Fishing for Eels in the Archives

Archives can often yield the most elusive information about subjects that are generally little documented.  So it was that I was looking for some material to bolster an article on eel fishing for a local newspaper (it appeared on 3 June in the Southern Evening Echo and on 7 June 2019 in the Hampshire Chronicle). Searching the online catalogue of the HRO I was able to find 53 entries, each with a nugget of useful information. This involved 13 specialist terms, each prefixed with “eel”, the meaning of which is not always entirely clear.

A more detail examination might give more information, whilst a number of radio and TV programmes in the WFSA may also be fruitful. Thus river keeper Guy Robinson in 1997 spoke of “eel fishing” at Stockbridge, Don Goodwin in 1995 of “eel bobbing” on the river Frome and in 1997 Hampshire thatcher George Wright spoke of his practice of catching eels. There are other clips from Abbotsbury in Dorset, and Caversham, on the Thames.

Newspapers are not the sort of places to publish the detail that historians need, and so here is an extended precis of material garnered from HRO sources, mainly based only on the catalogue entries. References are not given, as the sources will be apparent from visiting www.hants.gov.uk/librariesandarchives/archives/visit, clicking the “online catalogue” tab and searching with “eels”.

Fishing for eels was once an important source of food and revenue.  When the railways came to Hampshire they provided as easy means of getting eels, kept alive in tanks, up to the London market at Billingsgate. The most obvious relic of the practice is on a tributary of the Itchen, the river Arle at Alresford, where an eel house dating from the 1820s, been restored (http://www.towntrust.org.uk/eel_house.htm) and is open to the public for a few days each year. It was part of the Arlebury Park estate of the Harris family.

Downstream, eels, as well as salmon, were also an important resource for the bishops of Winchester and were fished for on the Itchen. In 2009 the remains of eel traps could be seen at Brambridge lock on the canal, and there are also records of an eel house on the main river at Lower Chilland, according to research by Robin Greenwood (ff. 462-3, Unpublished Notes). At least until c.1951, eels were being caught and sent up to London, via the station then at Itchen Abbas. He records eel fishing at Chilland mill, when Major Walter Wilson (1874-1957) and Major Alex Allan (1898-1977) were owners of Lower Chilland House:

“Major Allan used to catch by the top screen at night each autumn eels making their way downstream en route to the sea and the Sargasso Sea. Again the eels on passing under the boom and hitting the screen made their way to the southern side and were also sucked under the sluice. On the other side was a pit, into which they fell, followed by a further screen which was inserted on eel catching nights to stop them escaping down the small channel into the main river. The eels were then caught in a hand-net, put in a wheelbarrow and taken to the eel house, adjacent to the mill cart shed, in the mill yard. Inside the roofed eel house were two tanks set in the ground which were fed fresh water from the mill leet via a small channel which left the mill leet about 100 yards upstream and then ran down parallel to the mill leet, crossing an overflow channel and entering the eel house. Once there were enough eels in the tanks, they were extracted with a hand-net and boxed up. They were then taken in Major Allan’s shooting break to Itchen Abbas Station and sent up to London to be sold. The eel pit probably dates from Edgar Corrie’s time as eels would not have been able to get any lower down the head race. The eel house may well date from an even earlier time with the eels probably caught lower down the mill leet. Piers Wilson also thinks that in his grand-father, Major Wilson’s, time, when the fish farm no longer existed, the eels were caught by a screen just above the mill which can be seen in a photograph taken in the late 1940s, although as mentioned earlier I would just question this given the existence of the higher eel pit.”

The earliest record is of an “eel spear” in the archivescatalogue is in 1623 in the inventory of husbandman John Colson of Hamble. Eels were obviously on the menu in 1789, when Lord Wallingford wrote from Richmond-on-Thames to his mother the 8th Countess of Banbury (a much disputed title, eventually banished in 1813) in Winchester, telling her that he “had rowed up the river and dined at a public house on eel pie and beer for 1s 6d”.

The value of the right to fish for eels (and no doubt salmon) is clear from various leases.  Thus at Burgate, on the river Avon, in 1718 the mill was leased, with the exception of the right to lay “eel pots or nets at the flood hatches”, and in 1865 a separate agreement for an “eel stage” was concluded; there is photograph in the archives of the spot taken in c.1895.

As late as 1944-5, at Ibsley, also on the Avon, and part of the Somerley Estate of the earls of Normanton, there was much correspondence about the “loss of an eel stage”, which had obviously long been an asset; accounts in 1867 record costs of “labour [on] an eel stage [and for] night-watching [against poachers]”.

Eels were also an important resource in Romsey, where in 1902 a plan shows Burnt Mill, Mill Lane, on the river Test adjacent to Eel Weir Cottage. Upstream at Horsebridge Mill some unusual terms appear in agreements, namely, the use of an “eel wire” in 1840 and “irrigation hatches and an eel grate” in 1875. Elsewhere on the river, Leckford was a prime place for eel-fishing.  A painting of the subject was made by James Stark (1794-1859) and a photograph of the “fisherman’s hut and bunny bridge with eel traps” appeared in the 1965 village album of The Longstock & Leckford WI. There was also an “eel weir” near Testcombe Bridge, Wherwell. A lease of Longstock Manor Farm in 1817 refers to an “eel fishery”.

In the process of researching eel fishing, an astonishing list of cures for deafness was encountered. Compiled in the 1720s for Thomas Jervoise of Herriard Park, near Basingstoke, the list includes “oil from a roasted silver eel”, but there are many other recipes, so arcane that it looks as if the various participants were playing a parlour game rather than giving medical advice. They include: “penny royal boiled in spring water”, “having a servant rub the head every morning with a towel for an hour”, “black hellebore, white hellebore, cumin seeds, bay berries, wormwood, rue and camomile, boiled in water and white wine vinegar and the fume[s] allowed to go up the ear from a coffee pot”, “liquor of an oyster”, “drops from an ashen bough put in a fire”, “vapour from camomile, hyssop etc”, “bacon”, “taking the waters at Bath”, and “a Lent fig, skinned, beaten and wrapped in lawn [a form of linen]”. 

Problems with eel fisheries appear in the records of the Avon Association for the Protection of Salmon Fisheries. Thus in 1831 there is a complaint that “the racks of an eel stage at Bickton [were] continued after 10 March”, whilst a few years later “the door of an eel stage [was] locked and the rack up, resulting in a number of young salmon being found dead and dying”.  The association also complained of the destruction of salmon fry ”due to the “erection of machines or engines called eel stages” and of the failure to take up “the hawkes of the eel stage at Bickton after 10 March”. In 1838 the “management of eel stages” was the subject of a court case, The Queen v Joseph Legg.

None of these sources gives a coherent account of the practice of eel fishing throughout the county, but taken together they give rich picture of an ancient practice, now sadly gone with the demise of eel populations

Contributed by Barry Shurlock, 13 June 2019

Eel house, Alresford, 2019
Eel house, Alresford, 2019
Eel house, Alresford, 2019
Eel house, Alresford, 2019
Eel weir Alresford, 2019
Eel weir Alresford, 2019
Eel spear, Alresford, 2019
Eel spear, Alresford, 2019
Eel House, Alresford, c. 1860
Eel House, Alresford, c. 1860
Eel traps at Leckford on the Test
Eel traps at Leckford on the Test