The Mammals, Reptiles, and Fishes of Essex
“a contribution to the natural history of the county”
written by Dr. Henry Laver in 1898
Dr. Laver, vice president of the Essex Field Club, and a contemporary of Miller Christy, has provided an amazing insight into the demographics of fish in the Blackwater Estuary during the 1800s in this 170 page hard-back book. Here are some extracts from the introduction...
Of the 234 distinct species for these islands given by Francis Day (Fishes of Great Britain and Ireland), 113 have been already observed in Essex. This list, compiled as it is chiefly from the observations of a single naturalist, unassisted save by a few scattered records in local papers, and these without any exactitude of detail, can by no means claim to be final...
It might have been expected that, in at least one of our numerous fishing villages, there would have been found some educated and intelligent observer who would interest himself in the study of how his fishing neighbours subsisted, on what their marketable fish fed, and what species were brought in their nets to the surface. Unfortunately, however, this branch of Natural History appears to have been entirely neglected in this district...
Maldon, Mersea, Tollesbury, and the villages on the shores of the Blackwater have a considerable population engaged in the sea fisheries, mostly on trawlers belonging to other ports, both of the North Sea and the English Channel. I do not think any of their boats take part in the drift-net fisheries of the North Sea...
A form of trawling pursued on the Essex coast, and by no means common elsewhere, is the trawling for eels on the shores near the mouth of the rivers, and on the mud-banks of the coast just outside the rivers. Sometimes this is a very paying business; and, from the naturalist's or ichthyologist's point of view, there can be no more edifying sight than to be a spectator of the turning out of the haul, with leisure to examine the mass of mud, weeds, and living freight brought up by the trawl...
A form of fishing practised principally on the shores of the Blackwater, by which large numbers of Codling, Mullett, and other fish are sometimes caught, is known as "petering," or "peter-netting". A peter-net consists of a net about twenty fathoms long and ten feet wide, with corks on the head-rope and leads on the ground rope
36 pages of the book are dedicated to identifying the 113 species of fish “observed in Essex”. The 30 species below are those that Laver specifically refers to as found in the Blackwater, plus the 11 species referred to as “common” in all the Essex estuaries and 10 that could be interpreted as commercially fished....
BASS or BASSE
A fish taken occasionally in all our estuaries. Mr. E. A. Fitch records the capture of several in the Blackwater. They are very good for the table. I have seen some nearly twenty pounds in weight.
BIB OR WHITING POUT - Locally, WULE or WHITING WULE
This is extremely common during the winter, and is known among the Essex fishermen by the name of " Wule." It is delicate eating, but I do not consider it of much value. When freshly caught, the colouring is extremely beautiful ; but the brilliancy soon passes off, and the scales are easily detached.
BLOCK'S, or THE GREY, GURNARD
I once, and once only, caught this fish in some numbers, during September, in the Blackwater, off Mersea.
Also very common. Both this and the last-named species are frequently caught by persons fishing from piers, even in rather shallow water ; and they are constantly captured in shrimp and other trawls. The local name for all three species is "Bull-rout."
COMMON BEAKED WHALE
This Whale appears to come into British waters regularly in the autumn, and specimens are killed almost every year on some parts of the coasts of this island. John Hunter records one captured in the Thames above London Bridge in 1783. Another no doubt of this species, is figured in Dale's History of Harwich and Dovercourt, it having been captured in the Blackwater estuary.
Until quite lately, this was another inhabitant of the Lea only among Essex rivers. Now it must be added to the list of Blackwater fish.
This fish is taken continually in the season, on all parts of the coast, by nets and hooks. Though generally considered by the London dealers as of no value, it is, when cooked, according to my experience, nearly or quite equal, to the Sole, and, therefore, far better than the Plaice, which (for some reason that I cannot understand) is much preferred by the dealer. It may be because of the smaller size of the Dab. The largest I have ever caught weighed one pound and a halt.
This fish is found in all our Essex rivers. It seems, at first sight, a mystery how isolated pieces of water can have become stocked by this fish But, if we remember that the " Elvers' or young Eels, are always moving up stream, following even the smallest trickling to its source. The whole subject is one of the greatest interest to naturalists, and is an admirable example of the necessity and value of careful and. long-continued observation of even the commonest species. I consider Eels the very finest and most delicious of our fresh-water fish, especially after they have left our rivers and taken up their residence in salt water.
This is a very common fish all round the coast. It takes a bait greedily.
I have found this fish very commonly in trawling for eels amongst the Zostera marina on the muddy shores of the Blackwater. Unlike the rest of the family, this species is entirely confined to the sea : otherwise, its habits are very much those of its brother Sticklebacks.
A fish common everywhere on all parts of the coast, ascending rivers much beyond the tideway, and very frequently seen in the slightly brackish water of the marsh ditches. Flounders sell everywhere, but I cannot say I think them of much value for the table.
