Oysters have been growing in Port Stephens for as long as can be imagined. Growing wild in the mangroves, on shore line rocks or scattered on the mud flats, oysters were feasted upon by aboriginal folk who left their middens as evidence of time past.
The Port Stephens oyster industry goes way back to May 1885 when well-known names including Holdom, Lilley, Thompson and Hyde were published in the Sydney Morning Herald as successful applicants for oyster leases.
Where did all the Oysters go?
Unbelievably, once so prolific, the local oysters had been all but wiped out, such was the frantic need for oyster shell lime for the expanding building trade. The demand for edible oysters could no longer be satisfied so they were imported from Queensland and New Zealand.
In 1889 two-thirds of oysters consumed in NSW came from New Zealand!
Oysters make a comeback
Oyster cultivation remained in the doldrums till about 1896 when organised culture may be said to have begun. Since that time, the industry continued to grow, particularly with the involvement of a Yorkshireman, Fredrick Phillips, who ventured into oyster farming in Pindimar in 1913.
Fred’s initiative and enthusiasm resulted in what was considered to be “the grandest oyster growing enterprise in the Southern Hemisphere – some say the world”. By the 1940s Port Stephens had extensive areas under oyster racks in North Arm Cove, Swan Bay, Cromarty Bay Little Swan Bay, Oyster Cove, Karuah, Tilligerry and Pindimar.
Vital to the booming industry was the labour of the local Worimi people.
Highly respected and hard working the Aboriginal families were much sort after by the oyster growers stretching way back to the very early 1900s.
The Ridgeway, Russell, Manton and Lilley families were but a few of those who contributed in a big way to the growing industry.
Local Aboriginal families were the backbone of the oyster industry in Port Stephens.
Many of the aboriginal families grew up in the town of Karuah and moved to Oyster Cove to work for a leader in the oyster industry, Stan Phillips, who provided accommodation and education for the children.
In the words of well-known Worimi man John Ridgeway “Everyone was happy working for Stan Phillips. I was paid £7 a week when we moved into Oyster Cove. 23 years later after raising eight kids, I was still payed £7 a week”.
Worimi families remain in the oyster industry to this day. Their remarkable contribution over the years has been outstanding.
“Oysterman” by John Clarke is a history of oyster growing in NSW with a focus on Port Stephens and the families that contributed to the industry.