Greengrocers rise at dawn of sun –
August the fifth – come haste away!
To Billingsgate the thousands run, –
‘Tis Oyster Day! – ’tis Oyster Day!
The above verse is taken from an anonymous poem in William Hone’s Every-day Book (1827), and captures the excitement surrounding the arrival of the season’s first oysters at Billingsgate Market. Oyster festivals occurred across the country through late July and August, and popularly the old-style St James’s Day on 5 August was considered ‘Oyster Day’. But in London, the festival started one day before. An article published in the Illustrated London News (12 August 1843) explains:
Formerly the commencement of the sale on the 4th was so punctually observed, that the market was opened immediately after the clock had struck twelve on the night of the 3rd, when, in the rush to obtain the first supply of oysters, it being dark, a life or two was lost annually.
‘Oyster Day’ was an important occasion for Georgian and Victorian Londoners. As costermongers picked up their wares from Billingsgate and customers from all walks of life enjoyed the first oysters of the harvest, children rushed to collect the discarded shells.
Before long, streets in the poorer parts of the city were littered with ‘grottoes’ made from oyster shells and any flotsam that local youngsters could get their hands on. Those passing by these ad-hoc constructions would be greeted with an outstretched hand holding an empty oyster shell, and a request to “remember the grotto” by giving a few coins.
Although the custom is likely to have had its origins in the 18th century, the children’s practice of grotto-building seemed to gain momentum from the 1830s.
Some were charmed by this annual tradition of grotto-building, while others were irritated by the begging. One rather commentator took a rather cynical view, writing for the August edition of The Leisure Hour in 1856:
No sooner do you walk out in morning, in whatever direction you will, than you are saluted with the cry of, “Please to the Grotto,” emanating from some unwashed, untended little wanderer, who runs capering before you, clutching in his dirty fingers an oyster-shell, which serves him as a begging-dish. If escape from one, it is only to fall into the hands of another, or of a dozen or a score of others, awaiting you round the corner. All boy-dom is in a conspiracy to-day to whine and wheedle out of your coppers.
The Leisure Hour no. 241, p. 501.
Despite such criticism, the children of London continued to build their festive grottoes well into the 20th century. However, the custom dwindled in the post-war period. The last area to witness widespread grotto-building is said to have been the London Borough of Mitcham in the 1950s and early ’60s.