Monday, 9 March 2015


Still-Life with Oysters (detail)
Alexander Adriaenssen
Pursuing a loose end from our 2014 walk at Whippingham, Isle of Wight - see On the Medina - I've occasionally wondered about the origin of the local "Folly" names: Folly Lane, the Folly Works, and the Folly Inn. There are no obvious follies in the vicinity, unless you count the weird Whippingham Church. A bit of research finds the answer, with a lot of digression involving oysters.

An aerial photograph of Newport and Cowes, Isle of Wight, Juy 2007
by smb1001 - Wikimedia Commons - colour-corrected image
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
The name goes way back, and the Folly was of enduring popularity in the 19th century for the "oyster banquets" mentioned in the 1861 Black's Guide (ref). The location has a long-standing reputation for oyster cultivation, and many 1800s guides repeat the factoid that the placename Austerbourne, the historical name for Osborne - as in Osborne House - derives from "Oysterbourne" (though it could equally mean East Bourne). True etymology or not, the oysters provide a lead to the explanation: that the "Folly" was the inn premises itself.
On the ſame ſide (the E.) about half a mile diſtance, lies the Folly; humourouſly ſo called, as being the ſcene of high entertainment amongſt the bons vivans of an earlier age. It was then a barge of conſiderable ſize, floating on the ſide of the river; but of late years, has been hauld up on the ſhore, and built on; the fore caſtle turned into a neat little parlour, the ſtern ſheets ſerving the purpoſes of a kitchen, cellar, and other requiſite offices.

Here the Oystericus of Newport river reſides as a publican, and at the ſeaſon lines the ſhore with the produce of Cancalle, a bay abounding with oyſters, near St. Maloes, and drags them when fattened for the iſland ſupply,

It is to be wiſhed that the accommodations were larger, as the ſituation is ſo delightful for amuſement and proſpect. The windows to the N. command a fine view of the harbour and road of Cowes. The ſouthern ſtretch from the heights of Staplas to Appledurcombe, Gatcombe, and Chale,

"O'er rich incloſures, and luxuriant fields." [a quote from Thomas Tickell - RG]
- Sketches of Description: taken on a sailing from Newport, in the Isle of Wight, to Lymington; with a return by Southampton to Cowes, etc (J Albin, 1792, Google Books 66NYAAAAcAAJ).
An obituary in the Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian finds some interesting back-story that clears up the origin of the name "Folly":
Died on Saturday night last, at his house, the Folly, near Cowes, aged 74 years, Captain Thomas Burnett. The deceased (who is well known in every part of the Island) had been to Newport during the day and made several purchases, and transacted other business, which detained him in town rather late in the evening, when he left Newport Quay in his boat, and safely arrived at the Folly, apparently in very good health. Soon after, however, he felt ill, and a person was despatched to Dr. Bloxam immediately, but before he could arrive, the Captain was a corpse. The old gentleman was noted for his industry, and has amassed an immense fortune from various sources, but principally from his oyster-beds in the Medina, which he held by lease under the Corporation, and which is now nearly expired. He had seven vessels in the oyster fishery and his beds are supposed to be of great value. He was also part owner of many trading vessels. A short time before the failure of Kirkpatrick’s bank, he drew 3500l. from money which he had there, for the purpose of ratifying a bond for a farm of which he had the mortgage. He died intestate, and not keeping any account bookbeing unable to read or writehis affairs are very confused. He was twice married at Whippingham Church, and both his wives lie in that churchyard. He had five daughters by his first wife, four of whom are now living; but his last wife has no family. The Folly is a public house, and much resorted to during the summer by pleasure parties both from Cowes and Newport. It has been in the Burnett family for two centuries, and is simply formed of the hull of a large vessel with her stern sunk into the ground. The name of the ship was the “Folly”hence the name of the public-house.
- NEWPORT, APRIL 2, Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian (Southampton, England), Saturday, April 02, 1842, 19th Century British Library Newspapers.
According to Gleanings in graveyards : a collection of curious epitaphs (1861, Internet Archive gleaningsingrave00innorf), the epitaph  on Burnett's grave at Whippingham is:
Thomas Burnett.
At midnight he was called away
From his employment on the sea, —
Altho' his warning was but short,
We hope he's reached the heavenly port.

