Tide coming in at Tollesbury, Essex. My photo.
The old luxurious Romans vaunts did make
Of gustful Oysters took in Lucrine Lake:
Your Essex better hath, and such perchance
As tempted Cæser first to pass from France.
How did those ancient Worthies captive all
The humbled world unto their Capitol!
Yet from it’s highest Towers could not survey
So rich a Countrey as (from Holt) you may.
The noble Brutus, vertuous Portia,
Luckless Antonius, chast Octavia,
Soul-fix’d Paulina to her murther’d Lord
(The learned Seneca) such worthes afford
As have astonish’d Ages; yet your best
Of wives may justly with them all contest.
You then enjoying a full Fortune, and
The delicacies may eat of Sea and land;
Your dayes spend at a house of so fair site,
And (with a so deserving wife) each night:
Consider (since that you possess all this)
If y’are not happy, who the Devil is?”
To my Brother in Law Colonel Will. Nevil. – Aston Cockayne (1608 – 1684)
Thomas Smith of Tollesbury in Essex first went to sea in 1830 when he was just nine years old. He was born to be an Oyster Dredger. His father before him and his sons after him were men of the sea, of the mudflats and saltings; they were sailors of fishing smacks.
Thomas married Mary Biggs in 1841 when he was 20 and she was just 16. They started a family and between 1842 and 1866 had 10 children, at least two dying in infancy and others dying at very young ages. Life must have been hard.
Family tree – click for enlarged version (then click again to magnify). My image.
Tollesbury lies at the mouth of the River Blackwater on the Essex coast and its main trade was, for generations, oysters. Unfortunately, oysters could not be dredged all year round so money had to be earned elsewhere. Men found work on the land or as regular fishermen. Some crewed boats as part of the Merchant Navy, while others, having gained notoriety for their skill as smacksmen, crewed yachts and even took part in races. Despite the opportunities, finding work would no doubt have been difficult.
As well as oyster dredging, Thomas spent time in the Merchant Navy. Sadly he died in the late 1860s and it seems most likely that this happened at sea, although I am yet to confirm this.
Mary remarried in 1870, probably in desperate need of support for both her and her family. Her new husband was William Crabb, a man 16 years her junior and I sometimes wonder if she came to regret her second marriage.
In November 1883, William, along with Mary’s two youngest sons Uriah and Herbert, was in court. Herbert, aged just 17 was charged with stealing “a quantity of oyster brood”, with a value of sixpence. These oysters were the property of the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Fishery Company and Herbert was seen with his brother and stepfather in their smack, The Margaret, a few metres south of the company grounds. Herbert left the boat and made his way onto the company’s ground, which was marked out by beacons. He was witnessed picking up oyster brood. When approached by a watchman he denied being on the company’s ground despite his footprints telling a different story. Herbert returned eight brood to his accuser who maintained in court that there were between 14 and 18 in his bucket.
William was called as a witness and stated that the company’s ground was covered with water, the implication being that Herbert couldn’t have stolen the oysters if the tide was in. Uriah, also called to the witness stand, stated that Herbert had “got brood from the swashway about the company’s ground,” but when cross-examined admitted he hadn’t actually seen his brother pick any up. Herbert being found innocent was dependent on the testimony of his brother and stepfather. Unsurprisingly he was found guilty, fined 40 shillings and ordered to pay costs of 11 shillings and sixpence.
William and Uriah were also charged, but with damaging oyster beds rather than stealing. They both pleaded guilty and were fined £1 and costs of 8 shillings, the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Fishery Company stating that they “did not wish to punish these men.”
In May 1885 Uriah was back in court, this time accused of stealing 4,500 oysters from layings belonging to a Mr Adam Elisha Chatterson. The prosecutor stated that he’d found evidence that his oyster pits had been disturbed: 27 places where sheards had been used for getting up oysters, strange footmarks, and signs that a bag had been dragged down to the water. The value of oysters stolen, he said, was about £20. When cross-examined he stated that “the prisoner is a dredgerman, and I have known him since he was a boy. I have never heard he is half-witted; he is too sharp for me.”
A witness testified that his boat had been used without his permission. A watchman called to the witness stand stated that he’d seen Uriah with his stepfather, William, and another man, in the boat in question. Another dredgerman testified that some days after the alleged event took place, he had a conversation with Uriah who admitted going down to the prosecutor’s pits, in the said boat, and leaving a pair of sheards in it. Under cross-examination the witness admitted that he himself had been convicted of unlawfully dredging for oysters. He also admitted that before he spoke to Uriah he’d heard there was a reward out for information thus discrediting himself. Yet another witness testified that Uriah had admitted to him that he had stolen oysters from the prosecutor. Finally, William Crabb defended his stepson by testifying that he was with Uriah and the other man at the time in question, but in their own boat and that Uriah had at no time gone to the prosecutor’s pits. He was also discredited due to a previous conviction and the fact that Uriah was his stepson.
