Based in the historic fishing town of Old Leigh, Osborne’s is a family run business located on the shores of the Thames Estuary in South East Essex. The café is housed in an 18th century stable mews originally used to house horses and carriages delivering ale to the local public house – The Crooked Billet, just across the road. The original cockle sheds are located along Cockle Shed row, where our fishmonger and cockle processing factory are based, which remains largely unchanged since being built in the 19th century.
Since first being established in the 1880s, we have specialised in sourcing and supplying high quality ready to eat and wet fish and shellfish to customers around the world, alongside a range of freshly prepared food for customers to enjoy beside the spectacular views of the Thames Estuary.
The Café is positioned at the entrance to Old Leigh, on Billet Wharf overlooking the Thames Estuary. The building is a former 18th century stable mews which belonged to the Crooked Billet public house, and was used to house the horse and carriages delivering ale to the pub.
The café building has remained largely unchanged from the outside, still clad in weatherboard timber and iron as in the days of yore.
However, the inside has been updated to reflect the ever-changing requirements of the business over the century, though it still retains its original old-world charm.
In the old days, cockles were cooked on the premises at the back of the building, where they were loaded directly from the boats into the cooking area. In the 1980s, however, the cooking process was moved to Cockleshed Row to our factory to meet with the changing health and safety requirements of cockle processors.
The Café has developed its product range over time to reflect the changing tastes of its customers. Besides selling traditional shellfish and seafood fare such as cockles, prawns and jellied eels, it also offers a range of freshly prepared salads, sandwiches, rolls and seafood platters for customers to enjoy in our outside seating area overlooking the spectacular Thames Estuary.
Open seven days a week, the business still offers that unique blend of nostalgia and modernity that so many of our customers have come to love. Evoking warm memories of visiting the cockle sheds as children and continuing the tradition with their own families.
At Osborne’s, we recognise this and want to preserve that special quality that brings our customers back time after time.
The Osborne Family operates two fishing vessels – Mary Amelia (LO86) and Renown (LO88). The latter was commissioned in 1991 as a cockle boat and remained as this until 2015. It is now used to fish whelks from the Thames Estuary in the winter months. The boat has followed in the footsteps of the previous Renown boats owned by the family, but this one was the first steel hulled boat built for them by Newbury Engineering in Newhaven. You can read more about the old boats in The Family section of our website.
The most recent edition to the fleet is Mary Amelia (LO86) which was commissioned in 2008 as a cockle boat. The boat is used as the main cockle boat in the Thames for us. Unlike the Renown, the wheelhouse for the Mary Amelia sits at the back of the boat, providing view of operations whilst out fishing. This boat is designed to manoeuvre around in very shallow water which is required when cockling. The boat is kitted out with a lot of equipment needed to fish efficiently and safely. Each year after the cockle season ends in October, the boat is taken out the water to have its annual maintenance and a little TLC.
Thirty miles east of London sits the fishing town of Leigh-on-Sea. First references to Leigh, or Legra as it was known date back to the Domesday Book which was compiled in AD 1085 and 1086. Its sheltered position on the shipping route to London allowed it to grow into a large and prosperous port, with fishing vessels up to 340 tonnes being built here (Pater Caton, Essex Coast Walk, 2009, Matador). However, changes in sea level and larger ships caused the silting up of the deep water channel in Leigh, and it reverted to being a smaller fishing village once more. Today, only a small number of local families work in the industry.
The local fishing industry has varied over the years ranging from catching shrimps, to cockles, whitebait and oysters. Since the 1900s cockles have been the main source of shellfish caught in the Thames Estuary although the methods used have changed over the years.
During the early years, cockles were hand raked from the seabed between tides all year round. The cocklers would carry a yoke laden with two baskets from the boat to shore where the cockles were cooked by steaming and then the meat would be separated from the shells by sieving.
Today the Kent and Essex Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authority determine when and where cockles can be fished in the Thames Estuary.
Thomas George Osborne started Osborne Bros. in 1880. He sold cockles from Cockle Shed Row in Old Leigh, where the cockle processing factory and Fishmonger’s are now situated.
