Chichester Harbour's Booming Oyster Industry In The 19th Century

Archive Reference: BGA820
December 2, 2023
The Quay, Bosham, Sussex, England c1905
The Quay, Bosham, Sussex, England c1905


It is believed the Romans fished for oysters within Chichester Harbour ever since they invaded Britain and established a military base at nearby Fishbourne during the first century. It is very likely the Romans recognised the harbour's ideal growing conditions and protected it. There is evidence that oyster fishing has been engaged in from Bosham since medieval times. And over the centuries that followed, the story of the oyster industry has been a tale of repeated boom and bust.


During medieval times, Emsworth is recorded by local historians as a centre of oyster trading, and in the thirteenth century rent was being paid for inshore fishing beds. Emsworth oysters (a variety of the European native oyster but with characteristics associated with the Emsworth growing area) were famous for their fine flavour, and noted to be larger than oysters from Whitstable on the Kent coast. There was a boom in the oyster trade in Elizabethan and Stuart times (1558-1714), records show that Emsworth fishermen grew rich and left wills when they died, passing on valuable boats, dredges and fishing nets. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries local fishermen used the oysters as a subsistence crop (one used to feed the family) but gradually enough were being dredged that they could also be sold locally within the harbour and surrounding villages. Essentially, oysters were the poor man's food; they were cheap, plentiful and nourishing. Nearly everyone could afford an oyster or two, even if they could not afford meat.


For many centuries parts of the harbour were very suitable for oysters to establish themselves naturally. In the eighteenth century in particular, there were large natural oyster beds, in the inlets along the shores of Hayling Island and the western side of Thorney Island. Local fishermen from Emsworth and Bosham knew where these natural oyster beds were to be found, and to predict where they would spread to from year to year. In 1760, a local report documented that on one tide alone in Emsworth Harbour, 24,000 oysters were dredged and then sold in Portsmouth. In 1788, it was recorded that 12 master fishermen from Emsworth and Bosham dredged over 7000 bushels of oysters from Chichester Harbour, which were worth £1500 (one bushel of oysters contains 100-150 oysters so that equates to 700,000 - 1.5 million oysters dredged in that one year alone).


All the harbour villages along the south coast of England are shallow and tidal, with freshwater streams flowing through them from the north, causing a constant movement of water, and the tides are strong enough to enable the nutrients to flow around the oysters. Bosham and Emsworth are protected from heavy seas, and strong winds, and the severe winter frosts common on the east coast of England. As they face south, they benefit from the warm sunshine and mild winters. These have always been ideal growing conditions for oysters to thrive.


In the late eighteenth century, conditions were so good that fishermen from the east coast of England started coming into the harbour to dredge up oysters from the large natural beds. This annual invasion of Chichester Harbour lasted for about fifty years, and caused great hardship to the Bosham and Emsworth fishermen and their families. In 1817, local historian Walter Butler recorded that there were 30 Bosham & Emsworth fishing boats working in the harbour, and many of them were large oyster smacks (fishing boats). He also recorded that there were as many as 50 East Coast trawlers dredging the channels of the harbour for oysters. These were bigger boats with heavier dredges, larger crews and they began to destroy the natural habitat of the oysters. Little or no consideration was given to the conservation of the oyster beds from year to year, the beds were dredged aggressively until there were no more oysters, and the fishermen would then simply move on to the next bed. French and Dutch fishermen were also sailing across the English Channel to dredge oysters within the harbour, and by c. 1820 the oyster industry had collapsed after such exhaustive dredging.


However, shortly after in the 1820s new oyster beds were discovered off the French coast, and oyster smacks from Bosham and all along the south coast sailed across the English Channel. In the summer of 1823, new oyster beds were also discovered 3-4 miles southwest of the harbour at Worthing. These beds were extensive, 3 miles long and 2 miles wide. It was recorded that 90 oyster smacks could be seen dredging at any one time. And in 1824, another large oyster bed was discovered at Littlehampton - it is assumed that this second natural bed had been formed by the spat (eggs) of the first bed floating off to find somewhere to grow unimpeded.


These natural beds were dredged to extinction within a few decades, and such a large number of serious disputes between fishing fleets had arisen, that in 1843 the British and French Governments signed a convention agreeing that oysters could only be fished during the winter months; partly to conserve the oysters so they would not all disappear, and to allow them to breed and produce more. No fishing for oysters was allowed between the end of April and the beginning of September, which was agreeable to the fishermen who had begun to realise that the oysters didn't taste as good during the warmer, summer months whilst they were breeding.


In the second half of the nineteenth century, significant new oyster beds were discovered off the French coast and a period of considerable growth followed as the fishermen looked to take advantage of the arrival of the London, Brighton and South Coast railways in 1846 to expand their markets. There was now a need for bigger boats that could stay at sea longer and carry bigger cargoes of fish. The Bosham fishing fleet began to sail further afield into the English Channel (where they also fished for scallops in waters below 25 feet) and shallow waters off the French coast to dredge up young oysters in their large smacks. These fishing boats were built locally at the Apps shipyard near Bosham Quay, or at Smarts shipyard along the Trippet in Bosham; they were unwieldy boats and with the tide leaving substantial areas of the harbour as mud banks for much of the time, the fishermen relied on small 'run arounds' like the wooden sailboat pictured here to move the oysters around the harbour.


