Whitstable Oyster Dredging: Marking Beds & Channels and Fishery Protection

Oyster Bed Markers.... and Seaweed Trees!

It's amazing how questions raised in the Simply Whitstable Visitors Book often lead to answers that enhance our understanding of how things worked in bygone Whitstable. During a discussion of a German aircraft that had crashed on the mudflats off Whitstable, one of our readers raised this 'tongue in cheek' question....  

Can anyone remember the strange phenomenon of the "seaweed tree" which grew on the mudflats or is my memory playing tricks again?

All I can remember is that they were about 4-5 metres high, approx. 100mm diameter and had no foliage apart from the very top.

In fact, memories weren't playing tricks..... and explanations arrived from both Mark Foreman and John Harman...

My dad read the reference to the "trees" that seemed to grow out on the mudflats. He offered an explanation.

During dad's younger years when there were still oysters to be found out on the beds, the positions of certain sized oysters and the beds were marked by saplings, positioned/planted out on the mud. By using these markers, oysters of roughly the same size could quickly be sorted or collected by going to the right.

Mark Foreman, April 2004

I presume that the trees were ideal markers as a boat could pass over them without incurring damage to the hull. John's note provides a name for those seaweed trees....

Marking was often done with straight tree saplings which were referred to as "withies".

As a child out in the Welcome Messenger with my Dad in the 1930s, I do remember seeing 'withies' in the water in the area of the Pollard (off the far end of West Beach). I believe these marked some of the innermost oyster beds.

John Harman, April 2004

Other Markers... Buoys and Land Marks

Other, quite different markers were also used....

Withies weren't the only methods of marking oyster beds. Each oyster company had its own way of marking its beds and grounds.

One way was with "poles that floated on end". These poles were chained at the bottom end to an anchor and they would swing with the tide.

Other markers were large "cone shaped buoys". These were tarred black with white bands painted around them. My brother Ray remembers last seeing some of these.... outside a house in Chestfield!

Another way of indicating the grounds, was by taking bearings from land marks - in the form of tall white poles that had a large triangle on top. These would be located in pairs. One would be positioned on the shore and the other further in land. From sea, these would have to be lined up to give the position.

I remember one particular pair. One pole was sited near the Boating Lake and its mate was near the railway bank at the end of the raised golf link path.

John Harman

John's explanation resolved an issue from my childhood in the 1950s! I vaguely recall that land mark near the railway footbridge at West Cliff. I passed it on sunny Sundays in summer.... as we made our way to the boating lake at West Beach. It never occurred to me that it had maritime connections as it was so far from the beach!

I also vaguely recall the cone-shaped buoys even further from the sea..... at Chestfield as Ray Harman noted. Of course, by then, they were serving a non-maritime function - as markers that prevented cars from creeping on to the grass verge. I am not certain but I believe that they may have been linked by attractive chains. Recently, I went in search of them but they do not appear to be there in the new millennium!

Fishery Protection, Creeps.. & Disputes!

Apparently, it wasn't just a case of marking the valuable oyster beds. Methods of fishery protection needed to be employed. Some were simple devices....

To deter poaching, chains and hooks were also positioned out on the flats to snare the nets and equipment of those who shouldn't have been out there in the first place!

Of course, the bone fide dredgers would have known exactly how to avoid these snares.

Mark Foreman

The iron hooks on chains that were used to deter oyster poachers were referred to as "flats creeps".

There are stories of Essex boats coming over to the 'Whitstable side'... whereupon, the Whitstable boats would cross over the flats creeps with their dredges "swimming" (raised off the bottom). It was done in anticipation that the Essex boats would follow! This would no doubt lead to a lot of shouting and threats of "Just wait 'til you get over the other side"!

John Harman

Others involved a bit of manpower.....

During the 1920s, my dad also worked on the "Watch Boats"where the crew would be aboard for a week at a time guarding the oyster beds.

One boat was the Post Boy which was on the beds quite far out. The other was the Stormy Petrel. Her position was conveniently off the Sportsman Pub!

John Harman

Withies and Creeks...

Our 'seaweed trees' (or, more appropriately withies!) served another important marking function.....

A lot of smacks were berthed up in the creeks, as at Faversham and even more so over on the Essex side in the area of Maldon. The water in these marshy areas could be quite widely spread with shallow water when flooded. Hence, it was necessary to mark the channel. This was often done using those saplings known as 'withies'.

These boats would often have to navigate their way out of the narrow channels, one after the other in the early morning darkness. That is why many had a portion of their transoms painted white for the following boat to see.

John Harman


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