Jersey's oyster fishing industry

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This article by Ralph Mollet was first published in the 1935 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Societe logo.jpg

In Caesarea a description of the Island of Jersey, published in London in 1840, the following paragraph will be found in the Chapter on Commerce on page 79.

"The Oyster Fishery may be said to be a Jersey traffic, for many of the natives are cngaged in it; the vessels assemble in Mont Orgueil Harbour; which with its neighbourhood, during the season, presents a scene of amusing activity ; men, women and children, are seen in their several occupations, of filling baskets with oysters, carrying them and loading the vessels. The oyster fishery commences on 1 September, and ends on 1 June, but its greatest activity is from February to May."
The first three pictures on this page are not of Gorey, but of Cancale on the north Brittany coast, which still has an oyster industry today. The pictures show exactly what life was like in Gorey in the mid-19th century when the oyster industry was at its peak. The oyster boats are lined up on the beach having discharged their cargoes and the women set about sorting and grading the catch

History of industry

This industry after having lasted over half a century completely disappeared in I871. Having made a complete search of the States Rolls and other documents, I have been able to render the following account of its history.

In the year 1797, several oyster banks well supplied, were discovered by British cruisers and Jersey fishermen. These banks were situated between the shores of Jersey and France, a few miles to the north-west of the small Isle of Chausey, between one and three leagues from the French shore.

During the French Revolution, the fishermen of the Island were in the habit of exploring and dredging upon these banks, but in the spring of 1810 a regular fishing was established there for the supply of the chartered companies of Kent and Sussex. The port of Mont Orgueil in Jersey was chosen as the place of rendezvous and delivery of the numerous English oyster vessels. For 15 years the fishery progressed in prosperity and importance, so that the States of the Island laid out large sums of money in erecting a convenient pier to the Port of Mont Orgueil, and small jetties at Bouley Bay, Rozel and La Rocque. The industry occupied four months of the year, it employed 300 fishing smacks, manned by nearly 2,000 British seamen, and gave employment to nearly one thousand of the poor inhabitants of the Eastern coast of the Island, and was in many respects of general utility to the country.

The advantages of the establishment of this prosperous concern attracted the attention of the inhabitants of the town of Granville, and led them to form a plan for driving the British fishermen from the banks, which they never used themselves, and thus, by breaking up the fishing, force the English oyster merchants to purchase their stock in the French market.

French attacks

In 1821 French armed vessels cruised in the vicinity of the oyster banks and exercised against the English and Jersey fishermen the most wanton and unwarrantable acts of violence. They seized several smacks and carried them into Granville, the crews were beaten, ill-treated and threatened with imprisonment and confiscation of their vessels if again they dared appear upon the banks.

In 1822 the French fired broadsides at the British smacks, while peaceably employed in the fishery, and chased the vessels off the banks and pursued them even within the rocks that surround Jersey. The States were alarmed by the action of the French authorities and, in April 1822, made a representation to the King in Council. In May arrangements were made between the English and French Governments for a commission to be formed to survey the disputed ground. In the meantime the Secretary of State informed the States that the British fishermen would not be protected by the Government in dredging within one league of low water mark on the coast of the Continent of France or of any inhabited island belonging to that kingdom.

On 23 May 1822, HMS Fly, a sloop of 10 guns, and on 24 July 1822, HMS Helicon (Capt Dawkins), were stationed off Jersey to prevent future acts of aggression and violence on the part of the French cruisers, and at the same time to discourage any attempt on the part of the British fishermen to seek redress by acts of retaliation.

In 1824 the Secretary of State informed the States that the limit had been increased and that the naval commander had been given instructions not to protect any British fishermen fishing within the two leagues limit of the coast of France between Carteret and the village of Lingreville pending the negotiations between England and France. This last decision proved disastrous to the British fishermen, as the best pan of the banks was within this limit, so the States made a further representation to His Majesty, but without avail, and the fishermen continued to fish in the interdicted ground whenever the opportunity offered, especially at night.

This led to serious fighting with the French in March 1828, and a further representation was made to the Privy Council, on 5 April 1828. These encroachments were not encouraged by the British Government, and the successful opposition of the French caused the fishery to decline in 1835 to half its extent, namely 149,865 bushels compared with 305,670 in 1834.

New beds laid down

The States, to assist the fishery, voted money to lay down new beds in the Bay of Grouville and appointed an inspector to carry out the scheme. From 1834 to 1837 the States spent £3,866 in purchasing oysters, paying salaries and purchasing a cutter. The new beds were opened in 1837, to be dredged only at certain periods of the year, no oyster to be landed unless the upper shell measured more than two and a half inches across (a wooden gauge used by the inspector for measuring the oysters may be seen in the Museum).

