THE ROCHESTER OYSTER AND FLOATING FISHERIES
A BRIEF HISTORY
In 1446, “Owing to doubts and ambiguities in previous Charters”, King Henry VI granted a Royal Charter to the “Bailiff and Citizens of the City of Rochester”. Amongst the rights granted was the exclusive right to take “fish both great and small and other things pertaining to regality as former sovereigns had had” from the waters of the “Medeway” from “Sherenasse to Hawkewode”.
In 1729, in the reign of King George II, an Act of Parliament was passed for “regulating, well ordering, governing and improving the Oyster Fishery in the River Medway and waters thereof, under the authority of the Mayor and Citizens of the City of Rochester, in the County of Kent”. This Act was followed by another, passed in 1865 in the reign of Queen Victoria, entitled “An Act for Better Regulating the Rochester Oyster Fishery and for other Purposes”. By these Acts of Parliament, the Mayor of the City of Rochester, as Admiral of the River Medway, and his fellow councillors were confirmed in their jurisdiction over the River Medway, and its creeks and tributaries, between Garrison Point, Sheerness and Hawkwood Stone.
The Oyster Fishery was free and common to all oyster fishermen and dredgers who had served seven years’ apprenticeship to any free fisherman or free dredger of the fishery. Upon application by the fishery, the Mayor summoned a court called the Admiralty Court, for regulating and ordering the fishery; the fishermen and dredgers were summoned by the Mayor’s water bailiff to attend the court when a jury was elected.
From the earliest periods, Courts of Conservancy, consisting of the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Rochester, have been held. At these courts juries were appointed, offences were tried and fines and punishments imposed. The fisheries regulated encroachments and damage to the river and navigation, trespassers were presented and punished for fishing or netting weirs, etc, and fined. The fines imposed at these courts were recovered by distress and at such courts sworn water bailiffs have always been appointed. The courts appear to have been held once or twice a year alternating at Hawkwood and Sheerness, the two extreme limits. The account books of the Corporation show the constant payment of the expenses of holding the courts and these records are in existence in an unbroken series since the year 1571 to the present time.
These courts exercised jurisdiction over the floating fishery, as well as over the oyster fishery. In fact, the courts controlled everything relating to the fisheries and the river. The right of fishing in the Medway for floating fish, like that of dredging for oysters, exists only to the free fishermen of Rochester.
Up until the 1700s, the floating fishery continued undisturbed and was regulated by a court that sat regularly, in the main at Hawkwood but sometimes in the Guildhall. However, the oyster fishery, which was regulated by a court sitting mainly at Sheerness, found itself in difficulties. Prior to 1729 the oyster dredging and fishing was carried out on a “free for all” basis amongst the free fishermen and the cost of
running and providing the oyster layings was borne by the dredgers. It seems that there were a great number of feuds and quarrels. The Admiralty Court, in spite of having various offenders against its orders brought before it and fined, had no specific power to enforce the fines. Things came to a head in 1709 when a severe frost destroyed the oyster layings and the dredgers borrowed money to purchase fresh layings from the west of England. Apparently, quarrels amongst the dredgers continued and certain dredgers attempted to establish their own exclusive oyster beds. Eventually there came a time when it was realised that the oyster fishing or dredging was in jeopardy. This was a serious matter as the oysters provided the main means by which the free fishermen supported their families. But, the court still had no powers to enforce its orders to keep law and order amongst the free fishermen. It was for this reason, coupled with the fact that the fishery was liable to come to an end through the activities of poachers and trespassers, that the Mayor and Aldermen of Rochester in 1728 petitioned Parliament for an Act to regulate and govern the oyster fishery.
The resulting Act of 1729 relates that the oyster fishery had existed since “time out of mind”. Whilst the floating fishery had also existed since “time out of mind”, it was not considered necessary to obtain an Act of Parliament confirming its status and regulating its management. From 1729 onwards, only one court has sat and has regulated both the floating fishery by custom and the oyster fishery in accordance with Statute.
There is much documentary evidence recording the history and purposes of the floating and oyster fisheries. For example, it is recorded that, at a court held in 1706, it was ordered “that no person shall catch or take any oysters or other fish etc.” On 6 December 1888, the Board of Trade informed the fisheries that they will not “interfere in future with any royal fishes found in the River Medway between Garrison Point, Sheerness and Hawkwood”.
There is a copy of Rules and Orders, made in 1870, upon the front page of which it is stated that: “The attention of the free dredgers is particularly called to the following Rules and Orders made for the government of the floating fishery, the absence whereof the Court of Admiralty are determined strictly to enforce”. These orders contain many kinds of regulations concerning fishing for fish other than oysters: for example, smelts, soles, plaice or dabs, flounders, whiting, salmon, trout, pike, perch, roach, dace, gudgeon, barbel and char. The orders were reprinted in 1898, 1930 and again in 1973.
The Admiralty Court is still held every year, on the first or second Saturday in July, presided over by the Mayor of Medway, as Admiral of the River Medway, together with a number of councillors, fully robed. The Chief Executive of Medway Council (successor to the Town Clerk of Rochester), as Registrar of the fisheries, and other dignitaries also attend. The jury is empanelled and sworn; the list of free fishermen and dredgers is called; the water bailiffs are appointed and sworn; and the jury, through the chamberlain, presents its reports and recommendations arising from the previous year’s fishing. These “Presentments” are then considered and approved by the court.