A true ‘fisherman’s tale’ of two metre long Sturgeon that used to be captured in the Medway.
This is a story of losses. A lost environment, the loss of sturgeon from the Medway, the loss of a ‘nice little earner’ for the Bishop of Rochester, and possibly the loss of the right of the people of Rochester to claim all large fish captured in the Medway.
Some 600 years ago the Medway was home to a significant population of sturgeon. The fish was quite probably the European Sturgeon (Acipenser sturio). Although descriptions of sturgeon captured in the Medway, during the 19th century, stated they were in the region of 6 feet in length, the sturgeon could grow to about 20 feet and weigh around 400kg. A fish of that size would certainly have provided a large number of portions – and could that explain why Edward II, who had a large court to feed, decree in the 14th century the sturgeon was a “Royal Fish” and that any caught in English waters must first be offered to the monarch – unless a special dispensation had been given.
Based on 19th century news reports of sturgeon captured in the Medway, it would appear that dispensation may have been given to Rochester – perhaps commensurate with its City status? Fish that the monarch was not in a position to receive could be sold but so as not to ‘miss-out’ a duty was attached to each sale. The duty raised from the sale of a Medway sturgeon was shared three ways between the Monarch, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Rochester. It was estimated by a journalist in 1866 that in former times when there was a plentiful stock of sturgeon the Medway, the Bishop of Rochester’s share provided him with a considerable income. (Dover Express, 9 Nov. 1866.)
I have intentionally used the term ‘captured’ when referring to the catching of a sturgeon. Sturgeon tend to feed on shellfish and crustaceans which they find with their barbels – sensitive filaments that hang from its mouth. It is therefore highly unlikely that they would have been caught with a ‘hook & line’ – unless by accident. The news reports I’ve discovered suggests the sturgeon were largely captured using a net. The alternative way was to shoot or spear the fish, but by capturing it alive and keeping it alive, it would have helped maintain its ‘freshness’ whilst being transported.
The river Medway once provided an environment that would have been good for sturgeon to feed and breed. Rather like salmon, sturgeon live in salt waters but move into freshwater to breed. Until locks and weirs were installed on the Medway the river was tidal up as far as East Farleigh.
It is not difficult to envisage the scenario that led to the demise of the Medway’s sturgeon. Once locks & weirs were installed downstream from East Farleigh, the sturgeon’s breeding waters would have diminished or become harder to reach. Add to this overfishing, industrial & human effluent and the large Men of War ships that frequented the Medway up to Rochester, it is little wonder that the Medway became inhospitable for the sturgeon. By the mid to late 19th century it seems that a sturgeon was only spotted in the Medway once every six or seven years. (Dover Express 9 Nov. 1866.) However when a sturgeon was captured in the Medway it was extremely newsworthy and news reports appeared nationally. Today the European Sturgeon is regarded as a critically endangered species and is protected.
Reports of Sturgeon Captured in the Medway
The following précis are of news reports of the ‘captures’ of sturgeon in the Medway. Detail contained in the reports suggests that the sturgeon and other large fish captured in the Medway, ‘belonged’ to the City of Rochester. Perhaps I should say ‘once belonged’ as I’m not sure whether the loss of city status will have affected the right of Rochester to claim such fish.
The dates preceding each of the following reports pertain to the month the report was published, however it would seem that the season for capturing a sturgeon in the 19th century was the summer.
July 1774: Historical report of large sturgeon being captured in the Medway near Maidstone. Weighed 160lbs, (pounds) and was 7ft 4 inches long. (Dover Express – 9 November 1866.)
