Oysters, now an expensive delicacy, were once a staple food. Their discarded shells are found, often in profusion, in old town gardens as well as archaeological sites. They live close to virtually every shore but are best when ‘cultivated’ - being brought to maturity in special ‘beds’ in shallow sea-water which must be neither sandy nor too cool in summer.
The Romans specially prized oysters from ‘Richborough bay’, near Sandwich. The nearby Faversham oyster fishery must have been well-established, and lucrative, when the Manor of Faversham, which included it, was given by King Stephen to Faversham Abbey as its main foundation endowment in 1147.
For centuries it was worked by the ‘Company and Fraternity of Free Fishermen and Dredgermen of Faversham’ which was in existence by 1189, if not earlier. This was a ‘labour corporation’, or trade collective, whose profits were shared in proportion to the amount of work put in by each individual member. To become a ‘freeman’ of the Company applicants had to serve a 7-year apprenticeship and be married. Under the jurisdiction of the Lord of the Manor the Company was run by an ‘admiralty’, or ‘water’, court consisting of a ‘Foreman’ (chairman), two other officers and a ‘Jury’ (committee) of four.
“The Faversham dredgerman has a genuine class look about him”, recorded a journalist in 1866. In his “close blue shirt, long water-boots and sou’-wester”, he was fit and strong, as he needed to be to work the beds. It was his hardiness, and seamanship skills, which stood the town in such good stead when it had to provide a ship for the Cinque Ports fleet.
There was good money to be earned, and in the 18th century ships from the Netherlands queued to load oysters for the Dutch ports. Rather than arrive - wastefully - in ballast, they came with cargoes for local smugglers.
There were hazards, apart from bad weather. In some years the ‘crop’ failed, and by the early 20th century pollution had begun to take its toll. Faversham had been growing rapidly, water-closets were taking the place of crude earth ‘privies’ and open sewers had been succeeded by underground ones - but these were discharging direct into the Creek. Remorselessly, each tide carried a noisome freight of raw sewage out onto the oyster beds. In 1903 they were declared unfit for use. Despite repeated requests from the Oyster Fishery Company, the Borough Council did nothing to stem the flow.
By 1908 the Company was desperate and brought a High Court action against the Council. It won, and the Council was forced to build a proper sewage treatment plant in Abbey Fields. However as a trade collective the Company never regained its vitality. In 1930 it was re-established as a conventional limited company. Though they remained as shareholders, the former Freemen mostly found other outlets for their seafaring skills, on sailing barges in particular. Ultimately the oyster ‘grounds’ were let to the neighbouring Seasalter Fishery. After some harsh winters in the 1950s and 1960s they failed.
Today the grounds are now let mainly as moorings or for use by wildfowlers. However on the strength that it was in existence by 1189 the Company is claimed to be the oldest in the United Kingdom.
text and picture courtesy of Arthur Percival
Worth reading: “Faversham Oyster Fishery through 11 Centuries”, by Patricia Hyde and Duncan Harrington (2002), ISBN 0-9530998-2-2, limited edition of 350 copies, on sale at the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, Faversham ME13 8NS, price £35 (£37.00 by post) - or borrow through your local library.