About William Sanford b. 1749 -1830

Article written by John Leather - From the Essex County Standard. 28 April 1961

Posted by Frances Belsham

The Repulse, a cutter built for the Revenue Service, was stationed at Wivenhoe.
Congregational Chapel Commemoration Stone
Photo by Frances Belsham
The Pearl
Nottage Archive


A century and a half ago William Sanford, oyster merchant, quietly penned his accounts and observations by Wivenhoe’s waterside. The bowed windows of Trinity House, his quayside home, overlooked oyster pits and the berths where his smacks and skiffs stirred gently each high water.

Recently, by courtesy of Mr Bartlett its present owner, I was privileged to read the long thick ledger whose entries, written in a flowing hand, capture the unsophisticated spirit of early nineteenth century Colneside; a quiet world of fishermen, traders and wooden shipbuilders.

Smacks and brigs worked to its quays and the hillsides were unscarred by sand workings. Steamships were unknown, but the riverside communities stood on the threshold of yachting’s grand era which was to bring fame, comparative prosperity and relief from often widespread poverty.

The records of oysters bought and sold, of cargos landed, of repairs to smacks, spars and sails, all incidental to oyster cultivation that most beautiful of seafaring occupations, make it seem incredible that when he wrote the whole of Europe was locked in war and Trafalgar and Waterloo were yet to be fought.


Sanford owned jointly with his nephew Thomas, a smack, a skiff, a packing house, oyster pits and all the gear for working and retailing oysters, which they cultivated largely on three layings at Tollesbury.

William Sanford also owned Horned Heath Farm at Fingringhoe, which was let to Daniel Smith and another in the same parish hired by John Pertwee. In Wivenhoe he owned, besides his house, granaries, a coal yard, a wharf and three warehouses, which were probably smacks stores.

If these interests were not enough he dabbled in stocks, through the Colchester bankers and also occasionally carried out valuations of boats and maritime equipment.

But Sanford’s heart was in the oyster trade, which in those times, with oysters a food of the working man, occupied an important place in national economy.

Between the years 1810 and 1828, they  ‘haled,’ to use his expression, 9022 wash of remarkable oysters from the layings, the price varying from 1s 2d to 1s 9d a wash. This total was approximately twice the quantity of brood oysters laid.

For restocking the layings, Sanford bought oysters from the Colne company, Burnham, Orford, Seesalter, Paglesham and Chatham, and the smack owners and dredgermen  employed by him at various times included Robert Harvey, Robert Blyth, Thomas Taylor, James Heath, William Heath, Robert Munson, William Kepple and Jacob Turner, all names of old Wivenhoe families. He also often received stock dredged from other parts of the coast.


In 1821 Colne smacks had a summer season dredging off North Norfolk and Sanford records buying brood from Samuel Wade of the smack Mary and from Thomas Harlow at 1s per wash. At this time Harlow was also supplying North Country brood for relaying at Tollesbury where the stock seems to have been maintained at a value of around £400.

Oyster merchants were men of substance and during the years 1816 to 1827 the Sanford’s cleared £1450 from the trade, the average yearly profit being £130. In 1802 a bushel of marketable oysters sold at six shillings and the price had risen to eight shillings by 1817. Their quality was variously described as White, Small Green and Best Green.

An entry for 1822 has a surprisingly modern touch. Sanford complains of ‘the price of oysters and oyster barrels which must appear very strange for barrels to be more than the oysters that are put into them.’ Oysters to fill a barrel cost 7 1/2d and an empty barrel 10d.

1809 appears as the ‘finest winter for the oyster trade ever remembered, considering the stock oysters being at the price of 11d a wash- 6d small.’ Seven years later by contrast, the smacks had to stop working in Colne because of the exceptionally heavy frosts.


In an age of slow communications , it is interesting to find how developed was the oyster marketing system. Sea transport being then quickest and cheapest, Sanford’s oysters, in common with those of most Essex and Kentish merchants, were sailed round to London in smacks for sale, mainly through fishmongers; though his distinguished London customers included Lord Howe, then First Lord of the Admiralty, and Colonel Rebow, whose family had considerable connections with Wivenhoe.

Many of Sanford’s oysters were carried by Mr Jolly’s smack which earned freights averaging   £3. 3s per trip at 6d a wash in 1803, rising to 9d by 1806. Others were also employed in the carrying trade and reference is made to ‘Monday’s, Tuesday’s and Friday’s boats.’

These Wivenhoe smacks together with those from other Colne and Blackwater villages would join smacks from Whitstable, the Medway and the Channel Islands in the annual opening of oyster season in Billingsgate, which took place at midnight on August 4 each year. As the hour struck a crowd of two thousand or so would scramble aboard the 60 or more smacks alongside the wharf, each with its white coated salesman shouting above the din and keeping tally with a blackboard on deck.

However the trade was not always so prosperous; in 1817 Sanford remarks on it being depressed owing to the high price of 14d a wash, and many smacks returned from London with their freights unsold and their crews forced to live on credit.


