Stone Weights From the Rivers Great Ouse,
Ouzel, Nene and Tove
DENNIS C. MYNARD
By kind permission of Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society
STONE WEIGHTS FROM THE RIVERS
The discovery of unusual objects found in the spoil from river dredging in the early l960s led to much conjecture as to their date and use, until they were tentatively identified as the weights from medieval fishing traps of basket type, by E. H. Bailey, 1 a water bailiff for the then Great Ouse River Board.
The objects were first reported in the 1960s from the Ouse near Olney, and subsequently from the same river at Lavendon Mill, near Tickford Abbey, Newport Pagnell, and Stony Stratford.
Dredging of the Ouzel, alias the Lovat, a tributary of the Ouse, produced further examples near Little Woolstone Mill, and more recently in 1972, an example came from a medieval road surface at Walton,2 a Shrunken Medieval Village two miles up stream from Woolstone. In the last few years large-scale dredging of the Ouse, and the activities of local divers, have produced numerous examples. They occur over a wide stretch of the river from the upper reaches at Evenley near its source, at Thornton near Buckingham, downstream to Bedford. They are normally found near bridges and the sites of mills, a particularly large number coming from the downstream side of the bridge which carries Watling Street over the Ouse at Stony Stratford.3
The distribution map, Fig. 1, shows the find spots of weights that have been reported during the last ten years. Many earlier find spots were unfortunately not carefully recorded.
Another tributary of the Ouse, the Tove, rises in Northamptonshire, south-west of Towcester, and meets the Ouse at Cosgrove about a mile downstream of Stony Stratford. Only four examples are recorded from the Tove, one well upstream being found near Kingthorn Mill at Greens Norton4, and three others in the vicinity of Potterspury Lodge.
The River Nene was considered as another possible source of these objects; however, despite the large amount of fieldwork carried out along its valley, only three weights have been recorded: one from Little Billing and two from Irthlingborough5, the latter coming from the south bank of the river, being found in a clay deposit over gravel, eight feet below the present surface, during gravel quarrying.
The weights are all made from local oolitic limestone apart from the Greens Norton and Little Billing examples which are of Northamptonshire sandstone. They are only distributed where stone is readily available, suggesting an organised industry, with stone masons producing them to satisfy a local demand. This poses the question as to whether they occur further downstream in the Ouse and Nene. If not, as would appear to be the case, their absence may indicate that other materials were used for weights, or more likely that other fishing methods were employed.
The nature of their findspots suggests that these objects were connected with the medieval fishing industry: indeed, no other water-based industry in which they might have been used comes readily to mind. It is most probable then, that apart from scanty documentary and place name evidence, these weights are the sole surviving witnesses of a once well-known and common industry in the middle and upper reaches of the Great Ouse and the Nene. Examination of museum collections and enquiry made of field- workers has produced no evidence of their discovery in other parts of the country. It is hoped that the publication of this paper may result in further examples being recorded and the distribution pattern expanded to cover areas where similar fishing techniques may have been employed.
The weights have been cut out of a suitable block of stone and are in general well finished. The shafts are normally cylindrical, close examination showing that they were cut down by chiselling off facets and then rounded. One example, No. 21, has a rec -tangular shaft with rounded corners. Four examples, 14, 15, 25 and 31, have been left with faceted shafts, whilst No. 8 appears so well made as to have been turned on a lathe. The holes are generally neatly drilled and positioned through the centre of the shaft. One example, No. 28, bears a partly bored hole below a complete hole, and one wonders whether this was intentional rather than a decision to drill a second hole since the going on the first was rather hard. Some holes get narrower towards the centre suggesting a tapered borer which could be inserted from one side, giving a hole as on Nos. 3 and 32, and then inserted from the other side until the desired width was obtained as on No. 30. A further example, No. 33, has two holes. This may result from the weight breaking across the hole, an occasional occurrence, for example Nos. 7 and 17, and being re-used with a new hole drilled lower down the shaft. Nos. 15 and 23 have no peg hole and appear to have been secured to the basket by a tie, the heads having a groove to take a string. The two examples, 20 and 21, with a portion cut out of the edge of the shaft, suggest a badly-placed hole too near the edge resulting in breakage. No. 22 however, has a wedge-shaped section which has been deliberately cut out and is not the product of misplaced drilling. This might suggest a different means of fixing to a basket, possibly by an individual owner, as a means of identification of the baskets. The need to identify baskets would only be necessary at a shared fishery and identification is much more likely to have been carried out by a tag of some sort, perhaps metal, being secured to the basket. However, two weights have markings on them which must be for the purpose of identification. The figure three in roman numerals is carved lightly on No. 13, whilst a very clear anchor mark is depicted on No. 34. The longitudinal groove on No. 35 may be an owner’s mark, but could also be functional since a small length of stick could fit into this and secure the tie. The weights are classified below into eight types, the division being based on variations in form. These variations may indicate different sources of manufacture or the styles of various owners, since the types are found intermingled at most fisheries.