The case was summed up by the barrister for the defence stating that the robbery was a very extensive one and it could not be found that Uriah had had any dealings in oysters. He said that Uriah was half-witted and that no reliance could be placed on the statements he’d made to two witnesses.
Uriah was found not guilty and was discharged. This case fails to explain who actually stole the oysters and if the old adage “there’s no smoke without fire” is true then it’s likely that Uriah was possibly coerced or the only one naïve enough to boast about what he’d been doing. And half-witted?
Woodrolfe Creek, Tollesbury, at low tide. My photo.
In November 1888, William Crabb was in court without his stepsons, charged with unlawfully dredging for oysters, which by his own admission in 1885, was not the first time he’d been charged with this offence. The case involved debates about initials marked on an oyster dredge identifying it as belonging to William. He was found guilty, and, together with his accomplice, a Mr Levi King, sentenced to three months’ hard labour. The judge had wanted to send them down for four months, but the law would not allow.
In January 1890 Uriah was in court again, this time charged with being drunk and disorderly. It seems he had too much festive spirit as the incident occurred in Tollesbury on Christmas Day 1889. Another court case in the following July sheds a little more light on this incident. It seems Uriah was not alone in his carousing. His eldest brother Thomas was also charged with the same offence, committed on the same day, but, having been away, most likely with the Merchant Navy, could not be served with a summons until July. The report of Thomas’ case provides a little more information. The police constable reporting the incident said that Thomas used “very bad language” and had caused “a great disturbance.” On being asked to go home he behaved very violently towards the constable. Both men were fined, although Thomas was fined considerably more than his younger brother.
Just over two years later, in 1893, the brothers were at it again. This time they were drunk and disorderly in a village just down the road from Tollesbury. Neither actually appeared in court but were found guilty in their absence and fined in default of seven days’ hard labour. The police sergeant who reported them had ordered them to go home but Thomas was heard advising Uriah not to go saying, “I don’t care for any ****** policeman.”
Three years later, in 1896, the same thing happened again; both brothers were in court charged with being drunk and disorderly. They were again fined, this time in default of 10 days’ hard labour.
In February 1898 Thomas was in court again, but this time he was alone. He was charged with stealing a purse containing £2 and 10 shillings which belonged to William Crabb, with whom he was lodging, and who failed to appear in court to give evidence. A police sergeant stated that this was no doubt because Thomas had offered to repay the money, but that if William were to accept this offer he would be compounding an alleged felony. No mention was made of William’s relationship to Thomas and the case was adjourned so William could be subpoenaed.
Back in court a few days later William appeared and testified that Thomas was his stepson. Thomas admitted taking the money and hoped that William would forgive him. He said he would “go to sea and bring home money and pay it.” He said he always came home with good character, and whatever made him take the money he didn’t know. Bursting into tears he said, “It’s the drink, sir.” Thomas went on to say, “Yes sir, I was drunk, and mother asked me to stay at the house rather than sleep in the street.” He was given one month’s imprisonment and told that, had it not been for his good character, it would have been a good deal more.
What happened to Thomas once he’d served his time is not known; however, Uriah appeared in court once more in September 1914. The headline in the local paper expressed some surprise: AFTER 18 YEARS. It had indeed been 18 years since Uriah was last in court on charges of drunkenness and this time the story gives a little more insight into Uriah’s character. In actual fact, his case was straightforward. He’d been seen coming out of a pub in a drunken condition. He was found guilty and fined. It was the case that came after his that explained things a little more clearly.
This is the news story as reported in The Essex Newsman:
CHARGE AGAINST PUBLICAN DISMISSED
Arising out of the previous case, Henry James Worsby, landlord of the King’s Head, Tollesbury, was summoned for allowing drunkenness, and for selling intoxicating liquor to a drunken person, at Tollesbury.
Mr. S. Wortley prosecuted; Mr. H. W. Jones defended.
Mrs. Barbara Gurton, wife of the landlord of the Hope public-house, Tollesbury, said that about two o’clock on August 17 she refused to serve a man named Uriah Smith, as he was not sober.
Cross-examined: Smith was eccentric, and always walked a bit “tottery”.
John May, bootmaker, Tollesbury, said he saw Smith between two and three o’clock on Aug. 17, and the man was drunk. About an hour and a half afterwards he saw him again. He was then staggering, and pitching on his toes.
Mrs. Blake, wife of Thomas Blake, landlord of the Plough and Sail, Tollesbury, said she refused to serve Smith on the afternoon in question, because of his condition; and James Collins, landlord of the Victoria, Tollesbury, said Smith was a bit “rolly.”
Wm. Crabb, West Street, Tollesbury, said Smith, who lodged with him, went home the worse for drink on August 17.
