Oyster riots at Gorey

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Oyster riots at Gorey


In the late 1820s the town of Gorey on Jersey's east coast was transformed from a few huts to a busy community - all thanks to the development of an oyster fishing industry. This article by Peter Cook was first published in the magazine Jersey Life in 1968

Gorey Harbour became a haven for 300 fishing smacks manned by 2,000 British seamen, its wide coastal strip became the site for shipbuilding yards and, in 1832 the new township was given a church for visiting fishermen to hold their own services in English.[1]

'Gold-rush town'

Gorey, centre of Jersey's 'poor eastern coast', had suddenly become a gold-rush town, a place of new riches, a minor Klondike, and the precious cargo bringing it to life were the oyster banks stretching from the shores of the village to the harbour.[2]

The oyster industry at its height was giving a livelihood to 1,000 Easterners. [3]

To these people, until now subsistence peasants, it seemed real opportunity was theirs for the taking. But the unfortunate truth was that their quick prosperity was based on a lie. The real oyster riches were not at Gorey. They were only to be had by breaking the law and poaching from the French. The main poachers, too, were the English, from Sussex and Kent, not the Jerseymen.

Within one man's lifetime Jersey's oyster industry was to become a chief source of trade and then slowly collapse into nothing.

The season began on 1 September and ended on 1 June each year. The fishermen were most active from February to May.

Oyster boats at Gorey Harbour


It had all begun in 1797 when British cruisers engaged in the French was found several oyster banks a few miles north-west of Chausey. The discovery, only one to three leagues[4] from the French shore, was British and the oysters were treated as British as well. During the Napoleonic wars, Britons indisputably ruled the waves and that apparently included oyster beds within sight of an enemy coast, for in 1810 companies from southern England joined fishermen in Gorey and set out the exploit the new find.

For the next ten years they were very successful indeed. The States of Jersey, delighted at the thriving industry that had so suddenly arrived, helped with heavy investment. A new pier was built at Gorey; jetties were put up at Bouley Bay, Rozel and La Rocque.

Then, in 1921, success turned sour. The port of Granville in France, jealous of Jersey's new prosperity, asked for government aid to chase away the oyster pirates. Gunboats arrived, fired on the British fishing smacks, even chasing them all the way back to port. They seized some boats, imprisoned their crews in France, ill-treated them and threatened them with worse if they ever raided French seas again.

The States petitioned the King and, in May the following year, Royal Navy gunboats entered the contest. They patrolled, but there was little they could do except warn their countrymen against venturing too far out.

A fishery protection vessel at Gorey in the 19th century

Sunday Times report

Still the rivalry continued. In fact it worsened. In 1838 the Sunday Times reported one incident in the oyster war:[5]

"About 300 sail of English vessels are engaged in the oyster fishing on the coast of Jersey towards the French shore and have been repeatedly warned not to approach within a certain distance of the French coast.
"These warnings have been little attended to and two French vessels of war captured and took into port an English boat.
"On this intelligence reaching Jersey all the fishing smacks proceeded to the French coast, boarded the vessels of war, retook the English boat and brought her back in triumph to Jersey. But several of the boatmen have lost their lives and a considerable number were taken prisoner and are in irons".

By the time this local armada put to sea, it was already obvious that oyster fishing was on the decline. The French opposition had won. By 1835 catches brought back to Jersey had halved.

From 1834 to 1837 the States tried to help. Altogether £3,866 was spent trying to create an oyster industry in local waters. New beds were put down in the Bay of Grouville, which were opened in 1837 to be dredged only at certain times of the year.

This was the background to the oyster riots, In the following year the men involved in this ailing industry rebelled. On 1 March, in the middle of the 1838 oyster season, the States passed an Act regulating the Gorey oyster beds and the laying down and preservation of new ones at Grouville. It was then forwarded to England for the Royal Assent.

'Violation of the law'

But the fishermen were too impatient to wait. In the second week of April several of them persuaded the others that they were allowed to work the oyster banks at Grouville. The fleet put to sea committing what a local newspaper termed 'a daring violation of the law'.

