The Emsworth Heritage  Project


Last Updated:
Saturday May 17, 2008

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The Emsworth Oyster Fishery


Oysters had probably been fished in Emsworth and Warblington for many centuries, before The Emsworth Oyster Dredgers Co-operative was established in the 1870s to improve and protect the industry. In 1788. it is recorded that over 7,000 bushels of native Emsworth oysters, with a value of 1,500, were raked and dredged by a dozen master fishermen. The oyster industry flourished and the fishery was at its height during the last decade of the 19th century. In 1901 between 300 and 400 people, out of a population of some 3,000, were working in the Emsworth oyster trade, either for Foster or the other fishing masters, or engaged in the sale of oysters. Emsworth's important oyster industry on which so many relied for their living was devastated by
the great oyster scare of 1902, when guests at a Winchester banquet became ill and the Dean of Winchester died from typhoid attributed to eating Emsworth oysters at that event. Following inspection of the oyster beds gross sewage contamination was identified and the sale of Emsworth oysters immediately slumped.

By 1878 approximately 50 vessels belonged to Emsworth - rowing boats for fishing within the harbour, and smacks of up to 30 tons and 50 feet in length capable of fishing in more distant waters. A small number of boats were involved in coastal trade with commodities including coal, corn and timber. For its size, Emsworth had a significant shipbuilding industry and the supported manufacturing of sailcloth, fishing nets and rope. Perhaps the most famous Emsworth shipbuilder was J.D. Foster who built cutters and fast deep-water ketches from 1880 onwards. Today, a century later, it is the 'Echo', Foster's fastest and largest cutter with an overall length of 112 feet, for which it is most renowned. It is reputed to have been the largest fishing vessel to have sailed out of an English port.

At the height of the Emsworth oyster industry’s production boom, the town boasted an oyster shop, which has long since gone and today the site is home to an Indian restaurant.


The foreshore between King Street & The Quay
The remains of the oyster "ponds" can be seen on the foreshore between King Street & The Quay.

 Uncovering the Past – Oyster Beds in Chichester Harbour
An Archaeological Study of Oyster Beds at Emsworth

A new partnership has been formed to discover more about the oyster industry that boomed over a hundred years ago in Emsworth and Chichester Harbour. The Emsworth Maritime and Historical Trust (EM&HT) and the Chichester District Archaeological Society (CDAS) are to join together for a unique study of the old oyster beds on the foreshore at Emsworth. Funding for this project is through a grant of 8,300 from the Chichester Harbour AONB Sustainable Development Fund.

"This is an exciting opportunity to find out more about the oyster industry that was based in Emsworth over a hundred years ago", said John Tweddell, the project co-ordinator "We hope to better understand how it was so successful in the 19th century and find out more about its collapse in the early 20th century." After winning funding from The Chichester Harbour AONB Sustainable Development Fund, the work will start in Octo ber and be competed by the end of March next year. The EM&HT and CDAS are now appealing for volunteers to help with the work. For insurance reasons, volunteers will have to join either of the two organisations and are to receive an induction and training prior to commencing the fieldwork in Emsworth.

In 1902 Emsworth's prosperity went from boom to bust, changed over night by a fatal incident that not only killed the Dean of Winchester, but also an industry that kept half of its population afloat. At the height of successful industry, over three million oysters a year came out of Emsworth to be distributed across the country.

At the end of the 19th century half the population of Emsworth earned their living from fishing, oyster dredging or the industries that support the trade, such as boat building. Alas the industry collapsed when the Dean of Winchester died in 1902 and the blame was laid on polluted oysters. Since then the waters have been cleaned-u p, but today only a handful of fishermen are still dredging the harbour for oysters.

Ostrea edulis

Ostrea edulis

The Flat or native oyster lives offshore from about low water to between 15 and 45 fathoms  on firm, comparatively immobile bottoms of mud, rocks, muddy sand, muddy gravel with shells, hard silt, old peat bottoms or on man-made spat collectors. It occurs in various localities around the British Isles and is cultivated on a large scale in Essex, Kent, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. It is distributed from the Norwegian Sea, south to the Iberian Peninsula, Atlantic coast of Morocco and into the Mediterranean and Black Sea.



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