Echoes of medieval fishing in Waterford harbour

As a child growing up in Cheekpoint, there were a number of curious features off the main quay known as Eel boxes.  The Eels which were fished from the village were placed into the boxes to be kept alive, and when the buyers came the eels were removed, weighed and placed aboard a truck with aeriated tanks. When I started fishing eels commercially in the early 80's, the boxes had gone.  Only recently I realised that they probably represented a medieval method of keeping fish, and possibly quite common in the harbour.

The eel boxes at Cheekpoint were a basic construct.  A rectangular box made of sturdy timbers, with holes bored into the sides, to allow river water to circulate.  The boxes were placed into the river in the late spring and the tops floated just above the water line.  They were fixed in place and eels were deposited after fishing through a top side hatch.  Once the summer ended, the boxes were placed on Cheekpoint quay, the green and the Rookery where they dried out for the following season.  It never occurred to me to ask, but I’d imagine no one could have told me just how old they were. As for a photo, alas, I have never seen one.

Recently I came across an old book on seafaring on the English east coast[i], and was surprised, if not shocked to find mention of just such boxes, and employed from medieval times in the keeping of fish for markets.

The boxes in question had many local names including chests, boxes, Corf, Corves, Korb and Koff. Surprisingly to me I managed to find an online link to one such phrase.  The Corf or Koff words derive from Germany or Holland and are taken from the Latin Corbis for a basket.

The boxes were used to keep fish fresh for market, and not just hardy creatures such as eel.  Flats, sole and turbot are mentioned, as were haddock and cod.  In some cases the boxes were housed locally for storage, but they were also towed astern of sailing craft, to bring fish to market. 

I'm speculating that it was a progression on the practice when boats developed to incorporate the boxes.  Over time it seems that boats of various local names but commonly referred to as well boats, i.e. a well was created inboard for the storage of live fish, developed. At their more sophisticated these well boats were used to bring live Cod from Iceland to England and in particular the London market, and led to the curious practice known, and sometimes assigned to the boats as Cod Bangers!

A common destination it seems was the fish chests of Gravesend on the Thames in London. Apparently at Gravesend a vast quantity of fish chests were kept to supply fresh fish to the city of London, and this included (at least) shellfish from the Irish coast including oysters, whelks, cockles and periwinkles.  The Thames became too polluted by the mid 1800's and the practice was moved onto the coast, but by then trains and steam boats led to faster delivery times in any case.
Accessed from Wikipedia
I can't say I ever heard, or read about craft such as well boats operating from the harbour, but isn't it conceivable that they did. And perhaps the eel boxes at Cheekpoint suggest that the practices on the English coast did operate on the Irish coast and harbours too? The eel boxes at Cheekpoint died out in the late seventies because locally it was found that hand stitched bags were much easier when it came to storing and handling eel. But the practice still exists in the keeping of lobster and crab, albeit in much smaller boxes. And if you think the well boats are extinct, google Livewell. You can even buy the technology on ebay!

[i] Benham. H.  Once upon a tide. 1955. Harrap. London

Many thanks to Peter O'Connor for a link to the Zuider Zee Botter, a Dutch well boat


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