The history of the Oyster Feast

by historian Andrew Phillips

Of the two surviving oyster events in Colchester’s civic calendar the best known is the Oyster Feast. In its heyday between 1885 and 1939 this attracted royalty (including the future Edward VIII and George VI), cabinet minsters (including six former prime ministers), ambassadors, heads of the armed forces, and stars of learning and letters: Lord Kelvin, Hilaire Belloc, John Buchan, etc.

The first Oyster Feast

Despite regular reference to ‘time immemorial’, the ‘ancient’ nature of the Oyster Feast has now been carefully re-assessed. It was first held on 20th October 1845. Its inventor was the mayor for that year, Henry Wolton, a successful High Street grocer, and the event followed the opening of a new town hall, the predecessor of the present town hall. What has not been examined is why it was Henry Wolton who in 1845 chose to feast 200 fellow citizens at his own expense, an act of generosity for which he was, eventually, re-elected mayor five times. ‘This’, Sir Edward Heath observed at a more recent Oyster Feast, ‘sounds like a good investment’.

A ban of public feasting

Public feasting (and drinking) has a long history, yet, on the threshold of the Victorian Age, municipal feasting at public expense had become such a perceived abuse that the landmark Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, a cornerstone of modern local government, and a major Liberal Party reform, specifically banned it. Overnight, a practice as ancient as local government stopped. Colchester’s male elite, however, were fortunate: one feast did survive, albeit behind somewhat closed doors.

Associations for the Prosecution of Felons, Horse Stealers and Thieves

During the late 18th century in the absence of an effective functioning police force, there had sprung up throughout Britain a rash of provincial Associations for the Prosecution of Felons, Horse Stealers and Thieves. In Essex alone over 100 such organisations were formed. Most died out in the mid-19th century with the advent of formal policing and, with it, police prosecutions. However, in Colchester the ‘Thieves’, as they came to be called, not only continued a trickle of prosecutions but at an early date established a popular annual dinner which the business community attended in some numbers and which soon developed its own traditions, which increasingly bore only a nodding resemblance to their original purpose.

Treasurer of the Thieves

From an early date this hinged on a line of long-serving officers who, being strong personalities, made the ‘Thieves’ a ‘must join’ organisation, one for which you had to be personally elected. While the post of Chair became a one-year appointment, the key post was that of the Treasurer, a post that became earmarked for the town’s best ‘chap’, the leading personalities of the Colchester shopocracy, who held office for life until he chose to retire. And in 1845, the very year he also became mayor, Henry Wolton began a 24-year reign as Treasurer of the Thieves.

Colchester's only surviving feast

As the new promoter of Colchester only surviving ‘feast’, Wolton could also reflect on the comparable hospitality traditionally expected of a mayor. He would remember the now banned Mayor’s Dinner, which, less than ten years before, had been held every Michaelmas (September 29th) by the incoming mayor, feasting up to 200 at a cost to the borough of £80, (say £60,000 in today’s earnings). Pondering how this practice might be revived, Wolton, a leading Tory, fixed upon an existing event, the annual Corporation Lunch, an event with its own rationale, and also traditions.

The oystermen

For the previous 30 or so years the Colne Fishery Company, the canny oystermen from Mersea, Brightlingsea and Wivenhoe, making a fortune from Colchester’s oyster fishery, had presented their landlords, Colchester Borough Council, with some oysters, in thanks for renewing their licences, (and those of their many relatives) at a little lunch held every October in the town hall. This was done before the robed mayor, aldermen and councillors undertook the onerous task of marching fully robed down High Street to proclaim the ancient St Dennis Fair. This, Colchester’s own Oktoberfest, had been held since at least 1318, when, their pockets full of harvest money, people from a considerable surrounding area had descended on Colchester High Street, crammed for days with stalls selling goods, to indulge in some traditional feasting and drinking of their own.

Re-branding the St Dennis Fair

In taking over an existing event, Wolton now sought to recreate the banned Mayor’s Dinner or Feast. To stress the direction he was taking he gave the new event an original name, the ‘Colchester Oyster Feast’. By Wolton’s day railways and modern marketing were killing the St Dennis Fair’s, yet the same agencies would eventually promote and transform his Oyster Feast. Eventually, but not immediately. Many of Wolton’s successors as mayor had neither his deep pockets nor his public spiritedness; for Wolton had avoided the sanctions of the Municipal Corporation Act against public feasting by paying for the entire Oyster Feast himself, indeed paying for five Oyster Feasts.

Celebration of civic pride

Only from the mid-1880s did a string of wealthy mayors, most of whom helped build Colchester’s present flamboyant town hall, transform the Oyster Feast into what Wolton had conceived, a public celebration not of party political triumph, but consensual civic pride. Now a host of London V.I P.’s, including the Lord Mayor, travelled by a special train, pulling into North Station at 12.55 precisely. No thoughtless leaves clogged the line; no public discord marred the event. Colchester stopped for the day as troops lined the route, traffic was stopped, and crowds watched in awe as a procession of carriages made their way to the Town Hall. Here the male elite of the district, 4-500 strong, ate 12,000 oysters and sat and listened to three hours of speeches without the aid of a modern public address system.

So, a lunch called a feast on a date of a fair which no longer exists is now not an event of national note. But it is still there: valued by Colchester people who pay to attend it, a thank you to the mayor for their public service, and a recognition of Colchester’s long heritage. In the 35 years I have written about it, the Oyster Feast has been all that.


Page last reviewed: 26 October 2020