The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.53
SUMMER2017

A History of Freshwater Fishing

Our Guest Historian considers the history of freshwater fishing in Britain

When I made my first casts as an angler when I was a young boy on the River Mole in Surrey during the early 1950s, Britain was a vastly different place. We had Queen Elizabeth II on the throne and an Old Harrovian in 10 Downing Street. Now we have… Queen Elizabeth II on the throne and an Old Etonian in Downing Street. Oh well, plus ca change.

FishIn terms of angling, however, things were in fact different. Freshwater fish belonged to one of two camps. There were coarse fish and game fish. Coarse fish such as bream, carp, chub, perch, pike, roach, rudd, and tench mainly lived in lakes, canals and slow-moving lowland rivers. These waters could be of less than the highest purity, for coarse fish can tolerate a degree of pollution. Coarse fish spawned in spring and were protected by a closed season that ran from mid-March to mid-June. They were considered bony and to have a ‘muddy’ flavour; hence they were seldom eaten. The waters they inhabited could often be fished at no cost or for a modest fee.

Coarse fish generally were pursued by cloth-clapped working or lower middle-class men (women were seldom in evidence) known as coarse fishermen. They baited their hooks with maggots, bread and worms. These men tended to get to their fishing locations by public transport. They had not attended Harrow, Eton or, for that matter, any fee-paying school. Many had served in the ranks during the Second World War and most no doubt voted Labour at General Elections.

Many coarse fishermen doubled up as match fisherman, when they competed with their peers on weekends. The results of these contests were Fishdetermined by capture of the heaviest ‘bag’ within a predetermined time. Gambling did not just loom in these contests--it was their raison d’etre. Following the ‘weigh-in’, all fish were returned to the water. No one would have thought of taking a fish home. Instead, the fishermen quit the scene for the pub where they partook of a pint or two or more and a pie.

Then there were the game fish, predominantly brown trout, sea trout and salmon, and game fishermen. Game fish mainly inhabited pellucid lochs or fast-moving streams and rivers of the highest purity. These fish were considered good to eat and therefore often were kept for the table. Many of the waters inhabited by game fish were far from metropolitan centres of population. Scotland, Wales, Ireland and southwestern England were among the best places to find them.

Game fish spawned in the autumn and therefore were protected by a different closed season that had considerable regional variation. The waters they inhabited, certainly in England, usually were privately owned. If accessible at all to the general public, the price of admission was often beyond the reach of the working man.

Game fishing waters were frequented by gentlemen in tweeds who wore shirts with ties. They had attended the right schools and perhaps had served as officers in the Second World War. If they had jobs at all they would have been stockbrokers, bankers, farmers, or lawyers. They drove to their fishing locations in cars with leather seats and walnut dashboards.

Game anglers disdained bait fishing. They refused to use anything but artificial flies to attract their prey. At the extreme edge of this spectrum, game fishermen would use only tiny dry flies fished upstream on a floating line. They did not cast speculatively but only at fish seen rising. No other method, technique or tactic was really ‘playing the game’, for game fishermen were ‘sportsmen’ who adhered to the amateur ideal. They were the Conservative Party at play, and to coarse fishermen they were ‘toffs’. When they finished their day’s sport they removed themselves not to the pub for a pint but to a hotel for a scotch. Women, or rather ladies, did engage in game fishing. Not only was the late Queen Mother an aficionado of the sport, but one Georgina Ballantyne held the long-standing record for rod-caught salmon for one she took on the River Tay in 1922.

Fish and Creel

I would not suggest that any of this represents a strictly accurate characterisation of fishing affairs 55 years and more ago. Coarse fishermen with jackets, ties and trilby hats did exist; the grayling (a game fish) spawns in the spring; the barbel (a coarse fish) prefers fast, gravel-bottomed waters with no trace of pollution. One of the greatest of game fishermen, Sir Edward Grey, or Viscount Grey of Falloden, was no Tory but instead served as Liberal Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of the First World War. I have exaggerated and stereotyped. But like all stereotypes, it has a basis in fact--and I intend to stick with it.

Beginning in the late 1950s or early 1960s things began to change. Newly reservoirs, many sited near cities and large towns, often were stocked with trout. Most of these waters issued reasonably priced day tickets that brought trout fishing within the reach of anglers who had limited means. The trout in these reservoirs often were stocked on a ‘catch and kill’ basis, so that fishermen were encouraged to eat the fish they caught. Greater prosperity, more leisure time and the burgeoning ownership of cars increased access to the remoter areas of the country were game fish were to be found. Many coarse fishermen switched allegiance or, at least, took to game fishing when the coarse season closed. Nevertheless, when I view fellow anglers in my trout fishing club today, I observe a striking difference in social class between them and the other members of my coarse fishing clubs.

