Withy pot making
Making traditional crab/lobster pots from willow, called withy pots.
|Historic area of significance||Along the south coast, especially west from the Isle of Wight, throughout Devon and Cornwall coasts, South West Wales and South West Ireland.|
|Area currently practised||Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, South West Wales, Ireland.|
|Origin in the UK|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||0|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Withy pots have been recorded in old painting dating from 400 years ago, but the craft would go back further as humans have used traps to catch fish and crabs since we first inhabited our shore line. The problem with a definitive date is nothing was written down in the regions or families… it was learnt from father to son, although in some areas the wives also made them. Fish traps have been found in peat bogs.
This craft evolved over centuries from the earliest basket type trap used by wading into low tides and fixing traps to the beach. When boats evolved to go further out into the bays and open waters the ability to trap the catch in deeper water meant the trap also had to change – the ability of the trap to withstand the wear and tear tide and sea bed imparts meant it had to be big enough and strong enough, but not too heavy that you could not carry it and pull it up from the depths.
All of our coastline had these pots up until the late 1960s but demand for saving time in their making and needing stronger pots which could withstand attaching multiple pots together in a line (string of pots) which withy pots would not be able to withstand, meant changing to wire and net pots then the plastic ones you see today.
The withy pot had a life span of just over one season with ongoing repairs meaning every winter you started all over again. Unless you had a withy bed to cut your withies from you had to purchase them, normally from Somerset at great expense.
The bending and twisting of willow to form the shape of an inkwell by hand. In South Devon the funnel is a paired weave that continues into bands of ringing (fitching) that hold the uprights or standards in an evenly spaces conical shape. The base varies regionally but is a continuation of the paired weave, sometimes finished with woven plaiting. The bait was attached with elm skewers or ‘skivers’ piercing the funnel and adding to the trap effect.
Willow was grown locally, mostly hybrids of Salix Vinimalis and Alba, more latterly, Salix Triandra or the Black Maul willow grown commercially in Somerset, which came back on the train to Kingsbridge before Beeching axed it.
Various forms of withy inkwell were made from the Isle of Wight westward, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, South Wales and South and West Ireland, although there are some extreme variations there. There is also a connection to the Breton tradition in France as there was a strong connection between the Bretons and the South West fishermen.
All pots are made using fresh willow for the main frame although hazel was often used in the base. While the shape between regions may look the same the Cornish pot is very different in that it has a deeper curve at the top and the spiral binding goes anti-clockwise to the base, with three-and-a-half to four turns from top to bottom. The Devon/Dorset pot as well as all other areas that once practised this craft have a flatter top and more of a curve in the shape down to the base, and the spiral binding goes clockwise from the top to the base and is four turns in total from top to bottom.
In East Devon the base was put in by folding the willow from the centre to the outer rim but all other areas by folding from the outside to the centre.
Although the pots took on a common shape in the same region, each person’s pot would be unique. This is because makers all different in strength of hand and the way they work. Storepots were much bigger at 36-40 inches across the base and five to six rings high. They had woven or wooden lids to keep crab in while waiting for them to be sold or transported
The weave and use of a wooden mule is similar to some fish traps, and forms that are now used as plant supports.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- No one is taking this craft up because it is not financially viable to fish with willow pots and those making for stage sets, décor and souvenirs are part removed from the fishing experience and as they hand the knowledge on that relationship will be lost.
- Those left still making these pots fall into age brackets 60-70, 70-80 and Alan Lander in his early 80s. The big problem is time and the ability to carry on. If makers’ hands weaken through arthritis etc or the public no longer support them the craft will become extinct within a very short time.
- These pots were used up till the mid 1960s as the only way of catching crab etc. As modern pots made from synthetic materials came along the need for willow pots died out. These days members of the fishing families that keep the craft alive do so because of public interest and also the need for them in TV dramas such as Poldark where they are critical to that period in time.
- Lack of demand means you cannot earn a living from making them, but you hope to sell some in order to buy the materials needed to make them.
- Within the families no one wants to learn this craft which means it is dying. Those who come to make a pot often say how hard it is on the hands and although they enjoyed the experience they had no intention in carrying it forward.
- The profit margin is small as pots use a lot of willow, which is expensive unless homegrown, and people are not willing to pay enough to cover the work of a heavy duty pot.
The only support as such comes from local events close to the coast where makers are invited to show off their craft, e.g. Salcombe Crabfest, Clovelly Lobster Days, Hope Cove Weekend, Brixham Crabfest, etc.
Craftspeople currently known
- Dave French
- Nigel Legge
- David Harrison
- Richard Ede
- Sue Morgan
- Alan Lander
- George Chambers, Porthleven
- Steve Perham, Clovelly
Joe Hogan is a basketmaker who has knowledge of a range of Irish pots.
The pots vary regionally, and only those with direct knowledge from fishers know the dialect words and the reasons for particular variations in shapes and ways the pots are made. Those left need to have their own forms recorded.
- South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen, Evolution of potting gear