MY wife and I recently had a few days away in Bridport, Dorset.

We stayed at a comfortable old timber-framed coaching inn and, as neither of us had been to the town before, we were keen 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 the trade dating back to 1211.

Among the associated artefacts on display, I noticed a very familiar object. The label described it as a “braiding needle”, but I pointed out to my wife that I grew up knowing it as a “netting needle”.

She sighed, pointing out that we were on a break from Maldon’s history, but she knew it was futile and that I would want to follow it through.

Regardless of the apparent regional differences in name, such needles are of the same common design. They are of a simple shuttle shape, often whittled from wood, and old ones (like the one in my own collection) have smooth shiny edges from years of constant and repetitive use.

They come in a range of sizes (from around 40cm long down to 8cm) to make different gauges of mesh.

Maldon and Burnham Standard: NET GAIN: Repairing a fishing net (drawing: A Puttock)NET GAIN: Repairing a fishing net (drawing: A Puttock)

Here in Maldon they were an essential tool used by the fisher-folk of St Mary’s parish. I recall members of my own family using these needles to repair their well-worn nets.

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

The method employed was that the damaged net was made fast to a line that was hung on either wooden dowel pegs or (in our case) six-inch nails knocked into a ceiling beam.

The needle was then loaded with a tarry, smelly twine and rolling hitches were employed to make good the repair. That description makes it sound really easy, but it certainly isn’t – I should know, I have tried it!

As well as stitching the net back together, the “yorken” (or slack) has to be taken up and measured with the fingers to achieve conformity.

The repair work on the “rent” (the damaged part) starts from a half mesh and goes on to pick up whole meshes, but it is important to keep within the rows of the break to ensure uniformity. I have seen all of that happen at break-neck speed, with the needle flashing back and forth until, in seemingly no time at all, the net was as good as new again.

Maldon and Burnham Standard: A Maldon netting needleA Maldon netting needle

It is an age-old art that was crucial to the local fishing industry and to ensure a good catch. Nowadays it is all but a lost art, but I am sure there are some Maldonians (and working fishermen in the region) that can still do it.

Over the years I have come across various clues to net work. As well as my netting needle, I have a somewhat faded sepia photograph of local woman Hannah Wright engaged in net making or repair, and you can just about make out her use of the distinctive needle.

Also, a few years ago, I had an enquiry from a new resident of an old cottage in North Street who was curious about a row of wooden pegs that he had spotted high up in his front room.

“What were they used for”, he asked. You can guess my reply.

Those snippets are largely evidence of 19th Century activity, but net repair must have been happening here in Maldon long before that.

We know that, as well as a Rope Walk (off Wantz Road and there are plenty in Bridport), there was at least one ‘Net Yard’, near the Hythe in the early 18th Century – doubtless used for both drying and repair work.

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

Those men were following on in a long traditional continuity that dated back to the very earliest settlers – our Saxon, Roman and even prehistoric ancestors.

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

Standing down on the Hythe in the shadow of St Mary’s, known as the “Fisherman’s Church”, I reflected on that scripture, doubtless quoted many times in the building by successive generations of its clergy and listened to by residents of the parish who, when the service was over, returned home to repair their nets in what we now know was the time-honoured way.