spat" which clings to articles on the river bed forms into shell within 24 hours. The old shell, stones, fragments of pottery,. etc., on the river bed and termed "culch", had always been guarded with some jealousy by the dredgermen in the Blackwater, and prior to the formation of the Tollesbury and Mersea Native Oyster Fishery Company in 1876, oyster dredging had been more or less a free for all activity. There was never any objection to taking the "brood" or small oysters, but the removal of "culch" was sternly resisted. In 1870 the Chief Coastguard at Tollesbury was prevailed upon to intervene in one dispute, and he ordered the tubs of culch caught by some smacks from the Crouch to be dumped overboard. However, the matter came to a head on Friday 9th March 1894, when Tollesbury smacks bore down on four Burnham smacks, EMMELINE, ALMA, WONDER and ROSE, near the Bench Head buoy, boarded them and heaved 300 tubs of culch overboard, resulting in the almost forgotten "Tollesbury Piracy Case" which came before the Witham Magistrates on Tuesday 10th April 1894, when twelve Tollesbury fishermen were charged with committing acts of piracy. The defendants were supported by 200 men from Tollesbury and 100 men from Mersea. The prosecution alleged that the oyster fishery was worth ¼ million sterling to any private individual or corporation and stressed that any fisherman could fish or dredge in the estuary. He somewhat weakened his case when in course of evidence it was disclosed that in the melee which had ensued, Tollesbury men had been "playing gay tunes on tin whistles and other instruments", and the only serious incident was when one of the Burnham plaintiffs had produced a formidable gun and threatened to shoot any Tollesbury man who boarded his craft. Six defendants were acquitted and the other six were committed for trial at Chelmsford Assizes, The case attracted nation wide publicity, and the case for the defence received the support of the M.P.s for the Colchester and Harwich Divisions, and also the clergymen of the district, and also the landowners and farmers, notably Messrs. Seabrook, Bailey, Hutley, Golding and Wakelin of that time. Public meetings were held, and a petition was presented to the President of the Board of Trade, who at that time suggested that the best course would be to prohibit "oyster dredging or taking of culch" between April and September. This course met with strong objection as the culch and oyster beds would have been ruined, and ultimately a bill was presented to Parliament giving powers to the Kent and Essex Sea Fisheries Committee to regulate the fishing and prevent the removal of the culch. The men of Tollesbury, Mersea and Brightlingsea won the day, and it is interesting to note that prior to that time there were laws to protect open spaces and commons on land, but no law to protect common lands under the water. Two local men who played a great part in he success ef the case were Capts. John Carter and William Sailor Frost. The grateful fishermen presented them with handsomely inscribed marble clocks.

One of the biggest drawbacks that Tollesbury fishermen have to contend with, is the long trudge of l½ - 2 miles from the village to the Leavings, Mell or Thurslet to get to their boats. Dressed in their heavy gear and at one time wearing heavy locally made leather thigh boots shod with hob-nails and steel plates, some men would be practically exhausted before commencing the day's work, apart from having te get out of bed sometimes as early as 4 a.m. to catch the last of the ebb tide for the sometimes long row out the moored craft. Fortunately there was always some respite once on board, as fishing could not commence until clear daylight, and the intervening time would be taken up getting the dredging gear ready and getting the tyers off the mainsail, etc. One of the first orders was "put the kittle on", and the man or boy acting as "cook" would light the cabin fire, and invariably produce a blackened fry-pan containing a conglomeration of variously coloured grease. The breakfast which ensued had to be tasted to be believed. I have never had a more tasty breakfast, stale bread dipped in sea water and fried, washed down by tea thick as treacle made with condensed milk and sugar all in the same pot. During the course of breakfast the sound of windlasses and screeching of blocks would be heard from the other smacks, and the older hands could always identify the smacks by the sounds without even seeing them. This would be the signal to heave short and get under way, following the leader out of the creek. Once out on the grounds to be worked, the "Jury" smack manned by the elder brethren, six in all, duly elected "B" shareholders of the Company, would order the working by vociferous commands from the foreman of the river. These commands were at times received with some dismay and swearing on the part of the crew members of the smacks, as it entailed that the smacks would be working some distance from their home grounds and would cause a good distance to be covered before the end of the working day, which was always heralded by the hoisting of a flag on the "Jury" boat,

