John Simpson has been thinking about his early days fishing off Leigh, and the value of fishing from yachts. I’m most grateful to him for sharing his thoughts.
The photos show: Leigh a few years ago; John’s father and mother on board boats; and (please forgive the potential confusion) some black and white images of Leigh taken by my father in the mid-50s. The lady on shore is /my/ mother.
Here’s what John has to say:
‘It seems completely normal to me that you would fish whilst sailing, having brought up at Leigh-on-Sea, a small village on the north side of the Thames Estuary. But I found out that fishing is not for everyone.
‘Once while helping a yachtsman called Leslie Powles step his mast I learned that he’d almost starved to death because of his refusal to catch fish on the last of his great voyages – this was a man who had sailed round the world single-handed three times.
‘At Leigh the tide goes way out, and leaves about two miles of mud, and when I was young there was a small fishing industry of shrimp and cockle boats. The fishermen felt their way in or out of a long creek before the banks dried out completely, often using long coloured poles to push the boat around any tight bits.
‘As a lad I worked one of the local cockle boats for £1 a day (I was lucky and had connections, as I went to school with many of the fishermen’s sons. Any money I made went towards buying a GP14 sailing dinghy. This was good money in the late 50’s/early 60’s, and paid paid more than double what a paper round had paid, and I struggled to get up in time for that!
‘But somehow catching an early tide never seemed much of a problem, even though it was a long day and hard graft.
‘At the beginning when eleven or twelve I only made the tea and was general dogsbody!
‘The fishing boats at Leigh are called bawleys, which may be a corruption of ‘boilers’. After the railway came to Leigh during the eighteenth century, the shrimpers could boil their catch on the way back to land and they could then go straight onto the steam train to London to be eaten fresh in the city.
‘Cockles were different, as they were only boiled up back in the sheds.
‘A days fishing at Leigh if given a favoring early morning high tide meant that parts of the long creek could be missed out on the way out by skipping over mud banks. Leaving on the first of the ebb helped take us east towards the grounds, which were shallow banks formed in the estuary beyond Southend Pier due to the east to west tide.
‘On arrival at a known rich bank that only the skipper knew, the boat was used to tow the gear alongside over the sandbanks against the tide.
‘There was either one or two dredges. They were rather like big garden rakes and would heap the cockles together into big banks. As the tide dropped further the boat would then be deliberately grounded close to the heaped piles of cockles.
‘Then came the hard graft as the crew pulled up their thigh boots (most fishermen at Leigh wore them permanently but folded down!). They jumped off the boat onto the bank with two buckets attached on a wooden yoke across the shoulders. Then filled the buckets with cockles and brought them back to the boat, usually by balancing on a plank of wood as the tide dropped. This was back breaking work, and the men knew we lads weren’t strong enough at first.
‘Once the boss had decided we had enough cockles aboard as the flood tide began. The boat would be driven of the bank as she floated.
‘On the journey home (again with a fair tide) if the catch was good the cockles would be bagged and put on the deck. Finally they were taken off to be boiled in the sheds.
‘It could be a knackering 12-14 hour day and I must admit I sometimes bunked off school to do it.
‘My father also had a passion for the sea and owned several lovely old deep keel working fishing boats and yachts. He refitted them at Leigh but preferred to keep them further north on the River Crouch in the summer, where they stayed afloat whatever state of the tide.
‘My Uncle Len who’d been lucky enough to survive four tours of operations in bombers during WWII took care never to waste a day of his life. He and his pal Arthur had a small wooden replica smack built built called Glad Times. Len had to help Arthur on the boat as they said ‘Arthur left one of his legs at Dunkirk’.
‘They used their boat to trawl under sail but it took them quite a while to master the technique.
‘Having been lucky enough to spend a large proportion of my life either racing, delivering or coaching under sail on yachts, it still seems completely mad to me if you don’t troll a line or two from a boat: our cold British waters still abound with fish.’