July 1843: First sturgeon taken in the River Medway for a century!? Whilst some workmen were at work on the premises of Messrs Davis and Sanders, lime-burners, Horn’s-place, a small village situated on the banks of the Medway, and about four miles distance from Rochester, they observed a large fish floating on the surface of the water. They immediately procured a boat and net, and succeeded in capturing a very fine sturgeon, measuring between 5 & 6 feet in length. However rather than handing the fish over to the City of Rochester it was sent to a London market but was returned, so it was said, at the insistence of the Corporation of Rochester. However there are those who believe the price asked for the fish was to high and when it failed to sell it was returned to Rochester. The report stated that there had only been two instances found of sturgeons being caught in the river Medway. The last one was taken about a century ago. (Kentish Mercury – Saturday 1 July 1843 / Leamington Spa Courier – 1 July 1843.)
October 1845: Royal household accepts the offer of a Royal fish. A noble sturgeon measuring between 5 & 6 feet was taken from the Medway. Mr. James Lewes, the son of the Town Clerk, contacted the Master of the Royal Household who accepted the Royal Fish on behalf of her Majesty. (West Kent Guardian – 11 October 1845.)
June 1849: Sturgeon politics? A fine sturgeon was caught in the Medway, at a place called Bream Hole, near Snodland, by Richard Baker and John Orpin. It measured 6ft. 11 inches in length, and 2ft 9inches in circumference. The fish was taken to the Mayor of Rochester, Robert Clements Esq.,. Ever on the alert to prove loyalty and attention, he instantly gave instructions for the fish to be conveyed to Buckingham Palace, which it reached in a fine condition. (West Kent Guardian – 9 June 1849 / Reading Mercury – 9 June 1849.)
April 1851: Piscatorial rights of the Mayor of Rochester were clarified in a court case concerning a fight between two fishermen. The dispute concerned the capture of a porpoise caught at Halling where one man stating it belonged to the Mayor and the other who stated that only sturgeon belonged to the Mayor of Rochester. This led to a court hearing at which the Mayor stated that his “piscatorial privileges” extended to all large fish – sturgeons, porpoises and whales – captured in the Medway. This claim by the Mayor was somewhat ridiculed by the press who saw it as a further evidence of his “capacious swallow” as he claimed many rights over the river. The point of contention here, it seems, was that the Mayor of Rochester was claiming all large fish captured in the Medway, not just those captured within the boundary of Rochester. (South Eastern Gazette – 22 April 1851.)
May 1862: Another indication that Sturgeon captured in the Medway were the property of the City of Rochester. George Jenkins whilst fishing a short distance above Rochester Bridge captured a fine sturgeon. It measured 6ft., in length, 29 inches in girth, and weighed 72lbs. The fish was presented to the Mayor who immediately forward it by the principal water-bailiff, as a present to her Majesty. (Bedfordshire Times and Independent – 6 May 1862.) Interestingly this report stated that all sturgeons, as well as certain other fish caught in the Medway, were the property of the Mayor and Corporation of Rochester, and that the fish was presented to her Majesty as a “present”.
July 1863: Amateur fisherman captures another monster fish from the Medway. An unusually large sturgeon measuring exactly 7ft., and weighing 170lbs., was caught by George Jenkins, a fisherman from Rochester. He was engaged in his “avocations” (hobby) in Limehouse Reach a short distance below Rochester Bridge. The fish which was “one of the largest every caught in an English river” presented a significant challenge to land. Once landed the fish was received by the Mayor of Rochester who at once instructed the water bailiff to convey it to the Prince of Wales [later Edward Vll] at Marlborough House. It was delivered alive in the afternoon. This was the second large fish caught by George Jenkins. (Westmorland Gazette – 11 July 1863.) Why the fish was not sent to the Queen wasn’t stated but she was still in mourning for Prince Albert who had died 15 months previous. It could also suggest that the Mayor had some discretion as to whom the Royal Fish should be presented.]
June 1867: Medway sturgeon presented to Queen Victoria. The sturgeon that weighed between 90 and 100lbs., was conveyed to Queen Victoria, at Windsor Castle, by the Mr. Watson, portmaster of Rochester, on behalf of the Corporation of the City of Rochester. (Essex Standard – 28 June 1867.)
