A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.
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The Colne oyster fishery, 'the most valuable asset of the borough', (fn. 1) has been the source as much of bad neighbourliness and litigation as of profit to Colchester. The charter of 1189 confirmed the fishery to the borough, but did not define the location of 'Westness', its seaward boundary. Conflicting rights were held by neighbouring lords: in 1119 Henry I had granted to St. John's abbey the fisheries and mills in Brightlingsea manor, and between 1174 and 1187 Henry II confirmed to St. Osyth's priory the manor of Chich St. Osyth with extensive rights, including those over the foreshore. (fn. 2)
In 1362, when Lionel of Bradenham claimed the creeks of the Colne in his manor of Langenhoe, Colchester was able, with some plausibility in law, to join Alresford, Brightlingsea, St. Osyth, Fingringhoe, East and West Mersea, Peldon, Pete, Wigborough, Salcott, Tollesbury, and Goldhanger, in asserting that they had had a common fishery in the river and its creeks from time immemorial. (fn. 3) With similar plausibility Colchester at the same time obtained a confirmation of its charter, a grant which may well have helped to send Brightlingsea into the arms of the privilege-conscious. Cinque Ports about that time. (fn. 4)
The charter of 1447 did not mention the fishery, although it defined the liberty as including the area from North bridge to 'Westness'; indeed, the fishery had a few days earlier been granted to John de Vere, earl of Oxford, lord of Wivenhoe. The rival claims were settled in Colchester's favour before a jury of 24 'indifferent persons', the witnesses on both sides accusing each other of lying under oath, but Westness remained indeterminate, (fn. 5) and the tradition of a free fishery which Colchester had usurped persisted in the Colneside communities.
The Act of 1562 for the maintenance of the navy which had allowed the free sale and export of fish, (fn. 6) had the unintentional result of greatly increasing the number of oyster dredgers, some of whom sold their oysters away from Colchester. The borough market and its poor suffered, and the stock of oysters was over-fished to the point of destruction. In 1566 when the borough assembly found it necessary to make constitutions for it, the oyster fishery's chief role was to provide a cheap and abundant food supply for the borough poor, 'which by that provision were chiefly relieved'. To that end no oysters were to be sold anywhere except at the quayside market at the Hythe; dredgermen from the Colneside communities who sold either to 'foreigners' or in their own villages became liable to imprisonment and the forfeiture of their boats. (fn. 7)
A routine was formulated which was to continue for 400 years. A close season was declared for the breeding period, from Easter to Holy Rood day (14 Sept.). In August each year those wishing to dredge were to apply to the bailiffs for a licence, and a register of those so licensed was to be kept. In addition, however, the lords of some manors on the lower Colne and the lord warden of the Cinque Ports retained the right to nominate a small number of summer dredgers from among the poorest licensed oystermen of their parishes. The Hythe remained the sole legal oyster market and any forestaller buying oysters to ship out of the Colne was liable to lose both his cargo and his vessel, except that if the bailiffs were satisfied that Colchester was fully supplied, the surplus might be sent elsewhere. (fn. 8)
There was an immediate protest from the fishermen of the parishes along the lower Colne, who claimed that the bailiffs had interfered with their dredging and fishing. (fn. 9) When the matter came before the county assizes at Brentwood in 1567 the court concentrated on conservation. The fishermen were to supply the Colchester markets as largely and plentifully as they had in the previous 20 years. Though licences for summer dredging were to be granted as formerly, the close season was emphasized. No boat was to carry more than two persons or tow more than one dredge of the existing standard size. Summer dredgers could only go one in a boat, with a mast and sail not more than 7 ft. high. Fishermen were to sort the contents of their dredges at once and put back all brood and immature oysters. The boats which the borough had impounded were to be immediately returned; a man must not be deprived of his means of livelihood. (fn. 10) The regulations, however, were of little avail when the Act of 1564 left the door open for exporters, and by not affirming Colchester's rights and powers the justices had only publicized the uncertainty of those privileges.
In 1629, shortly before the 'oyster famine' of the 1630s, which was felt most acutely in London, (fn. 11) Colchester revived its policy of the 1560s, provoking the 'poor fishermen of Essex' to petition the Admiralty. (fn. 12) The fishermen claimed, as did Roger Townsend of Wivenhoe in his contemporaneous and related suit against the borough, (fn. 13) that Westness was at the point where the borough boundary crossed the Colne; if that were proved, Colchester would lose all the productive part of the fishery.
