"Please, sir, a man wants to know if he can see you, and he has brought a very large fish," was the message given me one very hot evening at the end of July, at the hour which the poet describes as being "about the flitting of the bats," plenty of which were just visible hawking over the willows on the eyot. Thinking that it was an odd time for a visit from a fishmonger, I was just wondering what could be the reason for such a request when I remembered a talk I had had at the ferry a week or two before on the subject of the continued increase of fish in the London Thames. It turned out to be as I expected; my visitor was one of the last local fishermen, and brought with him a splendid silver eel, weighing nearly 4 lb., taken in his nets that evening just opposite Chiswick Eyot. It was the largest eel taken so low down for some years, and when held up at arm's length, was a good imitation of one of Madame Paula's pythons in the advertisement. He was anxious that I should come out for an evening's netting and see for myself how clear the water now is, and how good the fish. The previous summer, about the same date, I had asked him to see what he could catch in an evening as specimens; he had returned with over ninety fish, dace, roach, eels, barbel, and smelts, many of which were exhibited alive the next day before a good many people interested in the purification of the Thames. As a further proof I forwarded the big eel to the previous chairman of the London County Council, under whose sceptre the marked improvement in the river began first to be felt, and begged his acceptance of it as a tribute from the river. Then I arranged to be at the old ferry next day at 6.30 p.m.

It was the end of a blazing hot London day when I went down the hard to the water's edge, among the small, pink-legged boys, paddling, and the usual group of contemplative workmen, who smoke their pipes by the landing place. The river was half empty, and emptying itself still more as the ebb ran down. The haze of heat and twilight blurred shapes and colours, but the fine old houses of the historic "Mall," the tower of the church, and the tall elms and taller chimneys of the breweries, which divide with torpedo boats the credit of being the staple industries of Chiswick, stood out all black against the evening sky; the clashing of the rivetters had ceased in the shipyard, but the river was cheerfully noisy; many eights were practising between the island and the Surrey bank, coaches were shouting at them, a tug was taking a couple of deal-loaded barges to a woodwharf with much puffing and whistling, and bathers, sheltered by the eyot willows, were keeping up loud and breathless conversations. "Not exactly the kind of surroundings the fishermen seeks," you will say; but, apparently, London fish get used to noise. Our boat was what I, speaking unprofessionally, should call a small sea-boat, but I believe she was built years ago at Strand-on-the-Green, the pretty old village with maltings and poplar trees that fringes the river below Kew Bridge. She was painted black and red, and furnished with a shelf, rimmed with an inch-high moulding inboard and drained by holes, to catch the drip from the net as it was hauled in. We were at work in two minutes. The net was fastened at one end to two buoys; these dropped down with the ebb, and formed a fixed, yet floating, point - if that is not a bull - from which the boat was rowed in a circle while one of the brothers who own the boat payed out the net. Thus we kept rowing in circles, alternately dropping and hauling in the net, as we slipped down what was once the Bishop of London's Fishery towards Fulham. There are still no flounders on the famous Bishop's Muds, but other fish were in evidence at once. Though the heat had made them go to the bottom, we had one or two at every haul. The two fishermen were fine specimens of strong, well-built Englishmen. The pace at which they hauled in the net, or rowed the boat round, was great; the rower could complete the circle - a wide one - in a minute, and the net was hauled in in less time, if the hauler chose to. Dace were our main catch - bright silvery fish, about three to the pound, for they do not run large in the tideway; but they were in perfect condition, and quite as good to eat, when cooked, as fresh herring. For some reason the Jews of London prefer these fresh-water fish; they eat them, not as the old Catholics did, on fasts, but for feasts. They will fetch 2d. each at the times of the Jews' holidays, so our fisherman told me, and find a ready sale at all times, though at low prices. Formerly the singularly bright scales were saved to make mother-of-pearl, or rather, to coat objects which were wished to resemble mother-of-pearl. After each haul the fish were dropped into a well in the middle of the boat. A few roach were taken, and an eel; but the most interesting part of the catch was the smelts. These sea-fish now ascend the Thames as they did before the river was polluted. We took about a dozen, some of very large size; they smelt exactly like freshly-sliced cucumber. I stayed for an hour, till the twilight was turning to dark, and the tugs' lights began to show. We had by then caught seventy fish, or rather more than one per minute; a hundred is a fair catch on a summer evening. In winter very large hauls are made; then the fish congregate in holes and corners. In summer they are all over the river. When the net happens to enclose one of these shelter holes, hundreds may be taken. Consequently the two fishermen work regularly all through the winter. Sometimes their net is like iron wire, frozen into stiff squares. In a recent hard winter the ice floated up and down the London Thames in lumps and floes; yet they managed to fish, and made a record catch of two thousand in one tide. I believe that if the Conservancy and the County Council go on as they are doing, we shall see the flounder back in the river above bridges, and that possibly sea-trout may adventure there too; though unless the latter can get up to spawn, there can be no regular run of sea-trout. But they probably also act like grey mullet, and run up the estuaries merely for a cruise.[1]