April 1868: Perhaps not the largest sturgeon caught in an English river. A fine sturgeon was caught near the Rochester gas works / Limehouse-reach, by a Henry Mellish who was fishing with a net. The fish was conveyed to the premises of the principal water bailiff. After being viewed by the Mayor and several members of the Corporation, the Mayor ordered it to be forwarded to the Queen, and the following day it was conveyed to Windsor Castle. The fish was 7.5ft long, had a girth of 2ft. 11inches, and weighed 130lbs. The report stated that in accordance with the ancient City Charters, all “Royal” fish caught in the Medway belong to the Mayor who presents them to the Sovereign. It was claimed that this fish was the largest ever captured in this country.(Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser – 20 April 1868 / North Devon Gazette – 21 April 1868.) It was enviable that such a bold claim concerning ‘size’ would be challenged – and it was! The challenger stated that a sturgeon caught at Eske (hamlet in the East Riding of Yorkshire) weighed 460lbs., exactly 330lbs more that the one captured in the Medway at Rochester. (Bristol Times and Mirror – 21 April 1868.) It could have also been challenged locally, if based on weigh, as the fish captured by George Jenkins in July 1863 weighed 40lbs more!
September 1870: Medway sturgeon presented to Mr. Gladstone. A surgeon measuring 5ft 9 inches and weighing 46lbs., was caught by Alfred Hill, a fisherman, near the Tower, above Rochester bridge. Mr. E. G. Watson the principal water-bailiff, was directed to convey it to Mr. Gladstone, and present it to him in the name of the Corporation of Rochester. (Maidstone Telegraph – 24 September 1870.)
June 1872: George Jenkins captures his fourth sturgeon in seven years. A 6ft 6 inch long sturgeon, weighing about 112lbs., was caught in the Medway opposite Chatham Dockyard. It was convey under the orders of the Mayor, Mr. W. Woodham, to her Majesty at Windsor Castle, by Mr. E. G. Watson he principal Water Bailiff. This was the fourth sturgeon George Jenkins has captured in seven years. (Manchester Evening News – 24 June 1872 /Glasgow Herald – 25 June 1872.)
August 1879: A “Monster” sturgeon shot by a Maidstone man. Recently two men shot in the Medway, above Maidstone bridge, a sturgeon weighing 132lbs, and measuring 7ft. 9inches in length. Details where sent by Mr. Alexander Russell of Town House, Maidstone, in a letter to The Times. He claimed to have shot the “monster sturgeon” with a bullet and wire cartridge. The fish was sent to the Queen at Windsor Castle. (Kentish Mercury – 16 August 1879.) [Allington Lock was built in 1792, from this date the river ceased to be tidal at this point. Presumably the fish was able to transit through Allington Lock when it was used to enable a boat to pass, or it managed to traverse one of the weirs.]
August 1881: The Rochester Corporation sends a Medway sturgeon to the Prince of Wales. A splendid surgeon was captured in the Medway, off Rochester by a fisherman named Wadhams of Rochester. It weighed 65lbs., and was 5ft. 8 inches in length. It was at once handed over to the principal Water Bailiff who dispatched it to Marlborough House for the Prince of Wales. (Shields Daily Gazette – 5 August 1881 / Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper – 7 August 1881.)
July 1894: Rochester didn’t get its hands on this sturgeon! The lock keeper at Allington secured a sturgeon which had been seen in the waters for several days. It weighed 70lbs and measured 6ft 3 inches. It was offered to Maidstone Museum where there was a specimen from the Thames – but not one from the Medway. It was noted that it had been many years since a sturgeon had been captured in the Medway. (Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser – Thursday 12 July 1894.)
The size of an adult sturgeon would have fed many mouths. The flesh of the sturgeon that chiefly dwells in rivers is somewhat like veal and the roe furnishes caviar that appears to have been served on toast. Its air bladder furnishes isinglass that was used before gelatine to make jelly and blancmange.
Dining on sturgeon though would have been the preserve of the rich and privileged. Many medieval recipes can be found on the internet. One recommended that slices of the fish – each slice about three fingers thick – be cooked in parsley and vinegar and covered with powdered ginger – but don’t be tempted to try as the European Sturgeon is now a protected species and you could find yourself in trouble with the Queen and the Courts!
