In the days when Seaford catches went down in history

Kevin Gordon
Kevin Gordon
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LAST week I mentioned about the sea-monster which was caught in Seaford Bay in 1833. When I read about this strange event, reported in a Brighton newspaper, I was interested that the fishing boat which landed this unusual catch belonged to William Catt, the owner of the Tide Mills in order to catch fish for his workforce.

It must be remembered that fish used to be the main source of food in Seaford for hundreds, indeed probably thousands of years. Once of course, Seaford was a busy port, the largest in Sussex but after the River Ouse clogged up with shingle in the sixteenth century, most fishing families moved west to Meeching and the “new haven”.

Some fishing boats however remained at Seaford as part of a small beach-launched fleet. In 1743 a traveller mentioned that Seaford fishing boats were “drawn up onto the beach for security” the port having long since dried up.

The seafront would be dominated by fishing vessels, fishermen and nets drying and being mended by the fishermen’s wives. The women would also be responsible for gutting and preparing the catch and stuffing the fish into earthenware jugs for carriage inland. (A stopping place en-route to Lewes was a pub at Kingston, hence its name “The Juggs”) This industry was so important to the local economy that Seaford fishermen were exempt from military service.

Many years ago I spoke to Percy Thompson, one of the last residents of the Tide Mills. I asked him about his diet, particularly as there were no shops in the village. He laughed and told me it was a silly question – the answer was of course fish! Us Seafordians used to eat lots of fish.

I have never been a fisherman – I once caught a stickleback in a pond near Polegate and I must admit I was a bit squeamish taking it off the hook. However many still brave the cold to catch fish from the beach. I am told by the owner of the tackle shop on the corner of Blatchington Road and Clinton Lane that business is good and so are the fish. Apparently there are a lot of mackerel around at the moment particularly at high tides.

It seems that mackerel was the main catch. In June 1788, a storm destroyed the ‘mackerel nets’ of Seaford fishermen and the locals generously raised £20 to replace them.

According to the press, Seaford Bay in July 1864 was a “pretty sight”. There were a large number of commercial trading vessels in the bay which had become wind-bound by a strong westerly wind. But it wasn’t the ships which were of interest to local people but the mackerel. A huge shoal of them were in the bay, presumably because of the wind and were so numerous that they could be seen from the shore. People were able to easily catch fish from the beach and fishing boats were quick to take advantage. Even the smallest boat was able to land about 3,000 fish. The catch was quickly taken to London for sale – I imagine at the Billingsgate Market, where it made between 11 shillings and 16 shillings per 100 fish. As Seaford had just got its train service just a few weeks before, I wonder if the fish was taken to London by train?

Mackerel were (and still are) abundant in Seaford Bay and a few weeks earlier, in May 1864, there were even more spectacular shoals of mackerel, which were so numerous that fishing boats from Eastbourne and Brighton came over to cash in on this natural bonanza. Two boats from Brighton managed to net over 8,000 fish each and were quickly taken west to be sold at the Brighton Fish market where they made 25 shillings per 100. Some of the men made £8 in a day – a huge amount at that time.

The year 1864 was obviously a good one and in October another spectacular shoal of fish was seen in the bay, this time whiting. One of our fisherman by the name of Mitchell, was in the bay with his seine nets looking for mullet, smelts and other small fish when he was stunned to sea the bay turn silver with fish. He told the Brighton Herald that he witnessed thousands of fish skimming, or has he called it “scolling”, the surface. The older fishermen declared that such a site was unprecedented. Mitchell managed to land 72 score (1,440) of the fish in his nets, despite the fact that whiting were usually line caught as they usually live on the sea bed. The fish were sold at five shillings for 20 and Mitchell became rich. Fishermen said that this event was so unusual it would go down in history so I am happy to record the matter nearly 150 years later!

Reports of other large catches of fish include a gigantic shoal of herring in the bay in January 1813 and masses of sole caught in the bay in August 1836. That same year, local fishermen complained about Brighton fishermen “poaching” huge lobsters which were abundant under Seaford Head. One of the lobsters was three feet long and weighed nearly 10lb – now that really is a sea monster!