For the defence the defendant and his wife, George William Osborne, and Alfred J. Gurton, of Tollesbury, gave evidence to the effect that defendant and his wife refused to serve Smith, as it was a practice among publicans of Tollesbury not to serve him when there were any young men present, as they frequently treated him to drink, made fun of him, and had occasionally blacked his face. On the day in question defendant was not drunk when he went in the King’s Head, but there was a number of men present. He sat in the house, but was not served.
The case was dismissed.”
From this story it seems likely that Uriah Smith could have been a person that people referred to as “half-witted” as they did in 1885 when considering if he was capable of stealing 4,500 oysters. Maybe he wasn’t as bright or as clever as his brothers; undoubtedly he was gullible and naïve and someone that others took advantage of either to further their own gains or simply for their own entertainment. I rather suspect that he was a useful person to have around if you wanted to break the law or needed an amusing drinking partner.
Modern day fishing boats moored at Tollesbury. My photo.
So what of the others?
Mary, despite her sons and husband probably running her ragged and giving her far too many reasons to worry, lived to the ripe old age of 89, outliving all but two of her children according to the 1911 census. She died in 1914.
William Crabb, died in 1925. Curiously on the 1911 census, which he completed himself, he lists himself as a Boot Repairer. Maybe he found it to be a more lucrative profession than dredging for oysters, legally or otherwise.
Norris Smith, not mentioned before because it seems he never got into trouble with the law, married and had three children. Sadly he died in 1897 serving on board a steam yacht near Crete in the Mediterranean. The cause of death was recorded as syncope (loss of consciousness) owing to immersion.
Norris’ eldest son, also Norris, was involved in a humorous court case in 1899. The Essex Standard certainly found it amusing:
AN AMUSING COUNTY COURT CASE AT MALDON.
At the Maldon County Court the other day, before the REGISTRAR (Mr. J. C. Freeman) Walter Lock, a horseman, of Woodham Mortimer, sued Norris Smith, a lad of 19, a dredgerman, of Tollesbury, for £1., 10s, board and lodgings.
The REGISTRAR asked the defendant Smith if he were any relation to the plaintiff.
Defendant. He married my mother.
An old man then stood up in the Court.
The REGISTRAR. Well, what relation are you? (Laughter.)
The man, William Crabb. I married his father’s mother. I am step-grandfather to the defendant. (Laughter.)
The two parties then agreed to wait till the Judge arrived and have the case tried before him.
The REGISTRAR. I am not sorry. (Laughter.)
The plaintiff, before His Honour Judge Paterson, said defendant came to live with him last December and had stopped till January, offering to pay 6s. a week for board and lodgings. On January 17 he paid 6s. and on the 28th he paid another 7s. He left soon after, when five weeks’ pay was owing. Defendant would not do anything. He did not work “half his time”.
His HONOUR. Who’s he got to support him?
Plaintiff. He’s old enough to support himself.
The defendant said that when he left the plaintiff forgave him the money that was owing and in addition presented him with 5s.
His HONOUR. How do you live?
Defendant. I don’t know what you mean? (Laughter.)
The JUDGE. Who supports you?
Defendant. I support myself.
The JUDGE. What do you earn?
Defendant. Last week I earned 6d., and the week before 7d. (Laughter.) My best week I earned 8s. When I came away plaintiff said he did not want anything.
The JUDGE. This is a strange story altogether. (Laughter.) How is the lad to live?
William Crabb. He will have to go on credit. (Laughter.)
His HONOUR. No, no.
Judgment was given against the defendant for 15s., to be paid at the rate of 2s. a month.”
This case makes a little more sense when you realise that the reason Norris stopped lodging with his stepfather was because his mother died. Walter Lock was his stepfather. Why William Crabb found it necessary to be in court is anyone’s guess. Maybe he’d been there so often for one reason or another, he grew to like it. Maybe I’m being unfair and he was there simply to support his step-grandson.
Herbert Smith, the youngest son of Mary and Thomas Smith, never got into trouble again after falling foul of his stepfather’s influence in 1883. He died when he was just 43 in 1910, leaving behind a wife and four children: Herbert, who was lost at sea when he was a young man; Charles, who went on to become a grocer, owning his own shop; Henry, who grew up sailing the fishing smacks and crewing racing yachts, but who sadly suffered serious shrapnel wounds to his right arm and leg during the Battle of the Somme, lived out his life in Tollesbury, minus his leg; and Ruth, who married a rather dashing young Petty Officer in the Royal Navy and spent World War I living on Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where my grandmother was born.
Tollesbury today is a large village with a thriving marina and yacht club. If you take a walk, or drive, down to the marina, take a moment to gaze over the mud flats and think about the men who risked fines, or even prison, to steal a few oysters. It must have been a tough life, probably with little reward if you didn’t have your own oyster pits. The life of any kind of fisherman is a tough one and I know from other research I’ve done that life as a Merchant Seaman could be dangerous and traumatic. I think we can forgive them a little alcoholic relief.
All information on the various court cases was obtained from the British Newspaper Archive.