Tag Archives: Oysters

Custom survived: Colchester Oyster Proclaimation

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Customs which are firmly attached to a specific date are today a rarity; many have now slipped the more convenient nearest weekend – but not Colchester’s Oyster Proclamation, itself a bit of a rarity being an Essex custom. Firmly fixed to the first Friday in September originally the first of September. Why September? Well this is the first month with an R in it!

Now there is another aspect which means witnesses the custom can be a problematic – it is held on a boat in the middle of the estuary. However, this year for logistical reason it returned to shore.

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Shellfishly does it!

Dating from 1540 it is a colourful event full of the right level of pomp but not pompous. Afterall you cannot think yourself too important when you are swaying in the sea. Indeed, The Times in 22nd September 1928 recorded:

“The company were about to drink a toast in gin, in accordance with ancient custom, when the table containing the tiny glasses, filled win gin, overbalanced ad fell, crushing to the deck, together with the small cakes of gingerbread provided for the occasion. Amid hearty laughter fresh supplies were soon forthcoming and the ceremony concluded in the time honoured fashion.”

An article in the Daily Mail suggests the custom can be even more fraught with problems noting:

The oyster-opening ceremony has taken place on the sea for more than 400 years – but not this year and possibly not next year. Mrs Lewis said it was uncertain whether the tradition would even return to the water next year, when she is out of office – because of health and safety. She said: ‘The jury is still out on that one. If the next mayor wants to go back on the water, there are a couple of health and safety issues that need to be addressed. ‘The mayor nearly fell overboard last year so we had to look at the risk anyway.”

The Daily Mail had more to state:

“But because last year’s mayor almost fell into the water as he moved from boat to boat, the ceremony – which dates back to 1540 – was instead staged on land. 

And to make matters worse, the current mayor, Conservative Sonia Lewis, suffers from seasickness, further scuppering any chance of holding the ceremony on the water….Speaking about the decision, Mrs Lewis said: ‘I have never been able to attend the opening of the fisheries because of my inability to tolerate tidal waters. I confirmed on more than one occasion that I was prepared to stand down from the ‘opening of the Colchester oyster fisheries’ this year.”

So that year a Mayor nearly overboard, a seasick and a non-oyster eating Mayor made that year’s event one a memorable one in its possible 2000 year history – a claim deriving from the Roman’s love of Oysters and the significant presence in the Colchester area. Certainly it can be traced back possibly further than its 16th century record possibly to the time when the town confirmed in 1189 by King Richard I that to raise money for a crusade, its control of fishing ‘from North Bridge up to Westness was established. It is worth noting however, the Mayor came over her dislike of oysters stating:

“She had said she would not eat the oyster, describing herself as ‘more of a fish and chip girl’ but she dutifully quaffed it down with a grimace.”

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Being on land does create another obstacle. Part of the ceremony was the Mayor to dredge in the first catch of Oysters…unless he was planning to scout around on the beach or have a long net, that was not going to happen. The solution was to get a local oyster chef in and to give the Mayor the first oyster on a plate to eat.

I was informed that it was alright to attend and take photos and that it would be in the Country Park. Making my way there it was not difficult to work out where it would be happening – a small white marquee at the end of the park near the sea – planned just in case it was wet!

Inside was a hive of activity, a man was shucking oysters in remarkably quick time whilst nearby a lady was carefully filling glasses of gin and another cutting slices of gingerbread. Soon all the attendees turned up with the Mayor and at the allotted time they assembled on a bank overlooking the bay. The curious spectacle of the Sergeant with his mace and the Mayor in full regalia attracted quite a few onlookers. Then the bell was rung and the proclamation read. A toast to the queen and the Mayor tasted the first oyster of the season.

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Gingerly with the gin and gingerbread? .

Soon as the proclamation was made trays of gin and tonic and gingerbread where handed around. I didn’t partake of the G and T but the gingerbread was delightfully moist and flavoursome. I asked why it was gin and gingerbread. No one was sure but it was suggested that the ginger in the gingerbread settled the stomach on a stormy sea and the gin masked the fumes of the boat!

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The ceremony it appears has to be checked out by her majesty herself. Before it a letter is sent to The Queen. In 2004 it is said to have read:

“According to ancient Custom and Charter dating back to Norman times, the Mayor and Councillors of the Colchester Borough Council will formally proclaim the Opening of the Colne Oyster Fishery for the coming season and will drink to your Majesty’s long life and health and request respectfully to offer to your Majesty their expressions of dutiful loyalty and devotion.”

She couldn’t attend but it  was a great pleasure to attend this year’s proclamation, eat the gingerbread and be for once able to hear what is said rather than trying to hear it from the shore.

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Custom revived: Grotters at Whitstable

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“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.