extracts from...

Blackwater Men

by Arthur & Michael Emmett in 1992

This book was written by a father and son who were Maldon boat owners, charterers and fishermen, and recalls their many experiences between 1920 and 1990. Most of the 170 page book refers to their boat ownership and chartering experiences, however about 50 pages describe commercial fishing from the 1960s to the 80s and contribute significantly to our knowledge of this activity in the Blackwater during that period. Here are some extracts...

I began to learn the secrets of the fishermen at the age of ten when, two weeks before Christmas 1962, I went down river with Cliff Claydon in a skiff to pick winkles for the first time. I was told to stay on the gravel while he put on his splatchers and worked off in the pan-ways of the mud. Splatchers are nine inch square wooden plates which are strapped to the feet to prevent sinking. We returned to Maldon on the flood tide after dark and I remember being bitterly cold...

My next trip with him was in the spring and because the tide was very early we had to bike down. This meant lashing sacks onto the carrier of the bicycle and hanging the bucket on the handle bars. I met Cliff at his cottage on the Hythe at about 5.30am and we set off for Goldhanger, six miles distant. Passing down Fish Street we mounted the sea wall and rode round it another mile until we reached some gorse bushes where we hid the bicycles. We went over the sea wall into Wagers Creek to pick up winkles near the Old Sinker. Once bagged up, we carried them on our shoulders up to the bicycles, strapped them onto the carriers and the long haul home began. I did this many times but it never appealed like the trips in the skiff...

Dredging for oysters would continue until the first frosts of winter made the ground hard and stopped the dredges from cutting into the culch properly. This, coupled with the shorter days led most fishermen to go winkling. The lowly winkle played a great part in the yearly cycle of some of the fishermen. Starting in October and finishing in April, the winkling season represented more or less half the working year. During this time the man would be bent double for up to six hours a day, straightening only to load the skiff or bicycle for the long haul home which could be six or seven miles on the road or an equally hard row on the water.

At the Stumble which is to the north of Osea Island, there is an obstacle called The Causeway that joins the island to the mainland. It meanders across the mud, bisecting the creek. The barrier could only be crossed by skiff at about half tide which made it impossible to work in one day. One way to get around this problem was to bike down and leave the bagged up winkles on a buoy line, to be picked up on the high water with the smack. It was just possible under motor to leave Maldon as soon as she was afloat, get over the hard, pick up the bags and return in time to moor before the tide ebbed away. Another way was to row down, saving water over the hard on the ebb and leave the skiff anchored. The only other way was to circumnavigate the island, but this was a journey of nearly three times the distance.

The closed season for shellfish, as laid down by the borough council's licence, was from 15th June to 31st July each year. The licence stipulated that no rights were to be exercised except the right to catch "floating fish with hook and line, soles, flounders, mullet, skate, thornback and garfish by net". The water at this time of year always went "as clear as gin" and much weed and jellyfish floated up and down on the tide, which made trawling ineffective. At night the water was said to be "on fire". This was caused by microscopic organisms emitting phosphorescence which illuminate fishing gear almost as if it were plugged into mains electricity. This was a time when some of the men went onto the land for work or unloaded the steamboats. Others practised net work, such as Peter-netting, eel and mullet dragging, grubbing and babbing, which was not so badly affected by these problems.

When the summer holidays came around I was once again with Cliff. This time it was Peter-netting for flounders. We rowed down the river to the Low-way by the North Doubles buoy where we laid to anchor while Cliff stood in the stern sheets of the skiff and laid the net out ready to shoot. The net was said to have gained its name from the disciple who used one on the Sea of Galilee nearly 2000 years ago. It was an anchored net, with anchors at both ends, which was shot across the tide to open it...

Live fish were put into a trunk. This was a small boat-shaped object with a lid on it and holes bored through, so that it floated semi-submerged in order to keep the fish inside alive. The trunk had to be towed home which was hard work owing to the fact that it had to be rowed slowly so as not to drown the inmates. Dozens of trunks could be seen moored off in the Blackwater "Bath Hole", where they would float even when the tide was out...

Maldon in those days was a favourite destination for trippers in charabancs and this was the market for flounders. They were sold strung on a wire, three small ones for half a crown, whilst a "big-un" would fetch two shillings for a single fish. There were about a dozen men in this trade and they could be seen in the afternoon sitting on the head of their skiffs, with the trunk alongside and a sign up which simply read: 'LIVE FISH FOR SALE'. Although they were only flounders, they had adopted the name Blackwater Plaice for selling purposes...

Grubbing and babbing must be among the most simple and ancient forms of fishing. Grubbing was the catching of flounders by hand. The man would stir the mud upstream so as to thicken the colour of the water then, starting downstream, he would gradually work his way up against the flow of the tide feeling the bottom until a flounder was located. Holding it down with his thumbs, he would slide his fingers under the body and it then lift the fish into a purse net hanging from his belt.

