Making and using a Whitstable oyster "drudge" (dredge)

First... Some Terminology

Local fishermen did not call a 'dredge' a 'dredge'..... but called it a 'drudge'.... and everything pertaining to it was so called. Also they did not go 'dredging'. They went 'drudging'. This will have some bearing on the terminology that I will use. I have heard say that, in Faversham where the fishermen moored their boats towards the mouth of the creek, there are paths known as 'Drudgermen's Walks' that they used to get to their boats.

Oyster Dredges & Dredging

Oyster dredging was very hard work, particularly in the days of sail when dredges were hand hauled.

A dredge was an iron frame in the shape of an A, measuring about 4ft high and about 2ft 6in wide at the bottom, though they did vary in size and weight. A rigged dredge, (ie with it's trailing catch bag), would weigh upwards of 30 lbs. Add to this its catch, which on the Kentish Flats could contain rocks, the weight could be 50 lbs or more!

Fig 1: Drawing of Rigged Whitstable Oyster Dredge by John Harman

Fig 1: A rigged drudge (dredge) - Drawing by John Harman

Across the bottom of the frame is a flat hoeing bar called the 'bit'. To the trailing edge of this and a bar above it, is laced a bag ('the rigging'). When dragged across the sea bed, the dredge scoops the oyster catch (and other material!) over the 'bit' and into the rigging.

The rigging is made up of two parts - an upper part which was made of twine netting and a lower part called 'the ground'. As the 'ground' was the part that was dragged along the sea bed, it took a lot of wear. For this reason, it was made up of linked wire rings.

The upper netting and the 'ground' are joined along the back by being laced to the 'catch stick' - a round piece of wood that is the width of the dredge. There are also short pieces of wood each side (ie 'side sticks').

The top of the A frame is called 'the heel'. This is a heavy metal part through which the 'towing ring' is attached. On the under side, below the ring, is a downward facing step called the 'rest'. The 'rest' is used when hauling the dredge out of the water. It can be hooked on to the rail of the boat, enabling the dredger to reposition his hands and take hold of the 'towing ring'.

By pulling up on the ring, he can now lever the dredge up over the side where it now lies face down on the deck. Now, by lifting up on the 'catch stick', the contents of the bag are emptied onto the deck. The dredge is then cast back into the water to continue working whilst the previous contents are being culled of oysters. The remaining culch and rubble, is then pushed overboard through the open ports in the bulwark of the yawl.

Because of the possibility of a dredge becoming snagged on the bottom ('coming fast'), the tow line ('warp') had a buoy attached to its 'other' end. When dredging, the warp itself was not belayed to the boat but was attached by means of a rope of lesser strength. This was called a 'stop rope' or 'stopper'. From the boat, it was attached part way down the dredge warp using a 'rolling hitch'.

Using this 'stopper' served two purposes. Should the dredge become snagged ('come fast'), the stopper would part and the impact on the boat would be less and not send everyone off balance. Secondly, by leaving the dredge behind, having pulled its towline ('warp') and marker buoy overboard, work could continue and the recovery made later if possible!

Fig 2: Drawing of an oyster dredge 'Drudge Knot' aka "Fisherman's Bend"

Fig 2: A "Drudge Knot" - aka a "Fisherman's Bend"

Tying the 'Drudge Knot'

It was my Uncle Jack that first showed me how to do a 'drudge knot'. I was in my early teens then. I was putting the anchor in the new rowing boat that I had built (the Marcelle). He showed me how to tie it in such a way that would also leave about a ten foot length on the tail end to serve as a painter - a handy length of rope for holding onto. (Note: For the full story of Building the Marcelle, click here).

Today, I know that what he called a drudge knot, is known by others as a 'fisherman's bend'.

As with all knots, bends and hitches, there can be variations! When he bent (ie tied) it on the ring in the boat, he did 3 turns whereas 2 is customary and he did not finish it off with a 'half hitch' (another option).

Fig 3: Photo of oystermen incuding Jack Harman

Fig 3: Local oystermen with "Uncle Jack" Harman in the centre

My Uncle Jack was one of my Dad's elder brothers who lived close to us on Island Wall. He is pictured in the centre of the photo.

He was already retired by the time I knew him and he spent most of his days on the Vigilant Beach with his dog.

He too had had a hard life, working on the yawls, being skipper of the Clyde and then the St Agnes. Both these yawls belonged to John Warner (or 'Lou' as Dad called him)!

Making and Rigging the Equipment

Oyster dredgers did not only work on the job, "They had home-work".Oyster dredgers did not only work on the job, "They had home-work".

Dredgermen rigged their own dredges, making the equipment themselves at home! The iron drudge frames were made locally at one of the many forges. All the large shipyards had their own forge and there were those that catered for the marine and fishing industry. However, the bag had to be made by the dredger.

As mentioned, the upper part was of twine netting and the lower part, 'the ground', was of linked wire rings called 'ground rings'. The procedure for making a net can readily be found in books but that is not so with a wire ground! As a six year old I saw this being done by my dad and it was accepted as an everyday thing. Though that was 70 years ago now, the picture has stayed in my mind. To share this, I have attempted to recreate (below) what I saw. (Should you decide to do it yourself, you might want to add 'Band-Aids' to the list of requirements!). I must admit to cheating a bit. I put the form in a vice and controlled the wire with both hands. Maybe that was not cheating after all. Dad's hands were like a vice, and just as hard!

What is required:

A coil of 'galvanized wire', 12 or 14 gauge (14 is lighter and easier to work with).


Needle-nose pliers, side cutters and a short piece of round wooden rod (about 8" long by 1½" diameter). At the end of the rod is a nail that has had its head cut off. This piece of wood is the 'form' or 'mandrel' that the rings will be formed around.

Photo of tools and materials needed to make the ground of an oyster dredge

Right: Materials and tools for making the "ground" of an oyster dredge

Forming a Ring

Step 1:

With the tip of the needle-nose pliers take hold of the end of the wire and do a 1/2 turn, this will form a hook. Holding the wooden form in one hand place the wire hook over the nail.

Photo: First step in making the ground of an oyster dredge

Left: The hands of John Harman. Photos by Anne Harman

Step 2:

Pulling firmly, wind the wire around the form and under the hook and around the nail. This will have formed a ring, now remove it off the end of the form. (push it off opposite the nail, then lift up off the nail).

Photo: Forming a wire ring for the ground of an oyster dredge

Right: Forming the ring and around the wooden "form".

Step 3: 

Finish the ring by snipping it off the length of wire and closing the hooks with the tips of the pliers.

Photo: Completing a wire ring for the ground of an oyster dredge

Left: Completing the ring

Linking the Rings Together

Step 4:

With the pliers at the end of the wire, make a small loop but just leave enough of an opening in which to put a pair of rings.

Photo: Linking  the rings the ground of an oyster dredge

Right: Linking the rings

Now with the tips of the pliers in the small loop, keep turning so that the wire has 3 turns, then snip it off. The rings are linked together this way to make rows that are a little less than the width of the drudge. The next step would be to link the rows together side by side.

The final picture shows the linked rings. The illustration contains just a sample area and not that of a complete drudge ground.

Photo: A completed section of an oyster dredge ground

Right: A completed section of an oyster dredge "ground"

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