Perhaps one fish that is synonymous with the Fens is the eel. Indeed Ely is thought by some to have derived its name from the fish. This is disputed by some, but considering the history of the area it makes sense to me. The Northumbrian scholar Bede certainly referred to the area as “Elge” which is thought to be an old Northumbrian word meaning “district of eels”.
Certainly eels are a great source of income and wealth in Medieval times. They were even used as currency to pay taxes, levies and rents with both the Witham and the Welland celebrated as a source of valuable fish. The abbeys and priories at Ramsey, Crowland, Spalding, Bardney and Kirkstead all benefitted from income derived from eels along with other fish. Each religious house could account for tens of thousands of eels in a year. Eels were one of the most popular fish to eat in Medieval England and were possibly consumed more than any other freshwater or marine fish combined. This is hard to imagine today as consumption is so low in this country that they are nearly all exported to Holland.
The importance of the eel as currency is illustrated in the Domesday Book that lists hundreds of examples of eel rents with eels being grouped into bundles of 25 into a denomination known as a stick or a group of ten known as a bind. This may sound bizarre today, but eels could be easily preserved using salt, smoking or drying them. As a currency they were certainly divisible, portable and had an element of durability once preserved. Ely monks are reported to have paid 4000 eels a year to quarry stone at Barnack near Stamford to build their monastery.
By 1666 eels had become scarce in London when Samuel Pepys “bought two eels on the Thames for which I paid 6s.” To put this into context six schillings in 1666 is equivalent to about £50 in 2022.
Eels were deemed to have medicinal benefits. For example, warts were treated by rubbing them each with eels blood. A garter worn around the leg made of eel skin would prevent swimmers getting cramp. The eel was even said to be able to cure alcoholism: “If you would make some notorious drunkard and common swill-bowl, to loathe and abhor his beastly vice, and for ever after, to hate the drinking of wine; put an eel alive into some wide-mouthed pot with a cover having in it such a quantity of wine, as may suffice of itself to suffocate and strangle the eel to death. Which done, take out the dead eel, and let the party whom you would have reclaimed from his bibacity, not knowing hereof, drink of that wine only as much as he listeth.”
I think drinking wine that had had an eel die in it might put me off drinking too!
From the eighteenth century eels were a good seasonal income for the fenman and even up to the 1930’s accounts of £100 a day being made from eels was not unusual in the season whether on Cowbit, Whittlesea or Welney washes. The season being described by the fenman Ernie James as, “When the worms come up the eels are biting in the rivers.”
Several methods were used to capture eels on the Fens.
The eel hive is a woven basket normally out of willow. This forms a tube of willow that has a barbed entrance that can only be entered one way and is shuttered off by a woven cage or net at the other end. This is usually, but not always, baited with anything from fish to road kill rabbit and placed in a running water course, often in the shade of overhanging willow. Eels swim along and enter the hive, often tail first, and are trapped by the design of its mouth, typically a small purse net is at the end allowing water to flow through but retaining the eel. The hive can be picked up and the captured eels collected with ease. I last saw willow hives being used in the River Glen at Surfleet Reservoir in 1989 where three hives had been set.
Eel hives could occasionally be made of hazel or even wire. However, these were not deemed as successful because one of the advantages of willow is that eels like to suck its bark making the hives themselves attractive even without bait.
An eel glave, sometimes called an eel gleave or eel spear was a serrated fork on a long pole. This could be used on a punt to propel the punt forward in a drain whilst at the same time spearing eels from the mud below to be gathered in a bucket on the punt. It could also be used on the side of a drain or above a sluice gate or siphon. When pasture was flooded on the washes to a shallow depth it was also used to spear eels that may be crossing from one water course to another. A similar device was used for pike fishing, but it had more points and not the serrations and broad spears designed to catch more than one eel at a time.
Totting is a mode of taking eels with a large bunch of worms threaded on worsted, and attached to a conical lead sinker weighing from one to two pounds. In this way quantities of eels were sometimes taken, especially in tidal rivers or when in flood. The fenman would have his boat made fast mid-stream. From this he dropped his tot by means of a line at the end of a short rod. When a bite was felt the rod was raised quickly but steadily. The eels dropped into the end of the boat, and the tot was lowered again to the bottom of the water course.
Eel nets: - I have seen these in two forms. The most common I have seen has been the purse net that is almost identical in design to the net used to catch ducks at the end of a decoy pipe, albeit with a smaller mesh. The other form of net is a lamb net that I have seen used on marsh creeks. This is a pole with a hoop on it that contains a net with tiny purses sewn into it. You simply either stand in the channel or walk along it and allow eels and other fish to swim into it. I have been told that sometimes lamb nets would be used at night with small fires lit along the drain side to entice eels into the net.
The 21st century has seen greater measures to protect the eel in all stages of its life cycle from elvers to adults along the waterways of Eastern England. This has seen greater care in irrigation and water drainage systems to ensure eels and elvers can swim without harm or interference.
The eel has fallen out of favor with the British pallet. It is still possible to buy smoked eels and even jellied eels locally these fish tend to be an acquired taste that tends to be confined to fashionable food fairs and markets.