I am sure you noticed the recent announcement that the “ancient” ceremony of Opening the Oyster Fishery is so dangerous for the mayor, it might not take place on a boat in future.

So far as I know, no mayor of Colchester has ever drowned, although John Clay (1827-8) broke his leg when run over by Mrs Bare’s fish wagon. Mayors in those days were less risk averse.

Fortunately, John recovered to attend the Admiralty Court at the Blockhouse, East Mersea, on September 5, 1828. After a good breakfast, courtesy of the Rose and Crown, in Wivenhoe, the mayor, corporation and hangers-on went by boat – complete with band – to Mersea Stone (today the easternmost tip of Cudmore Grove). Here, they disembarked for the Blockhouse ceremony and feast, before sailing the boundary of the Oyster Fishery, returning for some merry dancing on the beach.

What I have just described is now called the Opening of the Oyster Fishery. Notice, there is no reference to dredging or tasting oysters.

The Admiralty Court existed to try anyone guilty of fishing without a licence or fishing during the close season, which ran from April to September. It had been established in 1566 because the abundant wild oysters of the Colne had been fished out by uncontrolled dredging, partly to meet the insatiable London market. Oysters never recovered; fishing for oysters gave way to farming them.

Admiralty Courts were held in the Blockhouse, a military stronghold in East Mersea, the outline of which is still visible. The court was held there to emphasise the point that Colchester’s control of the river extended to its mouth, whatever Brightlingsea and Mersea oystermen might think.

After 1750, however, the Blockhouse became ruinous. Admiralty Courts transferred to the Moot Hall, but the ceremony at Mersea Stone was continued. So was a boat trip round the river mouth, marking the bounds of the fishery. To make it all worthwhile, a decent meal and several barrels of beer were laid on – at the ratepayers’ expense. Naturally, mayor, town clerk, and corporation fancied a dance afterwards.

Now, you might ask, what has this got to do with Opening the Oyster Fishery? Well, the Admiralty Court closed with the announcement that oystermen could now apply for licences to dredge, the close season being over.

The close season had been proclaimed by a ceremony in March or early April, called Shutting the River, or, given our Essex accent, Setting the River. For this, the town clerk or mayor would make the proclamation from a boat in the river. It may have derived from a proclamation in the river of the borough’s wider rights, which dates from 1256, and is still quoted today.

The Setting the River ceremony and the Admiralty Court continued into Victorian times. By now, Colchester had lost control of the Oyster Fishery to the Colne Company, a self-governing body of oystermen. This body gave the mayor an oyster lunch at the start of the St Denis Fair in October, which is the origin of the Oyster Feast.

After lots of legal battles – at great expense – the borough regained control of the fishery and set up, with the oystermen, the Colne Oyster Fishery Company.

By now, the historic close period had changed and Admiralty Courts had lost their legal status. Oyster fishing tended to take place between March and June. Consequently, the annual Shutting of the River moved to July.

Matters were transformed by Alderman Henry Laver, a local doctor, a man of wide learning, and a great Colchester worthy. He became chairman of the Oyster Company and transformed it into a flourishing, profitable business. He also, I suspect, was behind some “adjustments” to the old ceremonies.

In 1884, the annual Shutting the River reappeared as the Opening of the Fishery, doubled up with the now ceremonial relic of the Admiralty Court and the sailing of the bounds. It now involved “hauling the first dredges” to check the quality of the oysters, an appropriate gesture now that it was a borough-run business. Next came photography. Inc-reasingly, the mayor, town clerk and town sergeant put on their ceremonial robes for the press. Then, in 1913, an Essex County Standard photographer asked: “Could the mayor taste one of the first oysters?”. A new tradition was born.

In his 1916 book, Laver rejoiced that the ceremony was now dignified, unlike the “rough horseplay” of the past. Don’t worry, the horseplay came back in the 1960s.

So there you have it. Today’s event has evolved over centuries, from several earlier forms. Our present mayor can rejoice that, in holding the ceremony at Cudmore Grove, she is restoring an older tradition.

Indeed, I humbly suggest she holds it at the site of the Blockhouse, still visible today. And the deputy mayor, as she wonders whether to risk the waves next year, can reflect that getting into a small and dangerous boat to trawl the first oyster is also quite modern, only adopted to please the press, in the early 1960s.

Oh yes: They take gin and gingerbread. No-one knows why. Indeed, the only other known reference to this odd combination was made by Dr Johnson in 1774. He observed Dutch sailors (in Scotland) taking gingerbread with gin.

Now, I was recently contacted by a Dutch historian about evidence he had of Dutch and Colchester oystermen co-operating in the 1720s to dredge 70 tons of Colchester and 40 tons of Beversom oysters. I offer this as a promising clue.

And you read it first in the Essex County Standard.