Eels were caught by babbing. This rod and line operation involved no hooks but the bait of lug or garden worms was threaded long-ways onto about 18 inches of worsted with a special long needle. This was then curled twice and tied onto a line along with a lead weight. A short stick acted as the rod and the line was simply rolled around the end of the stick so there was no need for a reel...

The fisherman would sit in a low sided punt, hanging the line over the side until the weight touched the ground. He would then raise it slightly and the eel, passing on up the river on the early flood, would bite on the worms entangling his teeth on the worsted. The fisherman, feeling a tug on the line, would lift it into the punt and knock the eel off into the bottom. A day's babbing might start as far down as the shoals at Millbeach, working the first of the flood up through the Basin Flat, Smack Hole, the Bath Hole, on up to the Bridge Hole and Beeleigh. Constant moves of anchorage in this way meant that the depth of water could be kept to a minimum...

A herring net hangs like a curtain in the water and is allowed to drift with the tide, the fish “gilling” into the mesh. The gear would be shot at about half ebb, if working in the river, to be stood by until it had drifted down to low water and then back up with the flood. It was hauled in by hand over whichever side suited the wind direction. Once on board, the net would be pulled over a pole suspended from the top of the wheelhouse reaching forward to be lashed to the mast, parallel to the deck. Shaking the net as it was pulled over, the fish would drop to the deck leaving just a few that had to be picked out by releasing their gills from the mesh. It was mainly herring in the catch sometimes whiting, mackerel, gurnards, smelts, garfish and even the odd cod or mullet were taken...

One trip produced 210 stones of fish which the haulier and fish merchant, Richard Hayward of West Mersea, took to Colby 's at Lowestoft market where they made for each seven stone box. It was a remarkable increase in earnings considering we had been winkling for £25 per week each. Sometimes when fish were caught on a Saturday night it meant that the boat would be alongside Maldon Quay on Sunday morning with the catch on deck. One particular Sunday I had phoned the haulier to come and pick-up the fish and when I got back to the boat where I found the crew selling dozens and half dozens of herrings at a time to people on the quay. They had almost run out of newspaper to wrap the fish in so I went up the hill to where I lived to fetch some more... 

In the early spring the herring spawned on the Eagle Bank between Brightlingsea and Clacton where large quantities were taken in a very short space of time. Working on the high water, the net would sometimes have to be hauled almost as soon as it was shot because it would sink with the weight of fish. Hauls of many tons were common...

The net for mullet is similar to a herring net in that it is a sheet of netting, but that is where the resemblance ends. The 150 yards of continual netting with a three inch mesh has a head line with corks and a heavy leaded line 12 feet below it. The gear is shot in a semicircle. Starting from the water's edge, it is rowed out and back and the net is then pulled ashore. I found mullet dragging a most exhilarating job because you are in close contact with the fish. It becomes a contest between you and them and sometimes they won...

We were working in the shoals at Millbeach one night when so many fish hit the downriver wing, it could not be held. The shoal took the net out into deeper water where they were able to escape. It was an amazing sight to see several yards of net rise out of the water with jumping fish...

While we were waiting for the last of the tide to ebb away, we noticed mullet fish swimming around us and, as luck would have it, we had the drag in the stern sheets of the skiff. We made two shots filling Alan's massive skiff up to the thwarts with a mixture of mullet and bass. This time we were in the right place at the right time with the right gear. More often the net would be laid out and then the search for fish would begin, travelling sometimes miles in and out of creeks and investigating various spits until fish were seen to move...

Mullet jump, a bit like salmon, or turn and leave a whirlpool in the water. The marks they left on the mud made when their split lips and under fins touched the mud were an indication to where they had been feeding on the previous tide, The marks look as if somebody has drawn two fingers, slightly apart, across the surface for about two to three inches...

Over-fishing led to the downfall of the trade. A total ban at one time put many boats out of business, then small quotas and restricted seasons made it uneconomic for those left, even after the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food lifted the ban. Maldon as a trawling station had been dying since the Second World War, mainly because of growing pollution coming down the rivers from inland towns and the dumping of high explosives in the estuary after the war...

By the end of the 1950s most of the fishermen were concentrating on the dredging of oysters and gathering winkles. The major factor in the decline of trawling was that the commercial fishing grounds were getting further and further to seaward as Maldon was as far inland as the long Blackwater estuary could put her...

Fishing was not just a job, it was a total way of life and it set them aside. The language spoken would be described by most people as an accent, but this is only part of the truth. It was actually a complete dialect. In their offshore remote world, the fishermen had unknowingly protected Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Huguenot words and sayings. Landsmen of Essex, being infiltrated by interlopers, as the fishermen called anybody from outside Maldon, had lost their speech origins long ago...

Gleaning a living from any form of fishing is a precarious business because you really are only as good as your last trip. Blank times, gear losses and fickle markets meant that there was no such thing as an ordinary day's work because you never knew when the work would evaporate or when the next opportunity would arise. So the pace of work on a good day would be as if it were the last for some time - even if it were not. The blank times or days of bad weather were called “days to the King”' - the royal variety - and they bred philosophical, eternally optimistic characters...

 

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