WHEN dignitaries, civic leaders and invited guests sit down for the Colchester Oyster Feast tomorrow, they will not only be celebrating some fine seafood, but also a tradition which dates back centuries.

Sometimes controversial, always colourful, the Colchester Oyster Feast has, over the years, attracted many famous names, including royalty.

Both King Edward VIII and King George VI, before they were crowned, came to sample Colchester’s culinary delights in the last century.

But what are the feast’s origins and how far does it actually go back?

The feast is believed to date back to the 14th century, with the tradition of the St Dennis Fair, which was held every October on the Beryfield, now home to the Firstsite art gallery, which revived the tradition earlier this month.

The St Dennis Fair dates from at least 1318 and lasted for a week with craftsmen coming from all over the district with their wares.

By the 18th century there were three more town feasts vying for contention, the Election Dinner (sometimes called the Freeman’s Dinner), the Mayor’s Dinner and a smaller, low-key corporation lunch just for the mayor and the councillors.

The last took place at least from the 1790s and was marked by a gift of oysters by the Colne dredgermen, who had just received their annual licences from the town council.

However, in 1835, the passing of the Municipal Corporation Act attempted to crack down on local government corruption and banned all forms of civic feasting.

But, while the Election Dinner and Mayor’s Dinner disappeared, the little corporation lunch survived, mainly because the councillors paid for it themselves – except for the oysters, which, of course, came from the dredgermen.

In 1845, new mayor Henry Wolton, a great traditionalist, revived the civic feast by revamping the corporation lunch, inviting 200 people to dine at the town hall at his own expense. Colchester historian Andrew Phillips said: “Wolton had invented the modern Oyster Feast, by cleverly re-inventing the banned Mayor’s Dinner.

“For this he was re-elected mayor five times.

“Not all subsequent mayors were as generous as Wolton, and not until 1878 did another wealthy mayor, Thomas Moy, the coal merchant, make the Wolton Oyster Feast the normal thing.

“It finally blossomed in the 1880s, when it became a national event. The town stopped for the day and royalty and diplomats would come to town.”

As well as Edward VIII and George VI, dignitaries included prime ministers Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, inventor Heath Robinson and even foreign royalty such as the Sultan of Zanzibar.

In recent years, it has been more celebrity led, with ex-Colchester boys done good Darren Day and Dermot O’Leary, as well as well-known faces such as TV journalist and independent MP Martin Bell and former Speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd.

Andrew Phillips added: “In this day when all our identity is being lost in an estuary English mass, the Oyster Feast is something worthwhile to hold on to.

“It is slightly daft, but also quite fun, and it helps us to focus on our sense of identity.”