Commercial Fishing at Goldhanger and in the Blackwater

Contents

o    Commercial fishing legacies

o    Local documentary evidence

o    Records of fishing and exceptional fish caught in the Blackwater

o    Fishing in the Blackwater today

o    Summary

 

 

Commercial fishing legacies

Fishing has been a major commercial activity in the Blackwater Estuary for centuries and Goldhanger fishermen were part of it. Very little documentary evidence has been found that related to Goldhanger, however several pieces of tangible evidence and legacies remains...

St. Peter is the Patron Saint of fisherman – Goldhanger Church goes back to 1100s.  It’s not known when the name was adopted, but it could well have been given the name by the monks of Beeleigh Abbey who owned much of the land from Heybridge to Goldhanger and probably fished from the marshes up until the time of the Reformation.

Fish Street clearly derives its name from an association with fishing in the estuary. Before the seawall was built around the estuary and the creek, at high tide the water would have come right up to lower end of Fish St.

Wooden posts still protruding out of the mud in The Creek are believed to be the remains of a substantial jetty that would have been used by fishing smacks in the 18th &19th centuries...

          

a recent photo and an artist’s impression of the jetty

there is more about these posts and the jetty at... Ancient wooden posts in the Creek

local historian Crawshay Frost believed the jetty was of Roman origin

Fish Traps

From SEAX - Unlocking Essex's Past

Monument: Blackwater Estuary Site 28, The Stumble, Goldhanger, SMR No. 13661, Investigated between 1987-95

Iron Age wooden fish-traps - a group of vertical and oblique posts to which nets could be attached.

Dated 700BC to 42AD

From The Oxford Handbook of Wetland Archaeology by  Menotti & O'Sullivan in 2012...

On the Blackwater estuary, Essex, fish weirs have been typically dated to the Anglo-Saxon period, between AD 650-800; although there was fishing activity up until the 10th century. The Anglo-Saxon weirs are usually large, with fences up to 100m-300m in length, and L-shaped or V-shaped structures built of oak, alder, birch, and willow posts, with well-surving baskets of hazel buried in the clays at the trap ends.

At the Sales Point fish weir at the mouth of the Blackwater estuary, located close to a small Saxon church [St Peters on the Wall], a large, thick deposit of fish bone was discovered beside the trap end indicating that cod and bass fish were being gutted and filleted on the mudflats and the fishbone dumped beside the weirs.

From Essex County Council’s Field Archaeology Unit...

The Essex tidal estuaries are the site of a number of timber-built fish traps, their distribution being particularly dense in the Blackwater estuary where six sites have been identified through the work of local archaeologists and aerial reconnaissance. The Blackwater examples are Saxon in date and comprise large and complex monuments, comprising numerous wooden posts in various alignments, along with wattle-work (sails and rods) and basketry. Studies have included... detailed survey of a complex of traps at Collins Creek (near Lauriston Farm).

From Once Upon a Tide - Hervey Benham, wrote in 1955...

The more ancient forms of fishery, the weirs and the kettles, which had furnished the monastic Friday fare, were still in use up to the end of the nineteenth century. They were similar in form and purpose, but were of a different construction.

Kettles were netting enclosures, built between high and low water-marks, in which fish were trapped as the tide ebbed. The catch was mostly plaice, dabs, soles, and flounders, taken in summer. In winter the netting was removed from the posts and repaired before being replaced in spring.

Weirs were more substantial and permanent, being were built of oak posts six to eight feet high, set several feet apart and thatched with wattling. They were of a triangular shape, on sloping ground, with the upper, land-ward, side open. In the apex was a lidded box into which the fish were scooped. Because the broken stumps of old posts were a menace to shipping, weirs were prohibited in 1861.

Fish Pits were located adjacent to Goldhanger Sailing Club near Bounds Farm. They appear on the 1820 Tithe map and are listed in the Tithe Awards as part of Bounds Farm property, they are also shown on 1900 OS map and a map in the Proceedings Antiquaries Society of 1910. They would have been used to temporarily hold large catches of fish, oysters, shellfish and eels caught in the estuary and further out to sea in the days when ice was expensive and refrigerators were not available.

     

Fish pits at Bounds Farm

From  Once Upon a Tide - Hervey Benham, wrote in 1955...

An ancient method of fish-storage was the fish pit. Flat-fish and round fish alike were put into these pits, where they survived without food or attention until the time came to catch for selling. Flounders succeeded in burying themselves deep in the mud on the floor of the pits and lived there for years. When demand was keen the pits would be drained and the wily flounders excavated. Fish pits were still in use at Maldon until 1833. By this time markets had been opened by Well Smacks and the use of ice.

Saltworks were adjacent to the Fish Pits on the site of Goldhanger Sailing Club. Before the availability of low-cost ice and refrigeration, salt was an essential commodity to be able to transport fresh fish inland to market. There is much more about the Goldhanger saltworks at... Salt Extraction on the North Bank of the Blackwater

Oyster fishing and cultivation has been an activity in the Blackwater Estuary for centuries. Oyster shells litter the foreshore and oyster shell are frequently found in the gardens in the village. Over the last 20 years commercial oyster beds have been established at a location frequently referred to as Goldhanger Creek, but is actually located in the estuary closer to Lauristons Farm The business is known as The Maldon Oyster Company and was started by the late Clarrie Devall. The Company’s oysters are sold around the world. There is more about the local oysters at... Goldhanger Oyster Beds

 

Local Documentary Evidence - in approximate chronological order

An extract from a 1886 sale catalogue (ERO D/F 63/1/10/6)

Bounds Farm, Goldhanger

Comprising farmhouse, farm buildings, double tenement cottage with garden and bakehouse

and about 205 acres of arable and pasture land. With plan.

