|It 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...