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The Harvest of the Sea
Chapter XII - Economy of an Oyster-Farm


 English Oyster-Farms - Whitstable - Pout Oyster-Grounds - Price of Brood - "Natives" - Colne Oyster-Beds - Cost of Working the Beds - Increase of the Oyster - Demand for the Bivalve -Collecting for the Beds - Newhaven Oyster-Beds - The "Whisker'd Pandora" - Song of the Dredger - Oysters in America.

A LARGE oyster-farm requires a great deal of careful attention, and several people are necessary to keep it in order. If the farm be planted in a bay where the water is very shallow, there is great danger of the stock suffering from frost; and again, if the brood be laid down in very deep water, the oysters do not fatten or grow rapidly enough for profit. In dredging, the whole of the oysters, as they are hauled on board, should be carefully examined and picked; all below a certain size ought to be returned to the water till their beards have grown large enough. In winter, if the beds be in shallow water, the tender brood must be placed in a pit for protection from the frost ; which of course takes up a great deal of time. Dead oysters ought to be carefully removed from the beds. The proprietors of private "layings" are generally careful on this point, and put themselves to great trouble every spring to lift or overhaul all their stock in order to remove the dead or diseased. Mussels must be carefully rooted out from the beds; otherwise they would in a short time render them valueless. The layings, for example, of Mr. David Plunkett, in Killery Bay, for which he had a license from the Irish Board of Fisheries, were overrun by mussels, and so rendered almost valueless. The weeding and tending of an oyster-bed requires, therefore, much labour, and involves either a partnership of several people-which is usual enough, as at Whitstable-or at least the employment of several dredgermen and labourers. But, for all that, an oyster-farm may be made a most lucrative concern. As a guide to the working of a very large oyster-farm - say a concern of £70,000 a year or thereabout - I shall give immediately some data of the Whitstable Free Dredgers' Company; but I wish first to say that the organisation which is constantly at work for supplying the great metropolis with oysters is more perfect than can be said of any other branch of the fish trade. In oysterculture we approach in some degree to the French, although we do not, as they do, except as regards some new companies, begin at the beginning and plant the seed. All that we have yet achieved is the art of nursing the young "brood," and of dividing and keeping separate the different kinds of oysters. This is done in parks or farms on various portions of the coasts of Kent and Essex, and the whole process, from beginning to end, may be viewed at Whitstable, where there is a large oyster-ground and a fine fleet of boats kept for the purpose of dredging and planting. I have already stated that the Whitstable oyster-beds are held as by a joint-stock company, into which, however, there is no other way of entrance than by birth, as none but the free dredger-men of the town can hold shares. When a man dies his interest in the company dies with him, but his widow - if he was a married man-obtains a pension. The sales from the public and private beds of Whitstable sometimes attain a total of £200,000 per annum. The business of the company is managed by twelve directors, who are known as "the Jury." The stock of oysters held in the private layings of the company is said to be of the value of £200,000. The extent of the public and other oyster-ground at Whitstable is about twenty-seven square miles.

The oyster-farm of Whitstable is a co-operation in the best sense of the term, and has been in existence for a long period: it is the wealthiest and largest oyster corporation in the world. The layings at Whitstable occupy about a mile and a half square, and the oyster-beds there have been so very prosperous as to have attained the name of the "happy fishing-grounds." At Whitstable, Faversham, and adjoining grounds, a space of twentyseven square miles, as I have mentioned above, is taken up in oyster-farms, and the industry carried on in this space of ground involves the annual earning and expenditure of a very large sum of money. Over 3000 people are employed in the various industries connected with the fishery, who earn capital wages all the year round-the sum paid for labour by the different companies being set down at over £160,000 per annum; and in addition to this expenditure for wages, there is likewise a large sum of money annually expended for the repairing and purchasing of boats, sails, dredges, and other implements used in oyster-fishing. At Whitstable the course of work is as follows:- The business of the company is to feed oysters for the London and other markets : for this purpose they buy brood or spat, and lay it down in their beds to grow. When the company's own oysters produce a spat-that is, when the spawn or "floatsome " as the dredgers call it, emitted from their own beds falls upon their own ground-it is of great benefit to them, as it saves purchases of brood to the extent of what has fallen ; but this falling of the spat is in a great degree accidental, for no rule can be laid down as to when the oysters spawn or where the spat may be carried to. No artificial contrivances of the kind known in France have yet been used in Whitstable for the saving of the spawn. Very large sums have been paid in some years by the Whitstable company for brood with which to stock their grounds, great quantities being collected from the Essex side, there being a number of people who derive a comfortable income from collecting oyster-brood on the public foreshores, and disposing of it to persons who have private nurseries, or oyster-layings as these are locally called. The grounds-of Pont are particularly fruitful in spat, and yield large quantities to all that require it. Pont is an open space of water, sixteen miles long by three broad, free to all ; about one hundred and fifty boats, each with a crew of three or four men, find constant employment upon it, in obtaining young oysters, which they sell to the neighbouring oyster-farmers, although it is certain that the brood thus freely obtained must have floated out of beds belonging to the purchasers. The price of brood is often as high as fifty shillings per bushel, and it is the sum obtained over this cost price that must be looked to for the paying of wages and the realisation of profit. Oysters have risen in price very much of late years, and brood has also, in consequence of the scarcity of spat, been proportionally high.

