The lost fisheries of Essex
The collapse and disappearance of the fishing industry has radically changed the appearance of the coast of Essex, as well as the diet of its inhabitants. At the end of the Nineteenth Century, fisheries round the coasts of England continued to be very important, and gave employment to many thousands of people. Those on the east coast were four times more productive than those on the west or the south, mainly because of the banks and shoals of the North Sea, which yielded a consistently large supply of fish. Essex's fisheries, both in the North Sea and in the estuary of the Thames, were important, and the number of fishermen employed in the season was very large.
The Essex fisheries were carried on from fourteen or fifteen stations between Leigh and Harwich. The flat Essex coast was particularly favourable for those species of fish which live in a shallow sea with a bottom of sand and mud.
Firstly there was the North Sea, or deep-sea fishing, in which boats from Brightlingsea were mainly engaged. Secondly, there was off-shore and in-shore fishing, which used to be practised by the fishermen of Harwich, Tollesbury, and West Mersea. Thirdly, there was a flourishing industry of estuarine fishing at Maldon, Southend, and Leigh. Fourthly, there was the shell-fish trade, in which Burnham and Wivenhoe were engaged.
There used to be many methods of catching the fish. For deep-sea fishing, the trawl-net and drift-net were used, although on the Dogger Bank some fish, such as cod, were caught singly on long lines and not with nets. When the fish were caught, the old method was to place them in the well of the boat, where they were kept alive by a constant change of water. The well-boat was thought to have been invented at Harwich in 1712, and that by its means fish were delivered in London in a good, and sometimes almost in a living condition. Since the use of steam-carriers and ice, however, these old well-boats lost their former importance, although at the start of the Twentieth Century they were still used in the Dogger Bank fishery.
The other methods of catching fish around the Essex coasts was by means of shrimp-nets, dredge-nets, kettle-nets, and crab and lobster pots. Kettle, or keddell, fishing was still used to a limited extent off the south-east coast, at Foulness and Shoeburyness, and was employed chiefly for the capture of the various species of flat fish which ware then common in the shallow waters covering the sands at high tide. Kettle-nets were about 110 yards long and four feet high. They wer fixed in position by stakes driven into the ground, and to these the head and ground-ropes used to be fastened. The nets were in the form of the letter V, and were either set singly, or two or more in a line with the apex, which had a kind of purse, pointing away from the shore. As the fish followed the rising tide they passed between the nets, and thus found themselves between these and the shore. As the tide fell they were carried into the purse of the net at the apex. The nets were visited at the ebbing of the tide, and the fish were quickly removed.
Seine-netting was rarely used on the Essex coast, but there used to be a form of trawling for eels on the shores near the mouths of the rivers and on the sand banks of the embouchures. Stow-netting was also carried on extensively, and by its means enormous quantities of sprats used to be captured in a good season. Another method of fishing peculiar to the Essex coast was known as "petering" or " peter-netting." A peter-net was about 120 feet long and 10 feet wide, with corks on the head-rope and leads on the ground rope, and by this means large numbers of codling, mullet, and other fish used to be caught. The oyster-dredge was like a small trawl, but the mouth was made by a rectangle of iron bands, and the net was usually composed of iron rings linked together.
Flounder, dab, plaice, and sole were common, and halibut, turbot, and brill less so. Cod, haddock, and whiting were few, but catches of them were landed at Harwich. The herring was found all round the coast, but there was no special herring fishery, although some were taken in drift-nets in the Blackwater. Sprats were caught in enormous quantities both at the beginning and the end of the year. The importance of sprats is shown by the fact that in Colchester they used to be known as "weavers' beef."
Essex oysters were deservedly famous, and those taken from the beds at Burnham and in the Colne used to fetch a high price. Colchester celebrated the beginning of the oyster season in October by a municipal oyster-feast, and this shell-fish brought a large amount of money to the town. The fishermen of Leigh carried on an active trade in shrimps, for which they trawled in the Thames estuary, and also in cockles, which were prepared for the London market. The "cockling" sheds and the mounds of cockle-shells used to be a familiar sight to all visitors to Leigh.
The Thames had long been poisoned by the discharge of sewage, and that portion of the river belonging to Essex was no longer a salmon river, though it once had been. In the Lea and the Stort, trout, barbel, chub, ruffe or pope, and bleak could be caught, besides better-known fish as perch, pike, and dace. After the Lea, the Colne and the Stour were full of fish. The Cam, in the north-west, had one species, the grayling, which was absent from the other Essex rivers. Whereas the occasional Trout was an artificial introduction, carp, gudgeon, roach, rudd, dace, chub, minnow, and tench were all common, while the salmon, trout, and grayling had almost entirely disappeared due to river pollution in Victorian times.