Yarrell says it occurs constantly on the Essex coast. I consider it common in the season all round the coast, entering and passing some distance up our rivers, as far as the limits of salt water, and perhaps even beyond it. It is most wary, and difficult to keep in the net when enclosed. It jumps over the head-rope, and some- times makes a grand rush with its companions in a body, tearing its way out, unless the net is in good order. If one succeeds in leaping over the head-rope, the whole shoal follows like a flock of sheep.
This occurs commonly all round the coast. It was formerly taken in the Estuary of the Blackwater in sufficient numbers to make it worth while to fish for it with drift-nets after the manner followed (although on a much larger scale) in the North Sea. Of late years, considerable numbers of Whitebait, satisfactorily proved to be Herring fry, have been taken in the Crouch and the Blackwater, and dispatched to London.
LESSER GREY MULLET
This is not as common as the last-mentioned species. Some specimens were, however, taken, in June, 1895, in the Blackwater Estuary.
I have occasionally taken this fish while trawling in the Blackwater. It appears to be frequently caught on the coast, judging by the numbers that one sees exposed for sale.
This frequents the entire Essex coast. It is usually caught in nets. Though occasionally eaten by fishermen, it is, according to my taste, far too rank in flavour for a more delicate palate.
John Hunter, the anatomist, records the capture of three specimens of this savage and destructive animal in the River Thames, towards the end of the last century There is, in the British Museum, the skull of a specimen taken on the Essex coast Some years since, I saw two whales which had been killed in one of the creeks of the Blackwater. These, I have no doubt, were of this species, but no record was kept of them, and I do not recollect what became of their bones. Probably they went, as usual, for manure.
This voracious fish is always much too common, and in some years more especially so. It neither leaves a bait on the hook nor hardly an untouched fish in the fishermen's net. In handling it, great care should be taken to avoid its dangerous spines.
Although it is very common on all parts of the coast, Plaice is said "not to be taken by the hook. While fishing with a very small hook and light tackle, however, I have taken them very frequently, both in the Crouch and the Blackwater. It is a very good-flavoured fish, although rather watery.
Who does not know this merry and active creature? It occurs everywhere on our coasts, and is as frequently seen during stormy weather as at any other time, apparently revelling in the tempestuous waters. It is so common that I have not thought it necessary to give any records of capture.
RED GURNARD or ELLECK
I have often caught this fish in the estuary of the Blackwater, opposite West Mersea. During those seasons in which it occurs there, it may frequently be captured by means of hooks and by trawling. Sometimes, according to my experience, it appears to be absent for several seasons. I do not consider it worth cooking.
Found everywhere throughout the county in streams and ponds.
Although we have no river in this county that may be called a Salmon-river, the fact that an occasional fish is taken on our coast entitles us to speak of the Salmon as being still truly a member of our Fish Fauna. In former years, before the Thames was poisoned with sewage, it is well-known that Salmon regularly ascended the river. One was taken in the mouth of the Blackwater in 1882 and a few are still caught annually in that river.
SEA TROUT or BULL TROUT
This is occasionally taken on the coast, Mr. E. A. Fitch records the capture of a specimen in the Blackwater, near Beeleigh.
This very common and delicious fish occurs on all our sandy coasts in great, but largely-diminishing, numbers. The trawl is the chief instrument for capturing it, since it very rarely takes a hook.
SMEAR DAB, LEMON DAB, OR MARY SOLE
This is taken frequently on the coast and in the estuaries, but only by trawling. It is one of the best of this useful and well-flavoured family.
This is occasionally taken in all our rivers, but it is rare. When captured in the Thames, within the jurisdiction of the City of London, it is usually judged a proper present for the Lord Mayor's table. The capture of a Sturgeon, weighing 131 Ibs., in the Blackwater River, near Beeleigh Mills, Maldon, is noted as a remarkable circumstance. Mr. Fitch records the capture of two very large Sturgeons in the Blackwater on May 9th, 1886, and May I5th, 1890. The latter, which weighed 212Ibs. and measured seven feet eleven inches in length, was exhibited at Chelmsford, and eventually went to Sweeting's, in Cheapside.
STING RAY, OR FIRE FLAIRE - locally FIERCE CLAW
I have occasionally taken this fish when trawling in the estuary of the Blackwater. If I may judge from the number of needles made from the spines upon its tail that I have seen in the possession of fishermen, who use them for stringing flat-fish together through the gills, for the convenience of carriage.
This very common fish is found in more shallow water than any other species of Skate. It is usually esteemed the best of the family for the table.
THREE-BEARDED ROCK LING
This has been taken in the River Blackwater by Mr. E. A. Fitch.
I have also taken this fish in the same estuary, but not so frequently. The pectoral fins of the species are very beauti- fully coloured.
Another well known and valued member of this family. This fish arrives in our estuaries about the middle or end of September, and gives good sport to fishermen, as it takes the hook freely. In some seasons, it is very abundant.