Constantine Cornwall

Oysters

Oysters, a food item since Neolithic times and a product of the River Helford for several hundred years, was the theme of Don Garman’s talk to Constantine History Group at their January meeting.

The first record of harvesting of the Native Oyster is dated 1580 when the oysterage for Merthen Manor was valued at £2- 10 shillings. Until 1915 when the river was purchased by the Duchy of Cornwall, the ownership of the oysterage was divided between Merthen Manor and the Diocese of Exeter. Tenants managed the oysters layings including the Tyacke family, farmers at Merthen. In 1904 the depot was moved to Port Navas from the Pond House in Polwheveral Creek and from 1890 to 2005 was managed or tenanted by members of the Hodge family.

The oysters were of value and not surprisingly the court in Helston records several cases of stealing, which resulted in imprisonment and hard labour. A group of fishermen wishing to fish the waters were deterred by armed miners in boats who were employed by John Tyacke. Other incidents recorded include a timber vessel bound for Gweek anchoring over the oyster beds and then drying out on them. The Captain in his defence blames the local pilot! Disease, silt and algal blooms have also threatened the oysterage from time to time.

Ownership by the Duchy of Cornwall prompted three royal visits in 1921, 1937 and during the 1970s. The Constantine Museum has recently been given a photograph of the 1925 Port Navas annual oyster festival. This is the only evidence thus far of this event.

Port Navas Oyster Festival 1925
Port Navas Oyster Festival 1925

During the 1950s and 60s the Dutch Oyster Farm’s 12 employees operating three dredgers and a transport boat were producing 75,000 oysters a week during the season. This formed a third of UK production. Oysters packed into wooden casks had to leave Port Navas by 11.10 to catch the London train.

Henry Warren and Ernie Waters sorting and grading oysters circa 1955
Henry Warren and Ernie Waters sorting and grading oysters circa 1955

Following strong easterly winds in 1963 50% of the oysters died from suffocation by silt build up, this led to the introduction of Pacific oysters in 1964 which then formed 25% of production. Outbreaks of Bonamia in the 1980s also decimated the oysters. From 1990 – 2005 the oysterage was rarely worked, however the Wright Brothers became tenants and laid 30 tons of young oysters in the river, unfortunately algal bloom was the next challenge in 2009 and Natural England gave permission for Pacific oysters be farmed. New techniques from Brittany were introduced to increase rates of growth, hence the raft which operated as a nursery at the entrance to Port Navas Creek. Once large enough the oysters were placed in cages off Bosahan before being laid in the oyster beds west of Port Navas Creek and then harvested at three years.

Unfortunately, the use of a non-indigenous species was not supported by environmentalists and a strong lobby encouraged the owner to call in the tenancy in Spring 2017. The Oysterage is currently in the processes of being re-let.

The next talk will be on” Mine Buildings of Cornwall by Kingsley Rickard on Friday 16th February at 19.15 in Constantine WI Hall. Visitors always welcome. Contact 01326 250604