Consignments also reached regular customers by land conveyance. Sanford’s standing orders for 1803 read; ‘Oysters to go weekly according to the following day and direction. Every Tuesday, one barrel to the Marquis of Salisbury at W. Sparrows near Ipswich. Thursday two barrel to the Earl Waldegrave to be left at Mr Checkers, Chelmsford. Saurday one barrel to the Marquis of Salisbury and a double barrel to the Countess of Waldegrave, to be left at the Lion and Lamb, Brentwood, until called for, carriage paid. Likewise, Thursday one barrel to the Hon. William Fitzroy to be left at the Kings Head, Norwich and forwarded to him at Great Wickingham, by the Ipswich coach from Colchester.

Large quantities of oysters were sent to local personalities. George Round, the Colchester banker and John Bawtree, banker and brewer, share a page with Joseph Simpson who farmed “Munk Wick.”

Captain Stacey of the revenue cutter Repulse, Philip Sainty the shipbuilder, and the Wivenhoe parson were other regular customers.

Another was Daniel Sutton, Colchesters town clerk from 1813 to 1818, whom Sanford huffily records as a bad payer! This colourful character, who lived at Wivenhoe, where he constructed a quay and took his pleasure in several boats, is reputed to have brought to the district its first news of the victory at Waterloo by hoisting a large masthead pendant as he roared up Colne bound home from Ostende. He also owned a lugger, an unusual rig for the Essex coast and one liable to suspicion in that era of smuggling.

In 1821 Sanford records “ Our small vessel the Sisters sailed from Wivenhoe on the 6th Feb for a voyage with oysters at 4 o’clock in the morning and got home the same day at 10 o’clock at night. Brought home 23 bushels, 93 wash natives from Whitstable” That would be good sailing today for a 40 foot gaff cutter, and the times given, allowing time for discharge and reloading which was, presumably, carried out with skiffs, provide an interesting mental exercise in Thames estuary tides and courses.


Sometimes the oyster trade could be hazardous, as in 1823 when the journal records that “ Capt. Tranham was lost coming from Jersey with oysters for Milton (then a centre of the Kentish oyster cultivation) on the 8th day of May. All hands lost, himself, son, and brother, etc. All belonging to Brightlingsea. Gave his widow £1. What a grim little sea tragedy lies in that paragraph.

Other traditional Essex fisheries were carried on despite the Napoleonic wars. In the year of Trafalgar, encouragement was given to local fishermen by payment of a sprat bounty paid by Government order.

An entry for 1820 remarks on the “Quantity herring catched in Colne as high as the gard boat (probably off East Mersea stone) from November 10th to 19th . William Cole of the Liberty brought up a vessel full and a nett alongside his vessel which he could not take in. Such a circumstance as no man can remember.” The Liberty may have been working the traditional Colne – Blackwater estuary  herring fishery which was revived recently by West Mersea fishermen, though more probably he was stowboating for sprats.

Mackerel provided another surprise in June and July of the following year when “ Such a quantity Mackerel catched and brought to Wivenhoe as was never known. Mackerel selling on the 30th June for 8d a hundred, falling to 2d a hundred two days later when over 15,000 had been landed.”


Sanford lived in shipbuilding’s age of oak and hemp, and it is not surprising to find him planting 100 oaks and 50 ash trees on a “small piece of land going up Fingringhoe hill.” He measured the growth of these as it increased each year and eventually sold some of them to Philip Sainty. They wasted nothing in those times, as most of the oak bark was sold for tanning.

During 1809 much locally grown …. Was being shipped from Fingringhoe wharf, with coal and chalk forming inward freights. Sanford appears to have received dues based on the value of the cargos and may have owned the wharf which might have been the one who’s remains are still on the river bank opposite Cook’s shipyard.

Frequent reference is made to vessels repairing on the “ Town bridge” which must have meant the old town hard whose site is now occupied by the Wivenhoe Sailing Club.

The journal tells of launches from Sainty’s shipyard. On June 3 1829, a ship of 220 tons went down the ways – “ a very fine and burdensome vessel. “ We may smile at Sanford’s description of a three masted merchantman probably no longer than 100 feet but it should be remembered that a 160 footer was a monster at that time.

Sainty also carried out ship repairs. In April 1823 he launched a 250 – tonner which was brought up to the village as a salvage wreck, to be almost rebuilt.

An entry for March 3 1828 records the launch of the 600 ton, three masted sloop of war Pearl, described in one of my previous articles. She stuck on the ways during launching and was not got off until next tides a fortnight later.

Admiralty contracts were not easily won in those newly peaceful years and one can picture the abortive launch with the flag bedecked hull jammed on the ways while the bewhiskered builder alternated between a fury of encouragement to all the hands straining at the starting jack and reassuring asides to the Board of Admiralty representative and the overseer. An event such as this would attract as much attention as a regatta does now, bringing crowds thronging the Fingringhoe shore opposite.

