The Glory that Was Oysteropolis

Whitstable's Wonderful Bounty from the Sea

If the idea of consuming a bowl of oysters is a pleasant one to you, then you will undoubtedly enjoy a day trip to the Kent seaside town of Whitstable, the home of the oyster.

The town’s long association with the healthy and notorious molluscs is an extremely long one dating back to prehistoric times but most notably being first harvested commercially by the Romans, who many believe gave the oyster its famed aphrodisiac qualities.

Throughout July each year the town is bedecked with colourful bunting and flags as Whitstable celebrates the oyster in a tradition dating back to Victorian times, when the celebrations were given the name Oysteropolis. Whitstable Oyster Month will see visitors to the town being able to trace the local oyster industry’s history as well as the many, numerous and sometimes highly unusual rituals and celebrations associated with the humble oyster.

One intriguing story about oysters and Whitstable was the tale of the Whistling Oyster. This curious tale started in the 19th Century when the proprietor of an oyster bar in London’s Drury Lane claimed he had an oyster that whistled when he sang to it. Many famous actors and performers of the time came to see the oyster including the clown Joe Grimaldi, who amongst those who said he actually heard it whistle.

Another interesting aspect of the history of the Victorian era is that an oyster dredgerman’s life was looked on with some degree of envy as it was seen to be much easier than most people’s daily toil. This was because there were strict quotas on the amount of oysters any one boat could gather. Furthermore the time allotted to harvest the crop was only 2 hours, so the oyster dredgermen had considerable leisure time — a rare thing indeed for Victorian workers in Britain. This free time was usually spent in local hostelries of which Whitstable had over forty at one point. Throughout the month of July the dredgermen would all take part in Whitstable’s two major festivals. The first staged on the second Thursday in July was called Water Court Day which saw the annual official meeting of all dredgermen at The Duke of Cumberland Public House. During the day new officials were voted into office and apprentices coming of age were promoted into the company. Water Court Day would end with lots of celebrations together with much drinking, merriment and some courting too.

Today oysters are considered an expensive delicacy but in Victorian times the opposite was true. Oysters were considered a common food with a dozen oysters costing as little as four old pennies, about 2p in today’s money. As a character in Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers remarked, “It’s a remarkable circumstance, Ven a man’s very poor, he eats oysters in regular desperation...”

The rich of Victorian Britain did, however, enjoy oysters too, but through their wealth they preferred the more expensive ‘Whitstable Royal Native’ or ‘Queen Oyster’ for their dinner tables.

Up until relatively recently the Whitstable Oyster beds had through over-dredging, pollution and several harsh winters been severely depleted. Thankfully the beds have now been restocked to supply a new and growing demand for the delicacy.

Modern farming methods, however, are a far cry from the Victorian era. No longer does a fleet of small boats, called yawls, work the beds for two hours a day, then ship the oysters to Billingsgate fish market in London. Today the process is quick, clean and sophisticated.

The Whitstable Oyster Company still exists and thrives on the perception of oysters being "good" for the sex drive. The aphrodisiacal qualities have never been proved or indeed disproved but everyone must try an oyster at least once and the Whitstable Oyster Company has an excellent selection of the molluscs to try for a modest cost. Their shop and restaurant can be found on the beach overlooking the oyster beds.

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The Glory that Was Oysteropolis