One of the great advantages of living here is that you have not to walk far to reach the shores of the Wash and enjoy the richness of the wildlife that lives on and around it. It is always a delight to watch the flocks of knot as they dance by the waves or soar up to swoop and swirl in dizzying patterns. As summer comes to an end like most people here I wait to hear the first calls that announce the arrival of the pink-foot geese. Just a few fly over at first but as the months pass so the battalions grow until, as the light fades, hundreds and hundreds fly over our village to and from the coast. They are friends indeed. Redshank, greenshank, teal, widgeon, and mallard our coast is home to them all. When I first started looking back at our history I noticed on many maps the word decoy way down on our marshes. I soon found George Skelton, Decoy man, recorded in the census returns with his wife Mary and six children. On the tithe map of 1839 he is shown living far out on our marshes with a cottage and yard close to the decoy. I discovered from one source that a decoy was a trap to catch wild ducks. Tame ducks were used as decoys and were given food which would attract in the wild ones. At a given signal the tame ducks would swim up dykes covered in netting and the wild ducks would follow. Once in the dykes with no escape their fate was sealed. This was all I could discover and thought no more about it. However since working with Mike Strange on the new website things have changed. Mike is far more expert than I am with computers and the internet and he has uncovered a real gold nugget of information. So, with this new insight, walk with me now back 200 years into Dersingham's past and meet a real character, Old George Skelton and the fascinating world of the decoy man.
As the eastern counties have always been rich in wildfowl along their fens and marshes it is not surprising that the peasantry in the past sought to find the means to catch the birds for food and for sale. The original method was using many boats to drive the ducks into a cage of net closed at one end. As the ducks became more wary that changed into a method of enticing them into the nets. Decoys for catching ducks were first used in Lincolnshire and Essex when more experienced men from Holland came over to offer advice. This gives us the origin of the word decoy. It comes from the dutch "ende-kooy" the Duck Cage.
The art of decoying then spread into Northampton, Cambridge, Suffolk and Norfolk. In Norfolk the decoys consisted of very large lakes indeed with several net enclosed pipes. Huge numbers of boats and men were needed to drive the ducks into the nets so that the profit each man could achieve was small. This however was about to change.
A Mr. Huntingdon of Somerton had decided, in 1807 to form a decoy on the many acres of low overgrown Marshes he owned at Winterton so he needed to employ an experienced decoyman. Enter Old George Skelton Senior, the father of our George! He had recently moved, with his four sons George, William, Richard and Henry, from his home in Friskney, Lincolnshire to Norfolk. Now the Skeltons were very highly regarded in their home county but unknowns here in Norfolk. George Senior was duly employed and the local decoymen could not believe their ears when they heard he had said he only needed two and a half acres of marsh to construct his decoy. As work commenced the mockery grew louder and louder as the locals derided his "petty puddle". What could he hope to catch with such a paltry lake? It was ludicruous. Mr. Huntingdon had made a serious mistake in hiring this idiot. But Old George and all his sons were skilful decoy men and all the laughter turned to amazement. Humble pie had to eaten when it became known that George had taken 1,100 teal in 7 days. It is unsurprising that Old George's methods were soon adopted throughout the county and the Skelton's reputation was established. They were unrivalled in their knowledge and skill of the art of decoying. Old George Senior worked the Winterton Decoy until he died aged 80 in 1840. He is buried in Winterton churchyard. On his death his oldest son was then always alluded to as Old George. This is our man.
In 1806 with his brothers William and Richard our Old George erected the Methwold decoy but in 1818 he was invited to build and run a decoy here in Dersingham down on our marshes. One of the largest landowners here at the time was the Bellamy family. Dr. James Bellamy, who would become President of St. John's College Oxford, inherited Ingoldisthorpe Manor and a great deal of land here in our village. Although he never lived here until he retired to Ingoldisthorpe shortly before his death in 1909 he was an excellent landlord. So it was on the marshes owned by the Bellamys that Old George came to build his decoy. A small cottage was provided for him and his family way down on the marshes. So now let us meet Old George. He was described as a "very peculiar man", short of stature, web-footed like a duck, very strongly built but kindly in disposition. He seemed indifferent to cold or hardship but unequalled in skill with regard to the art of decoying. The picture depicts him with the fruit of his labours from the South Acre Decoy in 1854.
