ID: PH01_DOY / Elaine Barker

TitleMersea's Duck Decoy
AbstractA Memorandum by Charles Lind, Vicar of West Mersea, written on a page of the Register for baptisms and marriages 1738 - 1812 makes for fascinating reading. Amongst other interesting contemporary information he refers to the construction of the West Mersea duck decoy, so dating it to the ten year period of his incumbency between 1738 and 1748.

A Decoy was made in the Parish during the
time I was minister, & Six Couple of Ducks
were paid to me yearly, as an Acknowledge
ment for Tythe. At first as many Ducks were
paid me as I wanted for my own usage but
at last by the Agreement of Charles Gray Esq[uire]
to whom the Farm belong'd, & John Cooper
the tenant, the Number was fix'd at Six Couple [ERO D/P 77/1/2]

The Chapman and Andre map of 1777 is probably the first to show the decoy on the south shore of Mersea Island in West Mersea.

So what exactly was a duck decoy pond, how did it work and how long did its use persist in Mersea?

Not to be confused with the wooden, carved, decoy ducks, decoy ponds were man-made structures designed to trap wildfowl on a large scale in nets.

Typically, close to the coast where huge numbers of wildfowl would come to overwinter, a pond would be chosen - or dug. From this between three and eight channels or 'pipes' were dug, radiating out from the middle, making a star or octopus shape and narrowing towards the ends. Wildfowl were lured down these pipes and caught in a detachable net at the very end.

The channels had a kink or curve in them so that the captured birds couldn't see that their exit was blocked ahead while those wild birds still on the pond remained unaware of the capture and despatching of the others. The pipe chosen by the decoyman was dependent on which way the wind was blowing and the whole process was done in silence.

Decoys were, it is believed, an invention of the Dutch in the sixteenth century and the earliest in this country was most likely the Waxham Decoy pond in Norfolk built in 1620. Charles II had a decoy built at St. James's Park in London in 1665 which is one of the best documented decoys in Britain and there was a Royal Decoyman who lived in a nearby cottage.

In Essex two early references to decoys include an entry for the death of 'William a servant to Robert Spencer the duckoy man' in Tillingham's burial register in 1662 and Decoy Marsh in Tollesbury in a deed of 1663 [ERO D/DA T416].

Many decoys were worked along this part of the Essex coastline, taking advantage of the huge numbers of wildfowl of all descriptions coming to this area for overwintering. Along with Lincolnshire, Essex became a stronghold of decoy construction.

Locally, there were decoys at Goldhanger, Tollesbury, Tillingham, Mersea and Bradwell on Sea, and it is thanks to James Wentworth Day, author, countryman and wildfowler that we have an excellent description in his book, Harvest Adventure (1948) of how decoys worked.

For those who do not know, a duck decoy is a pond from which radiate three to eight curved channels called pipes.

View of a decoy pond and the opening of one of the pipes [Miller Christy: Birds of Essex]

These pipes which narrow as they leave the pond, are covered with netting, which terminates in a small detachable net called a trammel, which lies on the ground at the farthest and narrowest end of each pipe.

The end of a decoy pipe and the trammel net [Miller Christy: Birds of Essex]

The pond is always situated in a wood or thicket far from noise, is kept as quiet as possible, and is tenanted by tame decoy ducks, pinioned [ie their wing feathers are trimmed rendering them unable to fly], whose work-life is to lure the wild birds down.
The mouths of the pipes are flanked on each side by tall reed screens, overlapping each other and continuing to the trammel end. The interlapping spaces between each screen are connected by small reed screens, a foot high, called 'dog jumps'. Between the screens and the water's edge is a narrow path about eighteen inches wide.
The decoyman waits until the pond is full of birds, then choosing a pipe towards which the wind is blowing, he and his dog - the chief and most valuable actor in the whole business - begin operations.
First the decoyman, hidden behind the screens at the mouth of the pipe, whistles the feeding-call to the decoy ducks and tosses a handful of grain over the screen into the water. The decoys rush for it. The wild birds follow them. A few more handfuls, thrown over screens further up the pipe, and then, as the ducks follow the food, the decoyman's dog, the 'piper' does his bit.
Leaping over a dog jump, he trots along the narrow path, the length of a screen, in full view of the ducks, pops over the next dog-jump, and disappears. Up goes every duck's head, and, with an immense quacking and hullabaloo, the wild ducks follow the dog. They do this partly because the dog is almost invariably liver-coloured or rusty red, and they mob him in mistake for a fox, and partly out of curiosity...

