ID: PH01_MIL / Geoff Gonella

TitleJohn Milgate - Peldon

Researched & compiled by Geoff Gonella

Although John is well-known in Mersea circles as a Merseaman and boat-builder, he and his wife Pat have lived at Shell Bungalow, Peldon since 1970. In the company of Elaine Barker and Tony Millatt of Mersea Museum, I was fortunate to interview John and Pat in 2018, at their interesting home and boatyard at the head of the Peldon Creek, above the Ray Channel.

Early life and career
John was born in 1931 at 'Smugglers Way', a late-medieval weatherboarded house near the northwestern end of Coast Road, West Mersea. The son of a Longshoreman and eager to learn, he took very well to his schoolwork and the way of life at the Mersea waterfront. Towards the end of his schooldays he did evening work at Wyatt's boatyard; it was wartime and William Wyatt was a lone boat-builder for most of the time, with nearly all local skilled men being away at war. So William Wyatt and John worked well together; John remembers vividly the aircraft movements during the war, in particular bombers, because the whole area was under several flying routes. [ Note 1 ]

After school John had a full-time job at Wyatt's, followed by a 5-year apprenticeship. In the 1950s he did National Service for 2 years, then it was back to Wyatt's and boat-building. [ Note 1 ]

John met Pat and they were married in 1959, when John was a fully skilled boat-builder for the Thames River Police, servicing and repairing Police boats such as launches. He remembers fondly the various skilled men of the River Thames, in particular the Lightermen. [ Note 1, Note 2 ]

More about John's early life and career may be seen in two articles of the 'Courier' [ Note 3 Note 4 ]

The history of Shell Bungalow
In the 1920s there was a crisis in the Essex oyster industry, caused by a huge number of Slipper Limpet which would attach to themselves to oysters, this being detremental to the health and life expectation of those oysters. Regarding the Mersea oyster industry, a Government official took steps to eradicate the problem by setting up a system for those that harvest oysters to remove the slipper limpets and put them in a collection point which would be emptied and taken to a central crushing machine for disposal. This is recalled by Mersea oysterman Leslie French : [ Note 5 ]

"About the start of the 1914-18 war, a Dr. Jameson came to live in Mersea, settling for a few years at The Firs, an old farm standing back from Firs Chase. He was employed by the Government, and wielded tremendous power. He started a limpet shell crushing factory in some old sheds ... he made certain of getting enough limpets to crush by ordering the dredging smacks to save a reasonable amount when they were catching brood and oysters on the common grounds. The limpets were delivered to a lighter near Old Hall point in Mersea Quarters, and when the lighter was loaded she was towed on to the Mersea Hard, the limpets unloaded, and delivered to the crushing factory. When crushed, the shell was used for chicken grit"
Schoolboy Memories of West Mersea, Leslie French

In addition, the 'Mersea Shell Crushing Co.' was established at The Firs for marketing the chicken grit. Also the oyster fishermen had to have a special permit (issued by Dr. Jameson) which could be rescinded if the permit holder was not co-operative. The lighter, when full, would be towed by the smack SELA, which also collected slipper limpets from other areas such as Burnham and the Colne. In 1920 a new, more sophisticated machine was was established in a large outbuilding at Shell Bungalow, Peldon. [ Note 6 ]

John recalled that the machinery was said to have been from Germany, and it was taken away by a German organisation in about 1938. John pointed out evidence of the floor mountings, but we could see no other evidence of the machine or the activity associated with it. One wonders how large this whole undertaking was, presumably there would have been space for lorry movements, loading bay(s), storage of the shell grit, etc. [ Note 1 ]

Note. To this day there are national, legal restrictions on the handling and transfer of slipper limpets. See

Living and working at Shell Bungalow
John and Pat moved into Shell Bungalow in 1970. The 1953 floods had risen to around 6 inches above floor level, but the building was not damaged. The previous owner was unable to take away a large table he had made from some timber originally from a wooden ship, the FOUDROYANT. John and Pat inherited the table. The water had come up the legs of the table and left a stain showing the level of the water.
[ the FOUDROYANT has also been known as TRINCOMALEE over the years - see History of HMS TRINCOMALEE ]

John built up a boatyard and developed the outbuilding into a boat shed / workshop, where he would repair and refit smacks and yachts up to 50 foot long. The boatyard at one point had 18 moorings, which in the winter would be used for the laying-up of smacks and yachts. [ Note 7 ]

John used to hold evening classes in the shed, from 8 to 10pm. It was actually an ongoing Adult Education course on restoring and renovating a smack, and it lasted for around 10 years. The 1995 television series Classic Ships visited Peldon to record a little of this course. [ Note 9 ]

Rebuilding the smack PURITAN. A frame from the 1995 Classic Ships television series.

