Emsworth has a small harbour which is situated between two tidal ponds. As we walked out of Slipper Mill Pond and into the harbour area we left West Sussex and walked into Hampshire. It was low tide when we walked along the Emsworth shoreline; we were able to cross the exposed sand and shingle. As we walked, we noticed various square-structured timbers poking out of the sand. These were the remains of the Emsworth oyster beds.
The oyster industry in Emsworth was a thriving one. In 1788 it was well-established and had 12 master fishermen at work, harvesting 7,035 bushels of oysters that year. Each bushel contained 200-300 oysters, so at an average of 250 oysters per bushel the harvest that year was some 1,760,000 oysters. The industry peaked in the 1890’s when anywhere between two and three million oysters were sold each year, yet within 10 years the industry had disappeared. This happened almost overnight and was largely due to a food poisoning incident in 1902, when Emsworth oysters were served at Mayoral Banquets in Winchester and Southampton.
In Winchester, nine of the 134 guests at the Mayoral Banquet contracted enteric fever together with one waiter who, I assume, decided to snaffle a quick oyster and partake of the feast himself when nobody else was looking. He probably thought an oyster would slip down quickly, easily and without notice (he certainly noticed it later on). At the Southampton banquet a remarkably similar ten guests out of a remarkably similar 132 in total also fell ill, along with another waiter. In addition, various guests suffered gastroenteritis with varying degrees of severity. At Southampton there were 44 cases. At Winchester there were several deaths, including the Dean of Winchester. These two incidents were not isolated. They were simply the largest outbreaks. Other cases of food poisoning occurred around the same time elsewhere in southern England.
The cause of the poisoning was traced back to the same source: Emsworth. It turned out that the oyster beds had been situated within a few yards of the town’s main sewer, a conduit used to remove effluent from a significant number of the town’s inhabitants, including some who had been suffering from typhoid fever just before the oysters had been harvested.
The Emsworth oyster beds, which had been in operation for centuries, ceased commercial production completely within one year of this incident.
At the western end of Emsworth Harbour is a popular promenade, running along the southeastern edge of the adjoining mill pond. A plaque here commemorates James Duncan Foster, a local shipbuilder, who lived from 1858 to 1940. It was at Emsworth that he built the “Echo”, a ship of 110 feet which is said to be the largest sailing fishing vessel built in England.
Emsworth Promenade ends rather abruptly. The Coastal Path leads straight on to an area of foreshore. This runs in front of Nore Barn Woods and from there continues towards Hayling Island.
Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):
- Slipper Mill Pond: N 50° 50.680 W 000° 55.880
- Emsworth Oyster Beds: N 50° 50.650 W 000° 56.103
- Emsworth Promenade: N 50° 50.600 W 000° 56.249
- Foreshore in front of Nore Barn Woods: N 50° 50.500 W 000° 57.249
Walk #62 Statistics (of which this post forms the second part):
- Date of Walk: 26 December 2013
- Walk #62 total distance covered: 8.25 miles
- Coast of Britain Walk Total Distance Covered: 517.14 miles
- CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO INTERACTIVE MAP!!!
Gosh yes I remember walking past those structures without knowing they were remains of oyster beds – what a terrible thing to happen to the town. Enjoying your very detailed bits of social history.
I absolutely *love* that last picture!
Thank you Jill!