We know little of medieval fish traps apart from the fourteenth-century illustration, 6 reproduced by Salzman7 which shows a baluster-shaped basket, narrow at the top and bottom but with a pronounced ‘belly’ in the centre. The bottom of the basket needs to be weighted in order to keep it in place and, as it is tubular in shape, it would easily accept the cylindrical shaft of the weights. The top of the basket is a simple cylindrical opening through which an eel or small fish could easily enter.
The shape of the weights, a cylindrical shaft with a head at one end, generally pierced through the shaft near the head, is clearly functional and was developed to fit a trap rather than a net.
The cylindrical shaft would be inserted into the bottom of the trap, the head acting as a stop. The weight would be secured by a peg or string through the pierced hole in the shaft, the union would then be completed by tying a string around the trap and the peg.
Removal of the weight would enable the removal of the fish from the basket trap, which would have had a baffle to stop the fish from escaping through the entrance. Therefore, the fish caught must have been small enough to pass through the end of the basket after removal of the weight.
No matter how well they were attached, the weights would occasionally become detached and remain at the bottom of the river. Similarly, if nets or baskets were left in the river they would perish but the weight would survive.
A complete basket preserved in Bedford Museum 8 is illustrated in Plate 1. It is a little over a yard (99 cm) long and the base is 6 cm in diameter. It is of modern date but may resemble the medieval basket traps if made to a traditional pattern. Similar but larger baskets are common on the Severn, several examples being preserved in the Folk Museum at Gloucester.9
Extensive research has failed to reveal any substantial body of evidence referring to the methods used for fishing on inland rivers. Most books and papers on early fishing deal entirely with fishing in tidal waters. References to fishing baskets refer exclusively to the large weirs constructed in tidal rivers where basket traps known as Weels and Putcheons were set up across the river to catch fish returning to the sea when the tide was on the ebb. Only one reference to basket traps in mill streams has come to hand: it is in a government report on salmon fishing in 1860.10 The report states that ‘it was a very common practice to place baskets in the mill stream to catch the fry’.
This is of interest as confirmation of this method of fishing elsewhere in the country, but that salmon ever came into the upper reaches of the Ouse in quantity is unlikely,11 although Pennant 12 quotes a record of a large salmon (3 feet 10 inches long) caught at Tyringham in the late seventeenth century.
The earliest reference to fishing in the Ouse is contained in the Domesday Survey which records that part of the rent of several local mills was paid in eels.13 The mills referred to were Haversham, Lavendon, Olney and Stantonbury. The first recorded fishery is also in Domesday. This was at Clifton Reynes, near Olney, and is stated to have produced 125 eels, presumably as an annual rent.
A charter confirming the possessions of Tickford Priory, Newport Pagneil, granted by Gervase Paganell in 1187 14 gave the Priory the right of fishing in the waters of Newport Pagnell. A confirmatory charter granted in 1312 lists ‘a free and several fishery in the River Ouse under the close of the same house, from the corner of their Court upon the river which is called le Ildele unto the ditch which is called Larke brooke towards the east’.15
A fishery in the river Lovat (Ouzel) is mentioned in the early fourteenth century when there was a dispute over the ownership. This fishery was described as ‘a common fishery in the water of Caldecote to the house of John Emme at the ford called Loventford’, 16. which ford was probably against Tickford Bridge. Later in 1316 John de Somery confirmed the gift of a fishery valued at 6d. per year to the Priory; the bounds were then described as ‘from the bridge of Tickford to the fisheries of Moulsoe and Willen’. 17
Most riverside parishes held their own fishing rights which were a valuable appurtenance of the manor. The following selected references illustrate the variety of tenure and values.