Includes manuscript note that the Coast Guard flag staff stands upon Lot 2 (Bounds Farm)

and the Government pays 10s. per annum rent.

There is a shelter hut of the Coast Guard for which they pay 6d per annum,

The Fishermen agree to pay 5s. per annum for the use of the Pits and Drying ground on the foreshore

Census Returns available for Goldhanger...

These figures do not support signs of an “extensive fishing trade”...

The 1841 Census shows Fishermen: 4, Agricultural Labourers:  60

The 1851 Census shows Fishermen: 4, Agricultural Labourers:  39

The 1901 Census shows Fisherman: 1, Agricultural Labourers and Horseman:  57

The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales of 1894...

Goldhanger, a village and a parish in Essex. The village stands on the N side of the Blackwater's estuary, 4 miles from Maldon. An extensive fishing trade is carried on here.

Kelley’s Directories of 1892 and 1899 for Goldhanger both record...   “A fishing trade is carried on here”.

Extract from The Society of Antiquaries Proceedings in 1910. . .

Report of the Red-Hills Exploration Committee

It was part of our original intention to explore the tank-like depressions on Hither Fish-pit Marsh, but during operations we learned that fish-pits had formerly been in common use in the district, and that three such pits had been constructed in comparatively recent times close to the Coastguard station on the sea-wall. Another pit on the east side of the creek had been in use within the memory of some of the inhabitants.

In former times fishing was an important industry at Goldhanger. When a large catch was made the fish were kept in these pits until required. It is said that corks at the end of strings were tied to the tails of the fish and the corks floating on the surface made it easy to procure the fish when wanted. The fish having now almost left this district the pits have fallen into disuse, and those at the coastguard station are in a dirty and stagnant condition, while the one on the edge of the creek has been broken through, and is now used as a dock for repairing the boats. Owing to the resemblance of the tanks on the marsh to these fish-pits we concluded that they must have been intended for a similar purpose, and decided not to explore them as the season was advanced and our funds exhausted,

As further evidence of the once important fishing industry, not only does the marsh bear this name, hut the roadway from the village is called Fish Street, and the old track way across the marsh is said to have been made for the carts to bring the fish from the boats.

Another point of interest at Goldhanger was a large pile foundation in the head of the creek, which was exposed at low tide. Upwards of sixty large piles are arranged in rectangular form. [now assumed to be a jetty, see... Ancient wooden posts in the Creek].

In Goldhanger - an Estuary Village the Maura Benham wrote in 1977:

The creek itself must have been a useful waterway, and up to the early years of the last century fishing smacks unloaded their catch at the quay at the bottom of the road called Fish Street which leads up to the Square.

Hervey Benham describes the two ancient forms of fishery, the weirs and the kettles, or 'kiddies'. in Once Upon a Tide (1955). Kettles were netting enclosures, built between high and low watermarks, in which fish were trapped as the tide ebbed. Weirs were more substantial and permanent. They were generally of triangular shape, built on sloping ground, with the upper, landward, side open, and in the apex was a lidded box into which the fish were scooped with a lave net (or 'Digel’) from the pool left at low water.

The will dated 1575 of George Osborne of Goldhanger bequeathed “To my dear mother my half-boat, also a bream net and a new vag-net; to my brother-in-law Heard my all things else pertaining to sea-craft for the 6s which I owe him”. The meanings of the words used to describe the nets are obscure to me, but David Heard, who now sells his catch from his house in Fish Street, has suggested that the nets were probably a beam net and drag net. The latter might have been a fyke net which is held open by wooden hoops, but it is unlikely this type was in common use here at that time.

In 1882 there was an extensive fishing trade.

The Goldhanger Historic Settlement Assessment  produced by Essex County Council in 2007 included the sentence...

“In 1847 a marine store dealer is listed and by 1882 an extensive fishing trade is reported for the Parish”.

 

Records of fishing and exceptional fish caught in the Blackwater

To understand more about past fishing on the Blackwater we need to look beyond records relating only to Goldhanger and to look at information associated with the estuary generally and to other fishing locations, such as Maldon, Tollesbury and Mersea. The following extracts from many sources, provide much evidence of how abundant and diverse fish stocks once were in the estuary, and together with records of the related fishing activities and boats, give an insight to the scale of past commercial fishing and “Game fishing” in the Blackwater Estuary.

It is notable that several publications on game fishing from the Victorian era referred to the benefit of fishing in the Blackwater Estuary. It being one of the largest salt water estuaries in the UK that had the advantage of being on the east coast, protected from prevailing westerly winds and gales. This makes it one of the safest and most pleasant places for sea fishing in the UK without the need to venture out into unpredictable rough oceans. 

The extracts below are listed in approximate chronological order...

40BC-400AD The Roman period

Fish and fishing played as important a part in the Roman economy. Fresh or preserved, fish was served at practically every table. The Romans were known to use fish tanks in their sea going vessels. Fish traps and weirs were used in estuaries. The Blackwater estuary was the source of fish and oysters for Camulodunum (Colchester) and Maldon during the Roman occupation and the Romans exploited the sea salt resource on Osea Island and at Maldon, most probably used to preserve their fish.

Local historian Crawshay Frost believed the jetty in Goldhanger Creek was of Roman origin.

700-1000 The Viking period

The Vikings were very able fishermen. There is archaeological evidence to show that fish formed a major part of the Viking’s diet. They caught herring and cod in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the North Atlantic. Their fishing skills and their fish would have been brought into the Blackwater Estuary at the time of the Battle of Maldon in 991. Ninety Viking longships sailed up the estuary carrying 4000 Viking warriors. Few if any went home.

