1866 – Oyster-Dredging at Whitstable

From The Penny Illustrated in 1866


As oyster-eating is a favourite indulgence in London and our other large cities, so oyster-breeding and oyster-dredging are profitable occupations in various towns on the coasts of the three kingdoms; and in none more so than Whitstable, in Kent. It is a peculiar mystery, that of oyster-dredging, and is pursued at different stations on different principles. At some places, but those are where the occupation has but lately been introduced – it is carried on open, free-trade principle, anyone who has the means and the inclination being at liberty to engage in planting, breeding, and in due season reaping the oyster harvest.

At others, such as Whitstable, on the coast of Kent, the pursuit is a close corporation, such as would have delighted the heart of the most rigid stickler for protection, monopoly, and all the other old-fashioned ideas which this somewhat fast and irreverent age has so unceremoniously pushed on one side. At Whitstable a man may be born into the society of free-dredgers; but in no way can he become free of the guild. The same exclusiveness, however, does not apply to the fair sex; for a woman may by marriage become a shareholder in the free-dredgers community, and, of course, her children take their father’s rights. The business is carried on, too, on a sort of community principle; all the free-dredgers working in common, furnishing material in common, and dividing the common fund created by the sale of the produce of their toil.

At Whitstable the oysters are never landed, though there is railway communication between the town and London, the great “bourn” to which the Whitstable “natives” are bound, but are shipped on board the old round hoys anchored in the bay, and conveyed directly to Billingsgate by water. Of the hoys there are fourteen belonging to the town, and these are constantly engaged during the oyster season in sailing to and fro to the Thames with the bivalves so grateful to the cockney palate and so profitable to the Whitstable free-dredgers. The Corporation or Company of Free-dredgers of Whitstable also own about eight fishing-smacks, in which the actual dredging is done, and the produce afterwards transferred to the hoys.

The oyster-fishery, as practised at this place, consists of two operations, which are kept perfectly distinct. During three days of each week the fishing-smacks are engaged in what is called “dredging for the planting” and in the general cultivation of the oyster-beds. Young oysters are caught and transferred to where they will find most nourishment; sample are taken up, inspected, a few tasted, and the rest returned to the sea; and all those influences which may impede the development of the fish carefully sought out and removed. This planting or cultivating process is somewhat agricultural in character, and generally occupies about six hours in each day devoted to it.

Dredging for the London market – the other operation to which we have alluded – occupies about two hours each morning of the remaining three days of the week, generally Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The supply sent up is regulated by the salesmen at Billingsgate, who order a certain number of bushels to be caught and sent to market each fishing day; and the taking of these bushels is work divided equally among the several smacks manned by the free-dredgers. Each crew of three men goes off to its own particular boat, dredges its particular “stint” or portion, and is neither allowed to fall short of nor to exceed the allotted tole. The work begins about eight o’clock in the morning, at which hour the dredgers assemble on the beach and row off in boats to the fishing-smacks moored in the bay. These smacks are small, yachtlike craft, the decks almost flush with the bulwarks, and covered with baskets, buckets, and nets. The little vessel sets her sails and skims over the pole-marked ground till the proper station is reached, when the work of dredging begins. The nets are composed of a thick trellis-work of undressed buffalo-hide, washed almost white by repeated dipping, and with an iron knifelike bar at the mouth to scrape the oyster-beds and so pick up the fish. These nets are dropped like small anchors, having ironwork attached to make them sink; and when hauled up are filled with shelly heaps, generally numbering about 800 oysters at each haul. The haul is emptied on to the smack’s deck, the nets are once more cast overboard, and the dredgers proceed to select the oysters that are fit for sending to market, and to consign those that are not to the sea again.

The oysters are of all sizes, in their different stages of growth. Some are like blocks of flint, a mass that perhaps numbers thirty nearly 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 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 to one side by the dredger, while he picks out only the slightly 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 yellow perfect circle at the small end of the fan represents one year, the three successive brown pearly semicircles 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.

The baskets, which serve as measures, when filled, are given a dip in the sea to wash the fish a little, and are then placed on one side. The work is gone over again and again till the allotted quantity of oysters is caught, the vessel shifting its moorings occasionally during the process; and when the proper number of baskets are loaded, they are placed in the boat belonging to the smack, which is then rowed to one of the market-hoys; the baskets are passed up the side, their contents emptied into the hold; and when the full take for the day has been collected the hoys sail for London, the dredgers go on shore, and are their own masters for the rest of the day. They generally assemble in the principal tavern of the town in the evening to learn the results of the day’s sale at Billingsgate and receive the orders of the directing committee of twelve for future operations.

The members of the oyster-dredging community of Whitstable have a comfortable and well-to-do look about them, and, it is said, always know where to find a small sum of money when their necessities require it, even in the intervals between the regular periods for the division of the profits of their enterprise.