In his research on the smuggling organisation that operated along the Seasalter coastline, Harvey Wallace consistently refers to the organisation as ‘The Seasalter Company’ and describes it as ‘a fraternity’.
The idea of a smuggling network being a ‘fraternity’ and named, ‘The Seasalter Company’ would have been immediately understood in North Kent, especially amongst those who scratched out a living harvesting oysters.
The oystermen of Seasalter had fought hard battles to establish their legal rights as a fraternity. Native oysters had been fished commercially around Whitstable since Roman times. (Oyster shells found in the Coliseum in Rome have been identified as originating from Whitstable.) Later, parish records show that the ground provided fish for the monastery larder since before Magna Carta in 1066. In 1312 representatives petitioned the King to grant:
‘a certain liberty in the town of Canterbury pertaining to the said manor of Whitstaple that all tenants being fishermen shall have a certain place in the High Street between the church of All Saints and the church of St Andrews … to sell their fish without giving toll to anyone.’
As the industry became more prosperous and competitive, the dredger men sought protection as a legal ‘fraternity’ with territorial rights bestowed and handed down to the families and their extended relations.
Their ‘fields’ were protected by ancient charter but during the 18th and 19th centuries long disputes took place over the rights and boundaries of the oyster fields between Faversham, Seasalter, Whitstable. These battles also involved outsiders – investors who attempted to take advantage of what was becoming a lucrative industry.
In 1793 the industry became highly regulated with the Act of Incorporation of the ‘Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers of Whitstable’.
From this time onward the first official records appear. The Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers evolved from the Court of Fishing and Dredging under the direction of the Lord of the Manor and his company. This allowed the eldest son of a fisherman at 16 and others at 21 to become Freemen, bestowing upon them the right to farm oysters. Most of the profits went to the Freemen but a percentage was ploughed back into the company to support the widows of past Freemen.
Lord Bollingbroke, a Lord of the Manor in the 1790s, incurred so many debts that he was forced to sell the fishing rights, but eventually the Oysterman established their own company, the Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers, in 1793.
The company was regulated by a group of individuals elected at the Water Court. The members included the Water Bailiff, the Foreman and a jury of 12 Freemen. The Freemen were in turn elected from the annual list of Freemen. In effect, the Company was run as a co-operative with an emphasis on self-help between its several constituent extended families.
But these rights were more potent than simply being underpinned by laws and a charter. They concerned the rights of ‘freemen’ – something written in the blood of the Englishman rather than any letter of the Law and during the times of the Seasalter Company, embraced by the John Bull character of satirists like Gillray. (See ‘A Bullish attitude towards smuggling‘.)
Family ties were essential to the survival of the oystermen. The Company had to work like a cooperative in order to farm the oyster grounds and relied on a closely-knit group of freemen.
They are all equal; they are all working together for good. the Father meets his son who is apprenticed out of the domestic circle – perhaps to a brother fisher next door.
Sons of dredger men worked a seven year apprenticeship. Outsiders who married into the families were expected to embrace the fraternity and make a commitment to maintaining the livelihoods and wellbeing of not only the family but the surrounding community.
This was the ‘social glue’ founded on trust that bound the North Kent families together. Here, the principle conviction was that each member of the fraternity could depend on the others whatever may happen.
These foundations were concerned with an inherited trust, a sense of social quality and a reassurance that promoted wellbeing within the community.
The pattern is something we see at work in the set-up of the Seasalter Company of smugglers and their free-trade activities.
In various past posts we noted how family members undertook a sort of apprenticeship before taking up high profile appointments around the area – Ashford, Canterbury and Dover in particular. We have evidence of men of average means buying up parcels of land and living in fine houses on behalf of the Company, knowing that they will move on to positions of influence, later in their lives. (See Jonas King: A most untrustworthy, despised and highly valued man.)
This trust and dependency would not have been lost on the dredger men who worked the oyster fields and lived with their families on the old brig at Blue Anchor Corner. Indeed, they would have been able to work with the ethos of such a company, helping to land and transfer contraband from boats to carts then escorting the goods to Canterbury or London. Some families would have also proved invaluable in taking prisoners of war across the Channel. Connections often stretched across the water to continental Europe – with distant relatives in French, Belgian and Dutch ports.
The modus operandi of the Seasalter Company was almost identical to the code of the oyster men. Indeed, the shape and structure of this particular smuggling fraternity might well have been inspired and modeled on the ‘Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers’. It would certainly explain how they managed to maintain their secrecy (family commitments to silence). There are characteristics of this free trade enterprise that appear to be unique to North Kent and we know that such a cooperative working model was at work among fishing communities of Whitstable.
Harvey, Wallace, ‘The Seasalter Company – A Smuggling Fraternity (1740 – 1854)’. Emprint
Luhmann, ‘Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations.’ New York: Blackwell. 1988
Patricia Hyde and Duncan Harrington, ‘Story of the Whitstable Oyster’ (2003)