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History of Thames Smelt Fishers

The community of Waterside, Wandsworth

(...with William Peters, aged 10, apprentice fisherman)

Painting of Wandsworths Waterside by John William North, aged 10 (1852), from Wandsworths Lost Fishing Village, by Dorian Gerhold

Stanfords Library Map Of London And Its Suburbs 1872, showing the location of the fishing village of
Waterside. By this time its population had almost halved to around 180 and some houses stood empty.

1841 Census (Heads of household)

Waterside: Section from Samuel Leighs 1829 60-foot Panorama of the Thames from London to Richmond

Wandsworths Lost
Global Village
by Dorian Gerhold,
Historical Society,

27 homes occupied by 325 people

54 heads of household: (indented names are sub-tennants or lodgers)
10 were fishermen
16 were lightermen or watermen.
Four fishermen were aged 50: John Wanslow, Thomas Brill, Samuel Perkins and William Peters
They would have been aged 10 or 11 in 1801
(Research by Dorian Gerhold)

No. 21

No 21. was one of three Waterside houses built by Fulham brickmaker John Best in 1677.
It was bought by a fisherman, John Savery,
and three generations of his family lived there until 1779.

Plan of No. 21
In 1815, at the
age of 25,
William Peters
bought the
copyhold of the
By the time of the
1841 Census, when
he was 50, he was
living there with his
wife Sarah and
Only one person by
their 4 children
the name of Peters
aged 1225.
remains on the 1861
Census. William
Also in the
Peters, aged 40,
house were
was a lighterman
2 labourers and
living in the Locktheir families, and
keepers Cottage in
an 85-year-old
The Cut, a dock on
woman, making a
the mouth of the
total of 12.
Wandle that had
been built to serve
The drawing was
the Surrey Iron Railmade in 1848, for
Daniel Watney who way running from
bought the property Croydon, in business
from 1803 to 1846
from Peters

1851 plan of
No 19, also
bought by
Watney, one
of the brewery
family. Of the
13 who lived
there, 2 heads
of household
were registered
as paupers.

(Plans and information taken from Wandsworths Lost Fishing Village by Dorian Gerhold)

IN 1801

Letter from Philip Allwood,

Curate of Wandsworth,
to the Rev Daniel Lysons
at the Inner Temple.
(British Library)

.... 4715
Number of inhabitants,
exclusive of about 100
...fishermen, and their
apprentices, who were
at this time down the
river far below [London]
Bridge, and perhaps do
not return home above
once in a month or six

The Rev Allwood notes

that there are two poor
schools in the parish
in 1801, one for boys
(60 pupils) and one for
girls (80 pupils), so our
apprentice fishermen
should have been
learning their letters.

Waterside was separate

from the centre of
Wandsworth, which
grew up around the High

...in March 1801, I made,

myself, a particular survey
of the Population of this

Easter fell on April 1 in

1801, by which time the
fishermen would have
returned home. There
was no fishing allowed
on Sundays or religious
Lent coincided with the
smelt fishing season and
might have provided a


There were then 400 fishermen, each having a boat and a boy, fishing above and below London Bridge, from Richmond to Deptford.
John Goldham, clerk of Billingsgate Market
Formerly, the Thames from Wandsworth to Putney-bridge, and from thence upwards to the situation of the present suspension bridge
at Hammersmith, produced abundance of smelts, and from thirty to forty boats might then be seen working together William Yarrell, 1836
Smelts have been so plentiful in the river lately, that on Wednesday the fishermen disposed of them on the banks of the
Thames at the rate of 2d. a basket full, containing nearly one hundred; and on Monday, in Deptford Creek,
the draught was so great that they were sold in the manner of sprats, by coal measure.
Robert Gregory, MP for Rochester, recorded in 4 April 1797.
Smelts ...being now in the Thames in large quantities, several person deputed by the main body of Fishermen, applied to the Lord
Mayor..to allow them to begin fishing for smelts immediately. newspaper report, Feb 24 1798
Around 1810 as many as 3,000 smelts were taken upriver towards Wandsworth in one haul and
50,000 smelts brought daily to Billingsgate,
H. Ormsby (London on the Thames, 1924)

Flounder fishing at
Battersea Bridge.
In 1801 there were
bridges at etc, and
they Billingsgate

Flounder fishing at
Battersea Bridge.
In 1801 there were
bridges at etc, and
they Billingsgate



A boat and a boy, Greenwich



Fleeting net:
floating net, as in
drift net fishing
Stow net: a long
purse net (up to
Trinknet: a small
form of stow net
Seine net/drags:
as pictured, right

H. Passfield of Lambeth No.134 eel fishing. (1894) Boats had to be

registered and their owners names, as here, clearly displayed. Lambeth
was the last place in central London where fishing was practised.

Dragnet with iron

bar, also used for
dredging, a winter
occupation for

Dragnetting for smelt at Halling, Medway, 1900, using floats and weights.
Smelt fishing was important on the Medway and went on until the 1930s.
Peterboats on the Medway were called dobles.



This view (left) by William Henry Bartlett (1834-1930) is of

Blackwell Reach seen from Greenwich Peninsula.
The large white building on the opposite bank is the
Blackwall Hotel, which was famous for its whitebait.
Whitebait was a non-existent fish deemed to be a
separate species by such eminent Victorian ichthyologists
as William Yarrell (the illustrations above are from his
1836 A History of British Fishes). This catch-all name for
fry circumvented rules about fishing for smelt, among
other fish. Until the end of the 18th century Blackwall and
Greenwich had abundant smelt catches. It is hard to find
any record of smelt catches in these two riverside districts,
after whitebait dinners became fashionable.
Today whitebait is defined in Europe as being the fry of
herrings and sprats.

The Company of Fishermen

Despite many attempts, a Company of Fishermen
was never established. Regulations stipulated
that only a person who had been brought up a
fisherman was allowed to sell fish.

Watermen and lightermen were

represented by the Citys
Watermens Guild, but fishermen
had no organisation.

Fishermen apprentices had their names entered in

the City Waterbailiffs Record Book when starting
their apprenticeships, and when they were completed
seven years later,

Some members of the The

Fishmongers Guild invested in
larger fishing boats. (Their hall by
London Bridge is pictured here)

Smelt from Online Baits UK, Humphreys Farm, Chelmsford (3.10 for pack of a minimum of 16, plus 7 postage)