First founded as a Royal town in the 1360s, Queenborough was home to a small hamlet of fisherman’s houses. The building of Queenborough Castle commenced in 1361 and construction of a new town took place between 1365 and 1368. A Royal Charter was issued in May 1368 and amongst other royal favours it granted the town two weekly markets and two annual fairs. Despite the advantages conferred on the Borough of Queenborough, it did not prosper. The plague devastated the population in the last part of the 14th Century and the area entered a prolonged period of economic hardship.
Its status as a Royal Borough enabled Queenborough to hold its own criminal, civil and administrative courts and provided exemptions from taxation and other trading benefits. By the mid-16th Century the Queenborough Corporation was established to regulate the town’s affairs. The Corporation consisted of a Chamberlain, Sergeants at Mace, two Borsholders, a Mayor, four jurats and a water and land bailiff. In 1571 Queenborough was also given the privilege, by Queen Elizabeth I, of electing two Members of Parliament. This was despite only having 23 inhabited houses. The disproportionate privileges conferred on the town, in comparison to its size and demographic, led to centuries of power struggles and political abuse.
Contemporary accounts show many of the townspeople earnt their living in the oyster fishery trade during the 18th Century. Daniel Defoe wrote in his “Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain” (1724-27) that Queenborough was ‘a miserable dirty fishing town… the chief traders seem to be ale-house keepers and oyster catchers.’
By the early 1800s the oyster fishery trade, plagued by corruption, smuggling and bribery was waning. The increasing importance of the Royal Navy dockyard in Sheerness overshadowed Queenborough’s status as a royal and maritime town.
By 1815 Queenborough fishery finances were in decline and debts amounting to £9,000 had been incurred. The Corporation issued bonds to support the ailing oyster trade but by 1820 the debts had risen to £14,500. The Corporation issued strict by-laws restricting ‘free dredgers of oysters’. Such was the discontent caused by these measures, eight freemen filed a Bill of Complaint in the Court of Chancery. The case was heard in Maidstone Assizes in March 1822. The proceedings became so tumultuous they included a physical assault on the Mayor of Queenborough, Stephen Grestock. The court found in favour of the Corporation. A period of great hardship followed for the people of Queenborough.
By 1845 Queenborough’s affairs were in such a poor state Parliament intervened with an Act to remedy the problem. It was clear in the preamble to the Act where Parliament lay the blame:
“And whereas the said Oyster Grounds and Fisheries, by reason of the embarrassed state of the affairs of the said Mayor, Jurats, Bailiffs and Burgesses, have been for several years unstocked and unproductive, to the great loss and impoverishment of the said Borough… and to the public disadvantage… it is very desirable…the said Fisheries [be] restored and made productive.”
The Act vested the estates and property of the Corporation to a group of Trustees who would act on the authority of Parliament. Parliament also recommended leasing the oyster grounds to revive the local trade.
On 27th April 1858 “Extensive and valuable Freehold Oyster Grounds” in “Quinborowe Ground extending from King’s Ferry in the river Swale to the mouth of the said river called Swale’s Spitt” was auctioned at Auction Mart in London.
A group of Trustees (Scott James Breeze, Josiah Hall, William Bills, James Bills and Richard Comyn) purchased the land for £2,250, using a £2,000 mortgage provided by H.C.D Dumergue.
On 19th March 1859 a Declaration of Trust was executed providing the Trustees with the ‘sole and exclusive right to lay and dredge oysters’ and formally establishing the Queenborough Fishery Trust. Its primary purpose was to re-establish a successful and profitable oyster fishery trade. But the Declaration of Trust also ensured any excess income was provided to the Corporation “in aid of the rates”; thereby supporting local people as well as the local economy.