Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers, 1793-1896, Whitstable
Administrative / biographical background:
Oysters have been farmed in Whitstable for centuries, but it was not until 1793 that the industry became highly regulated with the Act of Incorporation of the 'Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers of Whitstable'. It is from this time that the records in this collection begin. The Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers evolved from the Court of Fishing and Dredging under the direction of the Lord of the Manor and his company. This allowed the 'eldest son of a fisherman at 16 and others at 21' to become Freemen, thus bestowing upon them the right to farm oysters. Most of the profits went to the Freemen but a percentage was ploughed back into the company to support the widows of past Freemen. Lord Bollingbroke, a Lord of the Manor in the 1790s, incurred so many debts that he was forced to sell the fishing rights, but eventually the Oysterman established their own company, the Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers, in 1793. The company was regulated by a group of individuals elected at the Water Court. The members included the Water Bailiff, the Foreman and a jury of 12 Freemen. The Freemen were in turn elected from the annual list of Freemen. (Examples of these lists are to be found in this collection.) The Company was run as a co-operative with an emphasis on self-help between its several constituent extended families. In the early part of the 19th century, the industry flourished. This enabled the town to increase in population and prosperity. The Canterbury to Whitstable Railway was opened in 1830 and improved transportation of the oysters to markets across the country, including the Canterbury Fish Market and Billingsgate Market in London. Papers detailing some of the exciting developments in the town at that time can be found in this collection. Towards the end of the 19th century the Company fell on hard times which started with the importation of cheap oysters from abroad. Then oyster crops failed, due in part to over-fishing by the increasing number of Freemen, which resulted in stricter criteria on who could become a Freeman. The Company also endured many lengthy legal battles over fishing rights and anchorage and claims due to illness from having eaten contaminated oysters. Many papers in the collection detail legal struggles. The Company also suffered at the hands of fraudsters selling inferior oysters, claiming that they were genuine Whitstable Oysters. The Company's problems were further compounded in 1886, when the company Treasurer disappeared to America with a large proportion of the Company's funds. Four years later the sea froze for several weeks and this was the prelude to several severely cold winters. The now debt-ridden Company was reconstituted in 1896 under the Companies Act and the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company was found. This company was under the control of a Board of Directors and consisted of shareholders. Bibliography: Michael Cable, Whitstable Natives: the story of the Whitstable oyster (2003) Patricia Hyde and Duncan Harrington, Faversham Oyster Fishery through eleven centuries (2002) See also the website of Whitstable Museum at http://www.whitstable-museum.co.uk Catalogued by Anne Oakley and Sheila Malloch, 2000-2003, with assitance with listing, numbering and proof-reading from Jean Randerson and Pauline Houghton.
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