A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.
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The fishing rivers of Middlesex are the Thames, the Lea, the Colne, and the Brent, none of which, however, rises in the county. The Thames first touches Middlesex at Staines, and from that point to Shepperton the river forms part of the western boundary of the county; and is its southern boundary from Shepperton to Bromley in Essex, where it is entered by the Lea, which from this point northwards to Waltham forms the eastern boundary of Middlesex.
As the Thames appears to have been from time immemorial tidal as well as navigable up to Richmond, (fn. 1) there has always been a public right of fishery in its waters up to that point; but in early times this right was limited by the existence of private fisheries created by the crown prior to the passing of Magna Charta which put an end to such grants. In Domesday Book eleven manors in Middlesex are returned as leasing several fisheries, the owners of which had an exclusive right to all the fish therein, and of these manors three-Staines, Shepperton (Scepertone) and Hampton (Hamntone)-were situated on the non-tidal, and two, Isleworth (Gestleworde) and Fulham (Fuleham) on the tidal waters of the Thames. It also appears from the confirmation by Henry III in 1225 of various charters granted to 'the Charity of St. Mary Merton and the canons there in the county of Surrey' that this order had rights of fishery at Brentford, as it provides, inter alia, that 'no one shall in future fish before the weir of the said canons in Brainford, or more than was wont to be done in the time of the king's ancestors.' (fn. 2) The king's water bailiff and conservator, however, claimed a 'fee draught' or right to take a net down the Thames through all the private fisheries once a year, a right which appears to have been exercised as late as 1820. (fn. 3)
The injury both to fishery and navigation resulting from the number of weirs, kiddles and other fixed engines with which fishery was carried on in mediaeval times led to the enactment in Magna Charta, (fn. 4) repeated in subsequent statutes, (fn. 5) that 'all weirs shall henceforth be entirely put down on the Thames and Medway and throughout all England except on the sea coast,' and in the fifteenth century we find similar legislation with respect to fixed nets. A statute of 1423 (fn. 6) prohibits the fastening of 'nets and other engines called trinks and all other nets which be fastened continually day and night by a certain time of year to great posts, boats, and anchors overthwart the river of Thames and other rivers of the realm,' as causing 'as great and more destruction of the brood and fry of fish and disturbance of the common passage of vessels' as the weirs and kiddles. It therefore enacts that nets should only be used by drawing and pulling hem by hem as other fishers do with other nets; but it may be noted that this restriction is followed by a proviso 'saving always to every of the king's liege people, their right, title, and inheritance in their fishings in the said water.' (fn. 7) In 1393 the conservancy of fishery in the Thames from Staines downwards, and also in the Medway, was entrusted to the Lord Mayor of London by the statute of 17 Richard II, which provided for the appointment of justices of the peace as conservators for carrying out the statute of Westminster (fn. 8) -the first Act which fixes a close time for salmon-and that of 13 Richard II, stat. 1, cap. 19, which, while confirming the former Act, also prohibits the use of nets called 'stalkers' and all other nets or engines 'by which the fry or breed of salmons, lampreys, or other fish may in anywise be taken or destroyed in any of the waters of the realm at any time of the year.' (fn. 9) The City of London retained their jurisdiction over the fishery of this portion of the Thames-the limits of which are marked by City Stone at Staines-until the middle of the last century, when it was transferred, together with that relating to the conservancy of navigation, to the Thames Conservancy Board, incorporated by the Thames Conservancy Acts of 1858 and 1864. (fn. 10) The powers thus vested in the conservators of making by-laws for regulating and protecting the fishery were confirmed and extended by the Thames Conservancy Act of 1894, (fn. 11) appointing the present Conservators of the River Thames.
The fishery in the river is at present regulated by the Thames Fishery by-laws issued by the conservators under the order of council of 1893 which extend and apply to the Thames and the Isis and to 'all creeks, inlets, and bends between Teddington in the county of Middlesex and Gautlet Creek in the county of Kent.' (fn. 12) Above London Bridge only the following instruments and apparatus may be lawfully used in fishing:- Rod and line; flew or seine nets; seine or draft nets; single bley nets; smelt nets; flounder nets; minnow nets; hand or well nets; landing nets; casting or bait nets; and grig wheels. (fn. 13) Below London Bridge such instruments are limited to:- rod and line; hand lines fished with bait; trim tram or four beam nets; and trawl nets. (fn. 14) Fixed nets and all devices for catching or hindering fish, spawn, or fry of fish from entering or leaving the river, and the use of spears, and gaffs, except as an accessory in pike-fishing, are prohibited. (fn. 15)
The close time for salmon and salmon trout is between I September and 31 March; that for trout and char from 11 September to 31 March; that for smelts between 25 March and 27 July, and that for lamperns between 1 April and 24 August; while in the river above London Bridge fishing with rod and line is prohibited from 15 March to June except in the case of rod fishing for trout with an artificial fly or with a spinning or live bait. (fn. 16) Fishing-except with rod and line, and by registered fishermen using grig wheels for taking eels in season-is prohibited in stations which have been staked out and marked by the conservators for the preservation and incubation of fish. These stations are at six places on the Surrey side of the river, namely at Richmond, Kingston, Thames Ditton, Walton, Weybridge, and Chertsey, (fn. 17) and at the same number in Middlesex, namely, Twickenham, Hampton, Sunbury, Shepperton, Penton Hook, and Staines.