1155 The position of River Bailiff on the Blackwater was created at this time as part of a charter granted to Maldon by Henry II. The role has always been to protect the town's fishing rights in the Blackwater, for which purpose he was authorised to apprehend any person fishing without a license from Maldon Council. The position still exists today.

1180-1500s Impressions & Comments by Havelock Ellis (published in 1920)

Beeleigh Abbey - Along peaceful walks by lovely streams in this most delightful corner of Essex are the charming remains of the Abbey of Beeleigh. The White Canons ruled Maldon, but they lived at Beeleigh. They appear to have been admirable priests and their Abbots seem to have been exceptionally wise and prudent. This sweet pastoral scenery, these slow streams with luxuriant banks and pleasant, sheltered walks, were altogether to their taste. Here were their fish-ponds and their mills. Here were all the luxuries of Epicurean austerity.

Most monasteries maintained a series of “monastic fish ponds” to supply the monks with fish on Fridays to support this ancient Catholic tradition. According to legend, John Dory is the fish that St. Peter caught when Christ told him: "go thou to the sea, and cast in a hook...". To commemorate this the Spanish call the fish San Pedro and the French call it Saint-Pierre (St Peter), in English it is known as John Dory (possibly from the French, jaune dorée – yellow gilded), and is said to be the fish favoured by the monks.

Up until the Reformation Beeleigh Abbey owned all the marshes from Heybridge to Goldhanger and may well have caught their fish in this area on the north bank of the Blackwater using fish traps or kettles, and then transported them to their ponds at Beeleigh.

1299  Essex Naturalist - in the 1906 publication... 

Whale at Mersea in1299 - Mr. Miller Christy sends the following extract from The Wardrobe Accounts of King Edward I. in the Society of Antiquaries of 1787 (we are indebted to Mr. W.C. Waller, for a translation of the Latin):

Charges in respect of a whale per the Sheriff of Essex - To John de la Lee, Sheriff of Essex and Herts, for moneys paid by him to divers persons in charge of a certain whale caught off the island of Mersea; for one empty case bought to put the whale in; for salt bought to salt the same; for the carriage of the same from the island aforesaid to Staunford; together with the expenses of one man with a team conducting the said whale there in the month of May: £0 14s  8d

 

1580s – 1840s The Codbangers  written by Hervey Benham in 1979

Although primary about Icelandic cod fishing in the middle ages, the book also refers fishing on Dogger Bank in the North Sea, and has references to Maldon, so the book contributes to our knowledge of activities on the Blackwater over this period. For example:

- 1581 two boats of twenty-five tons registered at Maldon

- Fourteen-day voyages to the Dogger Bank for cod

- The Codbangers task was to stun or kill the cod by knocking them on the head

- Freshly killed cod was rushed to London labelled 'Live Cod'

Some extracts from the book are on a separate webpage on this site at...  Hervey Benham extracts

 

1683-1775 The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions...

1722  Tour Through the Eastern Counties of England   by Daniel Defoe, in which he wrote...

...there is nothing for many miles but a continued level of unhealthy marshes till we come to the mouth of the River Chelmer, and Blackwater. These rivers united make a large firth, or inlet of the sea, which our fishermen and seamen, who use it as a port, called Maldon Water. In this inlet of the sea is Osey, or Osyth Island, commonly called Oosy Island, so well known by our London men of pleasure for the infinite number of wild fowl...

...It is on this shore, and near this creek, that the greatest quantity of fresh fish is caught which supplies not this country only, but the London markets also. The shore is full of shoals and sands, with some deep channels between; all which are so full of fish that not only the Barking fishing-smacks come hither to fish, but the whole shore is full of small fisher-boats in very great numbers, belonging to the villages and towns on the coast. They come in every tide with what they take; and selling the smaller fish in the country, send the best and largest away upon horses, which go night and day to London market...

...The chief sort of fish which they carry to London are soles, which they take, sometimes exceeding large, and yield a very good price at London market, also sometimes middling turbot, with whiting, codling and large flounders. The small fish they sell in the country.

1776 The Blackwater estuary froze over in a hard winter to a depth of 2ft deep from Osea Island to Maldon locking in all the fishing boats and locking out all other commercial vessels. This resulted in no fish or coal reaching the town and many deaths from starvation and hypothermia.

1800s Heybridge in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,  Beryl Claydon wrote in 2012...

“The tide mill, located in the section of the river known as Mill Reach, is recorded in documents as far back as 1819. As the tide rose, water was allowed to flow into three enclosed ponds. When the tide began to drop, sluices would divert the flow past the mill building and drove a large water wheel... As the gates were raised, a frame of enclosed mesh that captured eels and flounders was placed in front of the sluice gate”.

1808  Once Upon a Tide - Hervey Benham, wrote in 1955...

Probably the oldest craft in full commission in the country, and perhaps in North Europe, the oyster smack Boadicea was built at Maldon in 1808. In essentials she remains a unique survival of the eighteenth-century. Clinker-built by James Williamson of Maldon, the Boadicea spent her youth at Burnham and Bradwell, and in 1825 came to Tollesbury. [where she remains]...

         

        Boadicea in the Blackwater today                  Maldon fishing license

1836 The Borough of Maldon issued a standard license to “fish, catch and take Floating fish” (above, select to enlarge)

1844  Once Upon a Tide - Hervey Benham, wrote in 1955...

Throughout their history the chief occupation of the Essex cutters was oyster dredging. In 1844 the Colne Fishery Company alone employed five hundred smacks and two thousand men, and there were probably as many in the Blackwater at Tollesbury, Mersea  and Maldon. In those bountiful days they were a considerable export, chiefly from Maldon, where there were sometimes three ships loading simultaneously for Holland and the Low Countries.

