SINCE my teenage years I have favoured wearing a “gansey”.

I suppose you could say it is a sort of family tradition, as my ancestry, on my mother’s side at least, is inextricably linked to Maldon’s historic fishing community.

Those fisher folk of the past largely lived in Church Street down by the Hythe and wore quite distinctive clothing.

The men were identifiable by a sort of informal, unregulated ‘uniform’, consisting of a flat cap, normal looking trousers (often with turn-ups), perhaps a waistcoat with pocket watch and chain, a well worn serge jacket with patches, more often than not a leather jerkin, but always, yes always, the obligatory gansey.

Unsurprisingly, this traditional garment had its origins in the channel island of the same name – Guernsey – and its knitting industry of the late 15th Century.

The first use of Guernsey as an item of clothing outside of the island occurs in the 19th Century, when it became the favoured item of clothing of fishermen.

It was (and indeed still is) warm, close-fitting to keep out the wind and is even capable of repelling rain and spray.

Nowadays my gansey is made using modern equipment, albeit then sewn together with traditional skills.

However, in the past (including here in settlements along the banks of the River Blackwater) the local gansey was knitted by women using steel needles and heavy, dark blue, slightly oily wool. (Some finer, off-white ganseys were also made for regattas and high days and holidays).

There were no patterns to follow as such, instead skills were passed down from mother to daughter through generations who often could neither read nor write.

As a result styles varied from place to place, but the suggestion that these were used to identify the bodies of drowned fishermen washed up on the shore is probably a myth.

Common features included ribbing at the top of the sleeve said to mirror a sailing ship’s rope ladder, a garter stitch panel depicting breaking waves and stitching on the sweater shoulders representing pebbles, stones and sand.

Nevertheless designs did vary from place to place – the most distinctive being in areas like North Yorkshire (Whitby, with its ropes and ladders, and Robin Hood’s Bay’s single moss and cable) and, nearer to home, in north Norfolk (for example, Sheringham’s zigzags).

Here in Essex, in particular Maldon, ganseys, were less consistently identifiable, but the method of production and overall appearance was pretty much the same up and down our coastline.

They were “knitted in the round” – that is, there were no side seams or any “stitching up”. They were slightly long, so as to keep the wearer’s back warm when bending over and a diamond insert at the underarm enabled ease of movement.

The tight fitting was to avoid being caught up in the boat’s fishing gear and short sleeves for the same reason.

They could consist of 11 stitches to the inch and take up to 100 dedicated hours to knit.

According to White’s Directory of 1848, Maldon had at that time “about 30 fishing boats ... employed in catching flat fish (ray), codlings (little cod), eels and oysters”.

Many of those boats, or more correctly ‘smacks’, were later constructed by master shipwright John Howard at his Shipways Yard at the foot of North Street and commissioned by local families like Pitt (my own line), Claydon, Wright, Handley, Quilter, Taylor and Tracey.

They made their living from the decks of those smacks (our one was ‘Polly’, registered MN12, built by Howard and “launched possibly before Christmas 1887”) mostly on the estuary stretch from the Basin up to the Nass (an Old-Norse word for nose, the shape of a shingle spit just off the Tollesbury shore).

When the tide was out and when not at work, the Maldon fishermen could be seen sitting on a makeshift bench not far from their smack moorings alongside the Bath Wall (the river’s edge adjacent to today’s ornamental lake on the Promenade).

That meeting place (originally outside of a tin shed on the site of the current wooden replacement) became known as the ‘Parliament’ and its members were easily identifiable by that distinctive uniform, including many a fine (if somewhat well-worn) gansey.

The last vestige of the Parliament met during living memory (I certainly remember it) but, like the town’s former fishing fleet, is now confined to history.

Looking at old photographs of those fishermen, the gansey is much in evidence.

I have a number of monochrome pictures of Ernie and Wal Pitt wearing theirs, as well as the Claydon brothers (Alf and Cliff), and of characterful Bradwell wildfowler Walter Linnett in a particularly threadbare example that could well have been handed down from his father, William.

Walter Linnett was known as the ‘King of the Essex Fowlers’ and lived in a three-roomed, one-storey wooden cottage, just a few yards from St Peter’s Chapel. It is a lonely, open spot where the winds can be cutting and a gansey was an essential item of warmth.

Walter Linnett died in 1958, aged 81, Ernie Pitt in 1959 (85), Wal in 1971 (89) and with their passing an important social continuity came to an end.

Since then river fishing has all but finished, surviving smacks are preserved for pleasure and leisure, the local dialect is rarely heard and the Parliament is in permanent recess.

However, ‘Polly’ is still sailing and there is now an information board on the Parliament attached to the shed.

Not only that, but just where North Street meets the tide, at number 61, there is a blue plaque on the wall which reads “John Thomas Howard, 1849-1915, lived here”.

Over the road from there is Maldon’s Marinestore Chandlery. Amongst the variety of well-stocked boating equipment on offer, their clothing includes ‘Traditional Guernsey Jumpers’ (made by Guernsey Woollens Ltd).

They might not be exactly the type that the “old boys” wore, but they are a tangible link to Maldon’s fishing heritage.

Not only that, but they are comfortable, hard-wearing and warm and I will forever be proud to wear one.

n A new book on John Howard’s life and work in Maldon has just been published. ‘One of Howard’s’ by David Patient (Jardine Press) is available on 07801 130530 or email