The abundance and variety of fish yielded by the Thames as late as the first quarter of the nineteenth century will be evident from the following list contained in Cooke's Topographical and Statistical Description of Middlesex:-
Salmon, flounders, smelt, shad, trout, grayling, perch, carp, tench, barbel, chub, roach, dace, gudgen(sic), pike, eels, lamprey, bleak, ruffee, sturgen (sic), bass, mullet, turbot, sole, plaice, dab, skate, thornback, halibut, pearl whiting, haddock, oyster, muscles (sic), cockles, crab, prawns, red and white shrimps, craw fish, and others. (fn. 18)
The existence in the Thames of so many sea fish, and notably of mussels, may sound, perhaps, hardly credible, but the writer has been informed by an octogenarian relative still living that the piles of Old London Bridge were incrusted with mussels and that the water up to that point, then limpid and green in colour, was quite brackish. Within thirty years of the publication of the above list, however, the supply of fish had already begun to diminish and many of the varieties enumerated by Cooke, notably the salmon, had forsaken the river. Hoffland writing of the Thames in his British Angler's Manual says:-
Salmon have been driven from the river by the gasworks and steam navigation, not one having been caught to my knowledge during the last twelve or fourteen years; although many were taken formerly of a peculiarly fine quality within my recollection at Mortlake, Isleworth, and other places. The brandling, salmon pink, or skegger, has also disappeared; the last salmon I saw taken, in a net, was opposite Twickenham meadow in the year 1818. (fn. 19)
Trout he describes as 'few in number but celebrated for their huge size and the excellence of their flavour,' and as being taken from five to fifteen pounds weight; while pike and jack were numerous, and perch, barbel, chub, eels, lampreys, flounders, roach, dace, gudgeon, bleak, pope, ruff, and minnows were abundant in all parts of the Thames from Battersea Bridge upwards, and fine carp and tench were taken in some places, and smelts near London Bridge. Among a list of fishing stations from below London Bridge to Streatley in Berkshire, he mentions in Middlesex, the Wet Docks below London Bridge, Brentford, Isleworth, Twickenham, Teddington, Hampton, Sunbury, Shepperton, Laleham, and Staines. (fn. 20)
It will be observed that of the above stations Brentford, Isleworth, Hampton, Shepperton, and Staines were in ancient days fisheries attached to manors. The noted Hampton station (at which both salmon, the last of which was taken in 1814, and trout were originally very plentiful, while even sturgeon were occasionally caught-the last in 1824) is mentioned in the Rambler in 1797 as 'the most famous of all barbel deeps,' and Dr. H. Jepson, one of the founders of The Thames Angling Preservation Society, is stated in Ripley's History and Topography of Hampton to have informed the author that he had on several occasions caught over 90 lb. of barbel there before breakfast. Lamperns and jack were also fairly plentiful at Hampton thirty years ago.
Hampton is also notable as being the place where the Thames Angling Preservation Society, to whose efforts and expenditure Thames anglers are indebted for the preservation of the fishery in the river up to Staines, was established at a meeting held at the Bell Inn on 17 March, 1838-more than seventy years ago. (fn. 21) The promoters of the movement were Mr. Henry Perkins of Hanworth Park, Mr. C. C. Clarke, and Mr. Edward Jesse of Twickenham, Dr. Henry Jepson and Mr. Richard Kerry of Hampton, Mr. W. Whitbread of Eaton Square, and Mr. David Crole of Strawberry Hill. Originally formed for the protection of fish from poachers-with respect to which an application was in the first instance made to the then Lord Mayor (Sir John Cowan, bart.), who was at that time one of the Thames conservators (fn. 22) -the society eventually extended its operations to restocking the river, and has thus provided thousands of anglers with twenty miles of free water, which furnishes perhaps the finest coarse fishing in England. Among the consignments of fish placed in the river during 1905 were 300 trout, from 10 to 14 in. at Weybridge; 1 ton of roach, dace, bream, and perch about and below Sunbury Lock; 12 cwt. of roach, perch, chub and bream at Chertsey; and about 1 dozen bream, averaging 2½ lb., with a few chub, perch and roach at Walton. Among the patrons of the society may be mentioned the late King Edward and his Majesty King George. The Hon. Harry Lawson, M.A., is the president and Mr. Henry Whitmore Higgins the hon. secretary and hon. treasurer.