1850-1900  Paintings and drawings

In the Victorian era when there was an abundance of fish and fishing smacks were available to bring in large catches, photography wasn’t sufficiently developed to capture the scenes and atmosphere at sea, particularly at night. However many paintings and lithographic drawings were produced in that period that captured the dramatic and hazardous situations that arose in a way that probably could not even be conveyed with modern photography.

Lithographic drawings were published in newspapers and magazines associated with articles about the dangers of deep sea fishing (particularly involving teenage boys) and concerns about over fishing. A small selection of this artwork is available on this website at...

Lithographic art from the past

In contrast, many established and now well known artists were producing impressive oil paintings of dramatic and evocative scenes of fishing boats at sea, which would have only been produced for their appealed to wealthy clients. A small selection is available on this website at...

Oil paintings from the past

Two reasons have been identified that explain why night-time commercial fishing was regularly undertaken: Many fish spend daylight hours in deep water as they are less vulnerable during darkness and so swim and feed near the surface at night. Cod in particular stay in deep water in daylight and only come up at night. The second reason is that boats that are based in an estuary would have no choice but to leave and return with the tide and favourable winds, which would mean on many occasions they would be out at sea during the night.

1880 Essex Naturalist, notes: Large Basse in the Blackwater,  by Edward A. Fitch...

This hot summer has proved an unusually good season for grey mullet in this river, and a few large ones have been taken, also several large Basse. Joe Handley has taken three of this latter fish this summer, weighing respectively 16 1/2, 16, and 12 1/2bs.; these were all taken, like the mullet, by shooting the creeks with a peter net.

Years ago mullet were much commoner in this river than now; their disappearance is to be accounted for, firstly, by the disappearance of the Zostera marina weed. Another probable cause of the mullet's disappearance is the prevalence of eel trawlers, who go into every nook and corner they can, and so are constantly disturbing this shy fish.

1881 The London Chronicle...

1884  The Angler's Diary and Tourist Fisherman's Gazetteer of the Rivers and Lakes of The World...

Maldon , Essex, on Blackwater: Pike, perch, roach, dace, and a few trout.

Langford, outside the entrance of the Blackwater river: whiting, cod, ling, and dabs caught with hook and line.

1886-1898  Report on the sea fisheries and fishing industries (in 1903) by the Kent and Essex Sea Fisheries Committee...

Sturgeon - The Blackwater seems a favourite haunt. A specimen secured near Beeleigh Mills, Maldon weighed 131lb. Another, conjectured to be 11cwt. was captured alive at the Point between Heybridge Basin and Maldon, 9th May, 1886; it was exhibited in the Basin lock with a rope round its tail and hauled up to be viewed at 1d a head. Still another, a female scaling 212lb. and 7 feet long, was hauled out of the "Smack Hole", directly opposite Mr Fitch, our Chairman's residence, close to Maldon, 15th May, 1890. A. Sexton caught one very near the same spot, 6th June, 1898, and was seen alive by Mr Fitch, length 7 ft. 6in, weight 192lb.

Sturgeon - can be up to 12 ft long

1890 The Essex Naturalist...

Sharks in the Blackwater.—On the evening of July 12th, Joseph Handley caught two large Topes off Goldhanger Spit, at the mouth of Goldhanger Creek. These were both caught in his trawl at successive hauls and were a considerable trouble to get out of the net and Handley had quite a job to kill them—they proved to be too tenacious of life to please him.

The species was undoubtedly Galens vulgaris, Flem. Several large specimens have been taken on the main but fortunately the shark is rare in our river, although I think that small specimens have occasionally been taken. One of the sharks caught was from five feet to five feet six inches long, and was estimated to weigh forty pounds; the other was four feet long, and probably weighed about thirty pounds.

A Tope is a slender shark that can grow up to 6ft It has several other names:

school shark, houndshark, snapper shark, and soupfin shark.

1893 Chelmsford Chronicle...

On Monday Edward Hayward, while fishing for eels and flounders in the Blackwater, between Fullbridge and the Railway Viaduct, captured a fine salmon, weighing 15Ibs.

1894 Maldon and the River Blackwater, by Edward Arthur Fitch between 1894 & 1899 (several versions)

(Essex Library ref: E.MAL910)...

E.A. Fitch (1854-1912), was elected Mayor of Maldon six times in the late 1800s. He was a farmer, ornithologist, historian, antiquarian, author and was president of the Essex Field Club. Over several pages of the book he refers to about 24 species of fish that he had either caught or knew that others had caught or seen them in the estuary.

Specific extracts from the book referring to fishing are on a separate page on this site at...  E.A. Fitch extracts

1898 Essex Field Club: Mammals, Reptiles, and Fishes of Essex by Dr. Henry Laver...

This 170-page book gives an amazing insight into the demographics of fish in the Blackwater Estuary in the 1800s. It tells us that of the 234 fish species then know in the UK, 113 had been observed in Essex estuaries and 30 of those had been observed in the Blackwater, or were very common in all Essex estuaries. The 10 species commercially caught in the Blackwater are also identified. Dr. Laver was a contemporary of Miller Chisty and E.A.Fitch and he refers to both of them.

Specific extracts from the book are on a separate page on this site at... Henry Laver extracts

The complete book can be seen at... archive.org/mammalsreptilesf00laverich

Dr Laver even reports seeing an Orca Gladiator - killer whale in the Blackwater...

Orca  - can be up to 20 ft long

1903 The Victoria history of the county of Essex, by H. Arthur Doubleday & William Page...

Mr. E. A. Fitch records the capture of two very large sturgeons in the Blackwater on May 9, 1886, and May 15, 1890. The latter, weighed 212 Ib. and measured 7 feet 11 inches in length.