Strangely enough no mention is made of the famous yacht Pearl, but Sanford refers to the launch on July 8 1830 of the 60 tonne Water Witch for Sir Thomas Ormsby.


Sanford seems to have dabbled in everything along the waterside selling dredges and booms and a spar to “make Mr Parrish’s smack a spread yard for her square sail “- the 1807 equivalent of our spinnakers. An entry for 1826 refers to Thomas Harvey, carpenter probably the same Thomas who was to take over Philip Sainty’s yard in 1839 and later become a noted shipbuilder. It is known that he was originally a general carpenter working jointly with an old man named Todd and was then also landlord of the ” Black Buoy.”

Then as now tides could be a nuisance. Sanford notes that on February 4 1825 ” A very large tide flow’d all our lower rooms and the marshes board sides water, which had not been the case, for this 27 years past. It will be attended with considerable loss. With a hard gale wind at N X W and North, and had been so for several days with high tide four large tides, one after the other, which was never known for many years.”

By contrast in 1820 he records ” the smallest tide ever known – never came near the vessels.”

Those who still attribute our normal rainy summers to “Them atom bombs” would be interested to read Sanfords entry for 1828, when he wrote ” rain every day except 16th, from 25th June to August 17th. Such quantity of rain was hardly ever known.”

1816 was the ” most memorable summer ever remembered for cold and rain-hay was not in by 31st August.” However by contrast some summers were

“Very worme and fine,” as is 1818, when June, July and August were rainless months. 1814 saw the “finest hays and harvest ever known,” and 1821 the “mildest winter ever known.”

A curious entry is that for 1826 whose summer was exceptionally fine, with the result that ” scarcely a house but there is not 2 or 3 abed with agues and fevers, and many people have died. The whole countryside was dry as tinder and there occured a “great fire within 7 miles (of here) burning farms and crops. Loss amounting to £22,000. Many families homeless.”


The words “a great many ships and lives lost, likewise anchors and cables” recur with Sanford’s record of every winter gale, when the Colne salvagers  reaped grim harvests.

In December 1815 Sanford records the smack Good Intent, John Kent master, in company with Mr Willet’s smack and one from Harwich, brought in the Berwick smack Lord Huntley bound from Aberdeen for London. These large cutters, which were such a feature of the East Coast scene until steamers displaced them in the 1840s, carried a lot of sail under the worst conditions and nothing stopped them except shipwreck or a shot from a French privateer. With this reputation it is not surprising the three salvaging crews were awarded a total of £230, a large sum in the values of those times.

Sometimes local craft were the victims and a blow to the waterside was the loss, during a severe North East gale in September, 1816, of “Mr Blyth’s yacht” which foundered coming out of Ostend with the loss of all hands; “three brothers, with three men and one boy” This is an early reference to a Colne yacht, which must have been of some size to judge by the number of hands.

A severe North Easterly gale on February 8, 1807 brought one of the greatest disasters in Wivenhoe’s long maritime history by the loss of the villages revenue cutter  Repulse with Captain Stacey, her commander, and all 27 of her crew.


The journal contains some odd entries; as when Sanford’s house had a “new fence of iron by Mr Coleman of Colchester, Whitesmith.” Was a whitesmith an iron founder or, maybe, a smith who worked iron cold as distinct from a blacksmith?

Contrasts in costs were afforded by a jib bought for £10. The notes contain several other asides; such as the payment of £5 to his servant as a years wages, and the purchase of a new Wilton carpet for £2. 4s. However even today’s travellers, hardened to continual increases, would revolt at a £7. 4s return fare paid from Wivenhoe to London for a two day business visit; heaven knows how much it would represent in present currency.

Sanford oddly remarks on ” certain people coming to reside here as householders and called men of flight (not birds of flight) by continuing so short a time at Wivenhoe. Some continued four or five years, some two, others not above one, and some not so long.” I wonder what he would make of today’s incessant comings and goings?

In 1827 Sanford sold out half his shares in oyster stock, the smacks, the skiffs and the packing house to Thomas Sanford; and thereafter his wine bill rose sharply.

I know nothing further of William beyond his journal which ends in 1830. His nephew must have been the Thomas Sanford whose name appears on the copestone of the villages Congregational Church.

Trinity House, Sanfords home, had a long association with the oyster trade, being occupied for many years by the Bartlett family, and is now the home of Mr Don Mason who, with a touch which would please William Sanford, keeps his motor cruiser in the old oysterman’s berth.

Frances Belsham
January 2017

This page was added on 30/01/2017.

Comments about this page

  • Im researching my family history and trying to find out more about my family The Bartletts time living at Trinity House. Would be very grateful if you can get in touch Frances.
    Kind regards

    By Rachel Benjamin (10/09/2019)
  • Hello Rachel. Very sorry that you couldn’t make it to the Wivenhoe History Group meeting last week when John Foster told us about what he had found out about your forbear. Frances was present too and I don’t think she can add anything to what John has already discovered for you. Best wishes, Peter Hill, Chairman, Wivenhoe History Group.

    By Peter Hill (24/09/2019)

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