A dominant feature of Mersea Island’s shoreline, the
Packing Shed is one of its best known landmarks. At
the end of the 19th century the oyster industry in Mersea was a
flourishing business. Mersea Natives were being exported to
and sent to
by the barrel. As a result, cleaning and sorting them by size became
an important part of the preparation process for export and sale. The
Packing Shed was built around 1890 on the island which became to be called
Packing Shed Marsh Island, by the Tollesbury &
Mersea Native Oyster Fishing Company Limited – or “The Company” as
it has now become known.
Capital was raised by three thousand £5 ‘A’ shares, fully
paid up, and three thousand £5 ‘B’ shares reserved for local dredgermen.
Profits from the Company were paid firstly to a fund for the widows and
orphans of members, and secondly as dividends. In the early years,
turnover was usually between £2000 - £10,000 and overall the Company made losses totalling £10,000 by the end of WW1. Consequently, the
share dividend was not paid very often. However, today the Fishery Company
still remains a thriving local industry, of which Mersea is rightly proud.
Dr Hugh Green of Strood Villa was the Company’s
first chairman in 1878. He was active in buying brood stock, and sometimes
lending his own money, as the paid-up capital was insufficient. It appears
he did not get on too well with one of his fellow directors, a Dr Salter,
and so when they met one day on the Peldon Road
their differences were
resolved in a fist fight!
From about 1887, the
was owned by Willoughby John Bean, who, at that time, owned most of
West Mersea. He sold it to Albert Barker in 1891 and in August 1914 the
Tollesbury and Oyster Company bought the freehold of the four and a half
from a Mr Barker for £215 at an auction held in the Hall Barn.
View c 1910
At that time over 60
fishermen worked on Packing
Marsh Island and old men and young boys would sit and grade
and clean then pack the oysters that the oystermen brought to them once
they had dredged them up from the oyster beds, ready for dispatch to London. The oysters were then shipped by Thames Barge to Billingsgate Fish Market
in London, while some went further afield to the Continent.
The Packing Shed - showing Oyster
In March 1894, Mersea
men were infuriated to see Burnham boats dredging off Mersea. A small armada
set forth with large shovels and sent the invaders packing. As a result, six
local men were charged at
Chelmsford Court with piracy on the high seas. Some 300 men from Mersea and Tollesbury
marched to the courtroom and two MP’s and various local landowners spoke
in their defence. As a result, the men won their case and an Act of
Parliament subsequently redefined the law.
|In the 1890’s there was a great storm that
blew the first Packing Shed away. So a replacement was built in 1897
and that Shed was used, apart from the second world war years,
continuously until the late 1950’s, when the industry collapsed as a
result of the first post war oyster disease. A second smaller Shed
was built in 1920 to the north of the Shed that remains today. This
was destroyed in the gales and floods that occurred in March 1949.
It was built on piles and in the very high tides caused by that year's
storm it just floated off its piles and crashed down onto the mud. Since
the 1950’s, the original Shed had been used occasionally, by the
Company, for storing fishing gear, but gradually that use declined and it
was eventually left to rot.|
This remaining Shed survived the great storm in
1987, but by the end of the decade it was largely a skeleton with only a
bit of roof and some wooden wall cladding left on it. It had got to
the stage when a really big storm would have seen it collapse and it would
have been lost forever. By then it had become an important feature
of the waterfront, much loved by generations of artists who came to draw
or paint pictures of it.
In 1990 it was in a dangerous state and two very severe storms in
September caused the old building to lean precariously. However, the
original Packing Shed has always been restored and a group of local
volunteers teamed up, led by Doug Powell and decided that
the building must be restored for posterity.
Click here for details of the Restoration.
The Packing Shed c1988
After much effort and hard work the Packing Shed
was opened in 1992 for the benefit of the local community. Today, it
remains the property of the Tollesbury & Mersea Native Oyster Fishery
Company but is now leased to the Packing Shed Trust at a peppercorn
rent. The history of the Packing Shed is explained by various
original oyster-fishing artifacts, together with old photographs and
documents on display, which can be inspected on Open Days - held during
the summer months.
Today, the Shed is used
by various organisations, including other local charities as well as
individuals, for a variety of outdoor activities including overnight
camping, bird watching, art classes, birthday parties, wedding receptions and
But what of the future? There is no reason
why the Shed cannot go on being used as it is now, if the island it is
situated on continues to exist. During the years between the two
world wars the oysters in the Blackwater competed for food with the
American Slipper Limpet. In an effort to clean the river tons of
Limpets were dredged from the oyster beds and dumped on
, where they provided a good base and helped to stabilise the island.
However the storm in 1987, and then later the one in 1997, has caused the
covering of limpet shells to move and as a result the island is being
washed away. The Trust has applied to English Nature and the
Environmental Agency to get some of the mud and rock dredged up from the
Felixstowe and Harwich Harbours put on the island to build it up, but so
far without success. The worry is that the continual erosion, and
another storm like those in 1949, 1987 and 1997, will remove the mud and
shell base that the Shed stands on and, if this happens, it could lead to
the island being washed away and the collapse of the Shed.
Good news! Mersea Harbour Protection Trust have taken on the task of dealing with the erosion. Watch this space for further information.