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PostPosted: Wed May 26, 2010 8:32 pm 
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Location: Vancouver Island, Canada
The oyster was their world


Looking Back, with Eric Leaver

THE '20s and '30s are bywords for hard times but, though they couldn't afford to live like lords in those days, working class folk in East Lancashire could eat like them - on oysters.

These days, at the famous Roberts Oyster Bar on Blackpool's Prom, the cheapest Anglesey oysters will set you back £8 a dozen while, at £11 for 12, top-quality Natives are nudging over 90p each - rich fare, indeed.

But 70 or so years ago, oysters were so plentiful and inexpensive that ordinary people hereabouts ate them often and in large quantities.

So I discover from 69-year-old reader Tom Kennedy, whose father Thomas ran Kennedy's English and American Oyster Bar.

It stood in the lower half of now-vanished Lord Street, opposite Blackburn's old market, and was a familiar business in the town centre for more than 100 years until the 1950s. It disappeared when the block in which it stood was demolished in September, 1954, to make way for the new Littlewoods - later Hitchen's - department store, which quit town 20 years later. Incidentally, after a lifetime of making a living out of the sea, Kennedy's store - or, at least, some of it - aptly ended up in the briny itself. For out of the 2,000 tons of rubble that the block was reduced to, 500 tons was shipped to the shore at Rossall, near Fleetwood, to stop the sea breaking through.

After coming back from the First World War, Thomas Kennedy spent some years running the business - originally owned by his uncle, another Thomas, who also had a stall on the town's fish market, which today's Tom ran from 1948 to 1968.

However, in that long stint in Lord Street, Thomas was witness to countless oysters being guzzled.

Tom said: "In the 1920s and 30s, working class people would come into the shop and eat three, and sometimes six, at a time and they would do this on a regular basis, especially at weekends.

"Today, oysters are expensive and considered a luxury but in my Dad's day he had customers from all walks of life.

"A lot of his weekday morning customers were town hall officials, doctors and solicitors.

"He used to refer to his solicitor clients as 'that lot from Robbers' Row,' meaning Richmond Terrace.

"They would probably have sued him today but, then, they never heard him say it!"

Tom, of Wilworth Crescent, Blackburn, said the little shop's window was filled with nothing else but oysters arranged on large plates. Only in later years did it sell fresh mussels and cockles as well.

It specialised mainly in two types.

Large Portuguese rock oysters were the cheapest and Colchester Natives were much smaller and more costly.

It also sold American oysters which, said Tom, came across the ocean as ships' ballast.

"Inside the shop, there was a small bar on which were salt, pepper and vinegar.

"There were also two tables with chairs but almost all customers preferred to eat their oysters standing up," he added

Although not a Freemason himself, Tom's father was often asked to cater at the Brotherhood's functions at the town's Masonic Hall and at Samlesbury Hall.

"He took only the best Natives to these events and it would not be unusual for him to open and sell at least 2,000 oysters in one evening," Tom recalled.

"In my early teens, I used to help out on these occasions and it was at Samlesbury Hall that I consumed my record total for one night - and it didn't cost me or my Dad a penny. "We were attending a grand meeting of Freemasons from all over East Lancashire and when we arrived at the hall about six o'clock in the evening it had just started to get very foggy.

"The function was due to start at 7.30 pm but by 8.30 pm only a handful of guests had managed to complete the journey.

"My father had opened and plated 2,000 best Natives.

"The worried steward of the event asked him what he could do about all the opened oysters and my dad's reply was a classic.

"He said: 'Well, you know, oysters are a bit like bananas. Once out of the skin, they are only fit for eating and it's the same with oysters once they're out of the shell.'

"The steward then asked my dad what he thought he should do.

"Dad said: 'Well, first of all, you pay me for the oysters and then we'll just have to do our best to eat them.' And so they brought in the waiters, the chef and his helpers and the bar staff and we all got stuck in.

"I managed 76 that night.

"I know it sounds a lot, but when you consider that you can put 100 oysters in something the size of a pint glass and that the main constituent of an oyster is water, then it doesn't sound so much." But that was only half the amount swallowed by the winner of a Blackburn oyster-swallowing contest that the Kennedy concern catered for.

To this day, Tom cherishes an ornate old inscribed walking stick - passed down to him by his father who died, aged 76, in 1970.

It was presented as a token of esteem by the members of "Ye Ancient and Honourable Order of Oyster Gobblers" to the business's founder, Uncle Thomas, on March 23, 1903, at the event at the Globe Inn, in Higher Eanam, Blackburn.

"It doesn't say how many oysters the winner consumed but my father always said that it was in excess of 150," said Tom.

That was going some - and afterwards, perhaps in another sense too.

For the newspapers of that month were recording a plunge in the price of oysters - they were a shilling (5p) a dozen on Blackburn Market - because few dared eat them after reports in the press that many of the delicacy were contaminated with sewage!

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