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History & CommunityCatch of the Day

Catch of the Day

Having grown up in a landlocked county the nearest waterway was the canal, the Kennet and Avon, sometimes called “The Cut”. In my younger days it was stagnant and my early efforts at fishing with a hazel rod and bent pin ended without a catch. However a mackerel fishing trip from Lyme Regis was a great improvement and I am certain a member of the crew was over the side putting them on my hook. I have also engaged in crab fishing in Bridport Harbour with small boys and girls asking “How many have you got—oh I have more than that”. Of course, the crabs are all thrown back after the count, although I once saw one get away and crawl towards the toes of a small girl, causing loud shrieks.

It may be expected that near the sea early man, the hunter—gatherer, would collect shellfish and spear fish in shallows, much easier than chasing animals. Later when the Romans arrived here we have been told of many finds of oyster shells where they camped. In his book Dorset J.H. Bettey found records of fishing and finding shellfish in the Mesolithic period. Much later in 1086 the Domesday Book records fishermen at Lyme Regis and Brige (Bridge) near Weymouth and many families fishing. By 1340 all the coastal inlets from Studland and Swanage to Weymouth were noted as important for fishing. Tithes were paid for fishing in many coastal parishes in the Middle Ages. Herring, hake, pilchards, ling and mackerel were all mentioned, as well as salt fish from Brittany and Normandy. By the 16th century, in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and James I, Poole had a fleet fishing off Newfoundland for cod. Celia Fiennes in the late 17th century wrote of excellent fish in Dorset, including Purbeck oysters, crab and shrimps. Daniel Defoe also said Dorset fish was “the best in England” and barrelled up for London, West Indies, Spain and Italy.

Our friend Elizabeth Buckler Gale is a mine of information in her book  Farmers, Fishermen and Flax Spinners—the story of the people of Burton Bradstock. She tells us that Burton men were employed to fish from Bridport Harbour, with 11 craft employing 54 men in 1565. The largest vessel was the “Great Anne”, 30 tons with a crew of 10. In Burton men formed gangs as fishing crews to catch mackerel, sprats, herring, whiting and other fish in season. The Manorial Rent record for 1744 – 1752 states that Abraham Lawrence had “fishing rites”, rights to fish from the sea, at 2s 8d, which he might rent out to other fishermen. Around that time the Church insisted that no person “shall shoot a sean (seine net) on a Sunday … or put a boat to sea… shall be prosecuted by the Churchwardens”. The seine net is small mesh shaped like a long bag with narrow ends and is thrown from a rowing boat parallel to the shore. A rope at either end on shore is drawn in, bringing in trapped mackerel and sprats, with sometimes whiting, skate, spider crabs and “blen and duncow”, locally named species. Defoe saw this and large quantities of mackerel, to be sold at 1d per 100 in 1724. Lines, nets, ropes and sailcloth were made locally and in 1814 a fishing net could be made “roped fit to put the lead on ready to go into the water at 9 – 10 guineas”. But mill owner Roberts complained his workers were unreliable, leaving work in the mills to go fishing.

In 1887 catches of mackerel were good and several boat loads were sold at West Bay and sent off by train. A look out man on the cliff would watch for fish straying, moving in a shoal, and signal its direction. A cow horn was blown to call villagers to help hauling in nets when fish were about to be landed. Elizabeth imagines men leaving tilling the land when the call of “vish strayen” came.  Loads of fish were carried from the beach in baskets, or horses and carts for heavier loads. A fishing crew could be up to 20 men, all taking a share in the proceeds. In 1905 from April to September 2,321 bushels of wet fish, valued at £296, and £6 of shell fish were caught at Burton. Wives helped to mend nets, but also walked carrying large baskets to sell fish, for example as far as Maiden Newton, 15 miles away. The local river Bride also supplied eels and trout, to supplement the sea fish.

Bridport Harbour still has its Salt House, now a community hall, but originally storing salt for the Newfoundland trade. It has been said that Bridport factory workers were often paid, in part, with salt fish from Newfoundland. Recently mackerel have driven whitebait ashore on the Jurassic Coast, a return to the days Elizabeth Gale was writing about. Now local hand dived scallops are on sale and whelks and spider crabs are sent overseas.

Elizabeth also tells us that early in the season a service was held on the beach to bless the boats and pray for good catches. On May 12th flower garlands were made and carried round Burton and later cast on the sea. Some years ago we attended a community event at Abbotsbury where garlands were cast on the water, with a large bird becoming a young maiden in the surf, perhaps reminiscent of the Burton tradition.

Bridport History Society moves inland on November 11th with a talk by Jane Ferentzi-Sheppard “Around Hardown Hill: Life of a community in the 1800s” at 2.30 pm in Bridport United Church Main Hall, East Street. All welcome, visitors entry £2.50.

Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel : 01308 456876.  

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