The litleport Society’s Roger Rudderham tells us about Littleport’s Fishing History! And some medieval poaching stories!
The Littleport Society cancelled all its meetings and events due to the advice given during the pandemic, and the Archive & Collection was also closed to visitors. The work of the Society, nevertheless continued and goes on. We are busy with answering many queries coming in via e-mail, preparing the Summer edition of the Magazine, and we have also purchased a number of interesting items for the collection. A recent bequest to the Society was an old wicker eel hive or trap. This is a great addition to our collection as eels have played an important part in the economy of the Fens.
Fishing was by far the most important of the medieval industries in Littleport. The village was called upon to supply the monastery of Ely with an annual quota of eels. In 1221 the quota set by Bishop de Fountains was 26,500 eels annually, this was increased in 1251 by Bishop de Northwold to 36,000, besides 2,000 ‘bedrepeeles.’ The bedrepeele was probably the lamprey, an eel like parasitic fish that was regarded as a delicacy by royalty and the nobility and must have featured as a dish at the Bishop’s table.
The river through Littleport was divided into fisheries, half-fisheries and quarter fisheries. Each fisherman had his own boat and was only allowed to fish in their allotted section of the river. Anyone caught fishing in the fisheries of others was liable to a heavy fine, or even ran the risk of being expelled from the village. When fisherman John Boystons was caught fishing at night in the ‘pools of Wellenheath,’ in 1316, the Littleport Manor Court thought he should be expelled from the village, but he was saved by Geoffrey Wintring who vouched for his good conduct.
Within a year of his narrow escape from being expelled from the village, John Boystons was again caught fishing ‘by night with nets in the fisheries of others.’ This time he was fined 12 pence, but John seems to have made a career out of poaching in other people’s fisheries. In 1321 he was again in court, along with other fishermen, William Abbott, Michael Gigil, Alan Rushpiler and John Gigil, for taking fish to the value of 20 shillings from a fishery that William Thame claimed was his. Boystons and the others claimed that it was a common fishery, but after the court had inspected the terrier, an official roll that lists who owns what in the manor, it was found that William Thame had been granted the fishery by the lord of the manor, and therefore John Boyston and the others had committed an offence by fishing there, and they were fined 3 pence each.
Confusion over who owned what fishery in the fens around Littleport must have been compounded by the Ely fisheries stretching as far as Prikewily (Prickwillow) and deep into Brentefen (Burnt Fen) and Padenhalefen (Padnal Fen). Hugh de Walpole of Ely even held ‘hereditarily by charter’ a fishery in Crechmere (Crouchmore) for which he paid 5 shillings annually to the Bishop of Ely.
Mentioned amongst the fisheries of Littleport in the thirteenth century is a place called ‘Mudeke,’ The exact location of this place in not known but some historians have identified it with Modich, where in the twelfth century a court was held for the Wisbech district of the Ely Hundred. It would therefore appear that the Littleport fisheries stretched for some miles along the Welney River (Old Croft River).