Haversham, a free fishery in the Ouse, belonged to the Manor in 1278 9.18Also at Haversham a new mill called the Heiwal Mill was held in the fifteenth century by the Prior of Bradwell, who also had a fishery there.19
At Lavendon, in the fourteenth century, a water mill with a free fishery belonged to the Manor of Snelson.20 Another fishery at Lavendon was the subject of a complaint by the Abbot of Lavendon in 1339 that Simon of Norwich had ‘buried a boat with nets for taking fish in his fishery’.21
The Mill at Little Linford with a fishpond is listed amongst the manorial possessions in the fourteenth century.22 At Sherington we see evidence of the division of rights in a fishery when the principal manor held two-thirds of a fishery 23 and part of the remaining third was held with Fitz John’s Manor later in 1436. 24
In Milton Keynes on the Ouzel, there is mention of a mill called Fox Mime in 1418 with a fishery in the stream and a pond.25 The brook which runs through Loughton and joins the Ouse in Bradwell parish, also had a fishery which was held with Little Loughton Manor in 1587.26
The large number of weights found downstream of Stony Stratford bridge must come from the fishery mentioned in 1320 27 when there was a dispute between Dom. John de Wolverton and John le Forester of Stony Stratford about fisheries in the second riverbank of Dom. John from the bridge of Stony Stratford to the head of his pond and in the water near the river meadows of John le Forester from the bridge to Seintholospre. As a result John le Forester abandoned his claims on the fishing and agreed never to build a mill or divert water ; in return he was granted ‘the right to fish with one Botour, (a corruption of bottorium meaning a net) of five feet width at the head of the bank and the other waters as far as Crikesarter, excepting a certain pool.’
The weights from Thornton can be attributed to the ‘free or several fishery in the Ouse’ which was amongst the appurtenances of the manor in the sixteenth century.28
At Willen, again on the Ouzel, a fishery held by the Manor from the fifteenth 29 to the seventeenth centuries 30 was described as ‘a several fishery in the Waters of Willen’. There are other references and further research would certainly produce more, but it seems unlikely that details of the fishing methods and equipment used will be forth coming. Apart from the boat and nets mentioned at Lavendon, the only other early reference to ‘fishing tackle’ is at Stevington, Beds.,31 where Richard Newnham was drowned in 1273 ‘whilst setting hooks for eels’.
The manorial accounts of Higham Ferrers on the Nene for 1313/14 32 refer to eels produced from a fishery there which were sold for twenty-one pence for seven sticks. A stick of eel was twenty-five in number. A century later, in 1438, there are references
to fish-poaching when Thomas Wattes was fined for setting fish and eel traps.33 The Irthlingborough weights may be from this fishery since at this point the Nene forms the parish boundary between Higham Ferrers and Irthlingborough.
We thus have references to both nets and traps. Whilst nets could be cast or laid across the river at any point, the traps, where used legally, would perhaps need to be secured to a more permanent structure. Hence their discovery normally occurs at the sites of mills, bridges and other weirs, where there would be a reasonable degree of supervision.
The weights which are the subject of this paper and the baskets from which, I believe, they came, are certainly like those used for trapping fish in mill streams, depicted in the illustration from the Luttrell Psalter.7 The diameter (average 5 - 8 cm) of the shaft of the weight dictates the size of fish that could be trapped since it had to pass out of the hole in the bottom of the trap after removal of the weight. Most small river fish and, in particular, eels, would have been caught in these baskets. Larger fish would have to be netted or caught with rod and line.
Description of Weights
The weights recovered from the river are of two basic types:
These two types of weight are further subdivided and discussed below:
Type I Basket trap weights
The surviving weights are generally complete, although some have fragments broken from the head and the cylindrical shaft, which has occasionally fractured at the pierced peg-hole. The length seems to have varied, examples which appear to be complete ranging from 13 cms to 24.5 cms. Other examples may have been reduced in length by breaking but it is unlikely that such a large proportion would have been damaged: there would be little chance of this lying in the soft mud of the river bed.
For ease of classification the weights are sub-divided by the visual characteristics into the following types:
These eight types form a useful basis on which to classify the weights. It should, however, be noted that there are many slight variations and that one cannot be too precise since a square-headed example with damaged rounded corners could be easily classified as a round-headed one with flattened sides.
