SALT, SMUGGLERS AND SEABED DISCOVERIES
Whitstable had other industries as well as oysters and copperas. Salt extraction was practised along the coast at Seasalter, as its name suggests, as far back as the iron age. In 1086, the extraction industry was so sizeable that the Domesday Book said the village ‘properly belongs to the kitchen of the Archbishop of Canterbury’. Smuggling, also, was rife. “In the 16th and 17th centuries, most people were so poor they couldn’t afford not to be involved in smuggling,” says Peter Banbury, from the town’s museum. “Even the local vicar would get involved. It was fairly blatant: there are tales of 150 smugglers coming ashore with cargo in broad daylight. The cargo could be anything: lace, spirits, tobacco; even people. If there was a French prisoner of war from a wealthy family in a prison hulk on the River Medway, they would pay English fishermen to sail up the Thames, bribe the guard, and sail him back to France.” To police the situation, four coastguard stations were established along the Whitstable coastline, each staffed by 20 officers. Another remarkable industry was metal salvage. Over the centuries, thousands of anchors have been lost in the sea off Whitstable. As a result, salvaging proved profitable. “Originally, it was done from a fishing boat trailing a grapnel, or grappling hook, taking pot luck over the sandbanks,” explains Peter. “In the 19th century, the science of ‘hard hat’ diving was developed, and much of that happened here.” Equipped in primitive diving gear, local men would plunge to the seabed and locate lost anchors to be pulled up. Air was pumped down to them through a pipe by two shipmates on the boat above. “Early diving suits were made of two sheets of canvas with a layer of rubber in between,” he says. “Even the air pipes were made of sewn canvas, so they weren’t very robust. But these local divers really did pioneer the science of diving for the rest of the world.”
An illustration showing divers in rudimentary suits salvaging guns from the seabed, circa 1855.