1859 – The Happy Fishing Ground

Charles Dickens once edited a newspaper called "All the Year Round". The following is extracted from the issue dated 26th November 1859. It is not at all certain as to whether the writer was indeed Dickens himself, but it was written in his style. There were tales of Dickens being sighted in the town around this time, but we leave the mystery to those that study literature.

Ignore this uncertainty and instead revel in the prose. This piece tells us more in one article about the town and the character of its inhabitants than whole books by other authors.

THE HAPPY FISHING GROUND

There has always been a charm for me about the fisherman's trade.. nothing but the grey sky, or the blood-red sunset, is over my head. I see the dwarfed fishing village across the waves; the cobwebbed lane of drying nets that winds down to the sands; and the sodden lobster-catches struggling between the sunken rocks.

With such day-dream visions as these,..it is not to be wondered at that I have a passion, in all weathers, for dropping quietly down to the coast, and burying myself, for a time, in one of those hilly nooks, where none but boatmen and fishermen can be born, can live, and can die. The places that I love most are those where the "season visitor" is almost, if not totally, unknown; where bathing-machines have never yet penetrated; where the stranger is truly a being of another world; and where the inhabitants believe, with a proud and simple faith, in the unequalled beauty and importance of their little scaly town. Many such places as these do I know, even within fifty miles of the Royal Exchange; and Whitstable, in Kent, the port of Canterbury, on the estuary of the Thames, is one of my especial favourites…

Its one idea is oysters. It is a town that may be called small, that may be considered well-to-do, that is thoroughly independent, and that dabbles a little in colas, because it has got a small muddy harbour and a single line of railway through the woods to Canterbury, but its best thoughts are devoted to oysters. Its aspect is not sightly, for the line of its flat coast is occupied by squat wooden houses, made soot-black with pitch, the dwellers in which are sturdy freeholders, incorporated free-fishers, or oyster-dredgers, joined together by the ties of a common birthplace, by blood, by marriage, capital, and trade. It has always been their pride, from time out of mind, to live in these dwarfed huts on this stony beach, watching the happy fishing grounds that lie under the brackish water in the bay, where millions of oysters are always breeding with marvellous fertility, and all for the incorporated company's good. How can the free-dredgers, and the whole town of Whitstable, help thinking of oysters, when so many oysters seem to be always thinking of them?

A primitive and curious joint-stock company it is, a joint-stock company whose shares are unknown upon the Stock Exchange, because they are never in any market except Billingsgate market; a joint-stock company that may not be peculiar to Whitstable, but is peculiar, so it seems, to all happy fishing grounds, where oysters are cultivated…

It came together in the dim old times, as a family compact, and a family compact it still remains. Its three hundred and forty odd members are all Whitstable men, or Whitstable widows and children. The stranger is never admitted to the rights and profits of a dredging-freeman, though the strange woman may be brought in by marriage, into the oyster tents, and may rear up sons who shall go forth and fish.

The male infant is born, a young shareholder, in one of the low pitch-black wooden houses on the beach; he is nursed to the tune of an oyster-dredging lullaby, to the howling of the wind, to the hissing of the surge. He staggers into the back parlour as soon as he can walk, and finds it a Robinson Crusoe's storeroom, filled with canvas, coils of rope, old oars, nails, paint-pots, and parts of ships. He tumbles out of a door at the end, and down some steps, on to the pebbly shore, where he plays on the border of his happy fishing ground, or clambers into a boat bearing his father's name, which lies high up on the beach, half filled with the skins of dead star-fish, with cockle-shells and maddy crabs.

He thinks that the handkerchief which his sister wears over her head and shoulders in the summer, like a monk's cowl, or the shawl that she wears, for greater warmth, in winter the most elegant head-dress that was ever planned. The fact that Canterbury, a cathedral city, about seven miles off, has never adopted this head-dress, is nothing to him, for he knows that Whitstable men are perfect in matters of fish, and he gallantly considers that Whitstable women must consequently be perfect in matters of taste.

