ID: DJG_EWF / Douglas J. Gurton

TitleAn Essex Wildfowler - John Gurton 1848-1916
AbstractHanging on the wall of the grand staircase in the Chelmsford and Essex Museum, Oaklands Park, Chelmsford, is a formidable 18th century four bore flint lock mud sledge or punt gun, reputed to have been owned and used at one time by John Gurton of Tollesbury, my grandfather, John was the second son of William and Susan Gurton who had thirteen children, six. boys and seven girls. Great grandfather William originated from Goldhanger where he was born on 13th March 1817, his father being an oyster merchant and farmer. At an early age he was apprenticed to a Tollesbury fisherman, and later became a smack owner. For some years he assisted Mr. Richard Solly of Bohun's Hall, who was also a churchwarden of St. Mary's, and in 1876 skippered one of Mr. Solly's barges to bring stone from Aylesford, Kent, to Mell Creek, Tollesbury, for the rebuilding of St. Mary's Church chancel. In this operation he was assisted by his son George, then 17 years old. William was a keen gunner and had permission to shoot over Mr. Solly's land and marshes. As William's sons reached the mature age of 13 years or thereabouts they were instructed in the use of guns and the art of becoming a wildfowler, for although wild birds were not protected by law in those days, all good wildfovrlers had a code of conduct not to interfere with the habitat of the birds during the eating and nesting seasons. Also to be selective in choice of shoot, only to be gained by experience in the countryside and amongst wildlife. I was told the aforegoing by my great uncle George. as above, shortly before his death in 1958 in the 100th year of his age.

Of great grandfather William's six sons; William (3.3.1843), John (17.10.1848), Edward (18.8.1851), Samuel (6.3.1853), George (26.7.1859) and Stephen (24.7.1861), possibly John and George were the keenest wildfowlers. John was 12 years old when the gunners of the Blackwater accompanied Colonel Russell and his guests in some thirtytwo punts in the winter of 1880 on their record breaking expedition when they bagged some 704 wild geese and picked up 250 [ unreadable word ] next day but no doubt this exploit inspired him. From an early age he owned his own gun, a muzzle loader, and on his marriage in 1871 to Emma Prior of Tolleshunt D'Arcy he owned four guns of various types. When I was taken unto his guardianship on the death of my mother in 1910 he owned a pounder and half-pounder punt gun, two 21' punts, also four other guns, 4, 8, 10 and 12 bore respectively. These last four guns invariably rested in beckets one above the other on the living room wall of his cottage. Periodically they were taken down by "Granfer" as I called him, who cleaned and oiled them thoroughly. He also made his own cartridges. This was a most fascinating-operation to watch. Grandmother did not share the love and interest in guns, but was appreciative of the fact that they were the means of augmenting the family income at times, and providing precious meat for the table, for even with prime meat at 4½ d per pound, beef sausages at 6d and pork at 8d per pound, cartridges were even cheaper. Grandfather believed in the maxim "up goes tuppence ha'penny, down comes half a crown".

However, it was not "Granfer's" main occupation. Like his father before him he had been an apprentice fisherman, and in due time was able to own his smack "Frolic".

In the early seventies John, like some of his contemporaries had taken to the more lucrative occupation of professional yachtsman in the summer months. I have been told that he was the first man to bring a yacht to Woodrope to lay up for the winter. The yacht was the cutter "Cigarette" at one time jointly owned by Sir George Prescott and Gol. Villiers Bagot. In 1870 a contributor on wildfowling in "The Field" wrote under the nom-de-plume "Cigarette", and in his articles he often mentioned his yacht, but not by name. It is possible that there was a connection here.