Some Legal stuff!
At some point in history the Mayor of Rochester became the person designated to own or receive sturgeon captured in the Medway. There are so many ‘statutory instruments’ concerning the management of the Medway fisheries that I suspect there’s PhD awaiting someone who can unravel them!
Based on lay-logic, it seems unlikely that this matter would have been dealt with in the City’s original charter of 1211 or Edward II would not have needed to lay claim on all captured sturgeon. However Edward II’s claim stated that “the king shall have all whales and sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere in the realm, except in certain places privileged by the king.” Could it be that one of the privileges that came with Rochester’s City status was ‘ownership’ of all sturgeon captured in the Medway?
Some news reports of sturgeon captured in the Medway stated that they belong to the Mayor and Corporation of Rochester. Further, those the Mayor sent to the monarch were identified as being conveyed as a “present” – suggesting the monarch didn’t own the fish as a right. It is also perhaps significant that the Mayor did not always present a captured sturgeon to the monarch. The above details reports that sturgeons were presented to the Prince of Wales and to Prime Minister Gladstone, as well as to the monarch. Just as the Chinese use pandas for political ends, it makes you wonder whether Rochester tried to achieve similar with sturgeon!?
Another Charter was bestowed on Rochester in 1446 in which Henry VI granted exclusive rights to the citizens of Rochester to take fish from the river Medway between Sheerness and Hawkwood Stone near Snodland. With the ‘disposal’ of the monarchy by Oliver Cromwell, his administration needed to issue ‘guidance’ in respect of charters awarded by the monarchy. Amongst the State Papers issued in 1652/53 were protocols covering such diverse matters as how to deal with witches, and the management of sturgeon captured in the Medway. (Portsmouth Evening News – 22 April 1885.)
Despite the various charters, amendments and notes of guidance, tensions seem to reign over fishing rights in the Medway. This led to the setting up of the Medway Court of Admiralty in 1729 that was charged with responsibility to decide on disputes over the oyster fisheries which had existed in the river Medway from a time before memory. The Court’s powers were further clarified in 1865 which detailed the species of fish that should be of concern to the Court – but no mention is made of sturgeon. The Court still exists and sits once a year unless circumstances require otherwise. More information on this Court can be found at www.rochesteroysterfishery.org.
The ancient claim of the Monarch over any large fish caught in British waters, remains enforceable today. In 1980, on hearing that 30 people of Looe in Cornwall were to tuck into a sturgeon captured in English waters, Buckingham Palace claimed the fish under the ancient right established by Edward II. The folk of Looe had apparently tried to do the right thing by contacting the the Palace but it would seem the operator did not know to whom the call should be directed.
So as not to waste the fish a charity dinner was arranged – but before it was held Buckingham Palace returned the call and claimed the fish. It was therefore packed up in a fish box full of ice and sent to London. To be fair to the Queen it was said that she would not have accepted the offer of the fish had she known it was to be prepared for a charity event. (The Guardian, 21 May 1980.)
I’ve since found reports of sturgeon being captured in the river Arun, West Sussex, in 1807, 1868 and 1876. No reference was made in any of the reports that the fish needed to be offered to the monarch. The 1807 fish was sent to a London market to be sold; regret was expressed that the 1868 fish had been killed as it could have been tethered by the tail pulled up and down the river to be exhibited in various towns along the river. It was eventually stuffed and exhibited as a product of the Arun. No reference was made to the disposal of the 1876 fish. Perhaps Rochester was extremely loyal to the monarchy – or perhaps had less of an excuse because of its proximity to London?
In the unlikely event – but not impossible as the French are trying to reintroduce the sturgeon into their rivers – that a sturgeon is captured in the Medway in the future, the question may need to be addressed as to whether Rochester still has any claim on it, or was that a privilege it lost along with its city status?
23 January 2018.