The free-dredger is thoroughly independent, not given to touch his hat to lord or squire; and if he does pay any mark of respect to the Duke of Cumberland, it is only as the sign of the dredgers' public-house, where the profits of the free company of oyster fishers are divided and paid. At fourteen years of age he may look with hope towards this old smoky tavern, and may enter as a fisherman's apprentice, to see his master paid; but at twenty-one he comes into his full birthright, his share in the myriads of oysters he has so long been thinking about, with all the claims and privileges that belong to the free-fishing state. He is then permitted to attend the "Water-Court" on the second Thursday in July. Here all the dredgers meet and vote by ballot, revise the by-laws, appoint the nine watchmen with three watching boats, the foreman of the ground, with his deputy, and twelve jury-men are chosen as the board of management for the year.

On this great day the whole town of Whitstable is hung with flags; and the sound of festivity is heard in the two principal taverns, and in the many small wooden drink-shops that are scattered along the shore.

If a free-dredger dies without male issue, then his share becomes engulfed in the common stock, but his widow receives a certain reduced payment out of each day's fishing profits, upto the time of her death. The aged, infirm and superannuated, about one-fifth, are provided for in the same way, as well as those who are compelled by temporary illness to stop on shore. No one that has once been connected with the happy fishing-grounds is ever found begging for a loaf of bread.

The industrious little fleet consists of about eighty fishing-smacks, and fourteen market-hoys. The hoys are, of course, occupied in going to and coming from Billingsgate, but the fishing-boats are always moored in the bay, opposite the free dredging settlement of the town. During three days of the week these floating representatives of the happy fishers are employed in what is called "dredging for planting" and the general cultivation of the ground. Young oysters are caught and transferred to places where they will find the most nourishment; samples are drawn up, inspected, specimens tested, and the remainder returned to the sea. The natural enemies of the oyster are sifted out and destroyed – especially the poisonous star-fish, and the mysterious "borer". The whole of this planting process is agricultural in its character; and it occupies about six hours on each of the three days.

The dredging for the London market, a task of about two hours' duration, is performed on the other three days of the week generally on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It is regulated by the two salesmen who represent that happy fishing-ground in the market of Lower Thames-street, and it is this regulation which prevents any violent fluctuations of price. The telegram received from these agents direct the number of bushels that are to be caught for market on each fishing day, and the catching of these bushels is work that is equally divided amongst all the effective members of the little oyster fleet. Each crew of three men goes off to its particular boat to dredge its particular "stint", and it is not allowed to draw up more than its allotted portion.

The first step in oyster-dredging is to put on an armour of warm clothing in which it is extremely difficult for a novice to move or breathe. There are long worsted stockings to be drawn over trouser legs; a pair of long, heavy, sewer-boots, reaching almost to the waist,, to be forced over these, a thick Guernsey shirt to be stretched over your body-coat, and an oilskin sou'-wester hat (like a dustman's) to be placed on your head. In case of dirty weather, which is always provided for, you have a black, or yellow, salt, clammy oilskin overcoat thrown into your arms, which feels like the soddened casing of some large fish.

About eight o'clock on a fresh October morning, the united company of free, happy family oyster-fishers, plunge heavily and slowly through the stones on the beach, and proceed, in the thoughtful and deliberate manner, to push off their boats, and row out to their little oyster fleet. They are all equal; they are all working together for good. . . the whole scene is a picture of quiet, profitable, patriarchal trade. A dozen happy family shareholders will join to shoulder a rope, and pull off a barge-like boat that the tide has left high and dry. So confidently do they lay their heads together to do this, that they look like a little open-air board meeting held on the beach. Their whole movements seem to be regulated by a strong feeling that they have many centuries before them in which to do their work. They have lived amongst oysters, and thought of them so long, till at last, it is possible to trace something of that steady, stationary shellfish in their nature.

