The migration of the Johnson family to Whitstable from Sheringham
 and the introduction of new methods/equipment by the Norfolk whelkers


In his article, The Sheringham Crabbers, John Harman describes the very distinctive boats that occupied Dead Man's Corner at the harbour. He points out that the craft actually arrived as part of a migration of families from Sheringham in Norfolk at the start of the twentieth century. The migrants also brought with them a new method of whelk fishing.... the whelk pot. Now, I pick up the story..... and describe my family's arrival as part of that migration. I also provide detail of the techniques that they contributed to Whitstable's shellfish operations.

The Sheringham Migration

My family was one of the Sheringham fishing families who moved to Whitstable in 1901. My grandfather Robert William Johnson (known as “Will”) and his wife Ellen Johnson moved with their three-month old son in January 1901. The baby grew up to be my uncle, Will Johnson, who was a whelker himself, and who kept the shop in Cromwell Road. I remember him telling me that his parents told him that while they were on their way to Whitstable from Sheringham, they heard the news that Queen Victoria had died. This would make it January 1901. Shortly after this, in April, the 1901 census was taken, and on this they appear as “visitors” staying with a family named Blyth in Whitstable, a Salvation Army family living at a house named “Eden Villa”, along with another visitor from Sheringham, William J. West, whom I understand is the grandfather of Derrick West.

Other whelk-fishing families who moved to Whitstable from Sheringham around the same time are said to be the families by the name of Cox, Green, West, Bishop, and Able.

The Family

My grandparents and their family lived first at 77 Albert Street for a few years, then 108 Sydenham Street, and then from 1919 they lived at 98 Harbour Place (now Woodlawn Street), a house which remained owned by our family until 2004. We have a photo of the family from 1913 – my Dad is the baby in the picture, together with his big brother Will, and sisters May (who wrote the poem about the 1953 flood) and Mary.

Photo: The Johnson family in 1913

The Johnson Family in 1913 - Photo supplied by Ian Johnson

The Whelk Pot and Methods

As John Harman said, they brought with them from Sheringham a new method of whelking - the whelk pot. They were hefty pots with an iron frame, baited at the bottom with useless bits of fish and trimmings left over from fish stocks after sorting at the large ports, and which the whelkers had delivered to them especially for the purpose. The net across the top prevented the whelks getting out again. The method was well-established in Sheringham. The following photos and descriptions are reproduced with kind permission of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service: Cromer Museum....

Iron framed Whelk Pot - photo reproduced with permission of Cromer Museum

Left: Whelk pot made of an iron frame and base wound with a tarred rope and a canvas strap for a handle; with a neck of netting.

 (Photo reproduced with kind permisson of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service: Cromer Museum)

Traditional Whelk Pot - photo reproduced with permission of Cromer Museum

Right: Whelk pot of traditional design of a round perforated base and iron frame, bound with a tarred rope and a net braided around the opening; with a long loop of rope for attachment.

(Photo reproduced with kind permisson of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service: Cromer Museum)

Apparently, in Whitstable, the usual method of catching whelks was either dredging for them or catching them on long lines bunched with crabs.

The photo below was taken around 1900 and it shows my grandfather’s uncle and cousin, known as Old “Billy Butcher” Johnson and Young “Billy Butcher”. In this case, the pots are crab and lobster pots rather than whelk pots.....

Photo: Old and Young Billy Butcher with crab/lobster pots

Left:  Old "Billy Butcher" Johnson with Young Billy Butcher with crab anf lobster pots.

Photo supplied by Ian Johnson

The Whelk Stores

he whelkers’ stores (never known as sheds!) were situated close by the harbour lighthouse, at the start of Long Beach. There were two rows of stores, at right-angles to each other. My sister Jenny did a nice painting of whelk stores around 1965.....

Painting of Whitstable Whelk Sheds by Jenny Ashford

Painting of Whitstable whelk sheds in 1965 by Jenny Ashford (nee Johnson)

Interior of a Whitstable cockle shed. Photo supplied by John & Anne  Harman

Above: Interior of a cockle shed, similar to that of whelk sheds. This row of stores/sheds was one terrace of about six stores with a long sloping roof covering them all from front to back (Photo and description supplied by John Harman)

...  and John Harman has kindly let me use a photo of his, which shows what the interior of a whelk store looked like (right)

The ex-Sheringham men: the Wests, Gaskins, Greens, Bandmaster Cox of the Salvation Army, my grandfather Johnson, and his younger brother Henry Johnson had their stores together in the row facing the water's edge, as they carried on their traditional way of working off the beach – Sheringham has no harbour.

John’s father’s cockle store was also in this row, at one end. Jenny’s painting shows the other row, up against the lighthouse, stores which were occupied by the Court brothers, Fryers, and Camburns.

The whelks, once caught, were boiled in “whelk coppers”, large tanks by the stores.

A measure of whelks was called a “wash”. We have an order which was sent by postcard to my grandfather for a wash of whelks (see below).....

A post card order for whelks

An order... by post card

The measure of a "wash" was five gallons of whelks.

At the back of each store was a separate small store area where they kept the bait of old herring and fish “bits and pieces”. Also round the back of the stores was an old copper-lined pit where they would dip their whelk pots in tar for durability and to prevent rust.

Those Whelk Boats

As John Harman said, the Sheringham crabber boat was usually characterised by its “double end”. A cousin of my grandfather, Johnny Johnson, was one of the foremost boatbuilders in Sheringham and, between 1906 and 1949, he built 130 boats, mainly crabbers, in his small workshop. I have recently made contact for the first time with a distant cousin of mine who is Johnny Johnson’s grandson, and have learnt a fair bit more about Sheringham and the Johnson family there from him.

The photo below provides another view of the whelk boats in their usual place at the harbour - Dead Man’s Corner. The date is not known but it must be 1940s or earlier.

Photo: Sheringham Crabber whelk boats at Dead Man's Corner

Sheringham Crabber whelk boats at Whitstable harbour' s"Dead Man's Corner"

Thanks again to John Harman for his help and photo of a whelk store.

Ian Johnson
West Yorkshire

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