Inside a decoy showing the rush screens, the decoy man's dog and the curve in the pipe as it narrows to the end [Miller Christy: Birds of Essex]

When the dog has repeated his trotting, jumping, and disappearing act and has drawn the ducks round the corner of the pipe, where they are unseen by other birds on the pond, the 'coyman shows himself behind them. The terrified birds immediately rush up to the narrow end of the pipe and pile into the trammel net - which is on hoops - trying to escape. The 'coyman then unhooks the trammel and takes them out one by one....

Wentworth Day visited a decoy at Old Hall Marshes, Tollesbury, said to be one of the oldest in the country.

No one can put a date to the Old Hall pond, but it is one of the oldest in the kingdom and probably dates from the reign of James I [reigned 1567 -1625]or James II [ 1685-1688], when not only were decoy ponds introduced by the Dutch, who called them Eendenkooi [duck-cage] but the marshes themselves were probably embanked.

The best bait for fowl is oats, buckwheat, and hempseed oil. The latter should be dashed over the oats and buckwheat giving them an irresistible flavour to ducks. Another good mixture is malt-coombs with a dash of aniseed oil.

Wentworth Day goes on to say, that, at the time of writing (in the years following WW2) there were barely a dozen working decoys left in England and that 150 years before (circa 1800) there were over a hundred, taking half a million fowl a year.

He adds Marsh House decoy near Tillingham was still in use in 1948, the last one in Essex and one of the last in England.

Marsh House Decoy, Tillingham, believed to be the last decoy working commercially. [Miller Christie: Birds of Essex]

An early account of decoys (following a visit to the Lincolnshire Fens) appears in Daniel Defoe's 1724 Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain and he recalled that twice a week decoymen loaded up their catch and sent waggons to London drawn by ten and twelve horses apiece they were laden so heavy.

Here are also an infinite number of wild fowl, such as duck and mallard, teal and widgeon, brand geese, wild geese, &. and for the taking of the four first kinds, here are a great number of decoys or duckoys, call them which you please, from all which the vast number of fowls they take are sent up to London; the quantity indeed is incredible, and the accounts which the country people give of the numbers they sometimes take, are such, that one scarce dares to report it from them. But this I can say, of my certain knowledge, that some of these decoys are of so great an extent, and take such great quantities of fowl, that they are let for great sums of money by the year, viz. from £l00 to 3, 4, and £500 a year rent.

The decoy ducks are first naturalised to the place, for they are hatch'd and bred up in the decoy ponds: There are in the ponds certain places where they are constantly fed, and where being made tame, they are used to come even to the decoy man's hand for their food.

In Arthur Young's General View of the Agriculture of the County of Essex [1807] he relates being shown round the Mersea Decoy by James Buxton.

One of the best, if not the most considerable Decoy in the county, is on Mersea Island, and rented, with a small farm of about sixty acres, by Mr. Buxton, of Layer de la Haye. He was so obliging as to accompany me from thence into Mersea, and to show me his Decoy. Not having before viewed a Decoy in the taking season, I had not remarked the precaution of each person taking a piece of lighted turf on a table-fork in his hand to approach the Decoy; as the wild ducks, it is said, would smell the person without caution, and immediately quit the pond. I found the expenses of this Decoy considerable: two men attend it, who are paid above £100 a year; repairs, net, rents, &c., amount in all to about £300 a year. Ducks are sometimes as low as 14s. a dozen. The contrivance for taking Dunbirds [pochard] was new to me. At the Decoy for them near Ipswich [the Brantham Decoy], there are a series of very high poles, to which the nets are attached, for taking them in their flight; and these poles are permanent. At this Mersea Decoy, to which this bird resorts in large quantities as well as ducks, the net poles are lowered when not at work.