1903  Report on the sea fisheries and fishing industries on the Thames Estuary...

Cuttle-Fish Tribe (Uephalopods) - Little attention has hitherto been paid to the Cephalopods of our district, hence their distribution and frequency of visitation are but imperfectly known. Some, however, appear rarely. We know of two instances of the large, arrow-shaped Flying Squid (Ommastrephes sagittatus); one captured near Folkestone, the other, a great-sized specimen, was found by Mr. Fitch stranded on the causeway leading to Northey Island in the Blackwater, at the end of November 1901.

1904  Fishing,  by Horace Gordon Hutchinson...

There is a kind of calm water fishing in boats in the latter part of the year, when whiting and codling find their way into many rivers, notably on our east coast. The Essex Blackwater and Crouch, even for that matter the Thames at Leigh, the river at Aldeburgh, and several others, are the yearly playground of many anglers who like to catch sea-fish in still water.

The great difficulty is to hit off the tide. I remember once not hitting off the tide at Maldon, on the Blackwater. I remember spending just twenty-four hours away from home, and fishing for about forty minutes, during the forty minutes we caught only two or three midgets of fish, bullheads for the most part, and nothing worth taking away. I have in other days enjoyed very brisk sport with these Essex whiting and codling on bright winter mornings.

1904 The Times...

Salmon in the Blackwater

A salmon weighing 4½  pounds has been found in an injured condition in the river Blackwater, at Kelvedon, Essex, but how it reached so far inland is a mystery. The portion of the river where the salmon was discovered is leased by the Gresham Angling Society, and the theory most favoured by the members is that it came up the Blackwater on the last big flood. Kelvedon is many miles from the estuary of the Blackwater below Maldon, and the salmon would encounter several weirs and mills in its ascent to the higher reaches. Years ago occasional salmon were caught in the nets in the tidal portion of the Blackwater, but a specimen of this fish has never been seen before in the river at Kelvedon.

1905 Chelmsford Chronicle...

A conger eel weighing 361b., 6ft. 9in. long, and 18in. in girth, was captured on Saturday the Blackwater at Maldon, Essex.

Early 1900s The Salty Shore by John Leather (published in 1997)...

About 15 Mersea smacks drifted for herring in winter, usually in the Blackwater, sometimes in the approaches to the Crouch...

After the 1870s a few Mersea smacks joined the many others from Harwich, the Colne and Leigh trawling shrimps from Harwich. Some also worked in the Wallet, landing the catch at Brightlingsea or Mersea...

A few smacks dredged mussels using oyster dredges moused with yarn on the hoe to prevent them digging into the bottom. The long nosed gorbills, or guardfish, were caught in season with a form of seine having an exaggerated cod in its middle and seines and peter nets were used to catch mullet on the Dengie shore by the little transom-sterned Maldon smacks...

The Mersea and Maldon fishermen had little interest in spratting, unlike the large numbers from the Colne and some from Tollesbury engaging in this arduous winter fishery...

Some Mersea smacks trawled eels on the Mersea Flats, on the south shore of the island where the soft mud then supported a good crop of eel grass. Brent geese feed on it and it supported millions of eels which were reputedly first trawled there by a Tollesbury fisherman. Smacks from there, and later a number from Maldon, worked the flats at high water until a change in tidal scour and a few harsh winters killed the eel grass...

Half a dozen Mersea smacks worked there during the summer of 1907, catching about 50 pounds weight of eels each hour. Several Mersea smacks were fitted with wet-wells for the trade...

Winkling provided something of a living for the owners of the little gaff rigged open boats or bumkins from West Mersea and the small smacks from Maldon and Mersea which lay in the outfalls along the Dengie Flats...

Before rubber boots became available their crews walked the soft mud in "splatchers" as the boards strapped to their feet were called, gathering the catch...

1914-18 During the Great War fishing in the estuary and all form of civilian movements were severely restricted, not least because high speed Coastal Motor Boats carrying torpedos were based on Osea Island.

1916 Essex Newsman...

Big Fish in The Blackwater. Two members the Dreadnought Sea Angling Society (London), fishing in the Blackwater, near Maldon, havo encountered some large tope. Two which were captured weighed 41Ib. and 81Ib..

1926 Essex Newsman...

A conger eel, weighing over 601b., being caught in the Blackwater off Osea Island, has been exhibited in the shop window of Mr. Brooks, High Street, and afterwards cut up and sold at 8d. a lb. This is an unusually fine specimen of the sea-eel.

1937 Chelmsford Chronicle...

On Thursday large conger eel, measuring six feet in length, and weighing 56b., was captured in the River Blackwater at Tollesbury by Mr. James Heard, dredgerman. Another eel, weighing upwards of 30Ib., was captured at the same time.

1930s Maldon fishing fleet...

 

postcard views of the Maldon fishing fleet

 there are 11 fishing boats in the 1930s scene (on the left) – but only a few by the 1960s (on the right)

 

1930s – 1980s Reminiscences of a Goldhanger resident whose family were Maldon fishermen in the past...

- Recalled seeing fish trunks in the estuary at Maldon, but has no recollection of fish wells in the smacks; they were all removed when boats were renovated to become sailing craft.

- Fishing smacks from Maldon definitely went out into the North Sea, but spent most time in the Estuary, frequently going no further than Osea Island.

- Remembers seeing Mullet shoals jumping in the estuary, but it was very seasonal, bass are also very seasonal in the estuary, and remembers catching many cuttlefish/squid and selling them.

- Recalls catching eels in the dykes/ditches at Goldhanger close to today’s Sailing Club with his father’s help.

- Has witnessed “sea sparkle” - phosphorus in the Estuary at night that lights up the fish in clear water, this bioluminescent plankton floats under the surface and flashes brightly when disturbed.

