Sweet Oyster of Essex

The Bivalve in Poesie

Soon I will do a post on aspects of Flower & Sons Brewery of Stratford on Avon not previously addressed in beer studies, to my knowledge.

For now though, let’s turn to a different comestible – fish, shelled type especially. And to Sweetings in London.

If any London restaurant is both venerable and venerated, that is one, and among the briny clan, probably the most revered. We made our pilgrimage in the 1980s and it was even better than my high anticipations.

I think I had plaice, which is one of the good deals in London, or was. A compact history of Sweetings is sketched in its website.

Here, I want to cast back to 1854 when the founder was still growing the business that carries his name still in 2022. And I will do it by a found poem, taking inspiration from beer writers Boak & Bailey.

They delve occasionally in the genre, as you see here for writings they found in Twitter.

My source is an advertisement placed by John Sweeting in the Morning Advertiser on January 10, 1854 (via British Newspaper Archive). I repeat it verbatim, except (I hope) in bardic form.


NATIVE OYSTERS – are the best in the World-

Six years old – four hours from the beds,

To be had only of JOHN SWEETING,

Fish, Oyster, and Ice-Merchant,

159, Cheapside. –

Barrels, 6s., 8s. 6d.,

And 10s. 6d.

Very superior Oyster-rooms;

Steed’s Ale and

Reid’s Stout.

Sweeting’s is still going strong in London. What of “Burnham oysters”? Not so much. Essex was one of the highly productive oyster fisheries of the 19th century, in common with Suffolk’s and other coastal areas of the South.

By 2012 it declined so much that commercial exploitation was stopped in the river estuaries as the BBC reported that year. (Sweeting in 1854 probably got his oysters from the Crouch River).

Since 2012 steps have been taken to restore that fishery, including for future commercial exploitation, which you may read of in the website of the Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative.

The image below, at Flickr from British Library, shows oyster fishing in the 19th century.



A number of restaurants in Burnham-on-Crouch still feature “oyster” in the name. History is long in the making, and long in its expiry, too.

Oysters sold in town, that is, likely come from elsewhere, by my surveys. The oyster in Britain does survive though, in Colchester, for one place, which is 35 miles north of Burnham, still in Essex.

Colchester is inland but long associated with the fishery on the coast a few miles distant. The Colchester Oyster Fishery website explains well the oyster breeding today.

I visited Colchester once, on the look-out for oysters, but didn’t find any on that occasion. After reaching the coast a few miles east we saw a string of multi-coloured holiday cabins. The vista furnished a visual feast, due compensation for the edible one denied us.

I did get the Colchesters, finally though. Had to settle for a plate in a swank bar in Belgravia, around the corner from the Star Tavern. Oh well.*

Note re image: Source of image shown is linked in post. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to lawful owner. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*And Sweeting’s sells Colchester area oysters today, called Mersea on the current menu. These as we understand can be either Pacific variety or native Colchester.



2 thoughts on “Sweet Oyster of Essex”

  1. Hi Gary—For some fantastic oysters (and perhaps only grudgingly “British”), hie thee to Scotland, specifically the great whisky island of Islay, where the oysters from Loch Gruinart are absolutely stunning. I enjoyed them on a night at the Bowmore Inn—where they were impeccably shucked, offering a generous puddle of liquor in each shell—and went back the next night for more. Cheers—Jay E., New Riff


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