My wife and I recently spent a few days in Bridport, Dorset.

We stayed in a comfortable old timber-framed post house and, as neither of us had been to the city before, we wanted to explore its heritage.

A visit to the excellent museum revealed that Bridport is a place built on the rope and netting industry, with the earliest reference to commerce dating back to 1211.

Among the associated artifacts on display, I noticed one very familiar object. The label described it as a “braiding needle”, but I pointed out to my wife that I had grown up knowing her as a “net needle”.

She sighed, pointing out that we were on hiatus from Maldon’s story, but she knew it was futile and that I would like to follow him through.

Regardless of the apparent regional differences in the name, these needles are of the same common design. They’re shaped like a simple shuttle, often carved out of wood, and the older ones (like the one in my own collection) have smooth, shiny edges after years of constant, repetitive use.

They are available in a range of sizes (from about 40cm long to 8cm) to make different mesh gauges.

NET GAIN: Repairing a fishing net (drawing: A Puttock)

Here in Maldon, they were an essential tool used by the fishermen of St Mary’s Parish. I remember members of my own family using these needles to repair their worn nets.

This essential work took place in the pipe smoke filled front room of their Church Street home and was undertaken by the women (wives and daughters) of the house as well as the fishermen themselves.

The method used was to tie the damaged netting to a line that hung from wooden dowels or (in our case) six-inch nails driven into a ceiling beam.

The needle was then loaded with a tarry, smelly string and roll ties were used to make the repair. This description makes it seem like it’s really easy, but it definitely isn’t – I should know, I tried it!

In addition to stitching up the net, the “yorken” (or slack) must be picked up and measured with the fingers to achieve compliance.

The repair work of the “annuity” (the damaged part) starts from half a stitch and continues until you pick up whole stitches, but it is important to stay in the rows of the break to secure the stitch. uniformity. I saw it all happen at breakneck speed, with the needle flashing back and forth until, apparently in no time at all, the net was like new again.

Maldon and Burnham Standard: A Maldon Thread NeedleA Maldon thread needle

It is a centuries-old art that was crucial to the local fishing industry and to ensuring a good catch. These days it’s anything but a lost art, but I’m sure there are Maldonians (and active fishermen in the area) who can still do it.

Over the years, I have come across various clues about internet work. Along with my net needle, I have a somewhat faded sepia photo of local woman Hannah Wright engaged in making or repairing nets, and you can pretty much guess her use of the distinctive needle.

Also, a few years ago I got a request from a new resident of an old North Street cottage who was curious about a row of wooden stakes he had spotted up in his house. front piece.

“What were they used for? He asked. You can guess my answer.

These snippets are largely evidence of 19th century activity, but the repair of the net must have taken place here in Maldon long before that.

We know that in addition to a Rope Walk (off Wantz Road and there is a lot of it in Bridport) there was at least one ‘Net Yard’ near Hythe in the early 18th century – presumably used both for drying and repair work.

Nineteen so-called “unauthorized fishermen” were named during the Admiralty Court session of 1567 – men who had land trades but turned to secondary net fishing to supplement their income .

These men were part of a long traditional continuity that dates back to the very first settlers – our Saxon, Roman and even prehistoric ancestors.

Even the Bible (the New Testament) tells us that Jesus Christ was known to be a master in the use of fishing nets. In the Gospel of Luke he commands Peter to “put in deep water and bring down the nets for a catch”, and, in the Gospel of John, “cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some (fish)”.

Standing on the Hythe in the shadow of the Church of St. Mary, known as the “fisherman’s church”, I reflected on this writing, no doubt cited many times in the building by generations. successive sessions of his clergy and listened to by the inhabitants of the parish who, when the service was over, they returned home to mend their nets in what we now know to be the consecrated way.