Knowing about three sunken lighters in the area, John has tried to dig one out of the mud. When part of it was exposed it appeared to be in pretty good condition, but the mud conditions for digging were so difficult that work had to be abandoned. [ Note 1 ]

John fondly recalls the annual Peldon Smack Race, which started in 1975. After being held in the River Blackwater, the boats would come up to Shell Bungalow for the prize-giving and celebrations. There were cups and a 'Silver Winkle'. [ Note 1 ]

Photographer Jonathan Adams

Other memories
Wildlife in the area tends to be the pairing-up of curlews, oystercatchers, dunlin and shellduck, along with little egret, the odd buzzard, and pheasant. In the waters there are flounders and mullet in season, and on the ground are adders and horse mushrooms. [ Note 1 ]

The sea walls around Shell Bungalow need repairing a lot. A gang of about 6 men used to do it, but a machine does it now. [ Note 1 ]

John remembers a lady that lived at the top of the drive in 'Saltings'. She was the archaeologist K.A. Evans who researched and co-authored the book 'The Red Hills of Essex: Salt-making in Antiquity' (published by the Colchester Archaeological Group, 1990). [ Note 1 ]

An interesting story from John is one about a dead whale in the Blackwater, which was washed-up on the Peldon side of the Strood. The Army came and towed it away to Mersea beach, where they blew it up ! [ Note 1 ]

Another fond memory was when sailing barge CYGNET, a true ex-working barge, was sailed all the way up to Shell Bungalow in 2015, after several attempts over the years. There was just enough time for the skipper to have a cup of tea with John and Pat until it was time to navigate the twisting creek back to the Ray Channel and onwards. [ Note 8 ]

Now retired, John is pottering with his own stuff. Although he does not own or run a boat, his love is in the workshop with friends helping to make things like a model Zeppelin (for 'Zepfest', a model Zeppelin propeller, and restoration of an Austin Seven. In around 2015/16 he and friend Sidney Sherwood built a jetty outside Shell Bungalow, which apart from normal boatyard purposes, is used by Mersea Lifeboat when a person needs to be evacuated from Mersea Island when the Strood is under water and an Air Ambulance is unavailable, or when a medic needs to be transferred from the mainland to Mersea Island under the same conditions.

Sadly, John passed away at home, 22 March 2020.

Listen to John Milgate interviewed by Stuart Devenish for Mersea Island Lions Talking Magazine April 1996 LN020902_003

1. In conversation with John and Pat Milgate.
2. 'Portrait of Mersea Island' by Johnnie Quarrell, pages 32-34 refer.
3. 'Courier' newspaper, 8 July 2017, John Milgate - Part One
4. 'Courier' newspaper, 22 July 2017 John Milgate - Part Two
5. 'Mistral' magazine, Journal of the Mersea Island Society 1996, page 32: Leslie French
6. 'Essex Gold: Fortunes of the Essex Oysterman' by Hervey Benham, Peter French and John Leather, Essex Record Office 1993. Page 137, paras 2 and 3 refer.
7. 'The Salty Shore' by John Leather 1979. Page 86, 2nd para refers.
8. 'Mersea Life', 'Memory Lane - June 2015' Sailing barge up the Ray Channel
9. Classic Ships by Uden Associates. This 2 minute clip can be viewed in Mersea Museum.

a) The photo from the Peldon Smack Race 1975 is courtesy of Mersea Museum / Ron Green
b) The photo of John and Pat Milgate is courtesy of Tony Millatt.
c) Details and photo from article 'Memory Lane - Sailing barge up the Ray Channel' are courtesy of Mersea Museum.

AuthorGeoff Gonella
PublishedDecember 2019
SourceMersea Museum