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Just how old is the oyster feast?
The annual Oyster Feast is a long-established local tradition. Historian ANDREW PHILLIPS outlines the complex origins of this famous event.
The 2008 Oyster Feast
Full house - a typical view of
How old is the Oyster Feast? Why does it exist? Is it unique to Colchester?
Year after year speakers at the Feast resort to the mists of antiquity and lost in ancient times to cover their uncertainty. This is not necessary.
The origin of the Oyster Feast is absolutely clear, well documented and now to be revealed.
There are clues all over Europe. In Germany they have an Oktober Fest, Nottingham has its Goose Fair, churches from Ireland to Poland hold their harvest thanksgiving.
|Colchester Town Serjeant Michael Kirby
brings a salver of oysters into the 2008 feast.
In the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Michaelmas daisies offer a
last display of flowers to autumn honey bees. Michaelmas (September 29th) marks
the turning of the year, the traditional date for renewing business contracts,
for settling harvest money, and employing your farm labourers for another year.
With harvest money in their pockets, labourers looked for a Michaelmas fair to buy new breeches, shoes, knives, and perhaps a pewter mug. For with harvest gathered in, there was time to hold a feast before the cold winds of winter made you batten down the hatches.
Feasts took many forms, but in Colchester the Michaelmas Fair was the St Dennis Fair, held every October 9th on the Beryfield, now home to the Colchester Bus Station.
The St Dennis Fair dates from at least 1318 and lasted for a week, craftsmen coming from all over the district with their wares, setting up High Street stalls (under which they slept). It was the big event in Colchesters calendar.
The decision to adjust Europes calendar led to the removal of 11 days in 1752, moving the date of the St Dennis Fair to October 20th.
By this time there were two main Colchester civic feasts.
|Delicious - former MP and TV journalist,
Martin Bell, samples some oysters.
There was the Election Dinner (sometimes the Freemans Dinner), when these
hereditary gentleman elected a new town council, which in those days entered
office on Michaelmas Day. On that day was then held the Mayors Dinner.
Im sure you see the point keeping the voters happy.
Also on the day of the Proclamation of the St Dennis Fair (now October 20th) there was a corporation lunch just for the mayor and the councillors.
This much quieter event was marked from at least the 1790s by a gift of October oysters by the Colne dredgermen who had just received their annual licences from the town council. Im sure you see the point keeping the bosses happy.
Thus matters remained until 1835 when a major reform of local government forbade all forms of civic feasting.
Time to end corruption, that sort of thing. No more Election Dinner, no more Mayors Dinner. But the little Corporation Lunch (sometimes supper) survived, since they paid for it themselves, except for the oysters which came from the grateful dredgermen.
|Taste test - guests relax
at the 2004 Colchester Oyster Feast.
In 1845 the new mayor was Henry Wolton, a great traditionalist. For example,
he reintroduced the punishment of the stocks for persistent drunkards
a practice by then unknown elsewhere.
He also dramatically renamed the Corporation Lunch, inviting 200 guests to dine at his expense in the newly-built town hall (the one before the present one).
Wolton had invented the modern Oyster Feast, by cleverly re-inventing the banned Mayors Dinner. For this he was re-elected mayor five times.
Not all subsequent mayors were as generous as Wolton and not till 1878 did another wealthy mayor, Thomas Moy the coal merchant, make the Wolton Oyster Feast the normal thing.
Before long cabinet ministers and London dignitaries were coming down to Colchester as our guests, to be followed in the 20th century by showbiz and media personalities to give the event popular appeal.
|All smiles - (l to r) Sue and Adrian Bouckley, Linda
and Tony Hughes at the reception before the 2004 feast.
By now the St Dennis Fair was no more, last seen as a horse fair near the bottom
of Ipswich Road. It was last proclaimed by the mayor and town council
So there you have it: 1318 St Dennis Fair, 1790s Corporation (Oyster) Lunch, 1845 modern Oyster Feast, all (after 1752) occurring in late October.