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The following is taken from an article written by Colchester historian, Mr Andrew Phillips and which was published in the Essex County Standard of 7th October 2005.
Just how old is the Oyster Feast?
How old is the Oyster Feast? Why does it exist? Is it unique to Colchester?
Year after year speakers at the Feast resort to "the mists of antiquity" and "lost in ancient times" to cover their uncertainty. This is not necessary. The origin of the Oyster Feast is absolutely clear, well documented and now to be revealed.
There are clues all over Europe. In Germany they have an Oktober Fest, Nottingham has their Goose Fair, churches from Ireland to Poland hold their harvest thanksgiving. In the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Michaelmas daisies offer a last display of flowers to autumn honey bees. Michaelmas (September 29th) marks the turning of the year, the traditional date for renewing business contracts, for settling harvest money, and employing your farm labourers for another year.
With harvest money in their pockets, labourers looked for a Michaelmas fair to buy new breeches, shoes, knives and perhaps a pewter mug. For with harvest gathered in, there was time to hold a feast before the cold winds of winter made you batten down the hatches. Feasts took many forms, but in Colchester the Michaelmas Fair was the St Dennis Fair, held every October 9th on the 'Beryfield' now home to the Colchester Bus Station.
The St Dennis Fair dates from at least 1318 and lasted for a week, craftsmen coming from all over the district with their wares, setting up High Street stalls (under which they slept). It was the big event in Colchester's calendar. The decision to adjust Europe's calendar led to the removal of 11 days in 1752, moving the date of the St Dennis Fair to October 20th.
By this time there were two main Colchester civic feasts. There was the Election Dinner (sometimes the Freeman's Dinner), when these hereditary gentleman elected a new town council, which in those days entered office on Michaelmas Day. On that day was then held the Mayor's Dinner. I'm sure you see the point - keeping the voters happy. Also on the day of the Proclamation of the St Dennis Fair (now October 20th) there was a corporation lunch just for the mayor and the councillors. This much quieter event was marked from at least the 1790s by a gift of October oysters by the Colne dredgermen who had just received their annual licences from the town council. I'm sure you see the point - keeping the bosses happy.
Thus matters remained until 1835 when a major reform of local government forbad all forms of civic feasting. Time to end corruption that sort of thing. No more Election Dinner, no more Mayor's Dinner. But the little Corporation Lunch (sometimes supper) survived, since they paid for it themselves, except for the oysters which came from the grateful dredgermen.
In 1845 the new mayor was Henry Wolton, a great traditionalist. For example, he reintroduced the punishment of the stocks for persistent drunkards - a practice by then unknown elsewhere. He also dramatically renamed the Corporation Lunch, inviting 200 guests to dine at his expense in the newly-built town hall (the one before the present one). Wolton had invented the modern Oyster Feast, by cleverly re-inventing the banned Mayor's Dinner. For this he was re-elected mayor FIVE TIMES.
Not all subsequent mayors were as generous as Wolton and not till 1878 did another wealthy mayor, Thomas Moy the coal merchant, make the Wolton Oyster Feast the normal thing. Before long cabinet ministers and London dignitaries were coming down to Colchester as our guests, to be followed in the 20th century by showbiz and media personalities to give the event popular appeal. By now the St Dennis Fair was no more, last seen as a horse fair near the bottom of Ipswich Road. It was last 'proclaimed' by the mayor and town council in 1938.
So there you have it? 1318 St Dennis Fair, 1790s Corporation (Oyster) Lunch, 1845 modern Oyster Feast, all (after 1752) occurring in late October. This is, I believe, the first complete account published of the descent of the modern Oyster Feast. And how old is it? Don't worry, the question is sure to be asked again. But all you have to do is cut out this little article, and put it in a safe place.
Alderman W. Gurney Benham, Mayor of Colchester in 1934, had a different story, skilfully depicted in cartoon form on the oyster feast programme of that year. This read:
In the days of Giants and Fairies there were good specimens of both at Colchester.
Garglyjock and Bulkybones were great friends. Here they are paddling in the River Colne.
Each of them found an oyster, a thing they had never seen before.
Garglyjock tried to open his with his finger nails.
Whereas Bulkybones worried his with his teeth, also with no effect.
Except that they both had to go to bed for two days.
Then they tried with hatchets.
This was so unsuccessful that they were angrier than ever. I can hear mine laughing and bless me if mine isn't snoring.
Happy thought. Send a letter by fairy post to the great magician Merlin asking his advice and help.
So Merlin arrived and waved his wand, whereupon the gnomes appeared with oyster knives and the dredger folk emerged from the Colne with sacks full of oysters.
When they had each swallowed 10 or 12 dozen they danced for joy. Also they filled two bags with gold, which Merlin took away with him.
Then they invited some of the nicest giants and giantesses in the country to the first Colchester Oyster Feast and of course the fairies came and decorated the tables and the guests with Colchester roses.
These are images from the
Illustrated London News
dated 31st October 1891
Colchester Oyster Feast
Mr L J Watts
Mayor of Colchester
The Town Serjeant Conducting
the Guests to Dinner
Opening the Oysters
Lord Brook Speaking at the Dinner
Ladies and Gentlemen,
various other depictions
for your delight
From the Illustrated and Dramatic Sporting News in1896
From 'The Bystander' of October 30th 1907
The Oyster Feast of 1908 was robbed of its guests and other leading personalities because the date of the feast, October 25th, was the one which the memorial service to Princess Marina was to be held. Guests who had to cancel their attendance at the feast were Prince Georg and Princess Anne of Denmark, Earl Mountbatten and the Belgian Ambassador.
Alderman Frank Cant
was Mayor of Colchester
Colchester OYSTER FEAST PROGRAMME from October 20th 1921.
Card Programme with Toast List. The Mayor at the time was Arthur J Lucking.
Colchester OYSTER FEAST PROGRAMME from October 21st October 1924.
Card Programme with Toast List. The Mayor at the time was Catherine B Alderton.
The following pictures are of programme of the Colchester Oyster Feast of Thursday 20th October 1927. This was hosted by Councillor C C Smallwood, Mayor of Colchester. The programme was designed by W Gurney Benham. The toast list includes such personages as:
J L Garvin, Esq
Editor of the Observer
The Rt Hon Sir Austen Chamberlain, KG MP
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
The Rt Hon J Ramsay MacDonald, MP
R Seebohm Rowntree, Esq, MP
The Rt Hon J H Whitley, MP
Speaker of the House of Commons
Hillaire Belloc, Esq
Sir Thomas Horder, KCVO, MD, BSc
Miss S M Fry, JP, MA
Somerville College, Oxford
Frank Hodges, Esq, JP
Sir Evelyn Murray, KCB
Secretary, General Post Office
J W Bowen, Esq
Union of Post Office Workers
The Hon Sir Malcolm M Macnaghten, KBE, KC, MP
Recorder of Colchester
The Rt Hon Lord Olivier, PC, KCMG
The Rt Hon The Lord Provost of Glasgow
David Mason, Esq, OBE
when Alderman W. Gurney Benham was
Mayor of Colchester
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7th October 2005
revised 5th November 2008