Whitstable Oyster Dredging - The Work, Oyster Beds, Flatsmen & Company Men

Company Men.... and Flatsmen

'Company men' worked on the privately owned oyster beds of the three main companies - the Whitstable Oyster Company, the Seasalter & Ham Oyster Fishery Company and the Faversham Oyster Fishery Company. The 'company' beds were located to the west of The Street shingle bank - around the mouth of the Swale estuary.

Flatsmen operated on the area of sea bed known as the Kentish Flats. This was the more open area to the east of The Street and it was termed 'common ground'. The 'flats' were also fished by the Essex men, just as our men fished on common ground on the Essex side of the estuary.

The map below shows the Kentish Flats to the east (red text). As you can see, the 'company' oyster grounds (yellow text) surround the mouth of the Swale estuary and stretch  as far as The Street shingle bank at Tankerton.

Map of the company oyster beds and the common ground of the Kentish Flats

Fig 1: Map of the company oyster beds and the common ground of the Kentish Flats

The beds of the Whitstable Oyster Company extend across the waterfront at Long Beach, Reeves Beach, The Horsebridge and West Beach. Thus, they occupy the foreshore of much of central Whitstable.

The Seasalter & Ham Oyster Company was formed in 1893 and this led to the amalgamation of the Seasalter ground with the Ham ground.

The Faversham Oyster Fishery Company is said to be the oldest of the companies with its roots dating back to the 12th century. However, by the second quarter of the 20th century, a substantial section of its beds had been leased to the Seasalter & Ham company. It is therefore less well known in Whitstable but it rightly remains a celebrated part of Faversham history.

Peter Dalrymple's aerial photo of the Whitstable waterfront below enables us to plot some of the features from the above map.

Fig 2: Aerial photo of the Whitstable shoreline

Fig 2: Aerial view of the Whitstable shoreline with features of the oyster industry labelled. Photo kindly supplied by Peter Dalrymple. © P Dalrymple

You could say that flatsmen were freelancers. As I will explain, their work was a little different from that of the company men but there were strong connections between the two groups and some interworking.

The Flats were the real spawning grounds for the 'native oyster'. During season, the mature oysters dredged by flatsmen were sold privately but the undersized, (mainly brood), were sold to the Oyster Companies for stocking the company beds. At the height of work on their grounds, the companies might commission the flatsmen to assist. Thus, some oystermen switched between the two groups from time to time. Over the years, my dad, Tom Harman, worked for the Whitstable Oyster Co. but also worked independently on the flats with his own boat the Welcome Messenger.

Company Stores...

The two main oyster companies had substantial stores to go with their private oyster beds.

The Whitstable Oyster Company store is perhaps the better known as it occupies a prime position to the west of the harbour.....at the Horsebridge.

Fig 3: The Whitstable Oyster Company store at the Horsebridge

Fig 3: The Whitstable Oyster Company store at the Horsebridge - pctured in more recent times

The company's oyster grounds lie directly offshore from here. Thus, its boats could be moored off the beach quite conveniently - between the building and the oyster beds.

In the past, the Horsebridge was a busy 'working area'. It wasn't just that it was close to the town's High Street. Even as late as the mid twentieth century, it was a port of call for Thames barges and other small ships. As a result, it was surrounded by a number of commercial operators including coal merchants. The main boatyards were also close by - located along the beach a short distance to the west.

With the decline of the oyster industry, the building has become a well known seafood restaurant. For a short time, the upper floor was used as a cinema.

Photo: The entrance to the Horsebndge Oyster Store

Fig 4 (Right): The well known entrance to the old store of the Whitstable Oyster Company. For a short period in modern times, this provided access to a cinema. The ground floor is a restaurant with a growing reputation.

Despite its grounds being much further west, the main Seasalter & Ham building was located to the east of the harbour mouth where it nestled in the angle between the East Quay and Long Beach ......

Fig 5: The Seasalter & Ham Oyster Store at Long Beach in the 1960s

Fig 5: The Seasalter & Ham Oyster Store to the left of Whitstable Harbour's East Quay. Picture kindly supplied by Cliff Cuttelle

At one time, this was also a busy maritime area. Apart from the hubbub of the nearby harbour, the building was close to the cockle and whelk stores that fringed the shingle of Long Beach to the east. It was also adjacent to the sidings of the old Canterbury and Whitstable railway line which sprawled across the harbour lands to the south.