The weights described below are mostly deposited on loan to the Museum Collection of Bradwell Abbey Field Centre (hereafter BAFC). Others are deposited in Aylesbury, Bedford and Northampton Museums and a few are in private ownership. The weights deposited at Bradwell are principally from two collections: one assembled by two local divers Mr. Holman and Mr. Taylor and collected from the bed of the Ouse immediately downstream of Stony Stratford bridge; the other collected by Mr. B. Egan whose weights are not all precisely provenanced, being generally attributed to ‘The Ouse at Thornton, Passenham, or Stony Stratford’.
In the descriptions given below the main characteristics of each weight are given, (dimensions are placed for ease of comparison in Table 1). After the description the provenance and present whereabouts are given in the following order: River, Find Spot (if known), Museum or Collection and Accession Number if applicable.
Type Ia (Fig. 2,1 6 and Fig. 3,78)
1. Small example, shallow rounded head, fragment chipped from head. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
2. Larger example, shallow roughly-rounded head, rounded end to shaft looks original. River Ouse, BAFC 1973/74.
3. Similar example, shallow head not projecting from shaft as much as previous examples, perfectly rounded shaft. River Ouse at Passenham Mill, Northampton Museum D22/1966. A similar example was also found at Passenham in 1977, BAFC 1977/200.
4. Heavier example, oval shaft, shallow head damaged. River Ouse, BAFC 1973/74. A similar example came from River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/1.
5. Complete example, heavier almost oval head, well made rounded shaft square cut end looks original. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
A slightly heavier but similar example came from the River Tove near Potterspury Lodge, Northampton Museum D66/ 1967.
6. Large weight, heavy head, rounded end to shaft. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64. There is another similar example from the same provenance.
7. Broken example with deep head far beyond the shaft. River Ouse, now in Bedford Museum.
8. Unusual example with perfectly circular tapering shaft and rounded mushroom shaped head, small finely drilled hole. River Ouse, Bedford Museum.
Two further examples have been recently found: one between Passenham and Stony Stratford BAFC 1977/200, and another at Haversham Mill during dredging 1977, in private ownership.
Type1b,(Fig.3,9-13,FIG. 4, 14-15)
9. Small example, but shaft clearly broken, hole drilled close to heavy head. River Ouse at Stony Stratford. BAFC 1976/64.
10. Similar example and probably also broken across shaft. Hole drilled further away from head. This weight in Northamptonshire sandstone is from River Tove at Greens Norton, Northampton Museum.
11. Heavier weight, damaged head, rounded end to shaft. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
12. Well made example, head does not project far beyond shaft as No. 7. From River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 19 76/64.
13. An unusually slender well made example with a simple quarter round moulding between the shaft and the head. The shaft is not quite circular and the head is damaged. On one side of the head is inscribed a roman numeral III. It is possible that traps were numbered by owners to avoid confusion in shared fisheries. From River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
14. Unusual weight with heavy squared base and shaft with twelve facets. From River Ouse at Passenham, Northampton Museum D26/1966.
15. Another unusual weight with facetted shaft and head grooved to take a string tie. This came from the Ouse at Evenley near Brackley and was found by Mr. Ron Isham.
Type Ic (Fig.4, 16- 19)
16. Short example: the shaft may be reduced in length, the head is wider than shaft on two sides only and is pointed. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
17. Unusual example with heavy head and slender shaft which has broken across the drilled hole. The head is pointed as on No. 16. River Ouse, BAFC 1973/74.
18. Example with slightly larger shaft and flat head. From River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64. There is another similar example from the same provenance.
19. Part of weight, wide shaft broken below the peg-hole, unless it is of unpierced types. The head is wedge-shaped, tapering towards the staff. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
Type Id (Fig. 4,20 and Fig. 5,21 -22)
20. Damaged example, the shaft being reduced in length and the head has lost two corners. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
21. Heavy example, the flat end to the shaft looks original, the shaft is almost rectangu lar in section. The head is damaged. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
22. Unusually heavy head and slender shaft. The side grooove is ‘V’ shaped as if effected by sawing. River Ouse at Passenham Mill, Northampton Museum D26/l966.
Type Ie (Fig. 5, 23)
23. Heavy example, the shaft may have been longer, the head is roughly rounded and has a groove across it for a string tie, which perhaps obviates the need for a peg. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
Type If (Fig. 5, 24 26)
24. The shaft with its rounded end appears to be complete, the head is damaged at one corner but did not have a tie groove as on No. 23. River Ouse at Stony Stratford,
25. A very worn example in soft sandstone. The shaft was square with chamfered corners, the head is badly damaged but was clearly rectangular. River Nene at Great Billing, Northampton Museum, D96/195960.
