The natural oyster beds within Chichester Harbour were destroyed by 1850 from aggressive overfishing, and so in the second half of the nineteenth century most of the oysters grown in the harbour originated from the English Channel or off the coast of France. The practice with an oyster fishery was to dredge up the young oysters and drop them into local nursery beds in sheltered coves, whilst they matured to full adult size. After 2-3 years, they were dredged up again, and moved to ponds on the foreshore where they were left to cleanse for several weeks, and were easily accessible when they needed to be collected for market. It was an early form of factory farm fishing, and the fishing fleets led by oyster merchants James Duncan Foster and Jack Kennett in Emsworth, and William Yetman in Bosham built a vast number of oyster ponds all over the harbour.
Bosham's fishermen established growing beds for their young oysters in the south-eastern corner of the harbour off Rookwood, West Wittering and foreshore ponds in the shallow waters of Bosham's two creeks either side of Bosham Quay, known as Cutmill Creek to the north and School Rithe to the east. An examination of photographs from the period shows that the oyster ponds in Bosham stretched all along the foreshore in front of the fishermen's cottages in School Rithe. The fishermen paid 2s 6d (half a crown) per year in rent to the Lord of The Manor of Bosham for each of their foreshore ponds. Meanwhile, Emsworth's fishermen established growing beds along the east coast of Hayling Island, and the west coast of Thorney Island, and an impressive number of foreshore ponds all along the line of the millpond wall in Emsworth, as well as along the main foreshore between South Street and King Street, and at nearby Fowey Island.
Conditions for growing oysters in the harbour have been ideal for centuries. The harbour is protected from severe winter frosts, and being south facing receives above average hours of sunshine. Small streams flowing into the harbour from the north cause a constant movement of water, bringing fresh nutrients for the oysters to feed and the tides were strong enough to enable the nutrients to flow around the oysters. Edible oysters are filter feeders, which means they draw water into their shells, so that nutrients are taken into their mouth and then water is expelled. In Bosham, the two creeks either side of the Quay were ideal for growing oysters as they were relatively protected from heavy seas, and the village itself sheltered the oyster ponds from cold northerly winds and winter frosts.
The purpose of the growing beds and foreshore ponds was to keep the oysters secure and easily accessible, in an area where the conditions could be monitored to help them grow efficiently, and allow them time to cleanse before being taken to market. By managing their growth and giving the oysters this time to cleanse in clean, nutrient rich ponds, free of mud and weed, the fishermen produced larger, tastier oysters. As the quality of the oysters improved over the years, so the price rose accordingly, and the fishery became more profitable.
The oyster ponds in Bosham were built in the mud close to the foreshore. They had timber sides, the bottom was usually filled with gravel or sand, and sometimes concrete. Oysters do not like a soft seabed, they need something hard to attach themselves to, so they are not swept around by the currents in the water. As the tide went out, the oysters would remain submerged in water. The firm base was also essential because mud is too easily moved by the tide, and builds up to smother the oysters, which will then suffocate and die. The oysters remained submerged until the tide came in, and seawater would wash over the pond and deliver fresh nutrients for the oysters to feed.
The ponds were built from off-cuts of wood from the timber mills, or even driftwood or old boats. The larger ponds were fitted with sluices which needed constant repairs. The fishermen constructed footpaths between the ponds along the foreshore to walk out to them at low tide, or used rowing boats such as those seen in this photograph if the tide was in.
These wooden oyster ponds needed a lot of maintenance. At low tide, the whole Bosham channel dries out, so it was essential that they were maintained and kept watertight, so the oysters remained submerged. The larger ponds were fitted with sluices which often needed repairs. The gravel that the ponds were lined with had to be raked out and changed regularly to get rid of contaminants. Fishermen would walk or row out regularly to the ponds to make sure they were not overcrowded, and that fresh water could reach them. Sometimes the water channels had to be diverted to bring tidal waters to the oyster ponds.
The oysters needed an immense amount of care to protect them from growing over each other and smothering the smaller ones, overcrowding was common, and it caused suffocation. The fishermen would continually monitor their growth and were constantly sorting and grading them. The ponds needed to be cleaned regularly so that they didn't become clogged with mud, sediment and seaweed which could also suffocate the oysters. Ponds lined with gravel or sand needed cleaning, which meant raking it out at low tide. It was a careful balancing act to separate and move the smaller oysters to avoid suffocation, and not to disturb them when the mature oysters were collected for sale, because the oysters could become stressed by overhandling and stop growing. Allowing the oysters several weeks to cleanse in clean ponds was a crucial practice within the fishery, which hadn't been done before the nineteenth century.
It was the small rowing boats, pictured here, that the oyster fishermen would have rowed out in to manage the oysters. The advantage of the foreshore ponds in Bosham was that they were accessible at all states of the tide because they were never covered by more than 4 feet of water. This meant orders could be dispatched swiftly. The boats themselves would have been built locally in one of Bosham's ship building yards, likely Apps Yard next to Quay Meadow, or Smarts Yard along the Trippet. These purpose-built rowing boats were wide with low sides, and flat bottomed to ensure they were stable to work from - the low sides allowed the fishermen to easily dredge and use a fishing net.
As the orders came in, the fishermen would visit the ponds to collect the oysters, and a cross between a fork and a rake was used to scoop the oysters out of the ponds, and into buckets or bags. They were brought ashore and sorted and packed into baskets, in one of Bosham's two oyster packing barns. One was on the Quay, pictured in this photograph and known locally as the Raptackle; a second large barn was on the waterfront next to the Anchor Bleu, a short distance from the Quay. The baskets of oysters were then taken by horse and cart to the railway station, a mile to the north. A small number were exported to Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, but the majority of Bosham's oysters were sold at fish markets in Portsmouth, Southampton, Brighton, Winchester, Hove, Guildford and various boroughs of London.
By 1900, the oyster industry was booming, the size of Bosham's and especially Emsworth's oyster fisheries had grown to a considerable size, and the fishermen had taken advantage of the railways to reach new markets. The fishermen had successfully established an efficient system of growing and cleansing the oysters, so that the quality of the oysters had significantly improved, stimulating the demand and elevating their market price. Oysters were now being purchased to grace the tables of the rich and aristocratic, and had been elevated from a subsistence food for the lower classes to a delicacy for the upper classes and nobility. During the peak of the oyster boom at the turn of the twentieth century, Foster and Kennett in Emsworth were selling 3-4 million oysters a year, and it is estimated that a staggering 144 million oysters were sold each year in London.
© Luke Whitaker