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Fishing for history in Medway

When Keith Nicholson, of Beaufort Road, Strood, read our earlier story of the Medway bawley Thistle, he got in touch wondering about a similar vessel, Iverna.

That was the boat on which his uncles Morriss and John Hill fished the river for shrimps, soles and other species.

Iverna is now high and dry at the Historic Dockyard, among the lifeboat collection, together with the brothers’ doble – a smaller traditional Medway boat – possibly called May.

Iverna in light airs but under sail. She appears to have a party of sight seers on board (5589251)
Iverna in light airs but under sail. She appears to have a party of sight seers on board (5589251)

“I used to go down with my dad on a Saturday to do a bit of fishing with my uncles,” he said.

“We would drift down with the engine just ticking over off the Dockyard to catch shrimps, and then cross over to Cookham to fish, before returning.”

Iverna, he said, was bought from another fishing family the Letleys. By the time his uncles worked her, fishing was just a pastime.

They earned their money working in the Dockyard or on the tugs.

It turned out that Keith’s mother, Phyllis, originally a Hill, had written down her experiences as the youngest member of a long-established Medway fishing family.

His niece Paula Kennington, who lives in Cornwall, has compiled a comprehensive family history.

Generously, they have lent me both documents which offer a fascinating insight into an essential part of Medway’s past.

The story begins with part of Phyllis’s account... There have always been bridges that spanned the River Medway from Strood to Rochester.

The one that was built in 1885 was wide enough for houses that my father, Harry Blake Hill – later to be nicknamed Curly – was born in, in 1876.

He was the son of John Thomas Jennings Hill, a fisherman by trade as all his forefathers were.

Dad left school at the age of 10 and went onto the boat to help his father.

The Medway fishery existed in the 15th century, being given a charter in June 1446 by Henry VI to fish and govern the River Medway.

Rochester Admiralty Court sessions are still.

It’s there that the fishermen and freemen of the river renew the vows to the upkeep of the River Medway.

An apprenticeship is served for three to four years and it is only when that is finished, they get their indentures and become Freemen of the River.

Phyllis Mary Nicholson, pictured in 1938. She was the youngest of the Hill family (5589216)
Phyllis Mary Nicholson, pictured in 1938. She was the youngest of the Hill family (5589216)

During this time, they do not receive wages, only such pocket money as their masters might give them.

They were allowed “crab money”. This was from small crabs which they were allowed to sell to local housewives for about four-a-penny.

All freemen of the River were entitled to keep anything they caught in the River.

When coal barges were unloading their cargo, dad would always go to their berth and dredge for any coal that fell overboard.

Any person doing this who was not a freeman, could be taken to court and given a heavy fine.

My father served his apprenticeship under his father and got his indentures in 1890.

He met Ada Sarah Anderson – a girl from Upnor – and they were married on April 17 1897.

Dad was 21 and mum was 19. They had nine children: Harry, Mabel, (always called May), Leslie, Thomas, John, George, Susannah, Morriss and myself, the last, Phyllis.

I was told by my mother that at eight-months-old I was put on the floor on my tummy in front of the fire. The fire incorporated an oven and a hob. They had no gas oven then.

The house was lit by oil lamps. My brother George came in to get some hot water and took the kettle off the stove, but his hand slipped.

All the hot water went over my back and down my legs.

Dad rushed in after hearing the cries and got a bottle from the cupboard and poured the contents over me.

This bottle contained the oil from the liver of the sting ray fish, which I was told saved my life.

The doctor was called but he said there was nothing he could do, just make me comfortable until the end.

He called the next day and was more than surprised to see me alive. He continued to call, and my mother always says that I knew his knock as I always started to cry.

This is Harry Blake Hill aboard his bawley during a fishing trip in 1905. His crew mate in the stern has not been identified (5589246)
This is Harry Blake Hill aboard his bawley during a fishing trip in 1905. His crew mate in the stern has not been identified (5589246)

Apparently, he wasn’t too gentle when he dressed my back. To this day – I am now 85 nearly 86 – I still have the faint scar marks.

