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|Officially open - chief executive Adrian Pritchard, mayor Terry Sutton and town serjeant Richard Buckle make the proclamation at the opening of the oyster fishery in 2005. (44696-5)|
Still illegal after 429 years?
Historian Andrew Phillips charts the rise and fall of the oyster fishing industry on the River Colne.
Our borough council may be about to commit an illegal act. I hope the town clerk realises this. And it has been doing this for 429 years. I refer to the time-honoured ceremony of "Opening the Oyster Fishery."
In 1189 King Richard I, keen to raise money for a Crusade, sold Colchester a charter which confirmed its control over the fisher (oysters are not mentioned) "from North Bridge up to Westness". Unfortunately no-one knows where Westness is - or was.
At various times it has been claimed as:
- Westmarsh Point, at the entrance to Brightlingsea Channel
- Opposite Wivenhoe Wood, between Rowhedge and Colchester
- "Beyond St Osyth"
- Colne Point, the landward exit to open sea - which is what the borough would like it to be!
Behind this imprecision lies centuries of dispute, which have made lawyers rich and occasional oystermen happy.
In 1362, for example, Lionel De Bradenham, Lord of Langenhoe, claimed the Geedon creek as his, but Colchester successfully secured Admiralty support for itself, a fact which may have encouraged Brightlingsea to join the Cinque ports, for mutual self-defence.
These uncertainties led Colchester's mayor and councillors to establish a ceremony (earliest rescord 1540) of "going down the river" - an annual trip to Mersea Stone to feast and eat oysters, an implied beating of the bounds of its territory.
|Oysters ahoy - the official party sets sail from Brightlingsea on the barge Hydrogen for the ancient ceremony at the opening of the oyster fishery in 2005. (44696-1)|
At this date oysters matured freely in the river and oyster cultivation in beds barely existed. Over-fishing resulted, much to the distress of the Colchester poor, to whom oysters were a cheap source of protein.
In 1566 Colchester duly began a process of conservation. A close season was declared from Easter to Holyrood Day (September 14); those wishing to dedge had to apply each August for a licence; immature oysters had to be returned to the estuary and The Hythe was declared the only official market for oyster sales.
The regulations proved easier to adopt than enforce. the following 200 years saw many disputes about "illegal" dredging and continued queries about the site of Westness. But somehow the principles of a close season and licences survived and going down the river became opening the oyster fishery.
A free-for-all when Colchester lost its royal charter in 1741 amid political corruption destroyed the fishery, and all parties eventually accepted a new Act of Parliament, under which the fishery was to be supervised by nine Colchester JPs and a 'jury' of 12 dredgermen or "Freemen of the River."
In 1807 the dredgermen formed a company, sharing the proceeds between 40 or so families, leaving the council with only the licence fee income.
In 1869 the council began a long and expensive legal battle to get restore its sole rights. Eventually a compromise saw a new Act of Parliament recognise the Colne Fishery Company, but give the council a share of the profits.
|Cheers - mayor Terry Sutton toasting last year's haul. (44696-8)|
The high point of the trade was the 1890s - after this pollution began to bite, and imported American slipper limpets killed off the Colchester Native oysters in their millions. The east coast floods of 1953 covered the layings with mud, and the hrash winter of 1963 destroyed 90 per cent of Colchester native stocks. There has been no meeting of the Colne Fishery Company since 1964, and the final straw came in the 1980s with the parasite bonamie.
None of this has affected the observance of the annual ceremony, however. From 1913 the annual proclamation and royal toast, with gin and ginergerbread, has been covered by the local press.
This is the origin of the tradition of the mayor of Colchester eating the first oyster to be dredged from the river.