Whitstable was a fishing-town of note in the reign of Henry VIII., and was called in ancient records "Northwood". Leland, in his 'Itinerary,' thus describes it: - "Whitstable is upward junto Kent, a ii miles or more beyond Faversham, on the same shore, a great fisher-towne of one paroche, belonging to Plaze College, in Essex, and yt standeth on the se-shore. Ther about they dragge for oysters".
The dredgers of Whitstable do not trust entirely to the natural resources of their oyster-beds, but purchase from the Essex coast what is called the brood, which is the spat in its second stage. They also purchase oysters from Ireland, France, and Holland, and lay them down on the Whitstable beds. The following interesting account of the Whitstable beds appeared in 'Macmillan's Magazine,' No. 36, October, 1862: - "The brood is carefully laid down in the oyster-beds off Whitstable, and allowed to grow for three, perhaps four years. The oysters in different stages are marked off by means of long poles, so that the shell-fish farm is divided into separate fields, each being in a particular stage of growth. At the time when the oysters are lifted for the London or other markets, they are measured by being thrown against a wire grating, and all those under a certain size are thrown again into the water. To give an idea of the business done in the oyster trade, it may be stated that in 1860 the Whit-stable men took as much as £50,000, for native oysters alone, which, after deducting the cost of the brood, would still leave a handsome profit". There are extensive fisheries opposite Milton, those of the Cheney Rock. We are told that in a single season, more than 50,000 bushels of "natives" were sent from this one fishery to London.* Mr. Frank Buckland defined a "native" as being a thoroughbred oyster, and its geographical limits would be at and about the mouth of the Thames, from Harwich on the north, down to Margate on the south, and it is indigenous to the soil, in contradistinction to the Irish, Milford, and other oysters, which come from different parts of the world.†
* 'Report on Oyster Fisheries,' 1876.
† "L'Alimentation de Paris," "Les Halles Centrales," 'Revue des Deux Mondes,' 15 Juin, 1868, tome soixante-quiuzièrae.
‡ 'Visits to the Sea-coast; the Shipwrecked Mariner,' vol. xii.
The "Milton natives" bear the bell, or may be said to be the pearls among British oysters. King John granted these fisheries to the Abbot of Faversham, in whose hands they remained till the dissolution, and they have been dredged from the earliest times by a company of fishermen, ruled, like those of Faversham, by certain ancient customs and bye-laws.*
* Murray's 'Handbook, Kent and Sussex,' p. 64. † 'Keport on Oyster Fisheries,' 1876.
Jersey oysters are brought over and bedded in the Southampton water. They are described as being small, but of superior flavour, and are conveyed long distances to be laid down, naturalized, and afterwards sold as natives. They are also remarkable for their saline flavour when first brought over, but it goes off after they have been bedded some time at South -ampton.† In 1876 Jersey oysters were very scarce, and the beds in a bad condition. It is said that formerly there were fine oyster-beds between Portsmouth, Hay-ling, and the Isle of Wight; and recently a breeding place on the French system has been established at Hayling Island, and there is considerable trade carried on in oysters.
There are extensive oyster-beds in the Medina and Newtown rivers, in the Isle of Wight, and a large quantity were bred in 1880, and were in good condition up to 1881.‡ The manor of Osborne is said to derive its old name of Austerbourne, or Oysterbourne, from the oyster-beds of the Medina.§ A bed of oysters was discovered off Eastbourne, some years since, the fish being of a very superior and delicate flavour. The price was Is. per hundred, but it rose to 2s.; and another large bed, which was valued at £5000, was found about three miles off the mouth of Dartmouth harbour, about the same time.
We read, in Britton's ' History of Dorset,' that there was an oyster-fishery in Poole Bay, and that though the town of Poole claimed much dominion in this bay, the Lord of Corfe Castle had a power and jurisdiction, as Admiral by Water and Land, on the seas round the Isle of Purbeck, on the high seas, and throughout the whole island, in pursuance of a grant by Queen Elizabeth to Sir Christopher Hatton. The fishermen of Wareham, upon paying a small fine to the Lord of Corfe Castle, have a right also to fish in these waters. A considerable oyster-fishery was carried on at Poole, which supplied the London markets for two months every season, and no less than forty sloops and boats were employed, during which time the receipts were between £6000 and £7000. The last day's catching, by a prescriptive regulation, was thrown into the channels in the harbour, where the oysters were left to fatten, and supply the town and neighbouring county during the winter. In digging a dock at Ham, opposite the harbour, in 1747, a large bed of oyster-shells was found, six feet and a half thick, regularly piled up. This bed had been formed by the fishermen, who deposited the shells after they had taken out the fish for pickling, etc, without breaking the ligatures; this was the custom in the 17th century, which in 1640 and 1670, induced the Corporation (who imagined that such encumbrances might injure the channel) to cause the fishermen to open their oysters in the boats, and throw the shells on the strand, by which that hill of shells was raised, which at high water is surrounded by the sea, and called "Oyster bank".*
* Murray's; Handbook, Kent and Sussex'.
† 'Field,' note by the Editor.
‡ 'Oyster Culture and Oyster Fisheries,' by Professor Hubrecht.
§ 'A Guide to the Isle of Wight,' by the Rev. Edward Venables, M.A.