Freshwater Sardine Festival
Sunday 3rd May 2020 will see the 10th recreation of the Seething Freshwater Sardine Festival. Gather at Claremont Gardens from 1pm and then go down to the banks of the Thames to watch our brave fisherman and woman haul in the catch of Freshwater Sardines. From there a procession led by the four giant guinea pigs of Seething will lead the crowd to Claremont Gardens where a BBQ and entertainment will take place and more Seething visitors can join in the fun and heritage.
From as early as 1532 there are records of great catches of freshwater sardines at Seething. The River Thames at that time was a bountiful source of food and the position of Seething on an elbow of the river led to it being a natural home for a rich variety of fish. Records from the London
Museum of Rivers shows that the most plentiful species from the 16th to mid 19th century was the freshwater sardine or Escualosa thoracata tethys.
Before talcum mining came to the area much of Seething’s wealth came from sardine fishing or ‘Ardines’ as they were locally known. Fleets of ‘Chueners’, as the Seething fishing boats were called, were moored around what is now
Raven’s Ait but what was originally called ‘Ardines Bait’.
At the height of the industry there were over 50 Chueners with their classic blue ‘fins’ or sails registered to local families. The great fortune of the local community in being granted sole access to the fishing by deed of rights meant that Seething became the centre for the supply of freshwater sardines to the great kitchens and houses of London and beyond. Indeed it is written that they were George the lll’s favourite food until his madness when it is said he could
never see a sardine without weeping.
Such was the demand for the freshest sardines that one of the first rail lines was constructed to nearby Surbiton and known locally as the ‘Sardine Line’. It is interesting to note that the expression packed like sardines’ is still used for an overcrowded train today and in an early morning and evening Seething villagers still create the ‘packed train’ in memory of the industry.
April tended to be the start of the season for freshwater sardine fishing and the ‘Hewers’ would position themselves alongside the banks to sport the first ‘Sets’ of sardines making their way up river. The ‘Hewers’ familiar cry would signal to the village that fishing could commence and the boats would be launched. It was oft said that the Ardines only natural enemy was the ‘Blue Finned Chuener’.
On the first day of fishing the catch would be brought back to the village on the ‘great cart’ for the Seething Sardine Festival. Here the fish would be barbequed by the best cooks in the village and shared amongst all present. Villagers would make their own piquant dish or ‘salsa’ to have with the fish and a prize was awarded annually for the best accompaniment. The prize was presented during an elaborate Sardine Salsa dance that mimicked the movement of the ‘sets’ in the water.
Unfortunately the dirtying of the Thames by the introduction of human waste and later by factory outpour killed off the freshwater sardine in the mid to latter part of the 19th century. In the last year of fishing just three sardines were caught. This sadness was captured in one of the town’s Coat of Arms.
In 2005 the freshwater sardine was reintroduced by Maples to the Thames at Seething and the Seething Sardine Farm is now exporting cans to the Mediterranean where it is highly valued for its unique flavour.
Importantly some sardines that have escaped from the farms nets appear to have repopulated some of the river and it is hoped that on Sunday 3rd May 2020 a single boat will fish and hopefully its catch, however meagre, will be used in a recreation of the great Seething Sardine Festivals of old