The 1635 charter confirmed Colchester's right to admiralty jurisdiction, but did not specify the location of Westness. (fn. 14) Nevertheless, the first action of the newly constituted assembly in July 1635 was to arrest every man and boat found summer dredging in the Colne without the mayor's licence. (fn. 15)
In 1638 a government inquiry, under Sir Henry Marten, into the extraordinary dearth of oysters in Essex and Kent found that, as a result of the insatiable demands of the export trade, Colchester and Maldon were both plundering the prime spatting ground at Mersea 'Pont' off East Mersea. Fishermen were removing cultch to private layings and 'grounds' where the spat and brood in it often died. Marten accordingly proposed to reduce exports to not more than 1,000 half-barrels a week. (fn. 16) Colchester had already taken some action with a flurry of bans and embargoes in 1633 and 1634, but in 1636 the Privy Council decreed that those applied only to foreigners, and that it was lawful to export oysters in English ships. (fn. 17) In 1638 or 1639 the Privy Council, then taking action, reprimanded the new mayor for granting too many summer licences, and transferred enforcement to the High Admiral and his vice-admirals. (fn. 18) Only the interruption of the Civil War saved the fishery from extinction.
A new complication was introduced by developments at Brightlingsea, whose sea-borne trade had collapsed totally by 1610. Its later, modest, wealth was based almost entirely on shrewd exploitation of the oyster industry, in a relationship with Colchester's fishery which might be termed symbiotic but which the borough increasingly regarded as parasitic. (fn. 19)
In the political turmoil of the Interregnum the borough found it even more difficult to control the fishery. Fishermen were regularly, but ineffectively, prosecuted at the court at the East Mersea blockhouse for dredging out of season, using a 'smack-sail' instead of a rowing boat, staking off exclusive beds in the creeks, selling brood from the river to outsiders, selling fattened oysters from the layings by the ship-load to Flemings, threatening the water bailiff and even the mayor. The fishermen simply replied that their alleged offences had been committed outside the jurisdiction of the borough's court. Not only was the borough unable to resist technical development, it was soon to find itself threatened by men of wealth and national influence. (fn. 20) In the 1650s private layings began to prosper and proliferate in the creeks of the Colne, largely in the hands of 'yeomen' dredgers, supported by manorial lords who rejected Colchester's claims to exclusive rights over their foreshores. At Brightlingsea the new lord, George Thompson, began in the 1650s by prohibiting pits on the saltings, went on to charge rent for them, and then in the 1670s to grant layings in Borefleet (Brightlingsea Creek) as copyholds. (fn. 21) By 1693 his heir had granted ten 1,000-year leases. (fn. 22) Dredgermen bought their licences, which Colchester apparently could not refuse, dredged young oysters from the river, fattened them on their own layings, and sold them at a profit in which Colchester had no share. Dredgermen actually resident in Colchester were at a disadvantage compared with Brightlingsea and Mersea men, so that from the mid 17th century onwards Colchester struggled to find a mechanism to control and profit from a fishery of which it had no working experience. (fn. 23)
In 1671 James duke of York, lord High Admiral and lord warden of the Cinque Ports, claimed the whole fishery. The borough responded by leasing the valuable Pyefleet for 14 years to its recorder, Sir John Shaw, on condition that he defend the fishery. (fn. 24) James's claim apparently lapsed with his removal from office in 1673, but in 1674 Charles II confirmed a lease he had granted to two speculators of the lower Colne and its oyster fishery. (fn. 25)
The lease apparently did not take effect, but it had shown that the borough's title to the fishery was uncertain, (fn. 26) and neighbouring landowners were to exploit the uncertainty. In 1683 the borough leased the whole fishery, apparently for the first time, to two Mersea oyster dredgers for £50 a year, the borough to bear any legal costs of defending it. (fn. 27) In 1700 the fishery was leased, for a £50 fine and a 1s. a year rent, to two entrepreneurs, the aldermen John Potter and Ralph Creffield, who were to defend it in the courts if necessary. The lease, which defined Westness as 'in, beyond, or near Chich St. Osyth', was extended to 1736, although the town had to bear some of the legal expenses. (fn. 28)