The actual dredging and "calling out' was a back aching task. The four or five man crew each had a dredge to work, which consisted of deftly heaving the dredge, a triangular affair with net, attached to a bass (grass) warp into the river and catching a turn on a thole or belaying pin in the bulwarks of the smack. Constantly heaving in and "dunking" the dredge in the water to relieve it of mud and other soluble matter was a tiring task, but it had its rewards. Sometimes apart from the brood and small oysters found, there would of more intrinsic value, ancient urns, pottery and invariably clay pipes. Before the close of day, the outers and brood would be placed in shallow boxes or tubs, measured two pecks to a "wash", and at a signal from the "Jury" boat the catch would be transported by row boat to that craft or the motor boat "Dan". It was an offence to retain any oysters in any of the working smacks, and the River police had authority to board any smack to ensure that there was no contravention of the bye-laws. Apart from the River police, maintained by Colchester Borough or Essex County so far as the Blackwter was concerned, there were the Oyster company's watch boats usually manned by aged shareholders. On the formation of the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Company in 1876, the dredgermen took out five "B" working shares apiece, and worked for a month or more without payment. These shares have been passed on from father to son in the course of years, but there are not now enough active shareholders to work the Company's grounds. In the old days, boys aged 13 years and above would be apprenticed to one or other of the master dredgermen for four years. The indentures, some of which were inscribed on parchment, provide quaint reading. The boys were paid 6d weekly, fortnightly in arrear, and there were fines of 2/- for various offences, including an enjoinder not to frequent alehouses, taverns or places of ill repute.

So far as the indentures of boys apprenticed to their fathers were concerned, the clauses regarding offences and fines were deleted by the Superintendent of the Mercantile Marine Office at Colchester, as without doubt parents could exercise a strong hold on their children in these old times. The apprenticeships produced some of the finest seamen to be found anywhere, and it is more than a pity that few of the younger generation are inclined to follow fishing as their calling, and thus protect their natural heritage.

In the early twenties, Major Kenrick McMullen, a small boat enthusiast and comparative newcomer to Tollesbury, advocated the construction of a footpath over the saltings from Little Marsh to a point near "The Whale". The proposition received the support of the majority of fishermen, but some were in favour of deepening "Woodrolfe Creek". This operation would have proved most expensive as one side of the creek would have to be shuttered to prevent the saltings eroding away. The schemes received the support of many people and the local M.P., butlack of funds and legal points for rights of way prevented either scheme from being put into effect, and has denied easy access to tidal water at Tollesbury.

The disastrous winter of 1963 caused a serious setback to the oyster fisheries, much of the "spat" and "brood" were killed, but since then there has been a moderate recovery. Possibly we will see the day when oysters are again plentiful like of yore. According to Mr. Jack Gallant formerly Station Master at Tollesbury, he at one time superintended the loading of 120,000 oysters, firsts and seconds, in one day at Tollesbury railway station.

Apart from the depredations of weather affecting the cultivation of oysters, the matter of "poaching" has had to be considered. That is one of the reasons why fishing smacks bear registered numbers and all their working gear branded with the same number. A case arose in the early 1920s when the owner and crew of a Tollesbury smack were summoned to appear at Canterbury Magistrates Court to answer to a case of alleged "poaching". The case arose some consternation at the tine as the smack in question had not been on the Kent coast for some years past. The anxiety ef the crew was not relieved by the fact that they were told that the Court adjoined Canterbury Prison, and good humoured banter about "Canterbury lamb and mutton" was not well received. However it transpired that one ef the smack's dredges, made by Williams ef Toliesbury, and stamped with registered number, had been recovered off the Whitstable oyster grounds. Fortunately the owner and crew had a good counsel, and were able te prove that they had been employed by the Whitstable oyster company some ten years earlier, and the case was dismissed. It is significant to note that after a lapse of some 40 years, a River police patrol equipped with fast motor boat, has been revived. We all regretted the passing of the river police section so many years ago, as in their handsome little sailing cutters they performed yeoman service, not only to the fishermen but to many a yachtsman in time of trouble. The maxim is that prevention is better than cure.

