The Oyster Fisheries of Max Ullman
At one time oysters used to be cultivated in the Swale off the mouth of Conyer Creek. Here was the oyster merchanting business of Max Ullman which employed a fair percentage of Conyer people. Such names as Alee Banks, who was the foreman, Ben “Punt” Ennew, the donkey cart driver, Charlie Wyatt, Tom Arnold, a Mr. Neeston, and the Captain of the steamboat, Mr. Andrews, are a few that can be remembered.
I spent an evening with Peter Parrish who had celebrated his eighty fifth birthday the previous week. I had been told that Ben “Punt” Ennew had lodged with his family, which turned out to be true. That house had been in the Parrish family for seventy four years; they had moved in when Alee Banks moved out. Peter's memory was still very sharp and some of his tales had tears running from my eyes: it was some time before I could take down notes.
Ben had been in charge of the donkey cart which used to take the odd lots of oysters to the station; the bulk was bought by Harry French, the local carter, who was also the landlord of the Brunswick Arms. The donkey had been sent by rail to Teynham, and was a good looking animal, being a dark coated variety, strong, and a fast goer. Max Ullman had also sent down a very fine set of harness embellished with all the brass trimmings which, I was told looked very smart on the donkey. The cart was a small affair of light construction with a flat body, and the donkey and cart were kept at the rear of the Parrish home.
It appears that some days there was no work for the donkey and cart so the animal would be left in the stable. It also appears that a trio of hard working brickies decided that the donkey needed some exercise on its days off. After coming off shift work they would call at Mr. Parrish's home and ask if they could borrow the donkey and cart; it being all right, they would harness up and all three would mount the cart. One of them, Alf Smith by name, was a tall man who had long legs. He would have to sit on the back of the cart with his legs dangling, almost touching the ground; the other two would sit either side and they would then go on a tour of the local pubs. Most men in those days were hard workers, and it seems also hard drinkers; perhaps the only means they had of unwinding. One could always find which pub this trio was at by seeing the donkey outside chewing away at a loaf of bread which they had either cadged or bought off the landlord.
The Oyster Company had its oyster beds in the Swale each side of Fowley Island, where they bred at least three different varieties. Between the mainland and Fowley Island they bred an oyster called “Ports' (Portuguese or non-native oysters) which were large ones. Mr. Parrish told me that they used to fry these and they made a delicious meal. Between Fowley and Sheppey they bred ”Natives", a better class of oyster. Ben “Punt” Ennew preferred his oysters baked in the oven.
At the foot of the sea wall, below high water mark, the mud was covered with oyster nurseries on trays. Mr. Parrish used to watch them spread something in the trays like dust, which I assume must have been the spat. It is difficult to determine the extent of Max Ullman's fishery: In Jacobs “The History of Faversham” it states that the FAVERSHAM OYSTER COMPANY's grounds limit starts at the place called “TEYNHAM ROBBS” upon the south, and by west to a place called the “BLACK SHORE”, along Teynham Gutt eastwards and from Teynham Gutt along by “RIDE FERRYWAY” down to a place called “STINKES NASSE”.
All us locals know where Teynham Gutt is today, but the other places have to be guessed at. The breeding pits were on Fowley Island and can still be seen today. The Company had a large building close to where the Target stood; it had three rooms for the workmen, who were mainly Essex men; one room which was lavishly furnished was set aside for Max Ullman, where he spent many weekends. Later the workmen moved into the village. The boats used by the oystermen were called skiffs which were about twenty feet long. There was also a steam boat which dredged when it had nothing else to do. Its main purpose was to spread new batches of oysters over the beds.
A large number of oysters were brought in from Essex by sailing barge which were added to the beds to improve the strain when breeding. These barges were unloaded by brickies who were glad of the extra money.
After being dredged and sorted the oysters would then be loaded into the boats and rowed up the creek, or towed by the steamboat to the packing shed which stood at the Warren. Here they were packed into sacks of so many dozens weighing about twenty pounds. The packing shed at the Warren was the last link with the oyster trade.
When I worked at the shipyard we used it as a store for boat gear, sails and spars. It had two rooms: one, which had a brick fireplace, we used as a mess room at one time and it was very cosy with a fire going on cold days. Unfortunately someone broke into it one night and set light to it at a time when it was full of boat gear belonging to a Dutch barge called Sinus which belonged to a Mr. Constantine. Nothing could be saved and afterwards only the fireplace stood. Another link with the past had gone forever.
The Captain of the oyster company's steam boat was a Mr. Andrews who lived in Conyer. Sometimes he could be seen giving a tow to the mud bargeLiza, whose captain also lived in Conyer; his name was Radley.
This is an account of how oysters were sorted given to the late Mr. March by a Whitstable fisherman. From Edgar J. March's book INSHORE CRAFT OF BRITAIN IN THE DAYS OF SAIL AND OAR I quote:
“Pearly counters the size of a shilling infest oysters less than a year old, some covered with red pimples 'Quats' two years old the size of half crowns, only four year olds picked out and thrown into baskets, will live about ten years, best at five, age told by layers outside bottom shell, perfect yellow circle at small end of fan is one year, then three successive brown pearly semicircles represents three other years, and rough fringe round outer edge is one more year old, four years for general eating”. The account, of course, is written as it was told in the East Kent dialect, now so infrequently heard.
Once again I quote from Charles Igglesdon's book. Talking to an old bargeman at Conyer he says “I am told that you could purchase them, rather small perhaps but of excellent flavour at the rate of sixpence a quarter of a hundred, and you would know'"said my informant, with a smile, "a quarter of a hundred meant thirty in those days'. Oysters at less than a farthing each!
A man elderly then who was engaged in trimming up a barge told me that “brood oysters are difficult to obtain nowadays”, and yet he himself was one of a crew that used to go to Falmouth and Jersey and 'flush up brood' from outside rocks; they were then brought up the Swale and cultivated. With a twinkle in his eye he said that “although they can no longer be found in the Swale, sometimes a few of them swim out from Whitstable beds and lose themselves near 'ere and you can't send them back”.
The Oyster Company also owned a Bawley boat called the Bessie which the local men used to borrow to go trawling between South Deep and the mouth of Faversham Creek. It used to be a good place to trawl soles.