Enough of fishermen; back to the fish. The idea that coarse fish are universally unpalatable does not have a long history. Medieval monks raised carp and other coarse fish for the table in monastic stew ponds. The fisherman’s ‘bible’ The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653 and subsequently reissued in hundreds of editions, provided many coarse fish recipes. The purpose of its author, Izaak Walton (1593-1653), in writing the book was as much culinary as sporting. In 1747, Hannah Glasse included recipes for bream, carp, chub, perch, pike, roach and tench in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. The book also went through numerous editions and was the bestselling imprint of the age on any subject.

PikeAs late as the nineteenth century, before the establishment of a rail network that gave centres of population access to fresh sea fish, the consumption of coarse fish appears to have remained commonplace, at least in some sections of the community. Surprisingly, however, neither John Burnett nor Drummond and Wilbrahim discuss the culinary significance of coarse fish. But since Burnett maintains that the “general state of the rural labourer between 1850 and 1914 was one of chronic poverty and want”, it seems unlikely that poor people would have eschewed so cheap and accessible a source of protein. Frank Buckland, a leading Victorian angler, naturalist and writer on fishing, observed that coarse fish were “much esteemed by the poor in certain parts of England”. (Natural History vi) He also noted that the London Jewish community was “especially fond of freshwater fish”--so much so that during Jewish holidays the Thames Angling Preservation Society employed additional bailiffs to restrict poaching from its waters. (Logbook 154; Notes and Jottings 372-75)

Mid-Victorian cookbooks, which were not aimed at the poor, contain numerous freshwater fish recipes. For example, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management from 1863 gives instructions for barbel in port, carp (baked and stewed), matelote of tench, tench and eel pie, and many other coarse fish dishes. Of course, the existence of recipes does not necessarily point to their use but the evidence suggests that in mid-Victorian Britain, at least some sections of the population regularly ate coarse fish.

Examination of more recent cookbooks reveals a different picture. Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course from 1978 (and numerous reprints), for example, supplies recipes for all manner of fish dishes. Her index lists dogfish, flounder, haddock, hake, halibut, herring, huss, mackerel, plaice, salmon, skate, sole, sprat, trout, turbot, whitebait and whiting. But in all this there is no mention of coarse fish. As we should expect, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher conduct a more catholic sweep, but even they refer only to carp, perch, pike and that European interloper (or ‘dangerous stranger’ as they put it), the zander. They are rightly lyrical about zander, enthusiastic about perch and pike, and favor a revival of carp consumption. The other coarse fish, once esteemed by the likes of Beeton and Walton, are nowhere to be seen, at least through the eyes of native British writers and consumers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The recent influx of East European immigrants into Britain has targeted coarse fish as food, or so it is alleged. In November 2007 the Sun and Daily Mail reported that the angling organisation, CEMEX, backed by the Environment Agency and the Fisheries and Angling Conservation Trust, had designed posters warning Poles in particular against stealing, killing and cooking Britain’s coarse fish (not to mention swans). The Polish Christmas, the press warned, was bad news for Britain’s pike and carp. Not that Poles are alone in recognising the culinary merits of coarse fish. The following recipe for chub, as lacking in allure as it is in precision, originated in Bulgaria.

Simply Fried River Chub
Posted by freakbox

Preparation Time 10 Min

Cook Time 10 Min


Ingredients:

As much chub as you can get.
Flower [sic]
Salt
Vegetable oil


Directions:

  1. Clean the fish and remove the scales and the heads.
  2. Mix some flower with some salt to taste and roll the fish in it.
  3. Fry in hot vegetable oil. It is better if overcooked.

It is really simple and taste good. A beer is a must! (www.fishindish.com)

I do not think I will be giving this a try--at least not until I know which flowers to pick and how much overcooking is optimal for the 200 lbs of chub I theoretically happen to have in my freezer. I think I prefer the elaborate British recipe for chub that entails, among other things, baking the carefully prepared fish in an oven pressed between two lengths of wood. The punch line, of course, involves disposing of the chub and consuming the timber.

