Custom revived: Grotters at Whitstable

Standard

“Please remember the grotto, It’s only once a year; Father’s gone to sea. Mother’s gone to fetch him back, so please remember me”

So was the plea of children who made shell grottos out of oyster shells which thanks to the oyster trade were very common. Originally this would have been done by adults and was associated with anyone unable or unwilling to make the journey to St James’s shrine at Compostella. They used to visit a shell grotto or make one. By the 1800s this had been stripped largely of its catholic connotations and was a form of begging for children. By the 1960s the custom had died out. Collard (1902) The Oyster and dredgers of Whistable:

“find us for some in the construction of grottoes, which they illuminated at night with a piece of candle, generally on the first of August.

The legend is that the remains of a holy man brought from Palestine to Spain, a knight and horse fell overboard and upon being rescued was covered with clinging oysters. The miracle being associated with the body of the saint

 The extinction of the custom

Kent author Robert Goodsall notes that the grottoes were seen in the Horsebridge area and even came out at Guy Fawkes Night. Howver the custom is recorded as wide an area of including Kent, Essex, Sussex, Hampshire and Swansea, all of which bordered the custom. In an article called ‘Only a Ha’penny Please’ records that in the 1930s children would gather together anything small and colourful-stones, shells, broken glass, crepe paper, cigarette cards’ and add moss and flowers and construct ‘ a picture inside a square about a yard each way. Originally this picture would be of St. James. Alternatively children would draw large pictures on the sands edged with chalk, shells and stones and chant:

“Please, spare a copper, For my grotter, Only a ha’penny please”

Spence (2012?) in his Highways to Canterbury notes that in Whitstable, St James’s day celebrations were taking place on Grince Green where there was on old church believed to be dedicated to the saint in the mid 19th century and that Whitstable children built the shell grottos.

The revival

The custom appears to have died out in around the 1960s, but in the last few years a revival at Whitstable and Margate. At Margate’s shell grotto in the last few years, children have been encouraged to make them with shell panels.  In Whitstable the Oyster festival has understandably  revived it since1988 persuading local people and especially children to make shell grottoes on the Reeves beach where the blessing of the sea also takes place. Here large numbers of children and adults make their grottoes with a candle inside, some even being adorned with flags. The whole beach becoming magical as the evening progresses…and it’s great to see such a simple but beautiful custom being revived.

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Whoosh! Bang! Pretty Colours! The return of Simplicity 1610. | The Amazing Adventures of Taracat

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