In the late autumn of 1944 the writer had the doubtful privilege of serving in the East Scheldt. The fishermen in that area were very much concerned as they had been prevented from working the oyster grounds. The area had not been cleared of mines, and the enemy was still in occupation of nearby islands, having been by-passed by 21 Army Group on the drive from Antwerp to the River Haas. Permission was sought from the Senior Naval Officer at Ostend to restart the fishing, and approval was given subject to strict security being observed and that fishing was done at own risk. As I had a little knowledge of the subject, I was directed to take charge so far as security was concerned. I suspect my C.O. was happy te see me go on this mission, which afforded me much pleasure as it reminded me of many happy days spent in the company of Tollesbury fishermen. Having to muster at 4 a.m., and march along the "polder" to the harbour where the fishing boats were gathered, reminded me very much of the long walk along the seawall at home. Once on board, breakfast was prepared, but before getting under way I was very much impressed by the crews of the boats, who all bared their heads, and said Prayers. There the similarity ended, and I can only imagine that our own fishermen say prayers quickly and privately before setting out on the days work. It was then full speed ahead for the oyster grounds, and once out there each boat dropped their large dredges from the derrick heads either side, and forged ahead dredging. In the meantime, the large open skiffs went inshore to lift the many thousands of tiles (ordinary red brick house tiles) stacked at low water mark, as these tiles were covered by the season's "spat". No time was lost as there was already a nip in the air, and ground frosts were feared. The larger boats were at this time, heaving their dredges in by motor capstans swinging them inboard and emptying into the athwartship trays across the the wells of the boats, where the crews stood by ready with their "coletack" knives to "cull out". I found the task more easy than at home, but in my view not so efficient as a great deal of mud had to be cleared, and as the boats proceeded at some speed, a deal of the oyster grounds were left untouched. Like us, the Dutchmen are very much troubled by the scourge of the American "slipper limpet" which kills off the oysters, but they take the trouble to process them by boiling and turning the meat into a highly nutritious and palatable substance termed "slipper flesh". At the close of day, the task set out to do, had bean completed, and we headed back to our home port, where the tiles were removed from the skiffs and placed in large tanks to enable the spat to drop off and form brood eytters. The fishermen were jubilant, and told me that it was the first time they had gone dredging under armed escort. I was more than relieved that there had been no interference from the enemy. However, our operations had not gone unnoticed, for permission was sought by the oystermen of Yerseke, South Beveland, to carry out a similar task. The outcome of it all was that the oyster fisheries in the East Scheldt had been saved from serious damage. In the weeks which followed our local forces units had oysters on the menu, something unheard of before, and nothing could have been finer in those days ef austerity than a dish of oysters, with a spot of limejuice, Dutch wholemeal bread, and a nip of "schnapps gin". By February 1945 word had reached the catering officers of 21 Army Group HQ that oysters were available, and the merchants were able to despatch some barrels containing a prime selection with which to entertain our Allies of the United States and Russian forces who were then meeting up for the final drive into occupied territory. The sight of Royal Naval craft, all wearing the White ensign, travelling on road transporters for the Rhine crossing was wonderful, and one which I shall never forget, neither will the older residents on that route in North Brabant, Holland.

"Hail to thee, blest oyster, only shunned by cranks...

AuthorDouglas J. Gurton
SourceMersea Museum
Related Images:
 Tollesbury oyster dredging. Laid up ships in background.
 CK53 A.B.C. [This is the smack John Milgate dug out of Feldy]  BF03_001_104_001
ImageID:   BF03_001_104_001
Title: Tollesbury oyster dredging. Laid up ships in background.
CK53 A.B.C. [This is the smack John Milgate dug out of Feldy]
Source:John Leather Collection
 Tollesbury and Mersea Native Oyster Fishery Company. Unloading the oysters. Postcard not mailed.
 The company was formed in 1879. This photograph, originally issued on a calendar, shows the day's catch being unloaded on Tollesbury Hard. The highest number of oysters ever despatched by rail on any one day was 110,000. [Tollesbury Past]  CG12_113
ImageID:   CG12_113
Title: Tollesbury and Mersea Native Oyster Fishery Company. Unloading the oysters. Postcard not mailed.
The company was formed in 1879. This photograph, originally issued on a calendar, shows the day's catch being unloaded on Tollesbury Hard. The highest number of oysters ever despatched by rail on any one day was 110,000. [Tollesbury Past]
Source:Mersea Museum / Cedric Gurton Tollesbury
 Oyster Dredging, Tollesbury  PBIB_TOL_013
ImageID:   PBIB_TOL_013
Title: Oyster Dredging, Tollesbury
Source:Mersea Museum / Peter Bibby Collection