Whitstable Oyster "Yawls" - Types and Stories

Yawl, Smack... or Cutter?

Oyster smacks and yawls have become synonymous with Whitstable and the basic silhouette of a 'typical' vessel has been used for many badges, adverts and glossy magazine articles associated with the town. In most cases, such silhouettes provide an outline that looks like this....

Silhouette of a classic Whitstable "oyster yawl/smack"

Fig 1: Silhouette of classic Whitstable "oyster yawl/smack"

The key elements that make up this 'classic' shape are the single mast (plus topsail), gaff rigged main sail (with the gaff spar and boom), the bowsprit, the 'straight stem' bow and the 'counter' stern. The labels are simplified descriptions! Some explanations (such as 'counter stern') can get very involved and, in any event, some definitions have been modified over the years.

There is also another problem. If you hunt around the scribblings of maritime authors, you tend to come up with all sorts of issues. For a start, unlike our silhouette, a 'yawl' is usually defined as a 'two-masted vessel'' - ie it had a second mast towards the stern (a mizzen mast). Although the term 'oyster smack' is more often than not associated with a 'single masted' vessel like our diagram, I have come across references to smacks that are 'two-masted'. To further complicate things, the popular shape in our diagram tends to fit quite comfortably into another description - ie that of the 'cutter'. Thus, you will often see the term 'cutter-rigged' to describe them.

Many Whitstable vessels adhered to that single masted 'cutter' appearance and gave rise to all those badges and adverts that loosely gained the popular title 'Whitstable yawl'.! However, some local boats did have that second (mizzen) mast and really did fit the technical definition of a yawl.

Within the various categories, there were also slight variations between boats and this gave them individuality and a character of their own. This further confused the technical descriptions!

As a landlubber, this all sounds most unsatisfactory.... but it gets easier when you realise that, in day to day conversation, local fishermen probably referred to the whole lot as 'the yawls'.... provided that they had sails and dredged oysters. Fishermen were practical people... and why not? At some stage, the 'I Spy Book of Boats' had to be returned to the library while a living was earned!

Sometimes creating confusion is a better way of representing reality than aiming for clarity. So, while I am at it, let me create yet more confusion. On occasions, some rather odd craft were used for oyster dredging and they didn't fit any of the romantic definitions above. We will come across these in a few moments.

Company Boats

John Harman recalls some of the company boats - owned by the two main oyster companies (Whitstable Oyster Company and the Seasalter & Ham Oyster Fishery)....

Quite a few of the 'company boats' were second hand. For the most part, they were the counter sterned cutters (like the Rose'n Ada mentioned below and the silhouette in the introductory paragraph above).

The Seasalter & Ham's boat Speedwell was bought from away and not built locally. However, she was a little different - having a 'clipper bow' (a graceful 'S' shape) and being two masted.

However, there were a number that were custom built. For example, the Seasalter & Ham commissioned two very fine boats. One was the Stormy Petrel, which today is privately owned and still sailing. Amongst other uses, she had been their 'watch boat' on the Pollard. The other boat was their flagship, the Seasalter - a large cutter rigged yawl that was much used to fetch young oysters from Essex and abroad.

Both these yawls were built by the Perkins . . . Richard, Charles and George. They were men of longstanding shipbuilding experience from their association with the Whitstable Shipping Company yards at the Lower Island. (Note: Charles and George Perkins were later part of the Anderson Rigden & Perkins yard on the Upper Island section of Island wall, close to the Vigilant Beach. Andersons were ship owners and had coal yards. They formed the new ARP Shipyard to service their vessels, after the closing of the yards at the Lower Island).

The Native (which my dad skippered at one time) may have been another custom built vessel - for the Whitstable Oyster Company.

Both oyster companies also had the odd 'bawley'. An example was the Apple Dumplin' which I discuss a little later.

John Harman

Boats of the Flatsmen

Although freelancers operating on the common ground of the Kentish Flats, flatsmen weren't left behind in terms of quality of vessel....

Flatsmen and other general fishermen had some very fine traditional boats. Some were built for them..... or for more 'well off' owners who had them managed and sailed on their behalf.

This was the case with the Favourite (mentioned in detail later in this article). She only came into the hands of the Whitstable Oyster Company later!

Some other fine craft were used for going further afield to Holland and France. They were also used for diversified work such as salvage by divers....or, dare I say, by smugglers!

John Harman

Rosa & Ada

The Rosa & Ada is one of the many local boats that fitted neatly into the classic silhouette in our introductory paragraphs. It should.... because our silhouette is based on it!

Fig 2: The "Rosa & Ada" in Scottish water in modern times

Fig 2: The "Rosa & Ada"  in modern times
Photo kindly supplied by owner Duncan Baillie © Duncan Baillie

The name has been the subject of a bit of discussion in the Simply Whitstable Visitors Book. As John Harman explained, it was pronounced by local fishermen as "Rose 'n Ada" which perhaps led many people to believe that it was called "Rose and Ada".

