Sunday, 15 June 2008

Boom and doom

Bigger boats meant the oystermen could go further out to sea for longer. There were new discoveries in the Channel of untouched reefs. Off Jersey in 1797 more than 300 smacks from Essex, Shoreham, Emsworth and Faversham sailed for oysters carrying more than two thousand men. In 1823 more than 80,000 bushels were brought back to Essex in 70 voyages. The harbour at Gorey (which also has Iron Age antecedents) became a boom town again. But the fishermen were greedy and within 20 years the beds had been completed denuded.

The Essex boats especially needed young brood stock and would go north to the Forth, west to the Solway. They were not always welcome especially in Scotland where they slept armed on the boats for fear of attack but in other areas the were welcome for their money.

There were also oysters further out in the channel in the deep sea, banks off the French coast sometimes 24 fathoms deep. The Pride of Essex Sail were 132 “first class” ships able to dredge these waters with five dredges each with a six foot wide cutting edge. Another famous oyster reef was found 112 miles off Orford known as Terschelling, a notoriously treacherous and exposed area of the North Sea and where the Lutine was to sink later, whose bell hangs in Lloyds of London.

Many Essex oystermen died trying to upload this harvest of huge oysters, known as skillingers. The boats would go out for 20 days at a time and could bring back 30,000 and more oysters a time. The record set by The Guide in 1887 was 49,000 oysters trawled in a day. Eventually the Essex men acceded their history and sold their boats on to the north sea specialists at Grimsby and deep sea oystering vanished.