Due to their very nature the rivers of Dartmoor have been the ideal habitats for salmon and trout. Such a rich harvest provided many of the riverside landowners with an income as too the local businesses who profited from the visiting anglers. Certainly by the late 1800s virtually every hotel, inn, and guesthouse which advertised in the press were stressing the point that “excellent fishing on the nearby river/rivers” was to be had. However, there was one huge “fly in the ointment,” and that was the salmon and trout provided at the very least a meal for the hungry and at worst a profitable means of income for the poachers. Either way poaching was a serious problem on many of the Dartmoor rivers albeit by nets, lines, spear fishing, groping (tickling) and in later times poisons. One particular river that was the haunt of the ‘Night Prowlers’ was the river Teign and its many tributaries. In 1856 The Western Times published the following letter “The river Teign from Dunsford to Chagford, has been swept with the draft and other nets, a few weeks since, destroying nearly all the trout. Why do not the gentlemen who delight in the healthy recreation of fly fishing, and the inn keepers near the river, who profit by their visits, offer a reward to bring the poachers to justice.” Over the following years the persistent and rife activities of the poachers became so serious that fish stocks were being rapidly depleted. Action needed to be taken and so many of the landowners who had river fronts on the Teign decided to unite and fight the poachers which hopefully would preserve the fish stocks. Other ivers such as the Dart also formed conservator groups or Associations. What follows is a brief overview of the formation and early days of the Upper Teign Fishing Association.
On the 31st of May 1869 a meeting of all the great and the good attended a meeting at The Three Crowns in Chagford. Among the notables were the Rev. H. G. Hames, John Ponsford (Ford), Messrs. Coniam, Berry, and Hooper (Widecombe), Mr. C. Barrington (Steward for the Duchy of Cornwall), J. Perrott (Chagford), G. and J. Rowe (Easton), Mr. Brely (Fingle Mill) and Mr. Nickels (Sandy Park).
The Rev. Hames as chairman opened the meeting by stating that, “he had convened the meeting at the suggestion of some of the neighbouring landowners, who felt that steps ought to be taken to prevent such a destruction of fish as occurred during the dry summer of last year.” He also added that “while they wished to stop all netting, lining, night hooks, and groping, they wished to give every facility to fair fishing with the rod and line. They desired to promote sport, but to put down poaching.” The reverend then read out letters from many of the landowners who owned river frontage on the Teign and who all agreed some kind of scheme was desperately needed.
It was proposed that such conservation measures would only apply to the stretch of the river between Dartmoor and Steps Bridge near Dunsford. Mr. John Drewe, representing the Earl of Devon affirmed that the Earl fully supported such a suggestion. Mr Brely of Fingle Mill stated that “the fish were much scarcer than they used to be which were attributed to certain mines below Steps Bridge. Here he was alluding to the river pollution from the lead mines. Mr. W. N. Bragg from Furlong added that whilst the pollution affected the salmon stocks it did not affect the trout stocks, but they were being decimated by poaching when the water levels were low.
John Ponsford of Ford being a landowner of the riverfront at Ford suggested that three keepers would need to be employed at an annual cost of £100. Such keepers should either be fishermen or local men. The Rev. Hames agreed to this on principle but said that he thought “it wise to commence with a very moderate scheme, and that a keeper on the river two or three days a week might be sufficient at first, and at least would serve as a check.”
Mr. Barrington, the Duchy Steward commented how “he had received no special instructions with regard to the proposed Association, but he felt sure the Duchy would assist in preserving that part of the Teign which ran through their manor. They already preserved the Dart from its source as far as Dartmeet, and fish had become very abundant there. The tickets they issued were ten shillings each.”
Mr. Bragg then proposed that “That this meeting deem an Association for preserving the fish in the Teign desirable, and that a committee be formed to report proceedings on the 15th of June next at the White Hart Inn, Moretonhampstead at 12 o’clock.” This proposal was then seconded by Mr. Drewe and approved by all the other attendees. The new Committee consisted of Messrs. Ponsford, Berry, Bragg, Gregory, Coniam, Clarke, Barrington, Hooper, Nash, Pollard, Hames, and the Rev. Ingle.
The Committee in fact met of the 7th of June 1869 when a proposed list of Association rules were drawn up and then presented at the promised meeting on the 15th of June. These were put forward by the Chairman, the Rev. H. G. Hames of Chagford
“1 – That members be allowed to fish in the river from the 1st of March to the 30th of September, both days included.
2 – That an application be made to the Quarter Sessions to appoint additional conservators for the upper part of the river.
3 – That the river be preserved from the end of the Duchy to Steps Bridge.
4 – That owners and occupiers who give up the right of water to the Association have tickets free of costs.
5 – That only fair rod and line fishing be permitted.
6 – That no wading be allowed, and that the Committee use their utmost endeavours with the owners and occupiers to have the bushes cut down as the Committee deem necessary.
7- Any person found fishing without a ticket shall be prosecuted, and any person holding a ticket and not complying with those rules it shall be forfeited.
8 – That the affairs of the Association be managed by the Committee.