I was interested in the unusual term "Oystericus" in the Albin book. It's not in the OED, nor is it classical, and a quick search traces it to the trading name of an 18th century oyster merchant, James Peto of Sherborne Lane, London. If we're to believe William Wadd, he pioneered the transportation of oysters ...
Apicius, in Trajan's time, knew how to preserve oysters; but Peto, of Sherborne-lane, was the first to discover the possibility of their transportation in barrels; in which, under the name of "Oystericus," he conveyed the "Natives" to all parts of the kingdom.
- p.147, Comments on corpulency, Lineaments of leanness, Mems on diet and dietetics, William Wadd, 1829
... but he seems chiefly known to history via a dispute where a rival hijacked his trading name, as All the Year Round described over a century after:
Concerning fish, we find that a fishmonger, who chose to give himself the cognomen of Oystericus, sold oysters in Sherborne-lane, City; he moved to another house in the same street; and another person assumed the name of Oystericus at the old shop. The original dealer, annoyed at this, advertised that he would henceforth assume his real name, James Peto, and stamp that name on every barrel, and that “any oysters sent from my late warehouse will not come from me.” His price for “Colchester natives" was three-and-sixpence per barrel, and for “ exceeding fine Pyfleet” four-and-sixpence —prices which we now can only envy.
- p.564, All the Year Round, Volume 12; Volume 32, 1874
The primary source for this is the series of ads Peto placed in London newspapers including the London Chronicle and General Evening Post in 1759-61 explaining the name change. For instance:
p.427, The London Chronicle, Oct 21-Nov 2, 1761, via Hathi Trust
Whether through this dispute or general reputation, presumably "Oystericus" became a short-lived generic for an oyster supplier. For instance, John Timbs’ 1866 English Eccentrics and Eccentricities describes how the Preston-based dining guild of the late 1700s, the “Oyster and Parched-Pea Club” called its designated officer in charge of oysters “Oystericus” (see page 268). This generic use probably explains the allusion to an "Oystericus of Newport river" in Albin's description of the Folly.

Newport, c.1910
Medina oysters were all the rage during much of the 19th century (see, for instance, this advertisement) but the oyster industry generally declined as they fell out of favour as a cheap working-class food. Furthermore, the whole operation in the vicinity of the Folly came under increasing medical scrutiny.

I can't imagine why anyone eats seafood out of a British estuary even now, but in the 1890s Newport was a working port town that discharged its sewage straight into the river, some two and a half miles upstream of the oyster beds. This was highlighted in a British Medical Journal series, A Report on the possible conveyance of certain waterborne diseases, especially typhoid fever, by oysters and other molluscs, of which part V (March 30, 1895, p711) focused on the Medina oyster fisheries, commenting that "The sewerage of the towns, some of them growing rapidly, is in a very unsatisfactory state". The 1896 public health report On Oyster Culture in Relation to Disease had this further to say about the Medina Oyster Fishery:
Another series of layings, some of them are used as fattening beds, which must be regularly washed with water abounding in sewage refuse, are situated in the Medina, in the Isle of Wight. It seems almost beyond comprehension how anyone could venture to “fatten” oysters for human consumption in a river estuary such as this, which is fouled above the layings by the crude sewage of Newport, with its 10,000 inhabitants, by the effluent from the neighbouring prison and barracks, and by the overflow from the workhouse cesspool; and which receives into it immediately below the layings the content of eight other sewer and drain outfalls from East Cowes and West Cowes.
- On Oyster Culture in Relation to Disease, Local Government Board, 1896
But the Medina is a vastly cleaner river estuary nowadays, and over recent years there have been sporadic attempts to revive oyster farming. The idea may take off eventually.

- Ray

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