Osborne Bros.’ first boat – the Old Galley was purchased for £10 by his sons Ernest, George, Frank and Walter from Chatham, Kent in 1910. Shortly after this, Thomas Osborne took over the running of the Crooked Billet pub opposite the café and his son, Walter soon followed him.
Ernest, George and Frank remained in the family business and commissioned the building of the original Mary Amelia in 1914 by Haywards of Southend.
In 1928, the first Renown boat was built by Haywards of Southend. This historic vessel was part of the ‘flotilla’ – ‘The Little Ships of Dunkirk’ which were used in the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk in 1940 along with five other Leigh cockle boats. These boats were used to ferry troops from the beaches to the ships anchored in the deep waters. The boats each rescued around 1,000 troops during this mission. As they were starting back home, the Renown hit a mine and the boat was completely destroyed with the loss of all the crew – Frank Osborne (son of Frank Osborne), Leslie (Lukie) Osborne (son of George Osborne), Harry Noakes and Harold Graham Porter. In 1972, a memorial statue was erected in St. Clements’s churchyard in Leigh honouring these courageous men, and a service takes place each year at the church to commemorate these heroic men and women.
In 1947, the second Renown boat was built, but this drew too much water so it was sold and the third Renown LO88 was built by Seacraft of Leigh-on-Sea the following year. This boat served for 42 years before being retired. During this time, the business was run by the remaining children of George Osborne – George (Pie) Osborne, Florence Lawrence, Freda Meddle and Cyril Osborne.
During the 1980s, Peter Osborne (son of Cyril Osborne) and Steven Lawrence (son of Florence Lawrence) took over the business. It was not until 1991 that the fourth Renown boat was launched, which is still in operation today as a whelk boat for the Osborne family. In 2008, the family commissioned Mary Amelia LO86 which is used today as the main cockle boat. The business is now run by Graham (son of Peter) and Andrew (son of Steven), fifth generation Osborne descendants.
Our cockle boat Mary Amelia goes out into the Thames Estuary when the tide is coming in to reach its destination to begin cockling. The wheelhouse of the boat is well equipped with radios and plotters which are used to plot a course for the boat to reach the permitted cockling areas.
Cockles are fished using a dredge which is placed into water when the boat is floating in between 5ft and 15ft of water. During this time, the boat will be moving at a speed of around five knots.
A blade is submerged into the ground whilst high pressure water pushes water into the ground to dislodge the cockles, which are then sucked up through a pipe onto the boat.
These cockles then pass through a screen which rotates around. The bars are spaced at a specific measurement apart so that any small, young cockles, mud, sand and water fall back into the sea.
The cockles then move along onto a conveyor belt and finally fall into the hold of the boat. It can take as little as three hours to fish 10 tonne of cockles, the amount permitted by the Kent & Essex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority.
Once the boat has reached its permitted quota, it will head back into Leigh-on-Sea. Depending on how quickly it has managed to fish them, it may be able to return back into Leigh on the outgoing tide. If it misses this, the boat will sit on the mud until the next tide starts to come in.
When the boat arrives back at its mooring, the cockles are unloaded in tonne sacks using a digger and placed into large trailers. They are then transported to our factory along the road where they are cooked and processed ready for export to local, national and international markets.
On arrival at our factory, the raw cockles are tipped into a hopper to which a conveyor belt is attached leading directly into the factory. Once inside the factory, the cockle processing begins. The cockles are cooked for four minutes enabling the shells to open to release the meat.
The meat and shells then fall onto a conveyor belt which puts them into a shaker to separate the shells from the meat. The shells move along a conveyor out the back of the factory into a trailer, where they are recycled.
The cockle meat moves through a bubbler which pumps air into the water to help separate any sand and grit out of the cockle. Following this, the cockles move through a cooling brine tank, which contains a strong salt solution which separates the cockle meat from any small parts of shell remaining, as well as reducing the temperature of the cockle meat.
The cockle meat goes through a cooling bubble tank to reduce the meat down to a safe temperature and final rinse of any residual sand before being graded by size into buckets.
The cockle meat is then packed according to our customer’s requirements either fresh or frozen.