“Some of the most primitive vertebrates still alive today, river lampreys (Lampetra fluviatilis) are small, eel-like fish with toothed, sucker-mouths. They use this sucker to attach to other fish, rasping away at the flesh and feeding on bodily fluids. They also feed on carrion.”
The Wildlife Trusts: Protecting Wildlife for the Future
Next time you feel inclined to go wild swimming in the Thames or even dangle a toe consider the case of 16 year old Marilyn Bell from Toronto who in September 1954 started off on a record breaking swim across Lake Ontario. As Time magazine later reported she was barely out from the shore when…
“She felt a gnawing sensation at her middle. A sea lamprey, one of millions of the slimy, eel like creatures that infest the Great Lakes, had sunk its teeth through her bathing suit, and was trying to attach its bloodsucking mouth to her body. It was as bad a moment as Marilyn had in the whole 21-hour ordeal. ‘I struck hard at it with my hand,’ she said later, ‘and my blow knocked it off.’”1
Time Magazine Monday, May 09, 1955
I only mention this cautionary tale as there was a time when lampreys or lamperns as they are also known, were considered fish of considerable importance -and were fished in great quantities from the River Thames. In 1836 William Yarrell wrote in his “History of British Fishes” …
“It was taken in great quantities in the Thames and was sold to the Dutch as bait for the Turbot, Cod, and other fisheries. Four hundred thousand have been sold in one season for this purpose, at the rate of forty shillings per thousand. From five pounds to eight pounds the thousand have been given; but a comparative scarcity of late years, and consequent increase in price, has obliged the line fishermen to adopt other substances for bait. Formerly the Thames alone supplied from one million to twelve hundred thousand Lamperns annually. They are very tenacious of life, and the Dutch fishermen managed to keep them alive at sea for many weeks.”2
Our own local historian Edward Ironside also wrote about the lampern trade in his “History and Antiquities of Twickenham” published in 1797…
“Hethrow, or, as formerly written, Heathrow, here is a very considerable fishery for lamperns, a small kind of lamprey, which are used as baits by the English and Dutch in the cod and turbot fishery. Large quantities are fetched by the Hollanders from the Thames, where they are chiefly caught, between Brentford and Kingston, and in large quantities at Twickenham. During the demand for the fisheries from November to June the usual price is six shillings per hogshead. Afterwards they are sold for as many pence.”
Although lamperns have some rather disgusting personal habits – one writer describes how they will “burrow their heads into the side of a fish and suck out their guts!” – there are some folk who consider them quite the thing to eat. Queen Elizabeth 1st was a fan and in 1580 licensed weirs along the Thames to provide the royal household with “lampreys and roches”. Writer Frank Buckland was another. In his 1880 book “Natural History of British Fishes” he wrote “Although this fish is very abundant in our rivers, it is not much used as food, yet there is no finer dish than Lamperns.”
Perhaps the most famous lamprey lover was Henry 1st of England. He died on 1st December 1135 after what the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon described as “a surfeit of lampreys”. Why Henry decided to eat so many is unknown, especially as he knew they disagreed with him and his doctor had specifically advised him against the fish. Maybe Henry, 67 years old, was banking upon their reputation as a guaranteed aphrodisiac. He was married at the time to the beautiful Adeliza of Louvain – the “Fair Maid of Brabant” – who was 35 years his junior and there does come a time when a man has to do what a man has to do!
Although the Environment Agency believes that lampreys can be found in the Thames they haven’t actually seen any in recent surveys. Local fishermen tell me that they have seen few, caught none and wouldn’t eat any if they did! All of this suggests that wild swimming and toe dangling is back on the menu for those that go in for that kind of foolhardy thing.
The BBC “One Show” checks out lampreys
1 One commentator believed that the Dutch fishermen were able to keep the lampreys alive in their buckets by constantly stirring the water.
2 Marilyn Bell did go on to become the first person to swim across Lake Ontario in just under 21 hours. The following year, 1955, she became the youngest person to swim the English Channel.
— from Martyn Day