Saturday, 31 May 2008

Goyinges down the river...

For the men, traders and freemasons of the middle ages drinking and banqueting together must have been a much looked forward to activity. The oyster acquired a kind of social status. In Colchester, the town accounts had to be carefully doctored to make sure that just how much eating and drinking was done at public expense did not show up in the books.

The local historian Gurney Burnham trawled the old books and receipts and wrote in 1893: “The sagacious town clerks of the past so compiled the records of Corporation proceedings that one would hardly suspect that nearly all the twon’s revenues were spent eating and drinking”.

The town had a fair on October 9 for Saint Denys from as far back as 1318. The Colchester Oyster fair still carries on today. Poetically, Denys, is the patron saint of Paris. He was sent by the Pope to convert third century France but was beheaded at Montmartre, the hill of martyrs, and then reputedly picked up his head and walked off still preaching a sermon, so the choice of name was a symbolic recognition of events on the other side of the water.

This however was far from being the only feast day. There were to be meals at public expense on the annual election of the bailiff and mayor in August, and then the new mayor had to have a celebration dinner at the end of September. And there were dinners for quarter sessions, for the magistrates, for the audit (twice a year) for the opening of the fisheries and the closing. And another for the venison feast, and for the subsidy dinner, and on public and royal holidays and the quarterly allowance day which was when the rents were paid. By 1520 there were so many dinners and banquets for the oyster traders and freemen of Colchester that nearly all the proceeds of the oyster company were being spent on eating and drinking. In 1563 the mayor tried to put a brake on the flow of funds and ordered that no future election dinner should cost more than 40/1, no law dinner more than 20/- and no allowance dinner more than 10/-, although how much notice anyone paid is anyone’s guess

Lavish menus survive in the accounts, or at least what was paid for the ingredients, which presumably were often supplied by the freemen themselves anyway. In 1617, the freemen bought

Six sirloins of beef 20/1
Five fat pigs 3/6
Six coople of rabbits 6/-
Four barrels of beer 32/-

In 1648 they spent 12/- on oysters for 195 guests and ended up with plum tarts, pear pies and paid the cookes £1 and spent a whopping £3/19/10 on pipes, tobacco and wine.

Sometimes the oyster purchases were discreetly disguised in the books as “two goyinges down the river”. Carriage was “always costly” although it may have been creative accountancy because on one occasion sending a man and a horse to Brightlingsea for oysters was charged at 4/- and another to pick up the same amount of oysters it was charged at 60/-.

Another odd one, because oyster knives don’t have to be sharp, is

“Grindinge ye oyster knife 6d

At another dinner in 1645 they purchased

Boiled fishe 3/-
Green oysters 6/-
Stewed oysters 4/-
Oyster pies 5/-

The Corporation was never ungenerous and through the millennia, notes of its gifts, invariably oysters, to the court houses and to kings and prime ministers are plenty. The assizes only had to sit at Chelmsford and the judges were assured of basket or two. Henry VIII took some to his meeting in Calais with Emperor Charles V. Later Elizabeth I’s ministers were solicited for favours with nipperkins of oysters. Centuries on and Disreali, as prime minister, even received the gift but had the grace to write to say thank you: “Your oysters are worthy of Roman emperors…I am ashamed to add, I devoured most of them myself”.