Despite the full co-operation of the borough and the astute impanelling of up-river juries to deal with offenders from Brightlingsea and St. Osyth and vice versa, Potter and Creffield had difficulty forcing some of the more prosperous Brightlingsea dredgers to comply with the regulations. (fn. 29) In 1703 they successfully prosecuted a group of interlopers, from the rivers Crouch and Roach as well as Brightlingsea parish, (fn. 30) but they were suspected of supporting attempts by West Mersea, Tollesbury, and Salcott dredgermen to fish freely in Borefleet, to which Colchester had already advanced unsuccessful claims in 1557 and 1659. (fn. 31) Isaac Brand of Brightlingsea vindicated his manorial rights so fully that Borefleet's position outside the fishery was never questioned again. (fn. 32) After an action lasting from 1724 to 1728, (fn. 33) Marmaduke Rawdon of Fingringhoe obtained an injunction against Potter and Creffield and their licensees, and the Geedons were judged to be outside the fishery. The claim advanced in 1724 by James Waldegrave, Lord Waldegrave, of Langenhoe to Pyefleet, an essential element of the fishery, was a more serious threat, but it seems to have been abandoned. (fn. 34) In 1731 the borough bought out both Creffield and Potter's successor John Colt and so resumed the fishery. (fn. 35)
After the lapse of the charter in 1741 the fishery degenerated into such a free-for-all that all parties agreed to seek an Act of Parliament. (fn. 36) The Act of 1758 vested the powers to issue licences, to appoint a water bailiff or serjeant, and to hold the court at the blockhouse in three J.P.s from the Colchester division of the county; it also identified Westness with St. Osyth point. (fn. 37) Under the Act a court of conservancy composed of nine J.P.s and a jury of 12 dredgermen at once agreed regulations which formed the basis of all later rules for the fishery. When the new charter was granted in 1763 the borough formally adopted the system and rules. The number of licensed dredgers, residents in the eight riverside parishes who had served a seven-year apprenticeship, increased from 34 in 1758 to 69 in 1764, although totals varied widely from year to year. Colchester itself was omitted from the list of parishes, and, although 8 of the 30 dredgers licensed in 1736 were from the borough, after 1758 there was none. (fn. 38)
In 1787 George Waldegrave, Earl Waldegrave, and Sir Robert Smyth of Berechurch Hall again claimed Pyefleet, but without the support of the dredgermen their claim failed. (fn. 39)
During the Napoleonic Wars many Colne fishermen joined the Fencibles, and that experience of working together may have contributed to their decision in 1807 to form themselves into a single company to control and work the fishery. Although it involved the borough's virtual abdication of its rights, the company was formed under the chairmanship of two Colchester aldermen, the elder and younger Thomas Hedge. (fn. 40) The elder Hedge had acquired a farm in Brightlingsea adjacent to the wintering beds, and his tenant at another farm there, which straddled the road from the village to the waterside, was John Noble, the foreman of the fishery jury. (fn. 41) The number of dredgermen, or 'freemen of the river', rose from 73 in 1807 to 413 in 1866. The company, with its annual share-out of the profits, inspired a blind loyalty, became the foundation for a whole further fishery (stowboating) and yachting economy, and evolved its own traditions and even mythology, but it had no basis in law. (fn. 42) In 1821 the borough, receiving c. £2 2s. for each licence, found the new system 'sufficient for every liberal purpose', (fn. 43) but after the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 the new corporation with its new-found financial competence was not so sure. It regretted what it saw as the loss of its fishery, and with the formation of a watchdog fishery committee in 1836 it took the first step on the way to recovery. (fn. 44)
In 1836 and 1841 and between 1861 and 1864 the corporation, aware that its loss of control was due partly to its ignorance of oyster-dredging, undertook investigations into the fishery. (fn. 45) Although the communal loyalty and virtual self-policing of the dredgermen had merit, the fishery company was being run as a large benefit club. The powers of the jury, particularly of the two foremen who were working dredgermen, would have been dictatorial but for the annual elections. The foremen prescribed times and conditions of work; their officers handled all buying and selling, and they could borrow up to £5,000 on the security of the fishery. They allowed licensed dredgers to take a turn at 'working their stint' in the river, and when the annual accounts had been agreed they ordered a share-out to all working members, retired members, and their widows. Apprenticeship rules made membership of the company all but hereditary; it was a fishery run for fishermen. (fn. 46) To the borough the fishery was an ill-run business but a potential goldmine which could almost replace the rates. To the dredgermen the Colne estuary was common water from which the wealthier among them could replenish their private layings, and which guaranteed labouring parttime dredgers a living in the worst of years. (fn. 47)
When, in 1841, a dispute began over the destruction of an oyster bed by a ship running aground, the fishery company was happy for the corporation to take on the expense of prosecution. The case, which dragged on until 1848, established that the Colne was a fishery as well as a navigable waterway, and that the corporation was within its rights to prosecute. (fn. 48) The company found that it had connived in proving the fishery to be the property of the borough.
