From Ron Green and Tony Millatt, Mersea Museum
When I put the question to my 'Children' who are all in their sixties, do you know what a tendle is? I just got blank looks, yet tendle making was very much a Green family craft. The tendle is it seems, very much a Mersea thing. It is a basket made mainly from elm cut from local hedges and was used in the oyster industry.
When I heard that basket maker Selena Chandler, along with Gerard and Helen Swift of Essex Heritage Workboats had approached our Mersea Museum to have a get-together of local oystermen and other interested people, I was naturally very keen, as my grandfather Jack Green made tendles for Ted Woolf in his day. It was hoped some examples would be brought along so people could see what they were like, how they handled and how they were made. I have one surviving tendle made by my dad about eighty years ago, it is smaller than an oyster tendle and is of a size used for gathering blackberries. Sadly it has seen better days and lost it's handle, but I thought I would take it along because it shows very well how it was constructed.
I must confess I didn't expect to see many examples turn up and was pleasantly surprised to see about a dozen mainly oyster examples people had found tucked away, along with several from the Museum's collection. There was a wide variation in the way they were built. The gathering also produced a good group of local people, who, when they delved into their memories, knew a lot about tendles.
A tendle is a large shallow rectangular basket used mainly used for gathering oysters or winkles. They had to be strong as an oysterman would put his weight on the handle while bending down to gather oysters. Usually constructed from elm, which was once plentiful on the Island, if used for oysters the bottom would often be wire netting.
Jack Green charged Ted Woolf half a crown each (13p in today's money). There is a maker in Woodbridge today who sells them for £200. I can't imagine what grand dad would have said to that. He was a farm labourer at East Mersea Hall Farm and would have been earning about two pounds a week at the most.
Basil 'Earwig' Milgate also made tendles for Ted Woolf, often from willow. Other oystermen often made tendles themselves. It was a good 'cottage industry' that could be done indoors at times when the weather was too bad for working on the land, fishing or building. The winter months also suited elm which was best cut in around November.
We had wondered if they were used in other shellfish locations but it seems there is no knowledge of that. They do not seem to be known beyond Mersea, Peldon and Tollesbury. The word varies - tendle, tendel or tendal.
There is interest in gathering as much knowledge as possible about tendles and perhaps starting a group to make them. The Basket Makers Association have the 'Mersea Oyster Tendle' on their list of Endangered Baskets in the UK and that is giving it some attention.
Culling oysters for size and quality
'Billy Oak' Hewes and Titus Mussett by the barometer on Coast Road. Titus has his tendle on his arm. 1924
Tuddy Cook winkling off the Monkey Beach, resting on his tendle.
Published in Mersea Life December 2022