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 Europe and sent to London 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 Packing Shed Marsh Island 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 acre Island from a Mr Barker for £215 at an auction held in the Hall Barn.
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.
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.
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 other special occasions.
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 Packing Marsh Island , 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.