Oyster Harvesting

in Swansea Bay

   

Oysters

Over the centuries, Oysters have been so highly prized for their aphrodisiac qualities that Roman emperors paid for their weight in gold. Thousands of Roman slaves were sent to British waters to gather the mollusks. In 5th Century Wales, there is strong evidence the Romans consumed huge quantities of oysters during their occupation of Britain.  Very possibly, large amounts of these were harvested from Swansea Bay, which contained flourishing oyster beds.

It is known that a strong trade in oysters was well established in Swansea Bay in the Middle Ages and the oyster beds of Mumbles were considered the most prolific in Britain by 1684, when the first Duke of Beaufort toured Wales. In later centuries, the owner of this title was to profit considerably from Swansea's oyster trade - he was to demand rent from the workers of the oyster trade for maintaining "plantations" of oysters on his waterside. In the 17th Century the oyster dredging was conducted from small rowing boats, hauled by woman folk. A vessel with a rig was introduced in the mid 19th Century which was known as a "skiff". The dredge was made to a local design and attached to the bottom of each of the 180 boats that were used to gather the oysters off the sea bed in the 1860's.

Each "skiff" was mastered by a 3-strong crew. Two men hauled the nets in whilst a boy steered the vessel. At one time six hundred people were employed in the oyster industry. Forty bagged the oysters (these were mainly women) and ten men carried the bags to the railway where they could be transported throughout the U.K.  Some were shipped directly by sea to Bristol, England. In 1871, ten million oysters were scraped off the sea beds of Swansea Bay and Gower, which had a saleable value of 50,000.

 Oyster Dredgers in Swansea Bay of the 1840's

  Oyster Skiffs in Swansea Bay of the 1840's

The smaller oysters (less than five years old) were kept in the plantations upon the beach at Mumbles until they had grown large enough to market. Oysters were the staple diet of Mumbles folk, they were cooked in a variety of ways - fried in an omelette, cooked in breadcrumbs or filled a steak which was then grilled. Many consumed oysters with fish and chips, eaten out of a paper bag.

 The Mumbles "skiff" - an oyster trawler in Swansea Bay

 The Mumbles "skiff" - an oyster trawler in Swansea Bay

By the late 1870's over fishing had a devastating effect on the oyster beds and the industry was in sharp decline. Many people had to find alternative work and after an oyster disease wiped out most of the beds in the early 1920's, the last skiff to work the beds was retired in 1930. In 1949, the South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee investigated the possibility of reviving the industry, but concluded at the time it wouldn't be financially viable to do so.

Now the oysters are being harvested again in Swansea Bay as new research has revealed the viability of the oyster beds which are enjoying a new leash of life.

The area of Swansea Bay called "Mumbles" is sometimes referred to by name as "Oystermouth" and stands as a reminder of the bay's historic reputation as a premier source of one of the world's most romantic seafoods.

 

 

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 Some details based on research compiled by Gerald Gabb, Swansea Museum.

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