In Wright's History and Topography of Essex, published in 1836 he writes

There are many decoys in the creeks by the coast for taking wildfowl. One of the best is at Mersea island and is attended by two men whose wages, with rent, repairs of nets and other expenses amount to £300 a year.

Pochard or Dun birds, alluded to by Young, are diving birds and were not easily caught in decoys. When the decoyman showed himself, the pochard, instead of flying into the net at the end of the pipe, would dive back the way they had come to the pond. So a different method had to be used on the ponds where these birds gathered.

A pochard pond was usually a freshwater 'flight pond' where birds would congregate during the day. At dusk the pochard took flight to their feeding grounds returning early morning; this allowed netting at dusk or as they returned to the flight ponds in the morning. At other times, the decoyman might need two 'flushers' who would appear suddenly, maybe firing a gun, in order to put the birds to flight, and he would need two assistants to help with the nets.

Enormous numbers of birds were taken in just one drop of the net in these ponds and it is clear these birds came to Mersea in large quantities.

When the birds were on the pond a gun was fired and the net trigger was pulled. Up went the birds and up went also the net which was hung between great poles like the masts of ships. The birds struck the net and fell into pockets at the bottom [James Wentworth Day: The Modern Fowler]

As Arthur Young comments, the nets at Mersea were not permanent and could be lowered when not in use. It was quite possible for the pond to be used both as a decoy and as a flight pond. The part of the pond being used as a flight pond needed to be open with nothing to impede the nets or the birds taking off, whereas the pipes used for the decoy needed to be surrounded by thick planting.

It would seem that the Mersea decoy had been built as a decoy but had been used as a pochard pond from at least the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Sabine Baring Gould, described the Waldegrave's decoy in his novel, Mehalah, first published in 1880's.

The Decoy was a sheet of water covering perhaps an acre and a half in the midst of a wood. The clay that had been dug out for its construction had been heaped up, forming a little hill crowned by a group of willows...The pond was fringed with rushes, except at the horns, where the nets and screens stood for the trapping of the birds. From the mound above the distant sea was visible, through the gap in the old elm trees that stood below the pool.

The earliest traceable owner of the farmland on which Mersea's decoy was sited, Charles Gray (1696 - 1782), was a Tory MP for Colchester and was famously given Colchester Castle as a marriage settlement. He was a substantial landowner also owning Hollytrees and much of the land that was to become Colchester Castle Park.

At Gray's death in 1782, with no surviving issue, he left the Castle and much of his land and properties in many Colchester parishes (including West Mersea) to James Round and his wife, Thamar née Creffield who was granddaughter of Gray's first wife. He bequeathed them

all and every my Manors, Messuages, Farms, Lands, Woods, Woodgrounds and Hereditaments whatsoever ...

Gray's tenant of the Mersea decoy in 1748 was John Cooper, who is likely to have also been the decoy man at one of the Goldhanger decoys. His very narrow escape from drowning was reported in the newspapers of 1736.