The oyster boatl "Rosa & Ada"

 Fig 3 (left): The "Rosa & Ada"

Now sailing in Scottish waters under the wonership of Duncan Baillie.

Photo kindly supplied by Duncan © Duncan Baillie

The vessel was registered in 1908 and, like so many other local yawls, it was built at Collars Yard on Island Wall. It's keel was cut from the same piec of timber as another famous and surviving Whitstable oyster vessel, Gamecock.

The Rosa and Ada is now sailed in Scottish waters by her owner Duncan Baillie and can be hired for diving, holidaying and even TV work. Duncan very kindly supplied the above photographs. For more information on the vessel visit Duncan's web site at ..... www.rosaandada.com .

The Favourite

The name of one oyster 'yawl' crops up time and again on Simply Whitstable. It is the Favourite - the last remaining yawl with a permanent home in Whitstable.

The Favourite in 2006 - occupying her permanent home between the houses of Island Wall

Fig 4: The Favourite in 2006 - occupying her permanent home between the houses of Island Wall and, fittingly, within a few yards oi the sea

It's sea going days are, of course, long gone and it is now a much loved museum piece located between two houses on Island Wall. Fittingly, its home is in the open air just a few yards from the sea. It is a monument not only to Whitstable's maritime heritage but also to the town's scurries in World War II... as John explains...

The oyster smack "Favourite" was left at her mooring at the start of the war but she was strafed by a German fighter plane one Sunday morning. That was when she was beached after sinking.

John Harman

The vessel never returned to the water but she did move or, at least relocate, a couple of times after spending some time on the shingle, ....

The picture below was taken in May 1970. It shows the Favorite in her original position, up against the house to the east. Fig 5: The Favourite pictured in 1970

That is where she was placed after the '53 flood but she was moved again a few yards to the west when the house had an addition put on!

You can see she was in fair condition then and still had her bowsprit in place. The people in that house used her as a form of beach hut and you will notice that they had opened up part of the deck and put a cabin top on.

John Harman

Of course, the opening up of the deck may have hastened some of the decay that the vessel suffered in later decades. By the year 2000, the Favourite was occupying that slightly more westerly location and looking rather less complete...

The Favourite pictured from Island Wall in the year 2000

Fig 6 (Right): The Favourite pictured in the year 2000 from the Island Wall roadway

The Favourite pictured from Whitstable sea wall in 2001

Fig 7 (Left): The Favourite pictured from Whitstable sea wall in 2001

This is where she remains to this day but, thanks to the hard work of the Favourite Trust, she has undergone significant restoration. The photos below show some of the work being undertaken on site by specialist boatbuilders, Butler Co. during 2005/2006.

The Favourite undergoing restoration in 2005/2006.

Fig 8:  The Favourite undergoing restoration in 2005/2006. The work was commissioned by the "Favourite Trust" and undetraken by Butler & Co

Another shot of the restoration of the Favouite in 2005/2006

Fig 9: Another shot of the restoration of the Favouite in 2005/2006

By coincidence, the restoration work was undertaken about the time that an 'artist' had claimed a Turner prize for dismantling a shed, sailing it down the Rhine, rebuilding it as a shed.... and calling it 'Shedboatshed'. On the basis that the Favourite had also served as a shed mid term, John had a suggestion to make....

Hi, Dave,

I have just heard on the news of the 2005 'Turner Prize' award, titled 'shedboatshed' (shed boat shed).
Now that the Favourite is under restoration, I think the trust may have missed a chance of funding.... by not calling the project . . . Boatshedboat.


For the full history of the Favourite and details of the Favourite Trust, I would strongly recommend that readers visit the following web site.... http://www.favourite.org.uk/

A Bawley... The Apple Dumplin'...

As mentioned earlier, not all so called 'yawls' fitted the glossy magazine image of Whitstable's oyster industry. Such was the case of one with an illustrious name. In keeping with its less than illustrious appearance, it was better known by another title......

In the days when there was a fishing fleet moored off Whitstable, the black working smacks were all referred to as "the yawls".... no matter what their rig or style.

The majority were 'cutter' rigged and had a wide overhanging counterstern. One exception was the Britannia......

Fig 10: Oystermen working the Britannia (aka Apple Dumplin') in the1920s

She was a 'bawley'. This meant that she was shorter and had a square transomed stern. Because she had been motorised, worked unrigged and had a dumpy appearance, she was known to all as the Apple Dumplin'.

The Apple Dumplin' was one of the Whitstable Oyster Company boats and was moored the closest to shore - just off the Horsebridge. She remained at her mooring all through the war, though she was not worked.