The dredging of these reserved beds, contrary to the regulations by the States, caused serious trouble at Mont Orgueil Harbour. The Constables of Saint Martin and Grouville had to appeal to the States for assistance. The States then appealed to the Lieut-Governor to assist the Constables in carrying out the law, and on 14 April 1838, on a report that a large number of boats were dredging in the still reserved beds without permission, the Lieut-Governor, Major-General Campbell, with the St Helier battalion of the Royal Militia and a battery of Artillery, together with a detachment of the 60th Regiment, assembled in the Royal Square and marched to Gorey.

The Lieut-Governor took up his position at Mont Orgueil Castle to direct affairs, and after a discharge from the guns sent among the smacks, though no one was hurt, they instantly showed signs of submission; 96 masters of the smacks were arrested and tried before the Royal Court and were each fined 300 livres d'ordre (£17 6s 2d), and two were imprisoned for causing the riot. Unfortunately, the day proved a fatal one, for durmg the operations the Lieut-Governor took a chill and died on the 12th of the following month.

A further representation was made in 1832 to His Majesty's Government to withdraw the two leagues limit which the British fishermen were not allowed to dredge in, but it proved of no avail. The final convention between England and France was adopted in 1843 and was registered in the Royal Court the same year, and all hopes for removal of the two leagues limit were gone.

It is interesting to note that the British Governmen to this day still clings to the three-mile limit, the question of territorial waters being one of the oldest and most difficult problems in international relations, as various Governments claim various limits from four to even 12 miles. The British fishermen often get into difficulty when off the coasts of several foreign countries in the North Sea by fishing within the limits.

Registry

A registry was kept at Gorey of all vessels and boats employed in the oyster fishery off the Island of Jersey in accordance with the convention. The register shows that in 1843 the origin and number of vessels in that year was as follows: Jersey, 137; Colchester, 70; Portsmouth, 11; Faversham, 7; Guernsey, 5; Rochester, 3; Maldon, 3; Shoreham, 2; Southampton, 1; Sark, 1; and Poole, 1.

From 1856 to 1871 a summary was made each year by the Harbourmaster of Gorey of the oyster fishing at that port, from which it will be noticed that the quantity of oysters gradually dwindled from 179,194 tubs in 1856 to 76,380 in 1861.

In 1862, owing to the scarcity of oysters on the Gorey beds caused by over fishing, the quantity of Jersey oysters caught went down to 18,220 tubs; the better price given for oysters in France caused most of the Jersey cutters to dredge in the Channel off Dieppe and other places, selling their oysters in England and in France, and finally the Jersey owners sold their cutters to English owners with the exception of about half a dozen boats which remained at Gorey.

In 1877 a bank was discovered off the Roches Douvres by James Springate of the cutter Baron and Thomas Blampied of the cutter Guide. Five boats dredged this bank, and sent the oysters to St Vast in France. The States voted a reward of £50 to these cutters, but as the water in which the bank was situated was found too deep, dredging was abandoned.

The shore from Gorey Village to Gorey Harbour was a hive of activity during the prosperity of the oyster fishery; this locale was called the Banks and contained shipbuilding yards for the building and repairing of the cutters; a safe place for the boats to be beached and the site of the oyster parks
Cancale16.jpg

where the culling took place.

Gorey is referred to in the representation of the States in 1832 as a town having sprung up in a short time, where before only a few huts were seen. A church was built in 1832 to provide services in English for the English families engaged in the fishery, to the building of which the States contributed £200, the Pier was built at a considerable cost, and the National Schools were started to which the States subscribed funds.

Fishery protection vessels

HM cruisers were stationed off Gorey during the oyster season of each year, and after a time a permanent station was made at Gorey Harbour and amongst the various ships the following remained at Gorey for considerable periods: HMS Cuckoo, Dasher, Mistletoe, Raven and Albacore. The station finally closed down in December 1904.

A Law was passed and confirmed by Her Majesty-in-Council in 1882, after many years of controversy over the rights of the Crown to the foreshore, for the establishment of oyster beds on the coast of Jersey, and the Committee appointed under Article 21 of this Law, instead of posing as a standing Committee of the States, has become a standing joke, as no one seems inclined to wish to start oyster beds in Jersey, and yet the Committee has to be kept on the active list.

