Seething Freshwater Sardines

Sunday 7th May 2016 will see the 7th

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


The Background

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 7th May 2017 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

Early representation of freshwater sardine fishing in Seething (Seething Museum collection)

Preparing for freshwater sardine fishing in Seething. Note the Chueners in the background

(London Museum of Rivers collection)

Classic Seething nine sardine barbeque

Freshwater Seething tin from the new Maple Road cannery

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Sunday 7thMay 2017