The practice with an oyster fishery was to dredge up the young oysters and bring them back to harbour, and drop them into nursery beds in sheltered coves whilst they matured to adult size, which took 2-3 years. The dredges used on the oyster smacks were about 6 feet wide and had a bag behind that was 3 feet deep, and were designed to scour the seabed, dragging everything into it's net, and this included rocks as well as shellfish. If the first dredge across the seabed identified the presence of oysters, the fishermen would return to make another sweep, and this would be easier if the oysters had already been loosened. When the dredges were hauled in, they were turned over and shaken out, then the catch was sorted on board, the oysters were separated from the fish and any rocks from the seabed, and bagged up and then held below deck. Fishermen who worked for the oyster merchants were paid in shares of the catch. No catch meant no wages. If other fish were caught up with the oysters, then the men were allowed to keep or sell these to supplement their wages.


The smaller sail boats were used to unload the large oyster smacks when the tide meant they couldn't reach the top of the harbour, and delivered them to the nursery beds. There were two distinct areas to the oyster fishery, nursery beds for growing the oysters and foreshore ponds for cleansing and preparing them for market (sorting and grading).


When the Bosham fishermen returned to the harbour with young oysters, they were dropped in nursery beds off Rookwood, West Wittering close to the harbour entrance for 2-3 years to mature, before being moved to oyster ponds along the foreshore in School Rithe and Cutmill Creek, either side of Bosham Quay, typically for several weeks to cleanse. Oysters are filter feeders which means they draw water into their shells, so that nutrients (along with any particles or plankton) are taken into the mouth and the water expelled. Each new tide brought fresh nutrients for them to feed, and when they were put into the ponds the fishermen would continually sort and grade them to make sure the oysters had enough room to grow without suffocating (suffocating caused them to stop growing), and the ponds were kept clear of mud and weed. The oysters were given a few weeks to cleanse before being sent to market. On the whole, they grew very efficiently in these managed beds and ponds, and it became clear that this system of factory farm fishing produced better quality oysters (larger and finer flavour) compared to dredging them up and taking them straight to market.


When the orders came in, they were brought ashore in small rowing boats, packed into baskets in one of Bosham's two oyster barns (one known as the Raptackle pictured here) and taken to the railway station by horse and cart. Most of the oysters headed to the London fish markets, as well as Portsmouth, Southampton, Brighton, Winchester, Hove, and Guildford.


The boom that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century was largely due to the fishermen taking advantage of the arrival of the railways in 1846, which allowed the oyster merchants to significantly expand their markets - Bosham's railway station was only a mile to the north of the Quay, so the oysters were kept fresh and could now get to London and Brighton the same day. Until then, fish had been sold mostly locally, now it was possible to deliver oysters to more distant fish markets and much faster. For example, in 1870 to make the journey from Bosham to Brighton by sea was 45 miles, and it took about 9 hours, depending on the tides and prevailing winds. By rail, the journey was 35 miles, and it took only 1 hour and 45 minutes. Far-sighted businessmen such as William Yetman in Bosham and James Duncan Foster in Emsworth saw the potential of the oyster industry, and built much larger fishing boats. These were built locally, and in Bosham there were two boat-building yards that built the three types of boats that the fishing fleet needed. Large oyster smacks were built to dredge the oysters up off the French coast, 15-20 foot sail boats were built to unload the smacks and move the oysters around the harbour, and small rowing boats were built to manage the ponds and bring the oysters ashore. The purpose-built oyster smacks were unique at that time because instead of a dry hull, they had wet wells - large compartments that were filled with sea water, that was changed by sluices to keep the water fresh and the oysters alive until they were brought back into the harbour, and dropped into local ponds to mature.


There was a great demand for oysters, particularly in the London fish markets in late Victorian times, and the peak of the oyster boom was 1890-1900. By then, Emsworth and Bosham had become two of the main oyster fishing ports of England, and the fishing fleets had firmly established this very efficient early form of factory farm fishing. During this peak it is estimated that over 144 million oysters were sold in London each year.


As the demand for them grew, the price of oysters rose accordingly and the fishery became more profitable, and by 1900 oysters had been elevated from everyday subsistence food to a high-quality gourmet dish desired by the upper classes. The largest and most profitable oyster fishery within the harbour was run by JD Foster's oyster fleet in Emsworth, which was considered the most advanced of its time, and by 1900 Foster had between 100-200,000 oysters stored in his nursery ponds. Echo, the Queen of the oyster fleet, was built in 1901, it was 100 feet long, weighed 80 tons, and it was the first boat to have steam built into her construction. It needed a crew of 11, with 5 winches to haul in the oyster dredges, and hoist and lower the sails. And it could carry 90 tons of sea water in wet wells. JD Foster regularly sent his oyster smacks as far as the Ile d'Oléron, an island off the west coast of France in the Bay of Biscay, to collect young Portuguese oysters. The oysters he sold were sent to fishmongers in Portsmouth, Southampton, Winchester, the Isle of Wight, Hove, Guildford and various boroughs of London.


In 1900, Bosham's fishing fleet had about 40 oyster boats. The largest of the Bosham fleet was a 30-foot oyster smack owned by Ned Combes.


Oysters do survive in Chichester Harbour today, but only in small numbers.


© Luke Whitaker

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Luke Whitaker

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