My dad (Tom Harman), who had worked on and off for the company over many years, worked on her during the late 20s. He can be seen in the centre of the picture. This was before my time. Although I do not know the names of the other crew members, I do know that, at that time, he worked with Arthur Foreman, Charlie Appleton, Ernie Everett and Mussel Rigden.

Incidentally, the scene captured in the photograph is a little unusual as there are six people on board.... whereas a normal crew would have been around four. Dad is holding something out for the camera. It looks quite large for an oyster but, in his other hand, he does have what appears to be a 'cultch knife' or 'cultick'. This was used to scrape clean an encrusted oyster. The picture was taken from low down, close to the water. So, it was probably taken from a tender.

Bawleys, for the most part, were the type of boat that came from the Medway and Gravesend and other creek areas. They were much involved with shrimp fishing.

John Harman 

I wonder what the Royal Family called their version of the Britannia?

Occasionally, oyster dredging on the Kentish Flats was carried out on a small scale by much smaller boats that were not originally designed for the purpose.

One unusual craft amongst the local oyster boats was that of John Harman's dad, Tom. As explained on our "Oystermen & Operations" page. Tom worked for the oyster company on company boats at times. However, on occasions, he also worked independently as a 'flatsman' using his own boat, the Welcome Messenger, and dovetailing oyster activities with other forms of fishing. The Welcome Messenger was an 'open' boat called a Sheringham Crabber and it required a bit of adaptation for oyster work.....

Dad acquired the Welcome Messenger in the early to mid '30s, This may have been when the oyster companies were having a slower time. He bought her for summer cockling but did fit her out for oyster dredging on the flats at other times. He had a long wooden beam that he installed across her '(athwartships)'. When working from this, he towed a dredge from each side. Inboard, he had removable side decks on to which he could empty the dredges.

John Harman
Sheringham Crabbers moorred at Whitstable harbour's "Dead Man's Corner" in the 1950s

Fig 11: Sheringham Crabbers moorred at Whitstable harbour's "Dead Man's Corner" in the 1950s and used for whelking These boats were similar in design to the "Welcome Mesenger"

Tom was one of the few locals (and possibly the only local) to use a Sheringham Crabber for oyster dredging. Most of these small boats were used for other types of shellfishing - particularly whelking. In the early days, they were beached close to the whelk and cockling stores to the east of the harbour at Long Beach.

In later years, when the harbour was occupied by fewer large vessels, they became a familiar sight at Dead Man's Corner (ie the angle between the East and South Quays).

By contrast, most of the larger oyster smack owners operated from stores west of the harbour - along Sea Wall and Island Wall.

We do not have a photo of the Welcome Messenger but we can show similar craft at Dead Man's Corner in the 1960s.... thanks to this photo (see right) kindly sent to Simply Whitstable by Tony Stroud.

As a landlubber, I can best describe the boats as.... pointed at both ends!

If you would like to delve deeper into the world of Sheringham Crabbers, Cockling and Whelking, you may like to take a look at some other articles.... "The Sheringham Crabber" by John Harman,  "Sheringham and the Johnson Family" by Ian Johnson and "Cockling" by John Harman.

The Sidney Brown

From time to time, oyster boats met with tragedy. John recalls the loss of the Whitstable Oyster Company vessel, the Sidney Brown - a two masted ketch with a clipper bow just like the Speedwell but possibly a little larger....

I remember her demise. It was in the mid '40s whilst my brother Ray was still working at the ARP yard. The Sidney Brown had been brought in shore and was moored "on the hard" close to Reeves Beach. She was to have work done on her and a new main mast installed.

Whilst there, a NE gale came in and she took a terrible pounding and did not fully float. Her deck was awash. That night, at low water, the yard sent men to her (Ray included) with caulking equipment to do what they could to save her.

Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do. Ray said "I could put my arm right through her garbourds" (the lower planks next to the keel). On the subsequent tides, she broke up.

John Harman

As maritime industries declined in Whitstable, vessels lost in such tragedies were not replaced


Fortunately, not all vessels were lost after ending their working life on the oyster beds. Some were spotted by interested parties and saved... and that brings us to the remarkable story of the Emeline.

Built in 1904 at Collar's yard in Whitstable, the vessel fell into disrepair and desperately needed someone to spot her, recognise her significance and publicise her plight. However, there was a problem of geography.....she was lying on the Iberian peninsular! Then things happened... when Ray & Olive Harman (John Harman's brother and sister-in-law) and Lennie and Jessie Cole (formerly proprietors of Leonards toy shop in Whitstable High Street) booked a holiday in Malaga back in 1992! Ser our page on the Emeline for the full story of what happened next - that's our final section of our Oyster Dredging feature and a heartwarming way to sign off.

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