Eel skills

21 April 2000

Eel skills

slip-sliding away

EEL sellers were a familiar sight on the London streets for centuries.

In the Victorian era, the jolly cockney eel soup and pie man became a target for caricaturists and until the 1920s, eels were still caught on the upper reaches of the Thames.

Nowadays the number of eels has dropped and so, too, the number of eel traps used and the men with the traditional skills to make them. Once all the villages along the rivers populated by eels, had teams of men working in the late winter and early spring to make the new traps ready for the "eel runs" in the spring. Mike Wilson is one of the few left with the rustic skill to make the traps. Hes making four to be used on a river in Sussex.

"My customer needs these to replace some which are getting a bit old. These new ones will last for years. As a young basket maker I made a lot, but in recent years the numbers have dropped. I think its to do with fewer eels being caught nowadays," says Mike (68).

Most traps are used to catch eels in fast-running water. Some people call the traps "eel hives" but Mike calls them "eel traps". "The skill is the same as traditional basket-making and you need very good hard willow Up in the Fenlands they use hazel some times, but I like to work with willow. I get mine from a grower on the Somerset levels. The type I make is called a seven trap," said Mike who works in West Sussex in a small workshop at Lancing

Paul Felix

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