Today, that 1960s view in Cliff's photo is cluttered with extra buildings and the flagpole has gone. The flag pole was not a decoration but part of communication from the harbour. It was operated by the Harbour Master to signal to an awaiting ship that the harbour was safe to enter or to await the pilot. At one time, there was also a large capstan at the top of the beach for manually hauling boats up the beach.

Other Stores...

The stores of the freelance oyster dredgers (primarily the 'flatsmen') were located close to the Whitstable Oyster Company premises where they fringed the waterfront along Sea Wall and Island Wall. Here they formed part of the Whitstable scene - amidst an assortment of maritime support industries such as chandlers, sailmakers, forges and boatbuilders.

Old photo of the wooden oyster stores at Whitstable beach

Fig 6: Old oyster stores at Whitstable beach

It is worth pointing out that such oyster stores did not usually stray east of the harbour. Thus, Long Beach remained largely the province of the whelker and the cockler.

'Day Fishermen'... Tides and Tenders

To understand the fishing operation, in particular the oyster dredgermen, it is worth noting that they were referred to as 'Day Fishermen'.

That does not mean from 9 to 5! They worked the tide. Going out with the tide and working through the slack water and returning on the flood. On the beds, the water would be shallower and mean less hand hauling.

To work to this schedule, it meant leaving a little later each day as the tide indicated. To get out to their fishing vessel, they rowed out in their tender. These too were heavy work boats. Often, they took the tender with them in tow when working. If a dredge became snagged on the bottom, they would need the tender to help free it. Also, in a dead calm, they would board the tender and tow the smack home. The picture below shows one of the yawl tenders at the beach.

Fig 7: Oystermen with an oyster tender at Whitstable regatta

Fig 7: Oystermen with an oyster tender at Whitstable regatta

It was taken at the Regatta at Tankerton in the early to mid '30s. The Whitstable Oyster Co. was always in attendance at the Regattas in some official capacity and there is no mistaking the Oyster Co tenders. They were all painted white, had rope fenders dangling over the side and had wooden thole pins instead of metal rowlocks. At the stem, there was a large tow ring which we cannot see in this picture.

The photo shows dad standing centre (pipe in mouth). The gent in the suit next to him is one of the Gaywood Brothers who ran an electrical shop in the High Street and supplied loudspeakers for the event! Whilst I remember the other men, I no longer know their names. My brother, Ray Harman, has said that the one to the left is a Camburn (he had a squint in one eye) and the one to the far right might be Doc Appleton. Together they are a typical collection of the men of the day. I do not know the reason for the picture or why Mr Gaywood was in the boat, I can only guess that he was just brought ashore or being picked up, to be taken out to the committee boat, in conjunction with the sound system.

'Day Fishermen'... Tides and Moorings

Rowing out to their moorings on the outgoing tide had some bearing as to where they moored their vessel. Preferably, they would want to row with the tide, rather than against it. For more om moorings, see our page 'Moorings and Impact on Whitstable Boat Design".

Dredging

A normal crew for an oyster yawl would have been about four. Each member of the crew would have worked 1 to 3 dredges, depending as to their position on the boat. (For details of a dredge, see the page 'The Oyster Dredge' on our menu).

The skipper steered and kept a lookout but may have worked a dredge also. As a crew member hauled in one of his dredges, he emptied the contents on to the deck and cast the dredge over the side again.

Distinguishing features of a Whitstable oyster yawl, were the rectangular ports in the bulwark (the perimeter fence around the deck). These openings were for pushing the unwanted rubble out of after a dredge had been emptied onto the deck. Actually, the name for this rubble is 'culch'. It mostly consists of dead shells and shingle. Culch served a very important purpose as this was what baby oysters (known as 'spat') would cling to.

When the crew member had sorted out the culch for oysters and pushed it out through the port, he hauled in the next dredge. On the company oyster beds, the catch would be more refined than if dredged on the open grounds of the Kentish Flats. The fatsman's haul would be far more varied and much heavier as it consisted of rocks, a lot of rubble...... and not always an oyster!