- Remembers hearing that explosives had been dumped in estuary after WW-2 causing pollution.

- Recalled the “parliament” of fishermen sitting in front of the tin shed on the Maldon Hythe.

- Maldon fishermen had a pronounced Essex dialect and language of their own. His father sometimes had to translate for him. The fishermen seemed to call their wives “mother”.

- Commercial fishing in the estuary was always unpredictable – weather, seasons, cold, ice, boat condition, market conditions, etc. Commercial fishing in Maldon seems to have ended in 1980s

 

1939-1945 The Salty Shore by John Leather (published in 1997)...

Until 1939 Tollesbury was still sending about 25 smacks and 150 men fishing each winter, and its mariners served in many ways during the 1939-45 war. Some continued to fish, incurring a few casualties. After 1945 the energies of the Tollesbury men, like those of their Colne contemporaries, were to be gradually deflected into new ways of finding a living, but the old order of summer yachting and winter fishing lingered for a few years for some.

During WW-2 fishing in the estuary and all form of civilian movements were severely restricted. Osea Island was occupied by the military and the marshes between Goldhanger and Tollesbury were used by USA troops based in Essex for machine gun target practice, and mines and defensive barriers were laid in the estuary. A Goldhanger resident was drowned in the estuary while fishing in the estuary just after the war, as he tried to retrieve his fishing net from a submerged defensive barrier.

1940s Cyril Southgate recalled that when he was a teenager in the village he and his friend fished for eels that were plentiful in the long since disused Fish Pits close to where the Sailing Club is today. The pits were filled in when the seawall was raised and lined with concrete after the 1953 floods.

1949 Chelmsford Chronicle...

Tope Fishing in the Blackwater - A Big Catch. Mr E. Burt and Mr. E. Elliot, of Braintree, had good sport with the Tope in the Backwater Estuary last Saturday afternoon. Fishing below Osea Island, they caught six, the weights next being 20-36 Lbs.

1960s – 1980s   Blackwater Men, by the Emmett brothers written in 1992...

Only part of this book cover commercial fishing over this period, but it contributes to our knowledge of the activity in the Blackwater. Extracts from the book are on a separate webpage on this site at...   Emmett brothers extracts

for example:

- Abundant Flounders were being caught in the Blackwater in the early 1960s.

- They were stored in a “trunk” that were enclosed in redundant submerged boats

- They were sold in Maldon as Blackwater Plaice.

- One trip produced 210 stones of fish

- Herring spawned at Brightlingsea and Clacton were taken in large quantities.

- Winkles from the Stumble were main source of income for the Maldon fishermen.

- Over-fishing led to the downfall of the trade.

The book also describes prolific eels and herrings being caught in the Blackwater at that same time.

1967 The Essex Naturalist: Marine Fauna of the Blackwater Estuary, by D.S. Davis.

This 60-page article gives a detailed insight into the population and condition of fish stocks in the Blackwater Estuary in the 1960s. The study was undertaken to determine possible biological effects of the Bradwell nuclear power station. The power station was in operation from 1962 to 2002. The paper covers all types of fauna found in the estuary including 41 species of “Pisces”. 11 are identified as common/very common, 6 are listed as fairly/often common and 13 could be interpreted as commercially fished.

Extracts from the article are on a separate page on this site at... Marine Fauna of the Blackwater Estuary - extracts

The complete paper can be seen starting at... www.essexfieldclub.org.uk/portal/p/Archive/s/033/o/0002

The fish section starts at... www.essexfieldclub.org.uk/portal/p/Archive/s/033/o/0055

 

1973 in September of this year two Goldhanger residents fishing in the Blackwater with a seine net from a 16ft boat caught a total of 4cwt of sea bass in two trips, both trips were at low tide and in still waters. The average weight of the fish was recorded as 18lbs.

 

1998 Maldon and the Tidal Blackwater,  by  C A Devall....

The former Maldon Corporation were responsible for the fishing rights in the River Blackwater estuary, down to Stansgate creek. The river provided a good living for many, as it was well stocked with oysters, mussels and winkles, as well as eels, plaice and the seasonal cod and  haddock etc. Even sturgeon were caught and presented to the Monarch of the day. There were well established fishing communities in Maldon and Heybridge, who earned a living from the trade.

The late Clarrie Devall was founder of The Maldon Oyster Company, which was established in 1960 and has large Oyster beds close to Goldhanger Creek. The cover of his book shows him pulling in an eel catch...

 

1999 Maldon and Burnham Standard...

Two fishermen downriver aboard the Danzel at the weekend enjoyed a frantic Thornback session. The pair managed no fewer than 16 quality specimens, ranging from 6lb to 18lb. Fresh mackerel and squid was used on small hooks to great effect. They also had six smoothounds which were returned to the river. With the bigger tides arriving last weekend most boats stayed closer to home, finding more bass and roker with traditional ragworm and crab baits. The midweek fishing has been very good out from Bradwell, with the first of this year's bigger tope now being brought to deck. Two men fishing on the boat Kingfisher caught 10 smoothounds to 16.5lb and also had a brace of 40lb tope. Their boat also saw a terrific 52lb specimen taken.

           

2000 In the “Tollesbury to the year 2000” Millennium book (Essex Library ref: E.TOL.1), there is a 12 page chapter on The Development of Fishing. It gives a very good insight into fish stocks and the state of commercial fishing in the Blackwater Estuary leading up to the Millennium. The chapter includes a list of 112 Tollesbury fishing smacks that were registered in 1912.

Here are a few short extracts...

