Oyster trade

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Oyster boats at Gorey in 1839

The waters around the Channel Islands and the nearby coasts of Normandy and Brittany have long been the ideal breeding ground for oysters, but it was in the Bay of Grouville that they were farmed in such quantities in the 18th century that a major industry grew up, turning Gorey from a sleepy village into Jersey's third town.

Previously local fishermen had faced a legal challenge in the early 17th century against their previously unchallenged right to fish off the Grouville Coast, but it was ruled that by ancient custom all islanders had the right to dredge for oysters.

Population doubles

Early in the 19th century the village began to grow as hundreds of oyster fishermen moved to Jersey from the south east coast of England. The population of the village doubled in a short time and some 2,500 people were employed in the industry, either fishing or cleaning and packing the catch, and rows of fishermen’s cottages sprang up to house them.

There were some 250 boats bringing back around 12,000 oysters on every trip, and before long the Gorey oyster beds became over-fished. By 1864 the fleet had dwindled to just over 20 boats.

This picture was supplied to us with the caption 'Unloading the catch at Gorey'. However, although scenes very similar to this would have been commonplacce along the seafront at Gorey, close inspection leads us to doubt that the picture was actually taken in Jersey


Timeline

  • 1606 - Court rules against Governor's attempt to claim oysters as Crown property
  • 1810 - oyster industry starts
  • 1816 - new stone jetty built at a cost of £16,000 replacing old wooden jetty which had collapsed and been washed away many years earlier
  • 1822 - over 300 boats and 1,500 people employed
  • 1828 - small pier built at Bouley Bay for oyster boats
  • 1832 - Gouray Church built to provide English services
  • 1834 - exports exceed 300,000 bushels
  • 1834 - Oyster fishing regulations
  • 1837 - commission established to resolve disputes with French
  • 1838 - oyster riot leads to Militia being called out
  • 1856 - exports exceed 500,000 bushels
  • 1872 - industry no longer in existence after over-fishing
HMS Mistletoe, a Royal Navy gunboat which was stationed at Gorey

English boats

Boats arrived in Gorey in and after 1810 from Sittingbourne, Faversham and other Kent ports (Alston and Co, Martin and Co), as well as Colchester, Shoreham, Emsworth, Portsmouth and Southampton and by 1820 there were upwards of 250, each with a crew of six, operating from Jersey. Not all were based at Gorey, where space was limited, and some worked out of Rozel, Bouley Bay and Bonne Nuit on the north coast, fishing primarily in the Carteret area; others out of La Rocque. Their catches were processed at Gorey, however, and some 1,000 land-based workers supported the fleet, with crew numbers exceeding 1,500.

Rows of cottages sprang up in Gorey to house all these people. In Jersey oysters were so cheap that they were served free by most hotels.

Another 50 boats were employed to ferry the oysters to the south of England, most of them destined for London. Before they went on sale, however, they were laid down in beds in Kent and elsewhere to grow on. The operation had to be carried out quickly, and in the cool of the early morning or evening, to prevent the oysters starting to decay.

In the 1820s and early 1830s an average of 100,000 tubs of oysters were sent to England every year, but after reaching a peak of 300,000 bushels in 1834, catches declined dramatically and did not recover for almost 20 years.


Clashes with French

As the number of oysters being caught off Gorey dwindled, the boats began to look further afield and turned their attention to French beds. This infuriated the French, who had previously tolerated friendly competition with Jersey fishermen, but now not only viewed their oyster beds as their exclusive territory, but objected to the English boats ignoring the strict regulations in force on which beds could be fished at various seasons.

There were several clashes between French navy vessels and marauding oyster boats. When some fishermen were captured and detained, large numbers set out from Jersey to rescue them. The British Government was forced to offer compensation after English boatmen damaged French fishing gear, and the Lieut-Governor was instructed to order English vessels to stay at least a league away from the French coast.

In 1822 the States complained to the British Government about harassment by the French and British warships were sent to keep the warring fishermen apart. Two years later, after further negotiations, it was agreed that British fishing boats should keep at least two leagues off the French coast.

On 14 March 1828 near Chausey, John Smith, an English fisherman, was killed when boarding the cutter Favourite, which had been arrested by a French naval vessel and was under command of a French prize crew. The States complained, but the Privy Council rejected their complaint and the British Government made it clear that they blamed English and Jersey fishermen for the escalation of tension.

Oyster boats in Gorey Harbour

Oyster riot

It was in everybody's best interests to keep a steady oyster industry going, and the States invested £4,000 in laying down new beds, but asked the fishermen to let the young oysters grow before dredging these beds.

By 1838 the fishermen had lost patience, and in April between 120 and 140 boats set out to raid the new beds. The Constable, Francois Godfray asked the fishery protection cutter Cracker to take him out after the fishermen, but he was refused, so he took the States cutter Inca, with two Inspector of Fisheries assistants, and four naval ratings. He arrested Thomas Ahier, the skipper of the first boat he reached; George Vardon was also arrested for inciting his crew to throw the Inspector's assistants overboard.

The Lieut-Governor, Major General Campbell, had been alerted, and when the boats went out for a second time he called out the Militia. A couple of cannon balls were fired in the general direction of the fleet and the boats turned back to Gorey, where 96 captains were arrested.

Boats at Rozel in the 1860s

The only real casualty of what became known as the 'oyster riots', was the Lieut-Governor, who caught a cold and died of pneumonia a short time afterwards. After these incidents the oyster fleet was willing to accept that the Jersey authorities were in control of their activities, new agreements were reached with the French, and a closed season for fishing from May to the end of August was introduced, even though it was not initially enforced.

1850s boom

There was a second boom in the industry during the 1850s. In 1856 the fleet had grown to 256 boats, with 1,300 crewmen, and the export of 180,000 tubs of fresh oysters brought in £35,000. An oyster canning factory had been established at Gorey in 1837, and it was processing some 11,000 pints of stewed oysters.

Over-fishing again caused the size of the fleet to decline. By 1860 there were only 165 boats, and the catch was half what it was at its peak. Three years later the fleet was down to 46 boats, and the catch was only 9,800 tubs. By 1871 the industry had closed.

Further articles

References

  • Jersey Archive presentation, May 2011, in What's Your Street Story series
  • Gorey, a community is born and still keeps growing, Tom Nicholas, 2001
  • Grouville - The history of a country parish, 2000
  • St Martin, Jersey - The story of an island parish, 2000
  • Balleine's History of Jersey, George Balleine, 1950
  • The Bailiwick of Jersey, George Balleine, 1951
  • Popular History of Jersey Alban Ragg, 1895
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