During the ensuing years, John, combined the calling of an oyster dredgerman, working on his oyster layings in the winter, with some gunning as a relaxation, and the more rewarding employment as yachtmaster during the summer months. He undoubtedly was most successful in the latter sphere. For some years he was skipper of French and Belgian yachts, and in particular one named "Zwerver" a gaff rigged cutter, which was particularly fast and won a number of prizes. Year 1890 found him in charge of the cutter "Darenth" 32 tons, built by J. Harvey of Wivenhoe. About this time he placed an order with Aldous of Brightlingsea for a fisherman's smack, traditionally Colneside in design, but to incorporate certain features conducive for use in wildfowling. The craft to have a light draught, particularly long fo'c'sle to enable two punt guns to be hung in beckets inside, specially strengthened deck beams, as a large baulk of timber with gun mountings and swivels could be placed and bolted on the foredeck immediately in front of the mainmast.

In the meantime, John and Emma's children were growing up, like his father and mother they had a large family, seven sons and six daughters. All the sons became gunners trained by their father. It was possibly on this account that he had the new smack built to provide employment for the boys, the girls could always find employment in the large town or country homes of the gentry. Nathan and Clifford accompanied their father in his little cutter "Nancy" at week-ends to Brightlingsea to watch progress on the smack, which was named "Phantom", the name she bears to this day after some 90 years of service as fishing smack and yacht. In addition to "Phantom" and "Nancy" he owned the 18ton yawl "Dryad" built by Stone Bros., Erith, in 1872 and the "Marguerite" (ex "Cleopatra") rebuilt 1876 by Watkins and re-rigged as a yawl after having been a schooner much earlier. Both of these yachts had been given to John after their owners had become too old or infirm to enjoy their pleasures of sailing. Of the two, possibly "Marguerite" was the most handsome, with her clipper stem and gilt decorative scroll on stem and stern. The two yachts were well equipped and "Marguerite" was unique inasmuch that there was a flush toilet in the cockpit alongside the steering position. It was not known who had this installed, but it was certainly a work of art as I remember it, glazed chinaware with an entwining ivy motif discreetly covered by a hinged lid which formed as a backrest when in use. A most useful accessory and conveniently situated for sinple handed sailing, thereby dispensing with the time honoured shipboard command "relieve the wheel".

Grandfather John was abstemious, a non-smoker and practically a teetotaller, although Grandmother always ensured, that a small cask (pin) of beer supplied by Mr Stone the local brewer, was tapped and ready for use in the pantry. Grandmother said it was for the use of the boys to keep them at home, but she always took care to pocket the key to the brass tap, except on one occasion when she had to make a hurried exit from the Tollesbury Cinema suddenly remembering that she had inadvertently left the key in the barrel. Just to make matters a little confusing for my uncles, she also had a small cask of vinegar in a stall alongside the cask of beer and very often changed their positions.

Grandfather's long periods away from home, left Grandmother in charge of the household. Apart from running the home. Grandmother was the treasurer, and there was one occasion when Grandfather was very worried as they had been told that the cottage in which they lived was up for sale. As tenants it was offered to them for £l50. With practically all his savings spent on "Phantom" at £10 per ton and £150 for spars, rigging, etc., things looked desperate, and Grandfather was on the point of using "Dryad" as a houseboat. Grandmother kept very quiet until the right moment, when she went to the chimney breast, withdrew a tin box, and from a canvas bag shot out two hundred golden sovereigns onto the table, her savings from the housekeeping and sale of wildfowl and fish over the years.

This story was confirmed to me some years ago by Colonel J. Dudley Sherwood, OPE., TD., JP, DL of Stifford Grays who was present in the cottage when the episode occurred. John was at that time skipper of Col. Sherwood's father's yacht. Colonel Sherwood said "Your Grandmother was amost careful and astute business woman." To bring up thirteen children in those days needed a great deal of care and attention. I made the fourteenth and in Grandmother's words was more trouble than all the others put together.

At the turn of the century Grandfather had a very happy association with Mr J. Sherwood, senior, of the paint firm which bore his name. Special paints were supplied for "Phantom" acting as a guinea pig, and a canvas dodger proclaimed to all and sundry that her impeccable appearance was due to "Sherwood's Paints".