Another cure the fishermen used was the sandpiper or pipe fish. This was used to relieve whooping cough.

The fish were formed into a ring and hung up to dry. The technique was to grate up a little – only enough to cover a sixpence – and give the powder with jam or honey to swallow.

This was to make the child vomit, to give relief from the whooping.

People used to knock on our door and ask if dad had one of these fishes at home.

The doctor even told his patients of the remedy. The Susannah was built for grandfather John T.J. Hill and was launched by his daughter Lizzie in May 1908 with a bottle of eau-de-Cologne.

The boat was named after his wife. Grandfather decided to have an engine installed as well as the sails.

By the time it was finished the boat cost about £300, which was quite a lot of money in those days.

Some of the other fishermen laughed about putting the engine in but they were always glad of a tow if there was not enough wind to get them home.

Fishermen nearly always made their own nets and sent away for special twine. Many a day during my childhood, I watched the nets being made

Morriss and John helped too. There was a copper boiler on board the boats, so the men could cook the shrimps straight away.

After they were put through a sieve, they were bagged up in little sacks, a gallon in each. My father would put these onto the trains to London. Strood station was about 100 yards from the pier so was very handy.

The shrimps were sent to the hotels. My father also supplied his cousin Bert Hill, who had a fishmonger’s shop in Strood High Street.

There is a photo of him standing outside his shop. Among the boats working off Strood Pier were: Jubilee, skipper Alf Letley; Hilda Marjorie, skipper Len Wadhams with brothers Josh and Roland; Susannah, skipper Harry, my dad with Horace, dad’s brother, John and Morriss, my brothers.

Another family was named Pocock but I don’t know the name of their boat.*

Iverna in light airs but under sail. She appears to have a party of sight seers on board (5589251)
Iverna in light airs but under sail. She appears to have a party of sight seers on board (5589251)

All of these families were distantly related in some way. Grandfather TJ Hill, who lived 1843 to 1928, was Chamberlain of the Fishery from 1901 till his death.

Leonard Wadhams, dad’s cousin, who lived 1895 to 1970, was Chamberlain from 1946 until his death. His son, known as Boy, took over.

The fish they caught included Dover soles, pouting – like a small whiting – and smelts**, which were caught between Rochester Bridge and Aylesford and were considered a delicacy.

Their smell always reminded me of cucumbers. When smelts were caught they were put into boxes of 50 and sent by rail to the hotels in London. Dad also caught lobsters, crabs and eels. Sometimes they would dredge for oysters and mussels but gradually they gave up doing it as the oyster beds faded out.

My mother did not enjoy very good health, so my sister (Susannah) never went out to work but helped in the house.

To provide a little bit of money for her, dad gave her a gallon of shrimps which she sold daily at the door for tuppence a pint.

Those were the days! During the month of August we had a big fair that came to a piece of ground at the back of the houses.

It was called Strood Fairground and was owned by travellers. People came from miles around.

We children enjoyed it and always looked forward to it as it came during our school holidays.

During this time the people from the caravans looked to the locals to wash their blankets and so on for the coming winter.

One year my mother did it, working outside in the garden and using a long bath.

It was so hot that my father and brothers put up a tarpaulin over her head to keep the sun off.

We children always helped with the washing by turning the old mangle. The fair people were very generous with payment and appreciated the help of local people.

We children were sometimes invited into their caravans and couldn’t believe what we saw. They were so small, yet spotlessly clean and tidy – more comfortable than some of the houses.

  • The Pocock family lived at Upnor and later moved to Chatham. Their boat, Thistle, is currently under restoration at Faversham and is the last Medway bawley still afloat.
  • Smelts are related to salmon and came into the Medway in vast shoals.

They are a bright silver fish eight to 10-inches long and I can confirm they do indeed smell like cucumber

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