Wildfowling stories from the Dee
In this fascinating piece, Colin Foote reflects nostalgically on the great sporting heritage of the Dee estuary with the stories of Billy th' Duck, William Lawton and Harold Gill.
A crisp, bright morning, wind from the west, white clouds racing across the sky. Fred Davies, known to all the boys as ‘Dickie Tosh', was putting us through a PT routine in the school yard. There was a making tide on the marsh a few hundred yards across the fields below the school and the music of wader flocks moving as it rose was carried to us on the wind. “What are those birds Byrom?” asked Dickie Tosh. “Some are redshanks sir, the others are seapies and those whistling are wigeon.” Then came the sound of gunshots. “And that will be our Dad,” said the lad. “We'll be eating a couple tonight!”
Another October day, a single wigeon flew across the school playing field. Eddy Oxton raised an imaginary gun, swung through and pulled. He was dumbfounded when the wigeon, no doubt hard hit by a fowler on the tide, collapsed in mid-air and went into a long slanting dive, falling onto the railway embankment which bordered the field. Seizing the initiative, Jimmy Johnson who lived close to the school, mounted the fence, scrambled through the thorn hedge and retrieved the wigeon which he expeditiously and humanely despatched. He had time to take it home before afternoon lessons started.
Many of us who lived on Deeside grew up as wildfowlers. We had fathers, uncles or older brothers who ‘went on the marsh'. There was no shortage of mentors, nor of enthusiasm. Fowling was more of a religion to us than the gospels propagated by Frank Bennet, our vicar. Lives were governed by tides and moons. In post school years as much of life as possible revolved around morning, evening and tide flights. In the short winter days for instance, when work precluded marsh forays other than at weekends, I can recall riding my motorbike straight to Denhall from evening classes and dashing across the saltings for the moon rise and the making tide. Wigeon flighting under the moon, given plenty of cumulus cloud for a background and a fair wind to both carry away the sound of shooting and keep the fowl on the move, is the acme of wild sport. The action is so riveting, the adrenalin flows and time is forgotten so that retreating from a making tide can be dangerously delayed. A swirl of murky water rushing into the tributary gutter at one's feet signals the need to get off very quickly!
It could be said that Dee wildfowling, at least chronicled Dee wildfowling, started in the last years of the 18th century at Boston in Lincolnshire. William Kemp, a young fen fowler, was finding a living hard to make after fen drainage had driven the fowl away. He had noted extensive fowl movement to the west and he followed them. Travelling by horse wagons and canals he brought a young family and a fenland gunning punt all the way across the country to Cheshire and settled on the Dee estuary at Burton. There he prospered, fowling in winter, salmon fishing in summer and breeding Cheviot sheep which were grazed on the saltings. Because he spent more time on the water than on land he became known locally as ‘Billy th' Duck'.
From Burton Point where Kemp set himself up, the estuary extends some 12 miles northwards to meet the Irish sea and it is six miles across the mouth through the three isles of Hilbre. From Kemp's house it is 2¼ miles across the river to Connah's Quay. Upstream of Kemp's farm to the south the estuary, before the Seacombe to Shotton railway embankment was built, extended eight miles to Shotwick, Saltney and Blacon. This was Kemp's fowling area and he had it all to himself, there were no other punts shooting, although no doubt there were a few shoulder gunners. His fenland punt was open decked and could not go to sea. James, his elder son told Harold Gill that Billy favoured shooting under the moon. He would punt along in the shadow of the trees on the Burton shore, the fowl were just outside and he could easily set to them and take a shot, picking up most of the slain the next morning.
Barnacles were the geese of the Dee in Billy's years and they made half a crown apiece in Chester market, a very good price indeed. Up to 33 geese at a shot were recorded and it is small wonder that the Kemps prospered. The Cheviot sheep, purchased with the fowling income, thrived on the saltings, producing and extending the short grass sward favoured by geese and wigeon. Kemp was an inadvertent conservationist before that designation became politically correct!
The Dee tides flow three times faster than they ebb. This results in all silt carried in suspension on the flood being deposited at high water and not carried out by the ebb. Siltation has always been a problem. In my lifetime I have seen the green marsh extend from Moorside at Neston northwards, downstream to Heswall and beyond. The Cheshire side was navigable to Parkgate and Denhall until 1730 when there was 15ft of water at low water and 39ft at high water at Gayton and Parkgate. Now there is only rank marsh herbage. By 1737 the ‘New Cut' which canalised the river from Connah's Quay to Chester had been completed. This diverted navigation to the Welsh side.
The Sealand area was reclaimed by 1790 and by 1860 the Burton Cop was built from Burton Point to the seaward end of the New Cut for the purpose of further reclamation. It was immediately breached in two places by the tide, and became known as The Broken Bank. It assisted however the formation of more marsh downstream of the Cop to its north and west. Since then siltation and the formation of ever more marsh has been inexorable. When I was a boy, sand yachts raced on hard sand below the sea wall at Parkgate. Today that same wall is half swallowed by marsh.