In l907 the village of Tollesbury was favoured as the country residence of the Count and Countess de la Chapelle who accompanied by their small daughter Yvonne made their home in a cottage at Woodrolfe Farm Lane, enlarged add beautified in the French style with attractive green shutters at the windows, and a huge brilliantly painted ship's figure head in the spacious garden. This figure head, a huge amply proportioned woman with glaring eyes, was absolutely fearsome, striking terror in most little boys, I for one. Stated to have come from a French man-o-war it had a watch dog effect on boys bent on "scrumping".

The Count and Countess were keen gunners, and during the shooting seasons became familiar figures in the village, both elegantly dressed at all times. Even when embarking on shooting they were both dressed for the sport in comfortable tweeds the Countess who as a fashion plate at any time invariably wore a Tyrolean style hat on these occasions, a smart tailored costume with divided skirt, and always carried her own light weight gun. About this time Grandfather and Uncle George often accompanied the Count and his guests on shooting, expeditions. Grandfatner's youngest daughter, my Aunt Daisy, became nursemaid to Miss Yvonne who possessed a smart black and yellow pedal motor car, quite unique in those days. The Count was a founder and vice-president of the Wildfowlers Association of Great Britain, and such a democratic gentleman was he that he had Grandfather and Uncle George made members of that Association.

Although Grandfather had spent a lifetime at sea, he could not swim. On at least one occasion he nearly drowned, only being saved due to a pocket of air being trapped in his oilskin jacket, thus supporting him and enabling him to scramble ashore onto the saltings. The circumstances were that he had been out punt-gunning in the Fleets and made a record bag with one shot of teal and widgeon, but the punt sank beneath him. One of the adjuncts to being a successful gunner is to be properly dressed for exposure to the elements. Warmth and dryness are essentials. Grandfather always ensured that this was so.

None the less, puntgunning was cold work, necessitating long hours in prone position in a punt, with no room to move around, and taking great care when paddling along not to disturb any wildfowl by sound of puddles. Grandfather always wore woollen mittens, with thumbs and forefingers separate, and a split in the right forefinger to allow trigger to be squeezed gently. In his lifetime he was fortunate in having good bags of ducks, teal and widgeon, and occasionally geese. Walter Mussett now close on 81 years of age, remembers Grandfather John landing a boatload of geese at Mersea Hard. The geese filled a tumbril and sunk its wheels down to the axle.

By 1912 Grandfather's days as a punt gunner were nearly over, he devoted more of his time to his boats and became the local agent for the Cruising Association. At weekends he hoisted the flag, a red souare with white diamond and black letters CA therein, on the flagpole at the front of his cottage. The letters "CA" caused people to say it meant "Christians All".

However, he was not averse to going afloat with his sons, my uncles, for a night's sport. One such occasion, I vividly remember, which would have been in October 1912. My cousins, the Burton family, who had had stables and mews in Marylebone High Street, were about to emigrate to Australia, and Grandfather considered that a night afloat in "Phantom" would be a treat for them and me. So together with my uncles Percy and Clifford, and cousins William and Charles we set off from Woodrolfe on the ebb tide late evening. The moon was full, and when we had reached the fleets, a mist settled on the water, and Grandfather decided to proceed no further. The anchor was let go, and my uncles got into the dinghy with their guns, and set off towards Old Ball marshes which were rented at that time by my father. Although we had the punts ranged along each side of the deck, it was not considered provident to use them in the conditions then prevailing. Thick fog descended in a matter of a hour or so, and I was glad to seek the comfort of the fo'c'sle with its bright warm anthracite stove. Not a sound was heard except for the plaintive cry occasionaly of some sea bird. Grandfather was not unduly anxious, my uncles had taken a compass with them, but he was getting somewhat impatient. In the years I knew him I never heard him utter an unkind or angry word, he was quite a mild and gentlemanly kind of person. Just after midnight, the dip of an oar could be heard, and Grandfather sounded the gong forrard. Shortly afterwards the dinghy came into sight, and my uncles' faces were wreathed in smiles. Grandfather was not amused, and when they indicated six prone hares lying on the bottom boards, he simply said, "You'll get me hung." There had been an exceptionally high tide that night, the hares had been trapped on the saltings, and were stunned with the looms of the oars. My Australian cousin remembers the incident vividly and on a recent visit it was recalled.