26. An exceptionally heavy example, the shaft appears to be broken off. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
Type Ig (Fig. 6, 27)
27. Heavy weight pierced with two holes as shown. From River Ouse near Passenham.
Type Ih (Fig.6,28 36andFig.7,37 39)
These weights could be used as simple sinkers for nets or with basket traps. Al though they do not have heads they are generally tapered, and could have been pushed into the trap until wedged tight. The union would then be completed with a peg or string tie through the hole as in types Ia and Id. They may, for the purpose of classifi cation, be sub-divided into three basic forms:
(1) Completely tubular and thickened at one end.
28. Complete example with a partly drilled hole in addition to a completed hole. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64. A fragment of shaft similar in size was recently found at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1977/201.
29. Complete example, thicker than No. 27. Provenance as above.
(2) Tubular shaft with thickened rectangular end.
30. Small example, shaft may have been longer. Provenance as above and another similar but slightly larger from the same place.
31. Roughly hexagonal shaft with pronounced thickening or ‘head’. Provenance as above. Also another similar from River Ouse at Newport Pagnell, in possession of finder.
32. Complete example, the hole is wide at one end and narrow at the other. River Tove near Potterspury Lodge, Northampton Museum D66/ 1967.
33. Example with two peg-holes, broken across one of them. The thickened end is almost square. River Nene at Higham Ferrers, Northampton Museum D195/1974.
34. Interesting example with an incised mark, possibly represents the Crown and Anchor. This example is in Northamptonshire sandstone. River Nene at Irthling-borough, Northampton Museum Dl 67/1976.
35. Weight with a long groove channelled out on one side and also a smaller triangular groove this may be a form of owner’s mark to enable identification.
36. Unpierced example from River Ouse between Passenham and Stony Stratford,
(3) Rectangular and thickened at one end.
37. Heavy example, with peg-hole at top, thickens progressively towards base. River Ouse at Stony Stratford , BAFC 1976/64.
38. Heavy example with peg-hole at centre, has rounded corners. Provenance as above.
39. Unusual example with an attempt at creating a head at the heavy end, and with a small peg-hole. River Tove near Potterspury Lodge, Northampton MuseumD66/ 1967.
Type IISimple Weights
These are of two types:
Type IIa (Fig. 7, 40 45)
40. Small example, length 8.5 cm, diameter 4 cm, in Northamptonshire sandstone. River Nene at Irthlingborough. Found with No. 34. Northampton Museum, Dl67, 1976/2.
41. Similar but larger weight, length 11 cm, diameter 6 cm. River Ouse. BAFC 1973/74.
42. Heavier weight, length 12.8 cm, diameter 7 cm. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, Northampton Museum, D90/1976.
43. Length 13.5 cm, diameter 8 cm. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
44. Larger irregularly shaped weight, length 22 cm, roughly rectangular in section10 cm x 7 cm. River Ouse from Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
45. Rectangular shaft with ‘V’ shaped grooves for string ties on corners. River Ouse at Stony Stratford, BAFC 1976/64.
Type IIb (Fig. 7,46 48)
46. 48. Three pieces of limestone, pierced for tying to a net. From River Ouse, BAFC 1973/74.
Dimensions of the Weights
In the following table all measurements are in centimetres. The length given is considered to be the original length unless the shaft is broken, indicated by (B). For circular heads the diameter is given. For square, rectangular and oval heads the length and breadth are both given. Shaft and peg-hole diameters are given; with type Ih the head diameter is taken at the widest and the shaft diameter at the narrowest end.
I am indebted to the various finders, owners and museum curators and staff for their co-operation during my research. In particular, Northampton and Bedford Museums for permission to publish the weights in their collections. Also to Ros Tyrrell and June Burbidge for drawing some of the weights; to Bob Zeepvat for Figure 1 and to Doreen Eley for typing the drafts of the text.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. E. H. Bailey, ‘Stone Artefacts from North Bucks Rivers’, Wolverton & District Arch. Soc. Newsletter 7 (1962), 6 & 7.
The Society is much indebted to Milton Keynes Development Corporation