In the 1960s and 70s there was a good stock of fish with plenty of John Dorys coming up the river in summer. Such numbers of fish do not appear today. As fishing boats got bigger and more powerful they could tow three nets instead of one. Ground lines have got heavier, crushing all the food the fish are searching for; such fish as do survive are tracked down with the assistance of electronic fish-finding apparatus. In the latter part of the 20th century, Tollesbury has seen a drift away from full-time fishing. A better living could be made elsewhere, however, since fishing gets into the blood, many still felt compelled to continue part-time or for sport.

At the turn of the millennium there is only one commercially registered fishing boat based in Tollesbury. Probably the biggest factor in the demise of full-time fishing was the European Union Fisheries Policy which came into play in the early 1990s. EU members agreed to reduce the numbers of vessels fishing, to conserve depleted fish stocks, and severe legislation affected quotas, engine power, overall length, safety rules and equipment. It became illegal to sell any fish unless caught by fully accredited and licenced fishing vessels. Mesh sizes were strictly controlled (with severe penalties) for each type of fish species and it now costs many thousands of pounds to comply with the rules, in addition to the cost of a boat. As a result, local trawlers restrict their fishing to pleasure and for personal consumption only.

Although interest in full-time fishing has declined, the numbers of fish in the river can be said to have slowly recovered for most species. Weather is vital to fish movements, and a series of mild winters in the early 1990s enabled successful spawning to take place, especially of cod. 1997/8 produced the best cod fishing in the area for 15 years. Fishing regulations imposed in 1979/80 also resulted in a revival of the Blackwater herring. The 1998/9 sprat season was the best for many years and in 1991 Colchester had the largest landing of sprat in the UK, all caught in the Blackwater.

Cod and stingray come in healthy numbers and sizes and a ray of just under 90lb was caught in the nets in 1996 on Shingle Hills (and released in good condition). Large shoals of mullet appear in June. Bass have increased over the last two years, the largest so far reeled-in in Tollesbury waters weighed 5 lb. Through to Autumn there is only small scale fishing for dabs, sole, plaice, flounders, bass, grey mullet, roker, cod and whiting. Whiting stocks increase through September and October followed by codling and cod. Then the herring return and "300 stone-a-hit" can be achieved by larger boats.

Mid-winter drift fishing for herring continues in time-honoured tradition, as does spratting. Roker, or thornback ray (skate) are plentiful and many travel up river beyond Osea Island to spawn in the warming water of Spring. 300 or more have been caught in a single haul. Dover sole still appear in mid-April as do edible crabs and lobsters. Eels appear in May but their numbers have declined drastically in recent years.

    

postcard views of the Tollesbury fishing smacks

laid up in 1917 (approx.40 boats)                  in the Estuary in the 1930s                           at Woodrope quay      .

2001 Maldon and Burnham Standard...

It's official - porpoises do exist in the Blackwater Estuary.

a photograph obtained exclusively by the Evening Gazette there is concrete evidence that the rare harbour porpoise is alive and well off the Essex coast. Maylandsea fisherman caught the creature in his net off the Dengie peninsula near Burnham. The harbour porpoise is the smallest cetacean in the world and is part of the whale family. The porpoise was returned to the water.

2002 Maldon and Burnham Standard...

A Southend angler landed a 12lb thornback ray on a squid and hermit crab cocktail. A Benfleet fisherman landed the “Most Species” trophy with his bag of tope, thornback, LSD and smoothound.

2003 Maldon and Burnham Standard...

Angling: Girls led the way as the Blackwater Challenge enjoyed tropical conditions. The flotilla enjoyed a record-breaking festival with more than 200 fish landed over two days. A Thorpe Bay girl led the way bringing in a top-class haul of four species to double the existing points record with her 26 fish. That earned her the day's top prize of the shield for best angler. Friday's event was a haul of ray, smoothound and tope to claim the Silver Claretin. A first-timer had a stunning catch which included in 9lb ray taken on fresh mackerel to win the best lady angler award.

2004 Management options for the Blackwater Herring, by The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) Laboratory, Lowestoft - a few short extracts from this 30-page article published in 2004 are given below...

The full article is available at...   https://academic.oup.com/icesjms/article/61/3/297/670918

Blackwater Herring or Blackwater stock, was first recognized separately from the North Sea herring stock in the early 1800s. The mature fish were small compared with North Sea herring and catches could not compete in local markets. Only when the general East Anglian herring fisheries began to collapse in 1955 and there was a shortage of North Sea herring could Blackwater herring be sold without difficulty.

By 1968 some 22 trawlers and driftnet vessels were targeting the stock and catches peaked at 606 tons in the 1972–1973 season. A series of poor years followed and as the stock declined restrictions were implemented, but stocks continued to decline, and fishing was closed 1979.

Fishing was reopened in winter 1980 after a research survey identified clear signs of stock recovery. At the start of the 1988–1989 fishing season, a redefined area for a licensed, driftnet-only herring fishery was introduced in the Thames Estuary. Herring caught inside this area were considered to belong to the Blackwater spring-spawning stock, and landings were monitored so as not to exceed the allowable Catch.

2006 Maldon and Burnham Standard...

Dolphins are making a comeback in waters around Essex. There were six dolphins and 81 harbour porpoises spotted around the county's coastline last year, according to the Essex Harbour Porpoise Survey run by the Essex Biodiversity Project. A white beaked dolphin and a bottlenose dolphin were among the mammals reported by members of the public.

2014 Maldon and Burnham Standard...

Essex police officers have been involved in one of their most unusual wildlife operations – to prevent as many as 40 whales from being stranded on beaches or sandbanks. Officers from the marine unit and the helicopter were called in after the pod of pilot whales was seen entering the River Blackwater. Members of British Divers Marine Life Rescue called police and Coastguard when the whales were close to shallow water at St Lawrence Bay. The whales were about five metres long and in very shallow water with the tide receding.