The last of the "Peter-boat" men mentioned in a previous chapter, has other claims to notice than that of being the only survivor of an ancient outdoor industry. He has given evidence before more than one committee of the House of Commons on the state of the river and the condition of its waters, and is the oldest salesman in that curious survival of antiquity, the free eel market held at Blackfriars Stairs on Sunday mornings; and, in addition, he has added to his original industry another branch of "fishing" of a different kind, of which he is acknowledged to be the greatest living exponent. He is an expert at grappling and "creeping" for objects lying on the bed of the river, work for which his life-long acquaintance with the contours of the bottom and the tides and currents makes him particularly well fitted. Consequently he is now regularly employed by many firms and shipping companies to fish up anything dropped overboard, whether gear or cargo, which is heavy enough to sink. The oddest thing about this double business is that all the summer, while he lies and sleeps in his "Peter-boat" at Chiswick, he is in receipt of telegrams whenever an accident of this kind chances to happen, summoning him down river, to the Docks or the Pool, and these telegrams are delivered to him (I think by the ferryman) on his "Peter-boat." But the regular time for this other Thames "fishery" is in winter. Then the eels "bed," i.e., bury themselves in the mud, and the eel man goes either "gravelling," that is, scooping up gravel from the bottom to deepen any part of the channel desired by the Conservancy, or doing these odd salvage jobs. Getting up sunken barges is one side of the business. These are raised by fastening two empty barges to them at low tide, when the flood raises all three together, owing to the increased buoyancy. But of "fishing" proper he has had plenty. He hooked and raised the steamship Osprey's propeller, which weighed six tons. This was done by getting first small chains and then large ones round it, and fastening them to a lighter. Half-ton anchors, casks of zinc, pigs of lead, copper tubes, ironwork, ship-building apparatus, and the like, are common "game" in this fishery. Other commodities are casks of pitch, cases of pickles, boxes of champagne, casks of sardines in tins, bales of wool, and even cases of machinery.

This form of Thames fishery increases rather than diminishes. Years ago he picked up under London Bridge a case of watches valued at L1,500. He was only paid for the "job," as the loss was known and it was not a chance find. Another and more sportsmanlike incident was an "angling competition," among himself and others in that line, for some cases of rings which a Jew, who became suddenly insane, threw into the river off a steamer. He caught one case, and another man grappled the other. Sometimes in fishing for one thing he catches another which has been in the water for months, as, for instance, a whole sack of tobacco, turned rotten. I do not know who "that young woman who kept company with a fishmonger" was, though he assumes that I do. But he certainly rescued her, and a gentleman who jumped off London Bridge, and several upset excursionists on various parts of the river. Also, as will be guessed, he has caught or picked up a good many corpses. I hear, though not from him, that on the Surrey side five shillings is paid for a body rescued, and on the Middlesex side only half-a-crown; so Surrey gets the credit of the greater number of the Thames dead. His life-saving services have been very considerable, though he does not make much account of them. He was instrumental in saving two women and six men on one occasion, and on another "three men and a soldier." The distinction is an odd one, but it holds good in the riverine mind.

[1] At the close of the season 1901-1902 in March, one of the men tells me that it has been the best year he has known. He caught sixteen eels one night with the net only. Very fine bream have also appeared as low as Hammersmith.