The oyster industry on Hayling Island

by Sue Humphrey (Local History Group 1)

Trigg’s Hayling guide of 1867 contains an article entitled “The adaptability of Hayling Island for Oyster Culture”. The article states that the Island of Hayling is the best part of the South Coast of England for the purpose of Oyster culture. The success of the South of England Oyster Company and the formation of another company, in 1865 called the Hayling Oyster Company, would appear to prove this statement correct. White’s directory of 1859 lists three oyster merchants on Hayling; William Crouch of Sinar, John Gamble of Milton and David Russell of Farlington. The Directory of 1878 lists only one, The South of England Oyster Company with Captain John Woods as the Managing Director, and James Dilnott as the local manager, so presumably by this time the South of England Oyster Company had “bought out” the other merchants.

In the reign of Henry II, the Emsworth Oyster Fishery at the northeast angle of Hayling Island, was valued at eight shillings and eight pence per annum to the royal treasury, and the harbour was from a very early date celebrated for the quality of its oysters. From the 15th century onwards, most Oyster farming took place in the English Channel, both along the Sussex coastline and on the other side of the Channel in Brittany. In these early years oyster fishermen returned the young oyster and spat to the sea, reserving only the marketable oyster; but by the early 19th century they were bringing home all they removed with their dredges, retaining the small oysters to deposit in their own oyster beds maturing them in baskets hanging from the surface of the oyster beds.

The best oyster growing conditions are to be found where there is protection from rough seas, but where there is still a tidal current to carry food for the larvae. Oyster farmers often built dykes to enclose large areas of salt water, with channels cut through them to let in the tidal swell. It is the remnants of these dykes, or bunds, which can still be seen at the northern end of Hayling Island. As the demand for oyster beds increased, the Lords of the Manor of Hayling granted portions of midlands to persons who cleared them, converting them into layings, and, according to the statute, planting sticks upon their boundaries, so that strangers should not dredge on their private beds. (These sticks can still be seen around old oyster beds today). These local beds in North Hayling were acclaimed as being the largest and best constructed in England in the early 19th century, with huge quantities of Langstone oysters being sent all over the country. (We still have a relic of this trade in the Oyster Boat “Terror” which has been beautifully restored and takes groups of six for a sail on the harbour on days when the tide is right!) A family of oyster farmers established their home on a tiny islet in Langstone Harbour in 1819. Matthew Russell and his eldest son, David, established oyster beds around the islet and in nearby Crastick’s channel and this later came to be known as Russell’s Lake. A house, which was built for them to live in also served to keep an eye out for oyster poachers, but local folklore has it that the house had suspiciously large cellars and was often visited by unlit vessels at the dead of night!

In the 1840’s things became tougher for the oyster fishermen. Many fishermen engaged in widespread dredging, clearing land on which to store young oysters, so that they might grow and fatten. This is where they fell foul of the new Lord of the Manor, William Padwick, who claimed his right to the soil and brought many court actions for trespass against the fishermen. But this was only one of the problems the oyster fishermen had to contend with; by far the greatest as the 19th century wore on was that of pollution. Drainage schemes for Hayling were put forward with alarming regularity, all of which seemed to involve outflows on to the shore in proximity to the oyster beds, Feelings were at their strongest in the 1920’s when a scheme costing £26,000 was presented. A group of local fishermen, led by a Mr. Moore, protested that the fishing would be polluted, pointing out that if the effluent was discharged at flood-tide it would flow rapidly up the harbour, thus affecting the oyster beds and oyster dredging in Langstone Harbour. As it happened, it did not really matter, for by the 1930’s many of the best oyster beds had been reclaimed, with one being used for tennis courts and another converted into a swimming pool for the local holiday camp.

The most notorious case of pollution of the oyster population occurred in 1902. Council workers in Warblington re-laid a number of sewers and drains, which emptied onto the Emsworth foreshore. An eminent Emsworth oyster merchant, J.D. Foster constructed a number of ponds in close proximity to the outflow and seeded them with a considerable quantity of young oysters. In 1902 there was a mayoral banquet and, naturally, one of the courses consisted of the oysters for which Emsworth and Hayling had by then become justly famous. Unfortunately some of the shellfish had been contaminated by the outflow and several of the diners, including the Dean of Winchester, died of typhoid. The oyster industry in the area collapsed almost overnight. J.D. Foster made a claim for damages against Warblington Council for £18,000. However, another local merchant, Jack Kennett, testified against Foster in court stating that he had not only known about the outflow but had deliberately put his beds in that area to make use of the extra nutrients in the water! Foster’s award was reduced to £3,300, the town avoided bankruptcy and Kennett became a local hero!

In the 1980’s Havant Borough Council was persuaded to allow a local firm to restart the oyster business and the first thing they did was to dump 800,000 tonnes of builders’ rubble over the old shingle beds. They then asked for permission to construct a building on the edge of the pools for business purposes! When this was refused the firm went bankrupt (some say that it had achieved its purpose which was not the culture of oysters but the acquisition of a free tip for rubble!)