Came 1913, Grandfather was being troubled by a pain in the chest, but he did not complain at the time. He went about his work as usual, but gave up his employment with Mr. Sherwood, who said, "Well, if I can't have old John, I'll have young John", referring to uncle "Jack" or John Henry" (named after Dr. Salter). Grandfather busied himself with yachts laid up in the mud berths, usually I accompanied him wearing my new wellington rubber boots, quits an innovation, and bought for me by my Aunt Daisy vith her first week's wages of 5/-. However I was becoming quite a trial to the old couple, who had lavished a great deal of love and care on me. The gift of a carpentry set had prompted me to saw the back off Grandmother's favourite wheelback armchair, but the culminating point arose when I would not go to bed as ordered when Grandfather was engrossed in assembling his guns one night. I had to return to my father and prepare for school.

The last time I saw Grandfather working was when he was kedging a yacht up Woodrolfe Creek. It was late 1914, War had been declared, and the yachts were returning to be laid up. The small yacht of the Prussian officer, about 7' tall, who had struck his head a resounding smack on the low beam in the dining room of the old "Hope" earlier that year, looked most desolate. Like the "Valkyr", another German yacht, it was never claimed in spite of the prolonged efforts of Messrs. Drake to trace the ovners. Gradually the yachts disintegrated, and finally disappeared in the thirties. Little did I realise at that time that Grandfather was so ill. In 1915 he had to take to his bed, Mr. Sherwood gave instructions that he was to have every attention. He was cheered by the visits of the Count de la Chapelle and others who had a love of the outdoor life and wildfowling. The language quite unintelligible to the uninitiated, but nonetheless most fascinating, who today would know what "a skein of geese", "herd of curlews", "company of widgeon", etc., are, "but they did, and talked for hours, recalling the sale of oxbirds it 6d a dozen already skinned, oysters at 5/- per hundred, scallops at 3d per dozen. It is a wonder that they made any money at all.

One of Grandfather's frequent visitors was his brother-in-law, John Prior, who at that time lived in the cottage directly opposite Beckingham Hall, and in his lifetime had reared twenty greyhounds for Dr. Salter of D'Arcy. John Prior was a lovable and humorous old character. At one time when he was ill in bed he gave instructions for his bed to be pushed down to the open window, so that he could balance his twelve bore on the bottom bed rail and take shots at the rabbits down the field. He had a wonderful maxim for life, which was :-

"Be as kind to everybody as you can. Talk pleasantly with all you meet. Work hard and feel when you go to bed how grand it will be to start again in the morning."

Grandfather lingered on through 1915 and well into 1916. "Dryad" was sold for £70, and "Marguerite" was more or less requisitioned for its valuable copper sheathing and lead ballast for munitions of war. However, the double skinned hull was still sound as a bell and it is possible that she is still a houseboat somewhere.

The nightly raids of the Gothas, Taubes and Zeppelins, with their droning engines and the ground defences throwing up a barrage did not trouble or worry him, but was more or less music to his ears, realising that every effort was being made to win the peace.

On the 16th September 1916 he passed quietly away. His family was brought home from far and wide, for the first and last time to be gathered together under one roof. On Saturday, 23rd September 1916, he was buried in St. Mary's churchyard.

That night the biggest bag of all time in these parts was made. Zeppelin L33 crippled on a raid on London was making its way out of the Thames Estuary, but was losing height. To lighten the craft the crew jettisoned the remainder of the 2,000 gallons of bensine, articles of furniture, etc., but to no avail, and the German commander turned his airship towards the land. She grounded at Copt Hall, Little Wlgborough, and the two officers and nineteen crew disembarked, set fire to the Zeppelin and were made prisoners.

AuthorDouglas J. Gurton
SourceMersea Museum
Related Images:
 Smack CK275 PHANTOM with original number. Now CK175  BOXF_137_001_011
ImageID:   BOXF_137_001_011
Title: Smack CK275 PHANTOM with original number. Now CK175
Source:John Leather Collection