Can you imagine hauling these dredges one after another, each weighing close to a half hundred weight. This was done with bare hands and so was the sorting and handling of the rubble!

Working from a sailing yawl would be different than working from a boat that was motorised. When working under sail, the sail would often be 'scandalized' (partly lowered), and the boat more or less drifted side ways with the tide. As with all fishing, too much speed and against the tide will lift the gear off the bottom!

In dredging, there can be some surprises by way of a bonus. Any whelks that were dredged up were considered better than those caught in a whelk pot as they had not eaten the bait. You can also scoop up a lobster or a crab, but the biggest surprise dad had was when a large turbot was stuck in his dredge.

Fig 8: Photo of Tom Harman with a turbot caught in his oyster dredge

Left: Tom Harman with a turbot inadvertently caught in his oyster dredge

It was not just the way in which it was caught that caused surprise. Turbot are a rarity in our area.

The fish was caught on the Kentish Flats. The photo was taken at the harbour's east quay and shows dad on his boat, the Welcome Messenger with his oyster 'dredge' visible on the right.

Work in the Close Season

The harvesting of oysters for consumption, was closed from May to September - the spawning season for the oyster during the summer months of warmer water. That did not mean that work stopped. In fact, it was a busy time for company men - a time to overhaul boats and carry out general maintenance of moorings, oyster bed markers, dredges and all equipment. Also all the company land-based property needed upkeep.

There was also a lot of work to be continued on the water. Oysters on the company grounds needed to be taken care of. During those warm days, the oyster's foes were plentiful. Their main predator was the Five Finger (starfish)

The beds were now dredged for these and they were sold to the farmers as fertilizer. During this process, oysters too would be dredged up. These would be culled out and taken ashore to the company store, where they would be cleaned, graded and then returned to the appropriate bed. Within the store, there were seawater holding pits in which stock could be held over.

For the Flatsmen, it was a different story. They too would have to do maintenance on their boats and dredge for 'five-fingers' and mussels which were also used for fertilizer. However, their work was far more varied. They could go trawling or shrimping in the close season. As a flatsman, my dad dredged the Kentish Flats for oysters during the winter but mainly cockled during the summer.

Falling on Hard Times...

The oyster industry did have some hard times, when stock was all but wiped out by disease and hard winters during which ice covered the whole Bay and the Flats. The two wars also had a large set back on the industry.

During those hard times, some Flatsmen turned to dredging cement stones. These were for the manufacture of what was known as Roman Cement. That was unbelievably hard work.

The setbacks also saw a great reduction in the number of working oyster yawls as they were either sold off to be converted to yachts or just left to rot. Young men were now encouraged to take up other trades in what was a growing town. As working yawls met tragedy, they were simply not replaced.

Stocks to the oyster grounds were gradually built up again but this was achieved by bringing in young brood from other areas of the country and from abroad. This introduced other species and the 'native' was in lesser numbers. However, it remains the oyster of choice - reputedly for its superior taste. It is the oyster that is flat on the underside with a raised back. It can grow to considerable size, close to that of a saucer. A specimen such as this is know as a 'Royal'.

It is a belief that young oysters were also brought in from other areas, as they fattened quicker and had better taste when raised on the Whitstable beds.

Video Evidence at the BFI and You Tube

There is a wonderful film clip posted on You Tube by BFI Films. It is titled "Oyster Fishing at Whitstable, England (c.1909)" Click here to view.

It shows Whitstable oystermen at work and demonstrates a number of the points I have made in this article. It appears to have been taken at Long Beach in front of the oyster store of the Seasalter & Ham Company. The harbour's east quay can be seen just to the right.

Editor's Note: John and I had a mischievous chuckle about the video clip. Whilst most of it refects reality, we quite independently doubted the opening sequence. Neither of us was sure that there would have been quite such a stampede down the beach!!! We wondered if it had been "stage managed" to a degree with the film director shouting "GO" when the film crew were in position! But what a wonderful piece of footage and many thanks to the BFI for making it available on You Tube.


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