On Monday last a most melancholy Accident happened at Gold Onger near Malden in Essex, where Mr. Cooper, Master of the famous Decoy there which furnisheth most of the Market Towns thereabouts with Wild-Fowl, being at work with five of his men in the said Decoy, a sudden Inundation of the River happen'd, and the waters came with such Rapidity and Force, that in a few Minutes about ten miles of Land were laid under water. Mr. Cooper, with much Difficulty, sav'd himself in his Boat, but the five other Men perish'd in the View of many hundred People, none of whom could afford them any Succour. Newcastle Courant 1736

Cooper's decoy was referred to by Miller Christie (writing in 1890) as being Goldhanger decoy No. 1 one mile SW from Goldhanger (seven decoys have now been identified in Goldhanger). This No. 1 decoy I am told by Goldhanger's historian, David Newman, was at Cobb's Farm which is now part of Gardner's Farm

In the following notice in the Chelmsford Chronicle newspaper of November 1785, James Buxton was clearly the tenant of West Mersea decoy as well as the decoy at Goldhanger - was he successor to John Cooper? Buxton certainly had land in Goldhanger when Philip Morant published his History of Essex in 1768.

Colchester Nov. 4th 1785
WHEREAS some Person or Persons have several Times
disturbed the Fowls in the Decoy Ponds at Gold-
hanger, and West Mersea, belonging to Mr. James Buxton,
of Colchester, and came in a boat three mornings successively
this week, and maliciously disturbed the fowls in the Decoy
Pond in West Mersea, by shooting, and otherways disturbing
the fowls in the said Pond; if any person will give infor-
mation of the offender, or offenders, to Mr. James Buxton,
of Colchester, shall, on his or their conviction, receive FIVE
GUINEAS; but as it is suspected the above person or persons
were employed to disturb the said fowls by some decoyman, or
owner of a decoy pond, if the person or persons so employ-
ed will discover their employer or employers, so that he or
they may be convicted, shall receive TWENTY GUINEAS.
If any person should in future be guilty of the same offence,
the informer will be entitled to the reward

So serious was the disturbance of decoys that a local association was set up as appeared in the Essex Chronicle in September 1800.

Notice is hereby given to the above description of persons, that the several proprietors and occupiers of Decoys, on and in the neighbourhood of the River Blackwater, in this county, have entered into an Association for the purpose of Prosecuting such persons, as shall hereafter by fowling, or in any other manner disturb the Wild Fowl, in or near such Decoys, or hinder or prevent their resort thereto. And any person or persons giving information of any such offender or offenders, and afterwards by their evidence substantiate the necessary facts, will receive Five Guineas Reward. WM. LAWRENCE, Solicitor to the Association. Maldon, 11th. Sept. 1800.

John Bensusan-Butt, in his biographical dictionary of eighteenth-century Colchester people, tells us Buxton's mother, Margaret, was from Goldhanger, giving a local connection despite Buxton's living and farming in Layer de La Haye.

Mentioned as Arthur Young's 'tour guide' of the Mersea decoy in 1807, James Buxton was the son of a Colchester distiller, also James, who had been a Burnham dredger but later set up a liquor business in Colchester. James the younger, although previously a baymaker, had involved himself with the family liquor business. He was to become a 'progressive' farmer renting Layer Hall Farm in 1789 from landowner and MP Charles Western. By the early part of the nineteenth century Buxton was living with his large family at Cross House Farm and was clearly a principal farmer in Layer de La Haye. Buxton died in 1828.

Following Thamar Round's death in 1799 (by then a widow) her son, George Round, succeeded to the family's estates. George Round was to die in 1824 and left to his son, also George,

all that the Manor or Lordship of East Mersea otherwise East Hall in East Mersea... and also all other my Freehold and Copyhold estates within the Boundary of the Stroud... situated in the Parishes of East and West Mersea.

In their heyday, the duck decoys were big business and vast quantities of wildfowl would be sent to markets in London, especially Leadenhall Market which specialised in poultry and game

deservedly esteemed as the largest and best poultry market in London. [1850 Handbook of London Peter Cunningham]

The number of wild Fowl taken in decoys is amazing, these birds have of late years been all contracted for by the London Salesmen and Poulterers ....These birds [pochard] are eagerly bought by the London Poulterers, under the name of Dun Birds, as they are deemed excellent eating ; the greater part of what appear in the markets are caught in decoys. Reverend William B Daniel: Rural Sports published 1801