The Lea, which, as has been said, forms the eastern boundary of Middlesex, rises at Leagrave Marsh near Luton in Bedfordshire, and flows east-south-east for 10 miles into Hertfordshire and for 16 miles by Hertford to Ware. Thence it flows for 4 miles southwards between Hertfordshire and Essex to the Middlesex border at Waltham Cross, whence its course is 8 miles south-east by Lea Brooke, Old Ford, Bow and Bromley to the Thames at Blackwall.
Two manors on the banks of the Lea are returned in Domesday as having several fisheries-Enfield (Enfelde) and Tottenham (Toteham)-and the river has never ceased to be productive. The fishing above Tottenham at Edmonton and Enfield is referred to by Izaak Walton, who, as he lived the greater part of his life in London where he first became a fisherman and where he wrote The Compleat Angler, may be fairly claimed as a Middlesex man. (fn. 23) Hoffland, in whose time its course above Limehouse lay through 'a beautiful pastoral country adorned with villages . . . through parks and meadows containing countless herds of cattle and flocks of sheep,' describes the Lea as second only to the Thames in the opinion of London anglers. (fn. 24) The river between Stratford and Lea Bridge was then rented and preserved by Mr. Beresford of the 'White House,' at Homerton, little more than 3 miles from London. He also had the 'Horse and Groom,' a mile above the 'White House,' and the fishery attached to it, and angling in each of these 'subscription waters' was procurable for the payment of half a guinea subscription per annum. Both of these private fisheries are described by Hoffland as abounding in jack and pike, carp, barbel, chub, perch, roach, dace, eels, gudgeon and bleak. (fn. 25) 'Above Lea Bridge,' he says, 'a considerable space of the river is free to anglers up to Tottenham Mills, 5 miles from London, where is Tyler's subscription water, and 6 miles farther there is Ford's water. (fn. 26)
Hoffland makes no mention of trout, which, if not existent in his day, must have been since introduced into the river, since it is stated in an article in The Field of 4 May, 1907, on 'Trout fishing in the Lea,' that 'though not comparable with the Thames, the open or public waters of the Lea are to be by no means despised by the trout angler who has no preserved or private fishery on hand.'
The Colne rises to the south-west of Hatfield in Hertfordshire, running 13 miles southwest past Colney and Watney to Rickmansworth, and entering Middlesex at the northwest extremity flows southward between that county and Bucks past Harefield, Uxbridge -where it divides into several channels forming islands-Cowley, and Colnbrook, to the Thames at Staines. Another arm of the river diverges from its main course at Longford and reaches Staines by Laleham, while another uniting with the Cran-a small stream rising in the high grounds between Pinner and Harrow-flows across Hounslow Heath to Twickenham and Isleworth. Yet another branch runs through Hanworth, Bushey, and Hampton Court parishes.
The manors of West Drayton (Draitone), Harmondsworth (Hermondesworthe), Stanwell (Stanewell), and Harefield (Herefelle) on the Colne are all returned in Domesday as having several fisheries, (fn. 27) and other ancient records show that this was also the case as regards those of Cowley (Covele), Denham, and Whitton (Witton) on the same river. (fn. 28)
Neither Izaak Walton nor Hoffland refers to the Colne, but it is mentioned by Daniel in his Rural Sports, published in 1812, as a good fishing river. The fishing at West Drayton is now preserved by various local angling societies, and is especially abundantly supplied with pike and jack.
The Brent rises near Barnet in Hertfordshire, and entering Middlesex near Finchley flows 16 miles south-west, through the middle of the county, by Hendon, Twyford, and Hanwell, to the Thames at Brentford.
That there was originally fishing in this river is evident from a grant of 1640 by Robert Lee, aliening the manor of East Twyford, 'consisting of 100 acres of arable land, 80 of meadow, 200 of pasture and 50 of wood with free fishery in the river of Brent'- a term synonymous with 'several fishery' (fn. 29) -to John Hooke and his heirs. (fn. 30) The weir at Brentford, already referred to as belonging to the canons of St. Mary Merton, (fn. 31) must also presumably have been at the confluence of the Brent with the Thames. Owing, however, to the utilization of the river for the disposal of the drainage of Ealing and adjacent western suburbs it has long ceased to be available for purposes of fishery.