The History of Oysters in Britain
Created | Updated May 5, 2006
Before the Romans arrived in Britain in 43AD, Britons in general had regarded shellfish as something of a subsistence food, handy to have in times of need but never to be sought after when there was fish or meat to be had. However, the Romans brought with them an enthusiasm for eating sea animals of all kinds, and once the military invasion was over and traders and civilians began to arrive, a demand quickly built up for all kinds of fish and shellfish.
The shells of oysters, whelks, cockles, mussels and limpets are found extensively on the sites of Roman villas, towns and forts at least as far north as Hadrian's Wall1, not only near the coast but also at great distances from the sea, presumably transported alive in water tanks.
The Oyster in England
Oysters, however, were the particular glory of Britain. They were marketed widely within the country, and were even sent as far as Rome itself. Cookery books of the period describe a dressing of pepper, lovage2, egg yolk, vinegar, liquamen3, olive oil and wine.
When the Romans left and the Romano-British town and villa way of life died away, the oyster lost its status as a delicacy. For several centuries they were rarely eaten, but by the early 8th Century they returned to favour. Well before the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century, the old Roman practice of transporting shellfish inland had been revived, and by the 1400s the oyster was a popular foodstuff for rich and poor alike, now cooked in its own juices with a little ale and pepper.
Throughout the medieval period, the church imposed a very large number of 'fish days', where the meat of animals and birds could not be eaten. Lent and all Fridays and Saturdays were kept as fish days until the late Middle Ages, and Wednesdays were also observed until the early 15th Century. This division between fish (which incidentally included beavers, seals and the barnacle goose) and meat was further enhanced by medieval medical lore, which forbade the mixing of the two in the same meal.
It was not until the 17th Century that the rigid demarcation between the two foods began to break down, and oysters began to be cooked with roast capon or duck. Domestic fowl were stuffed with them, especially turkeys, which had oyster sauce poured over them for good measure, and sausages were made containing oysters and either pork or mutton.
Oysters were still eaten on their own, of course, as an hors d'oeuvre or in the main meal, and since the 17th Century they had routinely been pickled for transport to inland towns or for long voyages. Small fresh oysters were eaten raw; large ones were stewed with herbs and spices, or were roasted or baked in pies.
During the 18th Century, green oysters became popular. In Essex around Mersea and the rivers Crouch and Roach, oysters developed green beards of harmless algae in September. Local salesmen collected them and put them into pits dug in the saltmarshes for six to eight weeks, turning them a deep dark green which was much admired in London.
The Victorian Era
The liberal use of oysters continued into Victorian times, while pickled oysters were a regular food of the poor in London and other towns. As Dickens' Sam Weller4 remarks, 'Poverty and oysters always seem to go together'.
In the middle of the 19th Century, oysters and scallops were being dredged in huge numbers all along Sussex coast by fleets of oyster smacks. Then, quite suddenly, the natural oyster beds became exhausted, partially through overfishing and partially through pollution; it was only deliberate artificial breeding that saved them from extinction.
Most oyster farming took place in the English channel, both along the Sussex coastline and on the other side in Brittany. English fishermen often caught free-swimming larvae or mature adults off the French coast, and brought them back to mature in baskets and trays hanging on ropes suspended from the surface. The best oyster-growing conditions are to be found where there is protection from rough seas, but where there is still a tidal current to carry food to the larvae. Farmers in Sussex built dykes to enclose large areas of salt water, with channels cut through them to let in the tidal swell. The remnants of these dykes, or bunds, can still be seen at the northern end of Hayling Island, although the local council is now digging them up to turn into gravel.
Nearby, on a tiny islet in Langstone Harbour, a family of oyster farmers established their home in 1819. Matthew Russell and his eldest son established oyster beds around the island and in nearby Crasticks Channel, which later came to be known as Russell's Lake. The house was built both to live in and to keep an eye on oyster poachers, although local tradition has it that it had suspiciously large cellars and was often visited by unlit vessels in the dead of night.
At the close of the nineteenth century, every one of the hundred or so oyster fisherman in nearby Emsworth owned his own bed (or pond, as it was known), but gradually the industry became centred on two men who slowly acquired them as they became available. These men were JD Foster, a prominent if rather puritan local employer, and John (known as Jack) Kennet, a local councilman.
In the early 1900s, council workers relaid a number of the sewers and drains which emptied onto the Emsworth foreshore. Foster constructed a number of new ponds in close proximity to the outflow and seeded them with a considerable quantity of young oysters. In 1902 there was a local mayoral banquet, and naturally one of the courses consisted of the oysters for which Emsworth had by then become justly famous. Unfortunately some of the shellfish had been contaminated by the foreshore outflow, and several of the diners, including the Dean of Winchester, died of typhoid.
The Fall of the Oyster Empire
The shellfish industry collapsed almost overnight. Foster made a claim for damages against Warblington Council for £1,500, later increasing to £18,000 after several years of increasingly acrimonious litigation. Jack Kennett, the other local oyster farmer, did not press charges even though his own losses amounted to around £5,000, and when the council appealed in 1906, Kennett actually testified against Foster, pointing out that he had not only known about the outflow, but had deliberately put his beds in that area to make use of the extra nutrients in the water. Foster's award was reduced to £3,300, the town avoided bankruptcy, and Kennett became a local hero. The townspeople clubbed together to buy him a gold watch inscribed with a message of thanks, but the British oyster industry has never recovered.