The Reverend Daniel goes on to note

At the pond of Mr. Buxton, at Goldhanger, in Essex, as many Pochards have been taken at one drop as filled a waggon, so as to require four stout horses to carry them away;

This account of such prodigious numbers of birds being caught echoes Defoe's account in 1724 and in the twentieth century, Wentworth Day's remarks that cartloads were sent to the markets within quite recent memory. Wentworth Day relates that one decoy alone took over ten thousand fowl in one winter [his italics] circa 1924 and refers to the decoys as 'slaughter-houses'. The owners seldom or never allow visitors, nor do they allow details of the bags to creep out. The reasons for this are obvious. [J Wentworth Day: The Modern Fowler]

By the time of James Buxton's death in 1828, the Mersea decoy would have been in the hands of his landlords, the Round family, for close to fifty years.

James and Thamar's grandson is the George Round listed on the 1839 Mersea Tithe Awards as a major landowner; like his father he was a banker. He is listed as the owner of the Decoy Pond, entered as pasture land, tenanted at the time by Robert White Forster. George Round died in 1857 leaving all his estate to his wife Margaret who died in 1886 without issue. Along with many other lots, Waldegrave's and Decoy Farm were put up for sale in 1897. [ERO D/DHt T483]

A document at the Essex records office reveals that in 1844 Samuel Edwin and Edwin Samuel Bean (father and son) had taken out the lease on Waldegrave's Farm, including the decoy.

Miller Christie book Birds of Essex confirms that a member of the Bean family, leased Waldegraves Farm up until the pond stopped being used circa 1870. Samuel Mussett, a member of a well-known Mersea family of mariners and fishermen, was Bean's employee who fired the flight pond gun.

Edwin S Bean appears in the 1861 census living at Waldegraves, most likely a tenant of the Round family; an entry in the 1863 White's trade directory lists him as a farmer at Waldegraves. [For general family background see The Beans of Peldon Hall ]

Ralph Payne-Gallwey's publication The Book of Duck Decoys [published 1886] tells us

The Mersea Island Decoy was discontinued 15 years ago [c1871] on account of the shore- gunners, who were able by reason of its proximity to the coast, to disturb it with shooting. It was originally a Pochard pond, and is situated on land known as "Bacon's Farm."

Before its closure in the 1870s, Mersea Decoy had lasted for over 125 years being used both as a decoy and a pochard flight pond during that time.

This detail of the OS map shows what the decoy looked like when surveyed in 1874, possibly just a few years after it had ceased being used. Copyright Image - with thanks to National Library of Scotland

By the time J.E. Harting was writing in 1887 [Wild-fowl Decoys in Essex] and Miller Christy in 1890 only three Essex decoys out of an estimated twenty nine were still in use, those at Tillingham (The Marsh House and Grange) and Tollesbury (The Old Hall Decoy). It is believed the decline was due not only to the disturbance of the ponds by shore-shooters, but also the large quantities of wildfowl brought over from Holland to the London markets. Also, with loss of habitat due to the reclamation of marshland there were fewer over-wintering wildfowl which led to unproductive decoys rapidly closing.

In modern times the West Mersea duck decoy pond was altered to be roughly rectangular although the remains of the 'pipes' are still just visible - there were five in all. It is immediately adjacent to the sea wall on the south of the island and 500m south of Waldegrave's Farm. The only reference to its past importance is the name Decoy Point still widely in use.

In 1971 there was a huge local outcry at plans to develop the 10 acre agricultural site around the Decoy Pond. The proposed development would have turned the area into a giant yachting basin with a 'boatel', restaurant and clubhouse, a park for four hundred boats and a car park for 350 cars.

In the 1980s the pond was converted by Waldegrave's Holiday Park into a boating lake where guests could hire kayaks and other water craft

Now, the decoy pond is used as one of four fishing ponds owned by Waldegraves Holiday Park which are stocked with carp, bream, tench, roach, rudd, perch and gudgeon catering for fishing holidays for anglers.

