Oysters have been grown at Whitstable since Roman times. We know this because the oysters that grow in these waters develop a different shape to their ‘knuckle’ and matching oyster shells have been unearthed in archaeological digs in Italy. Julius Caesar was apparently quite partial to them!
This was carried out rather like farming, but on the sea bed. Oysters cannot be grown everywhere because they require a lower water salinity (salt level) to thrive.
Whitstable and Faversham and Colchester in Essex, were the main producers in the UK being located on the edges of the wider Thames Estuary where water salinity is lower.
Whitstable had streams like The Gorrell and The Brook carrying water down from the hills behind to the sea which further reduced the salinity.
Oysters require clean water and so early explores knew if they found oysters they had found a safe place to be – like a miner’s canary!
The oyster beds covered a wide area – all the way up to Faversham creek.
Different parts were better suited to the oyster’s growth according to their age, so part of the Dredger’s duty in addition to collecting fully grown oysters for market, was to move the younger oysters from one bed to another as they grew.
In the first photo you can see the crews getting out to their oyster smacks moored out in deeper water.
The second photograph was taken in more modern times. You can see the crew working on board a smack whilst it is anchored up – looks like crabs. It looks stable and dry but crewing an oyster smack could be wet and dangerous work.
Back on land the oysters were sorted and cleaned before shipping
At its peak around the end of the 19th century the Company was sending millions of oysters each year to Billingsgate, effectively feeding the poor of London. It was only as they got to be a rarity they became ‘posh food’.
It was by then a major purchaser of young brood oysters from other fisheries in Europe. These oysters developed into Whitstable Oysters after being on the beds here for two years. Oysters are generally ready for consumption at four years of age. Left in the wild they can live to be 100 years old.
During their life oysters filter the water, extracting microorganisms as their food. This may be why in this period the sea here was promoted as having health benefits. They are a healthy food, six contain 100 calories – as much protein as a 4oz steak, as much calcium as a glass of milk and – unusual for an animal – lots of vitamin c.
The industry took a downturn in the 1920s when a disease reduced their numbers considerably throughout Europe. By the 1970’s there had been a further decline in the stock of Native Oysters and the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company was down to its last employee.
The fortunes of both were turned round when the company was acquired in 1976 by business partners Barrie Green and John Knight, both having become Whitstable residents The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company is now building stocks back up using modern cultivating and growing techniques. Natives are grown on trestles placed on the sea bed between the high and low water mark.
If you look out to sea from the Horsebridge, at low tide, you will see the racks housing young oysters growing once more in these waters. The yellow buoys you can see mark the position of the racks.
However, most of the oysters you can buy in Whitstable today are farmed Pacifics. These don’t spawn in our cold waters so can be harvested and consumed throughout the year. The indigenous Whitstable Native Oysters do spawn, so can only be consumed in season, during the months with an ‘R’.
As a sign of how important oysters were to the life of the town – the catch was blessed – a tradition that continues every Whitstable Oyster Festival – the colour photo at the top looks as if it is from the 1970s.