Etching from the Illustrated London News
The richness of the Mere's natural resources supported many local families and villages, providing different foods all through the year … if you could catch it! Families turned their hands to many different jobs, the children working alongside their parents from quite a young age.
Peat cutting or Turf digging provided fuel for heating and cooking at home, and it was also a product that could be sold. Much of the wet land to the south of the Mere was originally a (sphagnum) bog. Local people would rent a small area, dig the peat as blocks and dry it, then use some themselves and sell the rest. Most of the work was carried out in the drier months of the year, when other work wasn’t available.
The Mere was surrounded by great beds of reed and sedge, and this provided another good source of income. Reeds were cut from about Christmas up to March and were sold in bundles for thatching and in plastering ceilings and floors. Merchants coming into the area with goods from the Midlands and other parts would take a load of reeds back with them. Sedge was cut every three years and was also used for thatching and for animal bedding. The woolly heads of Bulrushes were stripped off and used to stuff bedding.
Fish, especially eels, were so abundant that they were used as a currency, and were used to pay rent money to the Abbeys. Whittlesea Mere held pike, perch, carp, eel, bream, chub, roach and dace . The fish were caught by licensed fishermen using nets of specified sizes. Fishing rights (see ‘boatgates’) were carefully guarded and managed. The adjoining parish of Glatton with Holme held the right of testing fisherman’s nets at a special court in Holme: if the bailiff found that the nets had too small a mesh he had the right to burn them. When the Mere was finally being drained nets were dragged for weeks and tons of fish were taken out by horse and cart.
Could this be the famous Great Pike? Norris Museum, St Ives, Cambs.
Inscription reads "Caught in Whittlesea Mere, Weight 52 Pounds.
The Mere abounded in wildfowl especially water birds. Local people were expert in catching them using nets, guns and a decoy pond. Birds now rare such as Bitterns were plentiful and gentlemen came from far away to enjoy shooting parties with local landowners, and with local people acting as guides. The birds were transported to local towns and markets for sale, and once the railway arrived fowl were sent by trunkloads to London. As the Mere dried out all these birds disappeared.
"Whittlesea mere was also a favourite resort of the wild-fowl hunter. For this purpose a sledge on bone-runners.. was required. In front of this sledge a fence of upright reeds was arranged which partially concealed the projecting muzzle of a long duck-gun carrying a heavy charge of shot. Kneeling in the hinder part fof the sledge, and punting himself along with two iron-shod sticks, the sportsman was eanbled to approach to within a short distance of the islands of sedge, which were to be found near the shores of the Mere, and were frequented by flocks of duck, teal, widgeon and other wild fowl."
(J M Heathcote + C. G Tebbutt. Skating, 1892.)
The land surrounding the Mere was divided up between the surrounding villages so that each had some higher cultivated land, an area of rough grazing and fenland, and an area of the huge reed beds surrounding the Mere. The land nearest the Mere, especially to the south, could often only be used as grazing in the summer months – it was just too wet for anything else. Described as ‘fen pasture’, large numbers of cattle and sheep were fattened there. West of the Mere, some land was cleared and cultivated for a few years and then the fields were allowed to return to rough grassland. Local people might either rent a piece of land to raise a few animals themselves if they could afford it, or work for a larger landowner.