On this part of the beach were several boatyards where they built many Oyster Smacks or “Yawls” during the 19th and right up to the early part of the 20th century. They had a launching slipway across the beach down to the sea whist the boats were built on the land between the beach and the road beyond.
It is near here in the Collar Brother’s Boatyard (now more like an overgrown garden that the Gamecock oyster yawl was built. Now registered as a National Historic Ship and owned by Whitstable Maritime Trust, who are protecting and nurturing it through another century to keep our heritage alive.
The sea wall was heightened in 1955, after the East Coast Floods of 1953. Before the completion of these works the owner of the oyster yawl ‘Favourite’ moved her between the houses, thus making it landlocked behind the new sea wall. It has been here since.
Now looked after by the Favourite Trust – it is a reminder of the 150 or so yawls that once farmed the oyster beds. An information board tells you more of its history.
Imagine a yard at its busiest, with a part built yawl taking centre stage. The only way to cut big timbers before powered equipment was a saw pit. This would be on one side with the sawyer sawing through a length of oak to make a keel, his apprentice in the pit at the other end of the saw, covered in sawdust, underdog to his master, the top dog.
To one side you will see an oyster grotter. During the feast of St. James, the patron saint of shellfish, children would build a shell grotto out of oyster shells in an alleyway. As people passed by the children would call out, “A Penny for the Grotter”, letting them pass if they paid up.
During the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival building these grotters on the beach are very popular with upwards of 200 grotters being built by children, not for reward other than the pleasure of succeeding.
The first photo dates from the severe winter of 1963 – the year the sea froze. Note how the shipbuilding slipways and sheds prevented access across the beach. You can also see a ship drawn up on the beach before the Neptune pub. Since then the beach has been opened up with a promenade walkway and the area behind the sea wall where the yards were, is now housing.
The second photo shows the launch of a three-masted ship on the slipway. Note the Plimsoll Line on the hull. It’s a load line legal requirement since 1876 so called because it was the MP Sam Plimsoll who campaigned for it because so many ships and men were lost at sea due to overloading.