Friday, 30 May 2008

Royal patronage

Such was their value that these towns attracted royal patronage and licence. Later, in the civil war, the royalist flag was flown over nearly all the Thames side oyster towns, a loyalty they had earned over many years.

In the 12th century Henry 11 gave Maldon the rights not just to its own creek but round the head as far as Southend, Leigh and even west as far as Hadleigh where oysters were still laid at the start of the 20th century although it is now opposite the oil refinery of Canvey Island.

These gifts seemed quite arbitrary. West Mersea claims the oldest charter from Edward the Confessor which dated to 1046, but for reasons which no longer seem to be comprehensible much later Charles 11 decided to issue a second charter in 1687, this time giving the beds to Charterhouse hospital in London which also owns the public school in Surrey, a legal point which was contested by the incumbent landlord as recently as 1967.

King Stephen - pictured - is buried at the abbey at Faversham to whom he granted a charter in 1147. The charter included the oyster fishing but earlier than that Athelstan held a council at the town in 930 so it must have been regarded as somewhere of import even at that stage. Alongside oysters, it was known for its metal work, especially for shipbuilding. They were called Peter boats, after St Peter of course, but in design and construction were also informed by Viking long boats suggesting the Scandinavian contacts were already well ingrained that far south.

Going back further, the town name derives from the Roman faber (smith) and Germanic ham (homestead) where the Romans had called it Durovelum, the stronghold by the clear stream, so it was important enough to christen in both eras and to both invaders. The town history has it the Jutes and Saxons came as defenders and mercenaries to protect them, but liked it so much they stayed.

Its creek was strategic. It supplied shelter from the Channel storms and deep wells offered fresh pure water. As early as the 8th century the Dutch were coming to seek shelter, trade, to settle, to buy, to raid, to smuggle, just as the Romans similarly would have settled five hundred years before that.

Further west, Abbotsbury oysterage on the Fleet Lagoon in Dorset can only be traced back to the 11th century AD when the lagoon was given by King Canute to one of his servants Orc who noted:

"....there is little fish in the Flete except eels, flounders, and grey mullet, but is noted for its oyster beds".

But we know from the shells excavated from the Chesil Bank and nearby that this must have an historic oyster site dating back as far as anywhere probably in Britain or Europe.

Orc, in turn passed the ownership to his wife Tula, who bequeathed it to the local abbey. By 1427 the Abbott was demanding taxes on the fish caught in his waters – two pence for 200 oysters but sixpence for a salmon. In 1543 Henry VIII dissolved the monastery and allowed one his knights Sir Giles Strangeways to buy this part of Dorset for £1000 and his descendants are still there.

Back on the other side of the Thames, the Colne was controlled by the nearby Colchester Corporation in a charter given to the town by Richard 1 in 1189 but which mentions his grandfather Henry so the town may have been ennobled even 100 years earlier. The Corporation has used this charter to defend its interests, not least from its own fishermen. Despite Colchester oysters being known worldwide, the actual beds are further south off the flatlands at Wivenhoe, Brightlingsea and West Mersea. But it was not a right the town was going to forsake. It had its crane.

Colchester demanded that all oysters had to be sold at the quayside market at Hythe. Anyone selling oysters anywhere else, or to anyone else, even in their own village was liable to imprisonment and to have their boats seized.

As early as 1200, court cases were brought against boats for illicitly carrying wool or other contraband that was not offered for sale to the town freemen first.

But these men were far sighted in their administration. They seem to have been both conservation minded and also philanthropic. They set a closed season for fishing from Easter to Holy Rood Day (September 14); licensed and registered anyone fishing for oysters and demanded that no oysters would be sold on to London unless there was enough to feed the Colchester market first, by “which by that provision were chiefly relieved”.

Over time they went further to preserve the fisheries. No boat was to carry more than two persons or tow more than one dredge of the existing standard size. Summer dredgers could only go one in a boat, with a mast and sail not more than seven feet high. Fishermen were to sort the contents of their dredges at sea and put back all brood and immature oysters. Licences demanded that beds be kept free of predatory starfish and tingles, so if there was not full scale aquaculture there is plenty of early evidence at the very least of an advanced husbandry.

We see the same concerns to keep oysters as a cheap local source of food in an edict from the mayor of London in 1418 who bid to keep the price of a bushel of oysters set at 4d, which seemed to hold good for the best part of two centuries.

Poor harvests and scarcity were met with outrage in London. Sir Samuel Tuke declared indignantly in 1667 :“Although the British oysters have been famous in the World ever since this island was discovered, yet the skill how to order them aright has been so little considered among ourselves that we see at this day it is confined to some few narrow creeks of one single county.”