An attempt in 1862 by alderman C. H. Hawkins to reform the fishery by Act of Parliament, replacing the system of work sharing by daywage labour, introducing capital investment, and levying a royalty to the corporation, met with opposition from the dredgermen. (fn. 49) That opposition was weakened, however, by their poor financial position after a series of bad spat-falls in the 1850s and early 1860s, (fn. 50) and by a division within their ranks between the 'merchants' who had their own private oyster businesses and the 'crews'. The corporation's astute insistence that in future 12 dredgermen elected by the general body must be associated with the jury led in 1867 to an unintended closing of ranks. (fn. 51)
The decision of 1848 had given the corporation the confidence to provoke a showdown with the dredgermen by refusing to grant some regular fishermen their annual licences. In 1864 one brought an action against the corporation to test whether it could refuse to grant a licence to a fully qualified dredgerman from one of the eight Colneside parishes. Judgement in 1867, and on appeal in 1868, was for the corporation. (fn. 52)
The company was advised throughout that crucial period by its clerk, the Colchester solicitor H. S. Goody, who, realising that the company had no existence in law, persuaded the dredgermen to accept in the Colne Fishery Act of 1870 the best terms he could secure. (fn. 53) Under that Act (fn. 54) Colchester recovered the fishery; the company became a legal entity, but it re-entered the fishery only on the corporation's terms, paying a rent of £500 a year and a quarter of any profits over £1,500 as well as bearing all the industry's expenses. Control was in the hands of a Joint Fishery Board composed of six men from the corporation and six from the company, but the election of the latter was so organized that the corporation could manipulate the dredgermen's choice. The fishery did, however, remain the preserve of the eight Colneside parishes, and the annual share-out or dividend continued. In those circumstances it became the undeclared policy of the company to render the fishery as labourintensive as possible while keeping profits below £1,500. Balance sheets contained little detail, and meetings of the Joint Fishery Board were few. (fn. 55)
The fishery was revolutionized by Henry Laver, who joined the board in 1886 and quickly made himself an expert in oyster fishing. (fn. 56) Reports in 1888 and 1889 were scathing on the state and running of the fishery and on the accounting policy of the company, and between then and 1892 Laver put into effect his 'Forward Policy'. (fn. 57) Despite opposition from the company, the foremen were brought under the control of monthly meetings of the board, a steam dredger was acquired, a detachment of water police formed, and a professional manager, E. Newman, appointed. (fn. 58) For some years Newman was subjected to obstruction and contumely, (fn. 59) but he gradually won the liking and respect of the dredgermen, as Laver never did. During their joint reign, from 1892 to Newman's death in 1911, (fn. 60) a succession of hard-fought lawsuits put the extent of the fishery on a clear legal basis for the first time, (fn. 61) likely grounds of dispute were obviated by shrewd and timely purchases, and a start was made on identifying the special potential of different parts of the river. (fn. 62)
As a result of Newman's supervision the total sale of oysters rose from 675,000 in the 1893-4 season to 2.7 million in 1894-5, and even exceeded 3 million in 1897-8, but the success could not be maintained. (fn. 63) Already in 1880 the pouring of untreated or inadequately treated sewage into rivers had started a typhoid scare, and in 1895 a national inquiry showed an extraordinary coincidence of sewer outfalls and oyster beds. (fn. 64) The typhoid outbreak that year was linked to oysters from Brightlingsea Creek, outside the fishery, but demand was affected. (fn. 65)
A more persistent threat came from the slipper limpet, accidentally imported with the bluepoint oyster from the U.S.A. (fn. 66) Restrictions on cultivation imposed by the navy during the First World War allowed the pest to proliferate while conditions for the oysters deteriorated. Sales in 1920 were less than half those of 1898, and in 1930 only a seventh. In 1920, while the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries removed 2,000 tons of slipper limpets from the mouth of the fishery, a new mystery killer spread from the sea into the river, destroying between 20 per cent and 50 per cent of the oysters on the beds. (fn. 67) As a government inquiry decided that the new disease was unrelated to the dumping of over 1,000 tons of TNT off the coast, no compensation was paid. (fn. 68) Sales were also hampered by an increase in freight charges after the railway strike of 1919 and by a spell of unseasonably hot weather which reduced demand. The once lucrative Continental market was undermined by an unfavourable exchange rate and the reduction in the ferry service from Tilbury to Ostend. (fn. 69)
The industry enjoyed a semblance of prosperity in the 1920s and 1930s, but the great tide of 1953 smothered the layings with mud. (fn. 70) The company went to the work of rescue and rehabilitation with some success, but by 1959 a large deficit was predicted. (fn. 71) The hard winter of 1963 killed 85 per cent of the prime stock in Pyefleet and 90 per cent in the Colne, and returns were so unpromising that the corporation would not provide a loan to tide the company over. The Geedons, for which the borough had fought so hard and often, were leased to the Essex Naturalist Trust, and when it was decided that the expense of an annual meeting in 1964 was not justified, the Colne fishery was virtually at an end. (fn. 72) Most of the oysters sold in Colchester in the 1980s were imported.