The ship in which we row off is a small yacht-like smack, of about fifteen tons burden. Its deck is almost flush with the bulwarks, and covered with baskets, buckets, and nets. When our grey sails are set we skim away from our inner coast moorings, through the little busy fleet, until we come to our proper anchorage. The bright green hills of Kent, and the island of Sheppey, half-circle us on the landscape. The blue salt water comes rolling in from the North Sea at the mouth of the bay; the thin, pale, fleecy, grey and golden clouds are flying over our heads; and the dull sound of boat-building hammers comes to us from the low black town.

Our nets are like fish – a thick trellis-work of undressed buffalo hide, washed almost white with repeated dipping; and the iron knife-like bar at the mouth is formed so as to scrape the oyster beds. They are dropped with their iron work, like small anchors; and, when they are hauled in, there are shelly heaps in each net, numbering about eight hundred oysters. The haul is emptied on to the soppy deck, the nets are again cast over, and the happy dredgers stoop down to begin the labour of sorting.

A few whelks have come up in the haul; a few strips of green, glistening seaweed; a few cockles whose kicking claws are hanging from their shells, as if they were struggling to crawl in out of the cold; a few snuff-coloured old oyster-shells, eaten through till they are like rusty rings, and a few muddy spider crabs, who run quickly from between the crevices of the little shelly hill.

The oysters are of all sizes, in their different stages of growth. Some are like blocks of flint, a mass that perhaps, numbers nearly thirty mature oyster lives. Some shells are covered with little pearly counters, the size of shillings, which represent a brood of infant oysters, all less than a year old. Some shells are ornamental with red-looking pimples, which the happy free-dredgers call "quats". Some oysters come up highly clean and perfect in their formation, but not much larger than half-a-crown. These are generally the two year-olds, and, with all the preceding varieties, they are pushed on one side by the dredger, while he picks out only the sightly fish of four years' growth, and casts them into his basket.

His theory is that the oyster, if left alone, may live about ten years, and that it is extremely good eating at five years of age. He knows the five-year-old oyster by the layers outside the bottom shell. The little perfect yellow circle at the small end of the fan represents one year; the three successive brown pearly semi-circles represent three other years, and the rough fringe round the outer edge represents the one year more. He is satisfied with the four-year-old oyster for general eating; and what he considers good the London market is compelled to take.

When the sorting of the oysters is finished, and the baskets, which serve as measures, are filled with the picked fish, the refuse is swept back into the sea through trap-holes in the bulwarks. The loaded baskets, after being dipped in the bay, for the purpose of giving the oysters a slight wash, are placed on one side, and the same work is gone through again, until the "stint" is caught. When the proper number of baskets are filled, they are placed in the boat belonging to the smack, and rowed to one of the market-hoys that are anchored amongst the fleet.

The baskets are lifted out of the boat into the hands of the hoy sailors – a very fishy, patched, and soppy crew – and their separate hundred-weights of contents are tilted, like coals, into the long wet hold. A soddened inspector is kneeling on the deck, and watching through a pair of spectacles the descent of the quantity and quality at the same time. When the last smack has delivered its required load, the markethoys turn their heads due Billingsgate; the fishing vessels are mopped up, are run to their coast moorings, and made tight for the night, and the happy fishers go on shore to dinner, the masters of their own time for the remainder of the day.

Towards night they assemble at the "Duke of Cumberland" to hear and participate in the results of the last sale. The money is sent down by the two market salesmen in London and the sum is drawn out and divided by the managing jury of twelve. Their gains may fluctuate, but it is generally found that if they want a pound on account, they know exactly where they can get it.

The joyous songs that come from the free-dredgers chief tavern, up to a late hour of the night, are not the sounds usually made by men who linger over an unsatisfactory pay table.

 Conclusion

Now let that all sink in. Here was a man who, well educated and literate, mixed at ease with our ancestors and understood them.

He encapsulated in words the essence of their character, the embodiment of the Whitstable Native and their view on life. This character prevails through the generations and still stands out when you talk to a Native today. When they return to the town, as they are compelled to, they are instantly at ease with the world. Nothing else matters as they gaze over the Happy Fishing Grounds and it is like they, or their forefathers, never left home.