Billy th' Duck was said, by CTS Birch Reynardson, to be a ‘dapper little fellow' when he wrote of him in ‘Sports and Anecdotes of Bygone Times' published in 1837. This is borne out by his photograph. Billy's sons James and Ned followed him as fowlers, they were much bigger men, over six feet tall and much more craggy featured. Contemporary with Kemp's sons was local man William Lawton, an ex ship's carpenter who built a house on top of the disused Denhall Quay on the edge of the marsh near the Neston Colliery. There is coal under the Dee and the colliery worked until 1926 when it became impossible to deal with ever increasing ingress of water.
Lawton kept a punt in the big gutter below his house, did most of his shooting on the Nobs, an area of marsh in formation to the north and west of his house. It was much favoured by wigeon and Lawton once had 23 there with one shot. On another occasion he took 120 grey plovers.
His gun was a curiosity. The barrel was a bell-mouthed Chinese jingal he brought from Shanghai and the lock was from a Sevastopol musket, the whole bound by wire to a stock of his own manufacture. In due course Fred Jones, Lawton's son-in-law, followed him into the little house. Also a carpenter by trade, Fred was better known as a gunsmith and his house was a Mecca for impecunious young fowlers seeking help with ancient hammer guns.
As the marsh changed it became necessary for punts to go farther and farther out towards the sea. The single, half decked fenland type punts used by the Kemps and Lawton were unsuitable for such work. Double-handed punts of the Payne-Gallwey design were necessary for the ‘gentlemen-fowlers' who were coming onto the scene in the early years of the 20th century. Lawton could build such punts however and he built two for Leonard Brooke, a wealthy Irishman who had been in cotton at Liverpool. Brooke's puntsman was Tom Evans who was a quarter-master on the ill fated ‘Lusitania'. Tom was a river man and skilled fowler in his own right. John Dockray had been the engineer on the West Kirby-Hooton railway and after retirement punted five days a week. Both Brooke and Dockray lived at what became ‘the laundry house' (between Neston church and Moorside) until Brooke remarried and moved to Gayton Cottage.
The last professional
The barnacles which had financed the Kemp dynasty deserted the Dee around 1860 perhaps because siltation killed off the zostera sea grass. Pink footed geese followed but in much lower numbers, while today at times there are large congregations of feral Canadas.
Harold Gill, who became the Dee's last professional wildfowler was born in 1883. His family were well-to-do and although he studied engineering he was able to follow his chosen profession as a market puntsman. Gill built his first punt at 15 and said he was lucky it didn't drown him. Later efforts were seaworthy however and Charlie Kemp, a grandson of Billy th' Duck, was his mentor and like a father to him. Gill knew both Brooke and Dockray and he would shoot six or seven days a week in the season, weather permitting.
For 33 of about 35 years spent wildfowling Gill was accompanied by Monk Jones. Gill paid Monk a wage with a commission on the fowl sold and they had many adventures together. As the estuary silted up, it became difficult to launch the punt from the various slipways and they built a road - ‘Gill's Road'- from Moorside out to a big gutter so that they could launch at all stages of the tide. Gutters on route were bridged with railway sleepers and they used a towing tractor which Gill built from a Ford Tourer.
“Shoot until we are 80,” was the aim of Gill and Monk but it was the siltation rather than age which beat them.
Harold Gill died in 1961. He was 46 when I was born and I can remember him dressed in corduroy shorts and long shooting stockings, a check shirt and skin tanned like a walnut, strolling along Parkgate promenade, binoculars around his neck, watching the ducks moving on a making Sunday spring tide. No doubt he and Monk would have been out after a few on Monday. “Wildfowling is never mastered,” he said when he was 75, “there is always something more to learn.” He kept a diary but did not record bags. Leonard Brooke kept a meticulous diary and his best season was 607 ducks and geese, which Gill said he never reached.
Johnny Hughes was probably the best shoulder gunning wildfowler on the Dee. He knew every inch of the marshes and for a while kept a houseboat there. One year he had a bet with Gill that he would shoot more fowl with his shoulder gun than Gill would in the punt. He met Gill and Monk on the last day when they came in with the punt. “I lost,” said Gill. Johnny Hughes retired to the Cefni estuary in Anglesey where he could stroll on to the Cob for flight and astound others with his ability to fold up very high wigeon moving inland.
I remember Arnold Whiteway, who was a skilled cabinet maker, and his brother building a double Payne-Gallwey style punt on a vacant plot next to Arnold's house. Arnold used this very successfully after he was demobbed from the navy and took me out as a boy once on a spring gull egging expedition.
Looking after the marsh
The Dee Wildfowlers Club was formed in 1952, Gill, Arnold Whiteway and Leslie Brockbank were among the founders. It was Les who painstakingly, with the aid of a tape recorder, took down much of Harold Gill's lore and memories and produced the book ‘Dee Wildfowler - The Last Professional' in 1982. The club has done much down the years to try and preserve conditions on the marsh which attract and sustain wildfowl. New tidal flashes have been created by damming gutters, digging, and the use of explosives as such habitat has been lost to siltation. A major problem now is that sheep are no longer grazed on the marsh and much of the herbage is consequently long and rank and unattractive to wildfowl. An initiative using Highland cattle to graze a fenced area of the marsh in a joint venture with a local farmer proved very successful. Mowing around flashes is performed each summer, although the RSPB which now has reserves on the Dee, is not so keen on this management aspect. Chris Anyon, the club's marsh warden has supervised most of this conservation work. Chris has the advantage and experience of a lifetime's wildfowling, a true follower of the Dee traditions.