The Rochester Oyster & Floating Fishery is a working guild of free fishermen that can trace its origins back to 1446 when, “Owing to doubts and ambiguities in previous Charters”, King Henry VI granted a Royal Charter to the “Bailif 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”.
On the first Saturday in July, the Mayor of Medway assumes his or her other role as Admiral of the River Medway and in full regalia enters the Rochester Guildhall, to preside over the Medway Admiralty Court. This court regulates the fishery and oyster beds of the River Medway between Sheerness and Hawkwood Stone, near Snodland in Kent, and takes its jurisdiction from a charter of Henry VI in 1446, which granted exclusive rights to the citizens of Rochester to take fish from this part of the river. The court’s powers were later codified in the Rochester Oyster Fishery Acts of 1729 and 1865. In 1725, Daniel Defoe (the famed author of Robinson Crusoe) described the court in the mid-eighteenth century in his ‘Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain’ : “There is in the River Medway, at Rochester, and in several of its creeks and branches with the jurisdiction of the city, an oyster-fishery, which is free to everyone who has served seven years apprenticeship to any fisherman or dredger, who is free of the said fishery, and the Mayor and citizens of Rochester hold a court. Commonly called an Admiralty Court, once a year, or oftener when occasions have required it, for the regulating of the said fishery, and to prevent abuses committed in it. In these courts they appoint from time to time, when oysters shall and shall not be dredged and taken, which they call ‘opening and shutting the Grounds’, also the quantity each dredger man shall take in a day, which is usually called ‘Setting the Stint’. They have power to go on board, and enforce these orders.”
In 2012, ROFF signed joint Memorandum of Understanding with Medway Council and the Kent Police Marine Unit, designed to reinforce the co-operative powers of the Fishery, the Police, and the Council. ROFF Water Bailiffs carry a Warrant and Freemen carry a Letter of Authority signed by the Admiral of the River Medway that identities holders as free fishers of Rochester, and stating their legal powers.
(Photograph taken 2011 showing the Chief Water Bailiff Ken Tappenden, the Admiral of the River Medway, Ken Webber (Mayor), Water Bailiff Mark Pink, Water Bailiff Shane Hales (who also serves as the ROFF Chamberlain), and Water Bailiff Andrew Starling. (Water Bailiff Paul Starling is absent in this photograph).)
The court is still made up of Aldermen of the City of Rochester, and the jury of Freemen are the only ones allowed to fish the river. Unlike most of the courts that have survived from medieval times, the Admiralty Court still has a genuine function and real teeth. Medway Council and the Rochester Oyster and Floating Fishery continue to take action against poachers and unlawful fishing, and in 2003 they successfully prosecuted an Isle of Sheppey fisherman for encroaching on their stretch of the river. ROFF operate ten vessels on the river, the largest being ‘Fidelity’ pictured below. The main qualification for Freeman is the seven-year apprenticeship to another Freemen described by Defoe. In 2004, there were twenty-two Freemen of the River, and that year also saw the first ever female apprentice in fourteen-year-old Robyn Wadhams. Today, Robyn (pictured below) has completed her apprenticeship, and is employed as a 2nd Engineering Officer with P&O.
At the start of 2015, there are thirty five Freemen and fifteen apprentices of the Rochester Oyster and Floating Fishery. Twelve Freemen work on the river, and a further six in related professions. (Freeman Chamberlain Shane Hales and Freeman Juror Bradley Moore run a successful fishmongers in Rainham). A number of local families have been Freemen for centuries, which is a source of great pride, and an important achievement since the turn of the century has been the steady improvement of the water quality of the river, together with the conservation of viable fish stocks of numerous species, and beds of both rock and native oysters. Apart from the annual Admiralty Court, the Chamberlain and the Jurors meet regularly throughout the year at the Rochester Guildhall, where they continue to uphold the historic tradition of protecting their right to fish and dredge the River Medway.
(Jurors Meeting held on February 4th 2015. Back row left to right – Freeman Juror Tom Turner, Freeman Juror Andrew Starling, Freeman Juror Peter Starling, Freeman Juror James Thomson, Freeman Juror Paul Starling, Freeman Juror Shaun Wadhams, Freeman Juror Bradley Moore.
Front row left to right – Freeman Juror Robyn Wadhams-Hall, Freeman Juror Vic Dallas, Freeman Chamberlain Shane Hales, Freeman Juror Horace Moore, Freeman Juror Simon Abbotson).