This joke has any number of variations. See, for example, the following online manifestation with carp as the main ingredient:

“I don't know about Isaac Walton's recipe but here is the way I cook it: You get two pieces of green pine and some baling wire. You get a good campfire going with some nice coals down in the bottom of it. Put your carp in between the two pieces of green pine and secure it tightly with the baling wire. You open up a little spot down in the hot coals, place the fish and pine down in there, and then cover it back up with the hot coals. You let it sit for about an hour and then pull it out. Clip the wires, throw away the fish, and eat the wood! That's the best way I know to eat carp!”

So for many Europeans it appears to be a case of ‘coarse fish good’ whereas for native Britons, if not their impecunious Victorian ancestors, the opposite is true. What is the reason for this cultural divide? I suspect the answer lies in the history of British sport, leisure, social relations and social control.

Mid-nineteenth century Britain was a crowded country experiencing rapid population growth, industrialisation and pollution along with social and political tensions manifested in Chartism and the Hyde Park Riots of 1866. The material divide between rich and poor was profound, as were the social and cultural divides identified by Matthew Arnold and many other writers.

Food Riots

Food riot

Feeding the populace and keeping it docile were major concerns for the middle and upper classes. Some saw fish and fishing as important elements in all this. Freshwater fish needed to be conserved partly because they constituted a valuable future food resource for the lower orders. If coarse fish were to fulfil their historic destiny of saving the country from anarchy they needed to be conserved. In 1878 Parliament therefore introduced a closed season for coarse fish running from 15 March through 15 June. (Food for the Body 285-304) In many waters and all rivers, this closed season remains the law. The consumption of coarse fish was never banned but it was actively discouraged in order to preserve stocks. As generations of British anglers have learned from the moment they first picked up a fishing rod, coarse fish are for sport, not food. The arrival in large quantities of cheap frozen meat from Australasia and the Americas in the 1880s largely resolved concerns about an impending food crisis.

But fishing had other recommendations. The ‘gentle art’ was exactly the kind of ‘rational’, socially cohesive leisure activity that promised to wean the masses away from idleness, dissolution, violence and drunkenness (Buckland for one apparently claimed that he had never seen a drunken angler). It was, as the Fishing Gazette and others noted, a ‘healthy’ and ‘innocent amusement’ pursued by ‘gentle, kindly men’ that encouraged a ‘contemplative’ outlook while fostering ‘good citizenship and thrift’.

Most British anglers think that coarse fish are unpalatable--as most of them in fact may be to the modern palate--but this belief is not based on empirical evidence, for few have ever tasted bream, tench, dace, gudgeon, roach or any freshwater fish other than trout. Some coarse fish at least, and perch is a prime example, are exceedingly good eating--as Fearnley-Wittingstall, Luke Jennings and others have recognised.

And finally, if you would like to have Isaac Walton’s actual carp recipe from The Compleat Angler:

Carp

Take a carp, alive if possible, scour him and rub him clean with water and salt, but scale him not; then open him, and put him, with his blood and liver, which you must save when you open him, into a small pot or kettle; then take sweet marjoram, thyme, and parsley, of each half a handful, a sprig of rosemary, and another of savoury, bind them into two or three small bundles, and put them in your carp, with four or five whole onions, twenty pickled oysters, and three anchovies. Then pour upon your carp as much claret wine as will cover him, and season your claret well with salt, cloves, and mace, and the rinds of oranges and lemons; that done, cover your pot and set it on a quick fire, till it be sufficiently boiled; then take out the carp and lay it with the broth into the dish, and pour upon it a quarter of a pound of the best fresh butter, melted and beaten with half a dozen spoonfuls of the broth, the yolks of two or three eggs, and some of the herbs shred; garnish your dish with lemons, and serve it up. And much good do you!

Sources:

Peter Bartrip, “Food for the Body and Food for the Mind: The Regulation of Freshwater Fisheries in the 1870s,” Victorian Studies 28 (1985) 285-304

Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management (London 1863)

Frank Buckland, The Log Book of a Fisherman and Zoologist (London 1875)
The Natural History of British Fishes (London 1881)
Notes and Jottings from Animal Life (London 1882)

John Burnett, Plenty and Want: A Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day (London 1966)

Daily Mail (20 November 2007)

John Drummond & Anne Wilbraham, An Englishman’s Food: A History of Five Centuries of English Diet (London 1939)

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall & Nick Fisher, The River Cottage Fish Book (London 2007)

www.fishindish.com

Luke Jennings, Blood Knots: Of Fathers, Friendship and Fishing (London 2010)

Delia Smith, Delia’s Complete Cookery Course (London 1978)

The Sun (21 November 2007)

Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler (London 1653)