Whitstable and the Oyster Festival

The town of Whitstable has been associated with oysters for hundreds of years, and its oyster festival is a festival in the full meaning of the word: both a celebration and a series of performances. Relying very much on custom and tradition, it has a spontaneity that is constantly evolving from year to year, yet still retaining its own individual character.

The roots of the festival go back much further than many would think: in Norman times, Whitstable was an established fishing port, and it was the custom then for fishers and dredgers to celebrate with an annual ceremony of thanksgiving. The exact form this ceremony would have originally taken is unknown, but it would have probably have centred around a formal blessing of the town, the sea, the fishing fleet, and indeed, the fishermen and dredgers themselves. These festivals would be declared a ‘Holy Day’ and after the formal church ceremony, the people of the town would spend the rest of the day partaking of feasts, games, contests and dancing; the Blessing of the Waters is still held as a part of the Landing of the Oysters event.

Being a practical, hard working people, the fishermen of Whitstable held their festival during the slack period: the close season for oysters. The feast day of St James of Compostella, who became the patron saint of oysters, falls conveniently on July 25, and this soon became the accepted date to hold the festival. Some of the games and contests associated with the festival involved various water sports and activities. By the end of the 18th century these were organised into a series of events which became known as the Whitstable Regatta, which is still continued in the town. Originally, the regatta consisted of yawl races, rowing races, swimming and walking the greasy pole. There was also the ‘millers and sweeps’, where the occupants of two small boats fought each other with soot and flour! The finale would consist of the blowing up of a ship, organised by the Whitstable Salvage Company.

Today’s oyster festival evolved with the revival of the local industry, which had been virtually wiped out in the 1920s by a combination of disease and overfishing, and is now an event to promote both the oyster industry and the town itself. Still traditionally starting in the weekend nearest to St James’ Day, the festival is now held over one weekend, with the opening parade on the Saturday. The parade, starting with the official Landing of the Catch, follows the progress of the oysters, in a horse-drawn dray, through the town, stopping to deliver the catch to various restaurants, cafes and public houses.


Around the mid-18th century, goods and passengers began to be transported by ship between London and Whitstable and a toll road was built to the cathedral city of Canterbury. These improvements in transport led to the town’s development as a seaside resort. The first advertisements for bathing machines at Whitstable appeared in 1768. In 1793 the rights to harvest the oyster beds were bought by the newly established Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers of Whitstable, the successor to the Whitstable Company of Dredgers.

Between roughly 1775 and 1875 the well smacks or early longliners out of Barking and other local fishing ports would collect lugworms and whelks from Whitstable’s bait-diggers and dredgers before beginning their tour for prime fish north to Iceland. Whelks suspended in net bags in the well could live for a while due to circulating fresh water.

Built in 1890, when dredging for oysters was an important industry, the Whitstable Oyster Yawl ‘The Favourite’ can still be seen today, as it rests on Island Wall and commemorates the oyster fishing and shipbuilding industries that once thrived.

Extract taken from WhatsOn Whitstable