These beds were still reserved and, when the Constables of St Martin and Grouville arrived on the scene, they ordered the fishermen off. The men refused to go, and there was deadlock.

The Constables appealed to the States, who agreed 'preventive measures' must be taken. On Thursday 12 April drummers of the 4th Regiment of the St Helier Battalion, with the Militia and the Artillery mounting four guns, together with a detachment of Carabineers of the 60th Regiment, assembled in the Royal Square. Led by men of the 60th and by the Island's Lieut-Governor, Major General Campbell, they marched on Gorey.[6]

As soon as they arrived, the artillery was set up and the guns fired out to sea. They did not manager to hit any of the boats, but this one salvo was enough to quell the mutiny.[7]

Awaiting the catch at Gorey

Court hearing

The fishermen's leaders were arrested by the Deputy Viscount and most of them were allowed bail for their appearance before the Royal Court. A few who opposed the Carabineers with a few well-chosen insults were surrounded by the soldiers, but instantly turned the tables on the army by inviting them home for bread, cheese and beer.

The following week 96 fishermen were tried and fined 300 livres each (£17 6s 2d). Two ringleaders were imprisoned.

Major-General Campbell had fought his last campaign on the shores of Gorey. The exertions of the day left him with a slight chill. On 12 May he died and was buried at the Town Church.

The delayed Order in Council, which had caused all the trouble, was finally presented to the States on 20 April, only six days after the riot. It assisted the Jersey fishermen a bit, but was no lasting help.

In the years that followed the Gorey oystermen went further afield, mainly to Dieppe, for their catches, and within 30 years of the Gorey riots, Jersey's oyster industry was extinct.[8]

Notes and references

  1. The figure of 300 boats, although based on a 1838 newspaper report, is a considerable exaggeration. The number involved at this time was more likely between 120 and 140. The fleet grew to perhaps 250 in the 1850s, before the industry collapsed around 1860, but not all these vessels were based at Gorey. Some used Rozel and Bouley Bay for shelter when not working. Although some of these boats were built in Gorey yards, the ship building industry did not really get going until the oyster trade was over.
  2. This is not where the oysters were, because that would not have necessitated a fleet of boats to harvest them. They were much further out to sea
  3. They may have become 'Easterners' by living at Gorey, but few originated there. Many of the boats were English, and their crews slept on board, and took them away at the end of each season. Many of the land-based workers moved to Gorey from St Helier, and other parts of the island
  4. A league was a measurement of distance equal to three nautical miles, or about 5½ kilometres. The majority of these banks were, therefore, outside French territorial waters at the time
  5. This appears to be a misprint for 1828
  6. This is a confusion of military units. A regiment is larger than a battalion. It seems likely that the word used should be 'garrison'
  7. Mutiny is hardly an appropriate word, although, 'oyster riots', which is what the event became known as, seems even less so. The report's suggestion that the fishermen meekly came ashore after one salvo from the guns is also wide of the mark. An earlier Jerripedia article explains in more detail that the Constable of St Martin, Francois Godfray went out to the fleet on the States cutter Inca, with two Inspector of Fisheries assistants, and four naval ratings. He arrested Thomas Ahier, the skipper of the first boat he reached; George Vardon was also arrested for inciting his crew to throw the Inspector's assistants overboard. The boats then went out again and it was at this point that the Militia was called out and shots fired at the fleet
  8. This final statement is correct, but the paragraph as a whole ignores the fact that the Gorey oyster industry was far from over after the so-called riots. The fishermen fell into line with States controls, took their catches to a canning factory which had been established a year earlier, and the industry boomed again during the 1850s. In 1856 the fleet had grown to 256 boats, with 1,300 crewmen, and the export of 180,000 tubs of fresh oysters brought in £35,000. It was over-fishing, rather than any dispute with the French, which eventually caused the size of the fleet to decline. By 1860 there were only 165 boats, and the catch was half what it was at its peak. Three years later the fleet was down to 46 boats, and the catch was only 9,800 tubs. By 1871 the industry had closed.
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