PETER FROST hears the fascinating story of the last of the fen tigers
They are a rare and endangered species the fen tigers. That’s the name that the folk of the eastern fenlands used to use to describe themselves.
They were river people who earned an often precarious living with a number of almost extinct skills on the rivers and waterways that drain the counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk into the wild waters of the Wash.
Most tigers were farm labourers or fen men for the various local drainage boards. They cleared ditches, mended banks and tended sluices. One thing they all had in common was the need to supplement their meagre wages in all kinds of ways.
Many used local willow trees, cutting osiers to make baskets and fish and eel traps. Others caught and smoked eels and harvested baby elvers in season. Some fished for pike and other river fish. Some shot rabbits. Whisper it quietly, some even poached the squire’s game.
Wildfowl provided meat for the pot and to send to market to make a bob or two. These weren’t the so-called sporting gentlemen shooting anything that moved just for fun. They were hungry men feeding their families from the wild bounty of the land they lived in.
Today there is just one survivor of this curious, hardy breed and you can find him in his tiny but fascinating shop in the centre of the waterside village of Outwell on the Cambridgeshire-Norfolk borders in the heart of the Fens.
The River Nene runs through the village on its way to Wisbech just five miles to the north and on to the Wash.
The hand-painted signs outside the shop says it all. “P E Carter, Eel Fisherman, Willow Merchant.” Smaller signs advise passers-by that the proprietor also catches moles, and sells live eels.
I met Peter Carter at the Fen Drainage museum at Prickwillow where he was demonstrating his many skills as well as his gun punt. Until a few decades ago the punt gun was the livelihood of many fenland wildfowlers.
I watched Peter load the enormous gun’s barrel with black powder and then ram it down with a paper wad. Next he put a small pinch of the same powder in the tiny tray – the pan – just above the cord trigger and flint mechanism.
This actual gun dates back to the 1800s. They were never very reliable and on many occasions the small priming charge went off with a sheet of flame without igniting the main charge. That’s the origin of the expression “A flash in the pan.”
Nowadays Peter Carter’s vintage punt gun is mostly fired only for demonstration purposes so he leaves out the lead shot or, more likely, handful of rusty tacks that with a lucky single shot might have killed more than 50 ducks or geese when the gun was used in anger.
Carter still fishes for eels and still makes traditional willow eel traps but is keen to educate people about the life of a fenman and spends a large proportion of his time giving talks and demonstrations in local schools and at events and special days at various venues all around the Fens.
Today most gun punts are in museums. The huge guns grace many a pub wall alongside eel traps and all the other paraphernalia of old country life in the Fens. However, when you meet the last fen tiger out in his natural habitat you really realise just what working-class life in the fens of eastern England was really all about.
This article was first published in the Morning Star, September 2013