The curious Whitstable industry of Whiteweed Dredging

Dredging for White Weed

Most things harvested from the sea end up on a dinner table.... but not all are edible. Such was the case with the rather inaptly named white weed during Whitstable of the 1950s. John Harman explains....

For a while during the early 50's, there was a rather unusual departure from regular fishing at the harbour.

This came about as a result of a lucrative demand for what we called 'White Weed' - otherwise known as 'Air Fern' or 'Sea Fern'. This seemingly lacy fern like "plant" grew in abundance out in the estuary. However, it was not a plant at all. It was actually animal in content - the skeletal remains of a sea creature officially called Sertularia and acknowledged as a distant relative of coral.

The boats that had mechanical hauling gear could harvest the product. To do this, they towed not so much a dredge but rakes. These rakes were custom made at Leney's Forge on Sea Wall. They were heavy and about six feet wide. When they were hauled in, the weed would be stuck between the large teeth.

Once back at the harbour, the weed would be washed and squeezed dry by putting it through a mangle (wringer). It was then bagged up in sacks and sent off to the buyer in London. From there it started a whole new life. I believe it was treated with glycerin, dyed a bright green and sent off to America where it was sold as an ornament in little bunches.

There was one down side to dredging for this catch. Both you and your clothing became impregnated with an offensive smell. You dare not go into any shops on your way to or from work.

One Sunday morning, my brother George took it into his head to go to church on his way to work. He stood at the back but in a short time all heads were turning his way, and they were not looking for the collection plate!

John Harman

One of the points we should make here is that Whitstable was not just a place where the entire fishing industry was devoted to oysters. There was considerable variety of catches and fishermen adapted to circumstances and exploited business opportunities.

A Cottage Industry on Land

For a brief period during the 1950s, non-seagoing Natives also spotted business opportunities from the mysterious catch and I recall that it was based at this small shop at the corner of Northwood and Tankerton Roads......

Photo: The shop in Tankerton Road where White Weed was processed

Above: A cottage industry developed at this shop in Tankerton Road. The photo was of course taken many decades later when it had become a furniture enterpise under different ownership

Out of the blue, Natives started to call at the premises to pick up quantities of weed and a pack of materials. The kits were taken home where the friendly Natives died the weed green and tied it into attractive bundles. Several families in my road alone became involved.

No.... they hadn't lost their marbles. There was profit in it and they received cash when the manufactured bundles were returned to the shop. As a young child, the only thing that I knew about this curious process was that the weed had a pungent smell and it was destined for posh restaurants in London where it was used as a table decoration. Of course, the outworkers also gained the pungent smell.... along with green fingers.

As a five year old, I had no idea where the weed came from.... until John Harman's account arrived at Simply Whitstable fifty years on! Most people thought I had lost my marbles when I attempted to describe the brief industry.

It's also interesting to note that our weed travelled to London for the benefit of gastronomes. Nowadays, the gastronomes come to Whitstable to be fed. Of course, the weed has disappeared into the mists of the town's fishing history..... but, when you relate the story, don't let anyone tell you that you have lost your marbles... because it really DID happen!

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