Whitstable oyster-beds are "worked" with great industry, and it is the process of "working" that gives employment to so many people (eight men per acre are employed), and improves the Whitstable oysters so much beyond those found on the natural beds, which are known as "Commons," in contradistinction to the bred oysters of Whitstable and other grounds, which are called "Natives." These latter are justly considered to be of superior flavour, although no particular reason can be given for their being so, and indeed in many instances they are not natives at all-that is in the sense of being spatted on the ground-but are, on the contrary, a grand mixture of all kinds of oysters, brood being brought from Prestonpans and Newhaven in the Firth of Forth, and from many other places, to augment the stock. The so-called "native" oysters - and the name is usually applied to all that are bred in the estuary of the Thames -are very large in flesh, succulent and delicate in flavour, and fetch a much higher price than any other oyster. The beds of natives are all situated on the London clay, or on similar formations. There can, however, be no doubt that the difference in flavour and quantity of flesh is obtained by the Thames system of transplanting and working that is vigorously carried on over all the beds. Every year the whole extent of the layings is gone over and examined by means of the dredge; successive portions are dredged over day by day, till it may be said that almost every individual oyster is examined. On the occasion of these examinations, the brood is detached from the cultch, double oysters are separated, and all kinds of enemies-and these are very numerous-are seized upon and killed. It requires about eight men per acre to work the beds effectually. During three days a week, dredging for what is called the "planting" is carried on; that is, the transference of the oysters from one place to another, as may be thought suitable for their growth, and also the removing of dead ones, the clearing away of mussels, and so on. On the other three days of the week it becomes the duty of the men to dredge for the London market, when only so many are lifted as are required. A bell is carried round and rung every morning to rouse the dredgers whose turn it is for duty, and who at a given signal start to do their portion of the "stint:" As to this working of the oysterbeds, an eminent authority has said it is utterly useless to enclose a piece of ground and simply plant it; it is utterly useless to throw a lot of oysters down amongst every state of filth. You must keep constantly dredging, not only the bed itself, but the public beds outside, so as to keep the bottom fit for the reception and growth of the young oysters, and free of its multitudinous natural enemies.

It may as well be explained here also, that what are called native beds are all cultivated beds; the natural beds are uncultivated, and are generally public and free to all comers. The Come beds, however, are an exception: they are natural beds, but are held by the city of Colchester as property. Whenever a new bed is discovered anywhere nowadays, the run upon it is so great that it is at once despoiled of its shelly treasures; and the native beds would soon become exhausted if they were not systematically conducted on sound commercial principles, and regularly replenished with brood.

As regards the oyster-cultivation of the river Colne, some interesting statistics were a few years ago made public at Colchester by Councillor Hawkins. That gentleman tells us that oyster-brood increases fourfold in three years. The quantity of oysters in a London bushel is as follows:- First year, spat, number not ascertainable; second year, brood, 6400; third year, ware, 2400; fourth year, oysters, 1600; therefore, four wash of brood (i.e. four pecks), purchased at say 5s. per wash, increase by growth and corresponding value to 42s. per bushel, or a sum of eight guineas. The quantity of oysters obtained from the river Colne by the company bears but a small proportion to the yield from private layings, which are in general only a few acres in extent. "The private layings," however, we are told, "cannot fairly be made the measure of productiveness for a large fishery ; as they may be compared to a garden in a high state of cultivation, while the fishery generally is better represented by a large tract of land but partially reclaimed from a state of nature." The difference in cost of working a big fishery and a little one seems to be great. One of the owners of a private laying states that, when the expense of dredging or lifting the oysters exceeded 4s. per bushel, he gave up working, while in the Colne Fishery dredgermen are never paid less than 12s., and sometimes as high as 40s. a bushel. The Colne Company is managed by a jury of twelve, appointed by the water-bailiff, who is under the jurisdiction of' the corporation of Colchester. Whenever it is time to begin the season's operations, the jury meet and take stock of the oysters on hand, fix the price at which sales are to be made, and regulate the charge for dredging, which is paid by the wash. Under direction of the jury, the foreman of the company sets the daily stint to the men ; and so the work, which is very light, goes pleasantly forward from season to season.