2014 Maldon and Burnham Standard...

A whale belonging to a pod of 40 trapped off the Essex coast has died. Despite best efforts by Essex Police and volunteers from the British Divers' Marine Life Rescue, a six-foot female pilot whale was recovered at Goldhanger this afternoon.

2014 The Guardian...

Stranded long-finned Pilot Whale on an Essex river

A female calf found on the beach near Goldhanger died in very poor nutritional condition. The 2.18-metre female was one of a pod of up to 40 whales that frequented coastal shallows in and near the Blackwater estuary and was seen feeding on herring earlier this week. 

2015-6 Maldon & Burnham Standard...

Several reports of Harbour Porpoises seen in the Blackwater Estuary, both dead and alive.

 

Fishing in the Blackwater today (2018)

Commercial and sport fishing in the Blackwater estuary is today regulated, and since 2013 the estuary has been Marine Conservation Zone, which is described at...

www.gov.uk/government/publications/marine-conservation-zone-blackwater-crouch-roach-and-colne-estuaries

 

Natural England’s Conservation Advice and maps for the Blackwater Marine Protected Area is at...

https://designatedsites.naturalengland.org.uk/Marine/MarineSiteDetail.aspx?SiteCode=UKMCZ0003#sitemaps

 

advice on fishing and other activities in the Blackwater Estuary can be obtained from Maldon Council’s River Bailiff at...

river.bailiff@maldon.gov.uk

 

fishing on parts of the Blackwater is also regulated by the Kent & Essex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority at...

www.kentandessex-ifca.gov.uk

the Fishing Regulations Blue Book is a single collection of all UK and EU laws and is can be found at...

www.gov.uk/government/publications/fishing-regulations-the-blue-book

Today there are no signs of commercial fishing at Maldon and Tollesbury, or indeed Goldhanger, although several businesses operate on Mersea Island...

Ben’s Fish Ltd...                            www.bensfishmersea.co.uk

Colchester Fresh Fish Ltd...         www.colchesterfreshfish.co.uk

Mersea Island Fresh Catch...       merseaislandfreshcatch.co.uk

The Company Shed...                  www.thecompanyshed.co

West Mersea Oyster Bar Ltd...    www.westmerseaoysterbar.co.uk

 

A summary

Although much tangible local evidence exists, in the form of a jetty, fish pits and a saltworks, as shown in the above Commercial fishing legacies section, Local documentary evidence shows that few records have been found to support the existence of an “extensive fishing trade” based at Goldhanger village when compared with the commercial trade recorded elsewhere on the Blackwater, such as in Maldon, Mersea and Tollesbury.

One reason for the lack of recorded evidence of a fishing trade at Goldhanger or indeed elsewhere is that no ownership of land or property was involved. Nor was it practical in the past to collect taxes from the product of commercial fishing. So few legal or statutory documents such as Deeds, customs records or government surveys were produced that refer to either commercial or non-commercial fishing here or elsewhere.

In contrast, records of fish stocks and unusual species goings going back hundreds of years produced by naturalists, antiquarians and game fishermen and presented in the Records of fishing and exceptional fish above, show that the Blackwater Estuary has always been a rich and diverse source of fish and seafood. There is also more than enough evidence to confirm that in the past Goldhanger residents enjoyed the benefits of this local natural resource both for commercial and personal use.

The legacy of paintings and drawings of fishing smacks at sea going back centuries gives an indication of the hazards and scale  of this commercial trade.

Although it is difficult to interpret fishing trends from records, a comparison between the data from Dr. Laver’s 1898 paper and D.S.Davis’s 1967 paper shows that fish stocks did not significantly change between those years. There is no evidence that the Bradwell nuclear reactor ever resulted in any pollution that affected fish stocks, on the contrary it has be suggested in the past that the large quantities of warm water pumped into the estuary at both Bradwell and Sizewell actually encouraged fish development!

Large scale industrial activities in the upper reaches of the Blackwater and Chelmer rivers in the first half of the 20th century resulted in significant pollution of the estuary with heavy metals such as lead and mercury. It is also known that surplus explosives and chemicals were dumped in the estuary at the end of WW-2.  This together with over-fishing in the North Sea may well have resulted in a decline in fish stocks in the estuary in that period. However in the last 50 years European Union fishing regulations and UK river water quality controls has resulted a recovery of fish stocks, albeit at the cost of controlling and limiting commercial fishing.

Finally, one can now speculate why commercial fishing progressively disappeared from Goldhanger...

 

o   When larger boats became available at other locations around the estuary that could move further out into the North Sea, there was insufficient depth of water to accommodate these bigger boats in the creek and using the smaller boats became uncompetitive.

 

o  Many of the species that were (and until quite recently still are) fished commercially only appear in the upper reaches of estuary at certain times of the year, which probably made a commercial operation that was limited to a local area uneconomic.

 

o  The ancient wooden jetty would have needed constant repairs and replacement timbers, and this may have become been impractical in the circumstances.

 

o  The proliferation of the remnants of fish traps on the north bank of the estuary, that at certain depths of water lie just under the surface, would always have made fishing from small boats on the north bank a dangerous operation.

 

o   Local fishing and salt making could well have been inextricably linked to smuggling activities in the village, and when the coastguards arrived in the 1820s and erected their hut on the seawall next to the fish pits and the saltworks, and overlooking the jetty, the “game was up” and both activities were forced to cease.

 

o   The arrival of railways revolutionised the movement of fresh fish inland, and the lack of a railway at Goldhanger would have made it uncompetitive compared with Maldon and Tollesbury.

 

o   Both the Coastguard Service and the Royal Navy actively recruited personnel with seafaring experience. Young local fishermen would have found this an attractive career with a reliable and steady income.

 

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