Audio Description – Oyster Tray

Hurstville Museum & Gallery has recently undertaken an audio descriptions project for a number of collection items to help increase the accessibility of the collection. This entry is part of the project.

Image 1: The oyster tray held in Hurstville Museum & Gallery’s collection

For thousands of years before European arrival, Indigenous Australians caught and ate large numbers of oysters, gathered from estuarian rivers and the sea. Many shell middens can be found Australia’s coast; piles of discarded shells, in layers, the remains of a single meal, or the location of repeated meals over many generations.

Oyster farming is the oldest aquaculture industry in Australia and commenced in the late 1800s[1], once natural oyster beds had become depleted. Systematic cultivation of oysters in Australia began in the 1870s, with high demand for food sources for the growing population[2].  Prior to this, oyster beds were dredged, the oyster meat consumed, and shells used for lime production.  In the early New South Wales colony, lime was a rare commodity and oyster shells were collected and burnt in pits or brick kilns to create ‘quicklime’, a mortar used in building[3].

Natural oyster beds were nearly all exhausted by the turn of the 20th century. Attempts to farm oysters in Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia were abandoned, but a thriving Sydney Rock oyster (Saccostrea glomerate) industry developed in NSW[4]. Sydney lies at the ‘centre of some of the best oyster-producing regions in the world, from Port Hacking and the Georges River to Broken Bay’[5]. Initially oyster farming in NSW used a French method of canals, but these soon silted up and were unsuccessful. A severe infestation of shell-boring mud-worms in the 1880s forced new oyster farming techniques to be developed[6]. Raised beds with racks were established, allowing water flow and control of silting. Today trays are used.

Georges River oyster farming and gathering occurred from the 1870s. Commercial production peaked during the 1960s before being destroyed in the 1990s by QX virus, causing a 94% drop in production[7]. This coincided with increased concerns about the health of the river and oyster farming today is restricted to small areas of the river. By the end of the 1990s however, 8 million dozen Sydney rock oysters were being produced annually in NSW[8].  

Image 2: A newspaper clipping titled ‘Burning shells to make lime’, taken from the Australian Town and Country Journal, 13 June 1874 p.937
Image 3: Image of an oyster lease on the Georges River at Oatley, taken on 26 March 1960
[Collection: State Library of New South Wales]

Find out more about this item on e-hive, our collection database.

[1] Nell, J.A., 2001. ‘The history of oyster farming in Australia’, Marine Fisheries Review. 63(3): 14-25,

[2] ‘The good news about oysters’,  

[3] ‘Of Oyster shells and shelly mortar’, Sydney Living Museums, 2012,

[4] Nell, J.A., 2001. ‘The history of oyster farming in Australia’, Marine Fisheries Review. 63(3): 14-25,

[5] Garry Wotherspoon, ‘Sydney Rock Oysters’, Dictionary of Sydney on-line (2018),

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nell, J.A., 2001. ‘The history of oyster farming in Australia’, Marine Fisheries Review. 63(3): 14-25,

Image 2:

Image 3: Collection: State Library of New South Wales [d7_08252 / APA 08252, (Mitchell Library)

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