At Faversham, Queenborough, and Rochester, there is a large commerce carried on in this particular shell-fish. In others of the "parks" at these places, "natives " are grown in perfection. The company of the burghers of Queenborough grow the fine Milton oyster so well known to the connoisseur, and the company's beds are well attended to. I may note the Faversham Company, said to be the oldest among the Thames companies, having been in existence for a few centuries. All of these companies grow the "natives," and I may explain that the portion of the beds set apart for the rearing of "natives" is as sacred as the waxen cells devoted to the growth of queen bees, and the coarser denizens of the mid-channel are not allowed to be mixed therewith. The management of all the Kent and Essex oyster companies is pretty much the same, but there are also gentlemen who trade solely upon their own account.

The demand for native and other oysters by the Londoners alone is something wonderful, and constitutes of itself a large branch of commerce-as the numerous shell-fish shops of the Strand and Haymarket abundantly testify. It is not easy to arrive at correct statistics of what London requires in the way of oysters ; but if we set the number down as being nearly 1,000,000,000 per annum we shall not be very far wrong. To provide these, the dredgermen or fisher people at Colchester, and other places on the Essex and Kent coasts, prowl about the sea-shore and pick up all the little oysters they can find -these ranging from the size of a threepenny-piece to a shilling ; and persons and companies having layings purchase them to be nursed and fattened for the table, as already described. At other places the spawn itself is collected, by picking it from the pieces of stone, or the old oyster-shells, to which it may have adhered ; and it is nourished in pits, as at Burnham, for the purpose of being sold to the Whitstable people, who carefully lay that brood in their grounds. A good idea of the oyster-traffic may be obtained from the fact that, in some years, the Whitstable men have paid £30,000 for brood, in order to keep up the stock of their far-famed oysters.

The centre in England for the distribution of oysters is Billingsgate, the chief piscatorial bourse of the great metropolis, and the countless thousands of bushels of this molluscous dainty which find their way through "Oyster Street" to this Fish Exchange mark the everlasting demand. Oysters are sold by the bushel, and every measure is made to pay a toll of fourpence, and another sum of a like amount for carriage to the shore.

All oysters sold at Billingsgate are liable to this eightpenny tax. The London oysters--and I regret to say it, for there is nothing finer than a genuine oyster-are sophisticated in the cellars of the buyers, by being stuffed with oatmeal till the flavour is all but lost in the fat. The flavour of oysters-like the flavour of all other animals -depends on their feeding. The fine gout of the highly-relished Prestonpans oysters is said to be derived from the fact of their feeding on the refuse liquor which flows from the saltpans of that neighbourhood. I have eaten of fine oysters taken from a bank that was visited by a rather questionable stream of water ; they were very large, fat, and of exquisite flavour, the shell being more than usually well filled with "meat." What the London oysters gain in fat by artificial feeding they assuredly lose in flavour. The harbour of Kinsale (a receptacle for much filth) used to be remarkable for the size and flavour of its oysters. The beds occupied the whole harbour, and the oysters there were at one time very plentiful, and far exceeded the Cork oysters in fame (and they have long been famous) ; but they were so overfished as to be long since used up, much to the loss of the Irish people, who are particularly fond of oysters, and delight in their " Pooldoodies " and " Red-banks " as much as the English and Scotch do in their " Natives " and " Pandores."

The far-famed Scottish oysters obtained near Edinburgh, once so cheap, are becoming scarce and dear. The growth of the railway system has also extended the Newhaven men's market. Before the railway period very few boats went out at the same time to dredge ; then oysters were very plentiful-so plentiful, in fact, that three men in a boat could, with ease, procure 3000 oysters in a couple of hours ; but now, so great is the change in the productiveness of the scalps, that three men consider it an excellent day's work to procure about a fifth part of that quantity. The Newhaven oyster-beds lie between Inchkeith and Newhaven, and belong to the city of Edinburgh, and were given in charge to the free fishermen of that village, on certain conditions.