West Mersea's Decoy pond in February 2022 [photo: Tony Millatt]

Today the decoy is registered as an Ancient monument, part of the listing from the year 2000 reads

Originally a five-piped pochard pond, the decoy now appears as a large roughly rectangular pond, measuring some 100m north west to south east and 60m north east to south west, extended at one corner. The channels or pipes are now largely infilled, but their positions can be traced on the ground as shallow depressions.

As for the pochard, this once common duck is now under threat because its populations are declining rapidly. The UK still is an important winter destination for this bird, with 48,000 birds visiting our wetlands and coasts but sadly the RSPB have just placed the pochard on their "red list" of birds of concern.

A Male Pochard [photo: David Lawrence]

In recent years, a few decoys have been restored, notably the one on the Berkeley Castle Estate near the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust at Slimbridge, and are being used for ringing birds and monitoring their health and migratory habits.

Locally, the Blackwater Wildfowlers Association acquired land close to Goldhanger on Lauriston's Farm that includes one of the original decoy ponds. The Association has since restored the pond and maintains it as a no-shooting zone and haven for wintering wildfowl.

Restored by the Blackwater Wildfowlers Association, Lauriston's Decoy shows clearly the classic shape of a duck decoy pond. [photo: courtesy of David Newman].

In their country of origin, the Netherlands, there are 118 decoys registered by the government although legislation in 1984 has meant no more can be registered. They are no longer profitable on a commercial basis but some are still used to catch duck for the table. Many others (about 60%) are now used largely for their cultural and historic value, often being employed by nature conservancy organisations for wildfowl research and ringing.

Although fascinated by the history of decoys and those who worked them, and a keen wild-fowler himself, Wentworth Day was appalled at the mass destruction of wildfowl in these 'slaughter-houses'.

I have never heard a good word spoken for them by any intelligent sportsman or lover of wild life, nor have I ever known their presence do anything but harm to the wildfowl of a district... The sooner legislation is introduced to abolish these commercial wildfowl 'destructors' the better.

Thankfully, in this country, their commercial use has been relegated to the annals of history.

Elaine Barker

Thanks to
Jim Pullen
Kevin Bruce
David Newman
Tony Millatt
David Nicholls
David Lawrence

POSTSCRIPT. In the research for this article there was great excitement at what seemed to be an unrecorded decoy on the NE of Mersea Island near the Colchester Oyster Fishery. The excitement didn't last long! It appears the 'decoy' is not an old one and was dug by the owner of the Colchester Oyster Fishery as a Flight Pond to attract wildfowl!

Google maps reveals the tell-tale star-shape of a duck decoy next to Colchester Oyster Fishery - it was, in fact, dug in recent times.

Oil painting by Maldon artist Robert Nightingale The Duck Decoy showing one of the curved pipes with its netting, narrowing down to the 'trammel' and the decoyman and his dogs with the catch. This picture shows The Grange Decoy, Tillingham, and the gentleman standing has been identified as Mr Page.
Photograph with thanks to the Maldon and Burnham Standard, who featured the painting when it was for sale in 2015.

Read More
The Goldhanger Decoy Ponds by David Newman

AuthorElaine Barker
SourceMersea Museum
Related Images:
 Decoy Pond at Waldegraves Caravan Park.
 Jack Botham Flight 3.  JBA_003_209
ImageID:   JBA_003_209
Title: Decoy Pond at Waldegraves Caravan Park.
Jack Botham Flight 3.
Date:4 September 1960
Source:Brian Jay Collection / Botham Aerial Views
 Lauriston's Farm, Goldhanger - Decoy Pond restored by the Blackwater Wildfowlers Association  PH01_DOY_007
ImageID:   PH01_DOY_007
Title: Lauriston's Farm, Goldhanger - Decoy Pond restored by the Blackwater Wildfowlers Association
Source:Mersea Museum / David Newman