BURNHAM-ON-CROUCH in Essex is a picturesque port on the River Crouch. Currently, it is a leisure resort and a centre for ship maintenance and boating. It was once famed for what grew in great numbers on the muddy bed under the water of the Crouch: oysters. For several centuries before the river became polluted in the 19th century, the oyster beds in the Crouch (and a few other places in Essex) were very profitable, providing much employment.
“On the shores of England the principal nurseries of oysters, not only for the English markets, but also for the foreign, are those on the coast of Essex and the estuaries adjoining: those taken there are called ‘ Natives/ Mr. Sweeting claims the name as peculiarly applicable to his fishery, as within his memory no strange oysters have ever been introduced…”
Men were required both to dredge the oyster beds and process the molluscs as well as to protect the precious creatures from thieves based in other places on the Essex coast.
Today (11th of July 2022), we visited the small but excellent museum in Burnham-on-Crouch. On the ground floor, we saw a retired mechanised oyster grading machine (made in France and capable of sorting 7000 oysters per hour) amongst the exhibits. On the upper floor of the museum, which is housed in a former boat repair building, we met the museum’s treasurer, who is a mine of interesting local history. He told us several things about Burnham’s oyster heydays. I hope that what I am about to tell you is a reasonably accurate summary of what he told us. If it is not totally accurate, I hope that he and you, dear reader, will forgive me.
For 10 years, I used to live in north Kent and often visited Whitstable to enjoy eating oysters for which this Kentish seaport is famous. The treasurer in Burnham told us that many of what are described as ‘Whitstable oysters’ were born in the mud beneath the river in Burnham-on-Crouch. From what I can recall, the young oysters, which grow in the mud beneath the Crouch, are dredged and then placed on boards to which they attach themselves. Keeping them submerged in seawater, the boards to which the young oysters are attached, were transported to Whitstable where they matured in its waters. The Burnham oysters were ‘native’, meaning that they began their lives there; they were not imported, as Thomas Campbell Eyton described in “A history of the oyster and the oyster fisheries” (published in 1858):
“On the shores of England the principal nurseries of oysters, not only for the English markets, but also for the foreign, are those on the coast of Essex and the estuaries adjoining: those taken there are called ‘Natives’. Mr. Sweeting claims the name as peculiarly applicable to his fishery, as within his memory no strange oysters have ever been introduced.”
One of the exhibits in the museum is a large model of the octagonal Victorian clock tower that dominates Burnham-on-Crouch’s High Street. The tower stands next to the building that used to house the former St Mary’s School. It was erected in 1877 to honour the local philanthropist Laban Sweeting (1793-1876). So, what, you might ask, and what has he got to with what I have been writing about?
Laban Sweeting, mentioned in the quoted from Eyton’s book, was a philanthropist; a member of The Burnham River Company; and he was one of the town’s oyster merchants. The museum has amongst its exhibits a small barrow, which used to be wheeled around Burnham by a member of the Sweeting family. It would have carried baskets of oysters ready for sale to the town’s populace.
We had visited Burnham once before, and although I was impressed by the clock tower, I knew nothing of its history. Neither did I know about the town’s association with oysters, which were poor people’s food in the 19th century, when chicken was a luxury. How times have changed.