Newspaper report

Extract from the Sunday Times, 23 March 1828, London:

"An unpleasant affair has taken place between the English fishers off the coast of Jersey and two French vessels of war, which has led to serious consequences, many lives having been lost. The collision has arisen out of a question with the French Government concerning the rights of fishing on the coast of Normandy. About 300 sail of English vessels are engaged in oyster fishing on the coast of Jersey, towards the French shore, and have been repeatedly warned not to approach within a certain distance of the French coast. These warnings have been little attended to, and two French vessels of war captured and took into port an English boat. On this intelligence reaching Jersey, all the fishing smacks proceeded to the French coast, boarded the vessels of war, retook the English boat and brought her back in triumph to Jersey; but several of the boatmen have lost their lives and a considerable number were taken prisoners and are in irons."
Oyster fishery images. The location of the top picture is unknown but the two below depict Gorey in Jersey

Summary of catches

Date Boats Men Tons Tubs Av Price Value Employed on land Tub price Notes
1856 256 1301 5074 179,194 3/10 £34,345 300 1/6 4,600 tubs sold in Jersey market
1857 261 1364 4865 179,690 4/1¾ £37,248
1858 226 1221 4595 150,990 3/11¼ £29,726 250 1/9
1859 189 1029 3699 120,610 4/3¼ £25,755 200 1/9
1860 165 888 3230 98,11O 4/10 £23,733 200 1/6
1861 141 751 2643 76,380 4/9¾ £18.371 200 2/-
1862 42 199 621 18,220 4/9¾ £4,383 20 2/- 57 Jersey boats at Dieppe
1863 46 184 432 9,841 6/1½ £3,013 30 2/- 2,960 tubs sold in Jersey market; 83 Jersey boats dredged in Channel
1864 23 93 155 6,196 6/3¾ £1,955 91 Jersey boats dredged off Barfleur
1865 19 57 147 3,010 8/2¼ £1,232 No oysters shipped to England; 85 Jersey boats in Channel
1866 20 64 146 2,160 8/9 £947 89 Jersey boats in Channel; sold oysters in Shoreham, Newhaven, St Vast and Dieppe
1867 17 52 130 2,070 8/6 £884 87 Jersey boats in Channel; sold in England and France
1868 10 36 100 1,800 8/6 £799 67 Jersey boats in Channel; sold in England and France
1869 34 126 239 1,902 9/6 £1,095 74 Jersey boats in Channel; sold at St Vast only
274 Gorey 14/-
1870 24 62 155 1,260 9/- £715 78 Jersey boats in Channel; sold at St Vast only
220 Gorey 13/6
1871 6 1,200 10/- £600 Most Jersey boats sold to English owners

Lieut-Governor's notice

It having been presented to Her Majesty's Government that a great many fishing boats belonging to British ports and the Channel Islands, have been detained by French cruisers for fishing and dredging oysters within the French limits, on the opposite coast of France; and having been tried in the French Courts, have been punished by fines. And as it has been further represented that unwarrantable resistance has lately been made by certain fishermen co the seizure of their boats by the officer commanding the French Naval Force, when dredging for oysters within the French limits.

In consequence of these unlawful proceedings, Major-General Sir J H Reynett, Lieut-Governor of Jersey, feels called upon to give notice to the seamen and others employed in the fishery between the Channel Islands and the opposite coast of France, that Her Majesty's Government is determined to enforce, with the utmost rigour of the law, compliance with the Articles of the Convention for regulating the fishery; and further to inform the fishermen that the crew of any vessel fishing or dredging for oysters within the French limits, and making any resistance to their legal seizure, will not receive, under any circumstance, countenance or protection from their own Government, but will be left to the entire disposal of the French authorities.

Government House,

Jersey

25 March 1851

Oyster boats

Naval vessels stationed at Jersey

Extracted from Admiralty records at Public Record Office

  • 1822, June - Sloop Fly, 18 guns
  • 1822, June - Cutter Starling, 10 guns
  • 1823. May - Cutter Starling
  • 1824, May-June - Cutter Starling
  • 1825, February-March - Cutter Arrow, 10 guns
  • 1825, May-June - Cutter Arrow.
  • 1826-1827 - Cutter Cracker, 1 gun
  • 1828-1832 - Cutters Sylvia. 1 gun and Cracker
  • 1833-August 1847 - Cutter Seaflower, 2 guns; Tenders - Cutters Cracker and Sylvia
  • 1847, September-November - Paddle steam vessel Kite, 170 horse power; Tender - Cutter SeaBower
  • 1847, December-June, 1851 - Paddle steam vessel Cuckoo, 300 tons, 100 horse power; Tender - Cutter SeaBower
  • 1851, July-July, 1884 - Paddle steam vessel Dasher, 260 tons, 100 horse power; Tenders - Cutter Sea flower (to November 1852);
  • 1852, December-August 1861 - Cutter Mercury, 70 tons
  • 1852, December-May 1860 - Cutter Ceres, 20 tons
  • 1860, June-December 1869 - Cutter Jersey, 70 tons
  • 1861, September-September 1869 - Screw Gunboat Speedy, 273 tons, 60 horse power

No tenders after December, 1869.

  • 1884, August-July 1894 - Screw Gunboat Mistletoe, 560 tons, 650 horse power
  • 1894, July-November 1901 - Screw Gunboat Raven, 465 tons, 380 horse power
  • 1901, November-December 1904 - Screw Gunboat Albacore, 560 tons, 500 horse power

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