SALT, SMUG­GLERS AND SEABED DIS­COV­ER­IES

Landscape (UK) - - In the Home -

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.

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