The "pandore" oysters are principally obtained at the village of Prestonpans and the neighbouring one of Cockenzie. Dredging for oysters is a principal part of the occupation of the Cockenzie fishermen. There are few lovers of this dainty mollusc who have not heard of the "whiskered pandores." The pandore oyster is so called because of being found in the neighbourhood of the saltpans. It is a large fine-flavoured oyster, as good as any "native " that ever was brought to table, the Pooldoodies of Burran not excepted. The men of Cockenzie derive a good portion of their annual income from the oyster traffic. The pursuit of the oyster, indeed, forms a phase of fisher life there as distinct as at Whitstable. The times for going out to dredge

are at high tide and low tide. The boats used are the smaller-sized ones employed in the white fishery. The dredge somewhat resembles in shape a common clasp-purse; it is formed of network, attached to a strong iron frame, which serves to keep the mouth of the instrument open, and acts also as a sinker, giving it a proper pressure as it travels along the oyster-beds. When the boat arrives over the oyster-scalps, the dredge is let down by a rope attached to the upper ring, and is worked by one man, except in cases where the boat has to be sailed swiftly, when

two are employed. Of course, in the absence of wind recourse is had to the oars. The tension upon the rope is the signal for hauling the dredge on board, when the entire contents are emptied into the boat, and the dredge returned to the water. These contents, not including the oysters; are of a most heterogeneous kind-stones, sea-weed, star-fish, young lobsters, crabs, actinae - all of which are usually returned to the water, some of them being considered as the most fattening ground-bait for the codfish. The whelks, clams, mussels, cockles, and occasionally the crabs, are used by the fishermen as bait for their white-fish lines. Once, in a conversation with a veteran dredger as to «hat strange things might come in the dredge, he replied, " Well, master, I don't know what sort o' curiosities we sometimes get ; but I have seen gentlemen like yourself go out with us a-dredgin', and take away big baskets full o' things as was neither good for eating or looking at. The Lord knows what they did wi' them." During the whole time that this dredging is being carried on, the crew keep up a wild monotonous song, or rather chant, in which they believe much virtue to lie. They assert that it charms the oysters into the dredge.

The herring loves the merry moonlight,
The mackerel loves the wind ;
But the oyster loves the dredger's song,
For he comes of a gentle kind."

Talking is strictly forbidden, so that all the required conversation is carried on after the manner of the recitative of an opera or oratorio. An enthusiastic London litterateur and musician, being on a visit to Scotland, determined to carry back with him, among other natural curiosities, the words and music of the oyster-dredging song. But, after being exposed to the piercing east wind for six hours, and jotting down the words and music of the dredgers, he found it all to end in nothing; the same words were never used, the words were ever changing. The oyster-scalps are gone over by the men much in the way that a field is ploughed by an agricultural labourer, the boat going and returning until sufficient oysters are secured, or a shift is made to another bed.

The geographical distribution of oysters is most lavish; wherever there is a seaboard there will they be found. The old stories of ancient mariners, who sailed the seas before the days of cheap literature, will be recalled, and their boasted knowledge of the wonders of the fish world-of oysters that grew on trees, and oysters so large that they required to be carved just like a round of beef or quarter of lamb. All these tales were formerly considered so many romances. Who believed Uncle Jack when he gravely told his wondering nephews about oysters as large as a soup-plate being found on the coast of Coromandel? But, nevertheless, Uncle Jack's stories have been found to be true : there are large oysters which require carving, and oysters have been plucked off trees. There are wonderful tales about oysters that have been taken on the coast of Africa-plucked too from the very trees that our good, but ignorant, forefathers did not believe in. The ancient Romans, who knew all the secrets of good living, had the oysters of all countries brought to their fish-stews, in order that they might experiment upon them and fatten them for table purposes. Although they gave the palm to those from Britain, they had a great many varieties from Africa, and had ingenious modes of transporting them to great distances which have been lost to modern pisciculturists.

In America the oyster is an institution of great importance. On the seaboard of that vast continent they are found in natural beds of wonderful extent, and are distributed by means of railway and steamboat throughout the cities and villages of even the far inland districts. Numerous as are the shell-fish shops of London, they are but as one in ten when compared with the oyster-houses of New York, in which city oyster-eating appears to be almost the sole business of life, so many people are to be found indulging in that pleasure. The custom in America is to have the oysters cooked, and this culinary process is accomplished in a variety of ways; the mollusc being stewed, fried, or roasted, according to taste ; they may be had cooked in about twenty different ways in any of the well-known oyster taverns of New York at a few minutes' notice. The great market for oysters in America is the city of Baltimore, in Maryland, where it is not uncommon for one or two firms each to "can" a million bushel - in one year ! Immense numbers of these "canned " oysters are dispatched all over the States, to the prairies of the far west, to the cities of New Mexico, to the military forts of the great American desert, to the restaurants of Honolulu, and to the miners searching for gold on the Rocky Mountains; whilst fresh oysters packed in ice have been sent to great distances. In the oyster-fisheries of Maryland as many as six hundred vessels of about twenty-three tons each are engaged, in addition to two thousand small boats or canoes. These employ about seven thousand men, and if we add those engaged in the carrying trade, it would give the number of persons employed in the oyster trade of the State of Maryland as at least ten thousand, all obtaining remunerative employment.


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