9 – That no dog be permitted to accompany a member.
10 – That two meetings be held annually at Moretonhampstead, and no fresh rules be except at one of those meetings, or at a special meeting, when 14 days notice must be sent to each member.
11 – That the subscriptions for the season be ten shilling and sixpence each and daily tickets at one shilling and sixpence.
12 – That no keeper be allowed to fish.
13 – That two keepers be appointed to watch the river.
It was also suggested that boards be erected near all the bridges (ten of them) between Steps Bridge and Dartmoor. The wording was to be “Any person found wading, groping, using any net, line, night hooks, or catching fish in any other illegal manner on the water belonging to the Upper teign Association will be prosecuted.” It was thought that by publicising their proceedings and the addition of the notice boards would deter the poachers. The Chairman then proposed that the Earl of Devon be appointed Chairman of the Association and Sir H. R. F. Davie, Bart, M.P. as Vice Chairman. Mr. Bragg the proposed that the Reverend Hames be appointed as Secretary to the Association. Thus was the inaugural meeting ended and the new Upper Teign Fishing Association. formed.
In the February of 1870 the first meeting of the Upper Teign Fishing Association was held at the White Hart in Moretonhampstead. At the meeting the Rev. Hames as secretary gave his report on progress. He stated that the upper part of the river had been “slightly” watched and that in July four poachers had been caught, unfortunately they were all juveniles and no prosecution took place. He also added that four out of the ten proposed notice boards had been erected. A letter was the read out from a Mr. H. Michelmore expressing his concern about the amount of river pollution coming from the lead mines. He noted that “there can be no doubt something may be done, and easily, to preserve the trout in the mines; but I fear these mines will always prevent the Teign becoming a salmon river, as the fish will not pass up through the poison. In the present state of the law it is difficult to stop the flow of the mine waters into the river, and unless you can get some riparian proprietor to take up the matter you won’t succeed at all.” Some alterations to the Associations rules were then announce.
1 – These were that all tickets issued by the Association shall clearly define the parts of the river in which the holder will have the right to fish.
2 – That owners and occupiers who give up their right of water to the association have season tickets free of cost, such tickets to be transferable only to a friend staying in the house of such owner or occupier.
3 – That only rod and line be permitted.
4 – That the subscription for a season ticket be a guinea, and that the daily ticket be one shilling.
5 – That keepers not exceeding two in number be appointed to watch the river.
6 -That season tickets be issued only by the secretary, and that daily tickets be issued by Mr. Perrott, Chagford, Mr. Pollard, Moreton; Mr. Hole, Drewsteignton; Mr. Blanchford, Sandy Park Inn; Mrs Rice, Half Moon Inn, Steps Bridge, Dunsford; and Mr. W. Roberts, bookseller, Exeter.
7 – That any person found groping or using a night hook, net line, or any deleterious drug for poisoning the fish in the Teign or any of its tributaries be prosecuted, the Committee to have the power at their discretion to offer rewards.
A year later at the 1871 meeting the Association agreed a few alterations to the rules, these were –
1 – That season tickets be reduced to ten shillings and sixpence, monthly tickets at five shillings, weekly tickets at two shillings and sixpence and daily tickets at one shilling.
2 – That the portion of the original rule six relating to the cutting down of bushes be struck out.
3 – That one instead of two meetings annually should be held.
4 – That keepers to prosecute parties they found fishing without a ticket.
The reason for the first amendment was that many fishermen were beginning to complain about the high price of the tickets. The second amendment came about because some riverside landowners were withdrawing their permissions because of the extra work involved in cutting down the undergrowth and bushes.
It was not only the poachers and the polluting mines that concerned the Association, there were also the mill owners that were decimating their fish stocks. When their water wheels were not working boxes or hutches made of slight strips of wood placed closely together would be placed in the leat through which the water was allowed to pass. When the water flow was heavy any small fish swimming downstream would be swept into the hutches and unable to escape due to the force of the water. These fish would in all essence be battered to death in the hutch and remain there until the miller wanted to use his waterwheel again. This problem was critical during the summer months when shoals of small salmon fry were working there way back downstream to the sea.
Needless to say that to document the whole history of the Upper Teign Fishing Association would take an entire book in itself. However, no matter how stringent the anti-poaching measures were the problem still existed and no doubt still does. Many of the newspaper reports of the various assize courts would often relate about court appearances by poachers along with stiff fines or imprisonment handed out. But one example from 1877 being – “William forbes and William Budd, young gentlemen from Exeter, were charged with fishing on Dartmoor in water belonging to the Upper Teign Fishing Association. Fined, Budd £1 and Forbes 10s. with costs. – George Bennett, of Throwleigh, for a similar case was fined 5s. plus costs. P.C. Crooke and the Water Bailiff, proved the cases.” In some cases a riverfront landowner would often sit on the magistrate’s bench which was never good news for a man caught poaching fish. Suffice it to say the Association is still going strong. Today their fishery stretches from Warcleave Cottage at Chagford down to Steps Weir Pool at Steps bridge.