He arrived here with his family. Mary his second wife was 42. He had two sons George 17 and William 12. His daughters were Mary Ann, 7, Lucy 5, Susannah 3, and Sophia 1. His oldest son George became his assistant but I cannot help but think it must have been a lonely life for the young children and his wife so far from the village, way out on the marsh. Mary herself was born in Ingoldisthorpe(Mary Daw) as were the two youngest children. No doubt Mary preferred to give birth in her old family home rather than in a small cottage isolated on the marsh.
The decoy Old George constructed was a moderate size pond, about an acre and a quarter, with 5 channels known as pipes leading away from it which can still be seen clearly on modern maps. The pipes were covered in net and screens were erected along one side. These screens would have peepholes at regular intervals so that the decoyman could observe the progress of the ducks without being seen. A decoy with 5 pipes was considered the most efficient as no matter from which direction the wind was blowing there were always pipes that could be worked. If the wind was blowing directly down the pipe to the pond the ducks would not fly up against it.
The actual decoying was brought about by either feeding or dogging or a combination of both. Tame ducks, were set onto the pond and food would be scattered there attracting in the wild variety. After a time the decoy man would give a signal that the tame ducks had learnt meant more food would found at the far end of the pipes so there they duly swam. The dog, known as the piper, on a signal would also go ahead up the pipe barking and appearing excited. Apparently wild ducks are very curious creatures and they would immediately follow the dog and tame ducks to see what all the fuss was about. The decoy man would watch and if necessary join in to encourage the ducks on to their fate.
I don't know if Old George had a dog but I like to imagine that he had couple of the small lively fox like creatures. I can see him trudging up from the marsh into our village with the dogs at his heels bringing his harvest of wildfowl to the locals. He would have spent his summer cleaning out the decoy, mending the banks and screens, and putting the nets and pipes in order. Decoymen lived a lonely, quiet life seldom attending fairs or markets on the area. George would always have been alert for intruders and would seldom give away any information about their methods. He would probably have had a pightle to grow vegetables for his family and may even have grazed a few sheep or cattle of his own on the marshes. Another reason for renting land about the decoy was to keep off curious trespassers. He also had another form of support as I found a reference in the Lynn news of 1840 to one George Skelton being heavily fined for poaching!
Harvest of the birds began in October and ended in March with Old George constantly on the watch. The average number of fowl he captured every winter was from 130 to 200 dozen.
So it was a lonely but very successful life here. If the children ever attended the day school in the village it was a long walk for them in all weathers to attend and it could not have been easy for Mary. However Old George could have died in comfort and quite affluent but it seems that in later life he gave way to a passion for drink, perhaps as a result of the cold and hardships he undoubtedly had to endure. I wonder if he trudged up to the Albert Victor in Manor Road, or was he a well known figure in The Dun Cow or the old Cock Inn, propping up a corner by the fire? This habit caused financial hardship for the family. Then in late 1856 he was employed in constructing a decoy at Wretham for a Mr. Birch where he caught a severe chill. He returned to Dersingham but never recovered and died in 1857 at the age of 67 from a thickening of the membrane of the throat brought on by the damp and cold and aggravated by his intemperance. A friend who visited at this time described the visit so.
"The house stood quite alone in the marshes, no great distance from the seashore and was at that time at least two miles from any other dwelling. It consisted of a long low and gloomy room. On asking for him his wife pointed to a corner of the room. On looking there I could see nothing but ducks and wildfowl hanging on strings. On repeating the question where Skelton was, some of the strings of wildfowl were taken down and I found him lying on a four poster bed. These strings of wild fowl were stretched form one post to another all round the bed, so as to form regular curtains that shut him entirely from view."
So Old George passed away and was laid to rest in Ingoldisthorpe churchyard. I have not been able to find any trace of his grave.
Old George was succeeded by a man named Sharp from Hilgay. A new cottage was built for him so I assume Mary Skelton stayed on in the cottage at least for a while. Sharp was not a Skelton and could not achieve the same success so that coupled with alterations to the drainage which led to the drying up of the creek meant the decoy was dismantled in 1870.
However, the decoy can still be seen marked on the maps and in these modern times Google Earth can show us George's handiwork. We have one road here named for it but Old George himself could have remained just one name among many in the census returns quite unremarked. However Mike's great find of the old book on decoying written in 1886 means that Old George can come to life again in these pages. One of our village's remarkable characters.
Good to know you George.
Old George's Family
As stated earlier George Skelton Senior the father of our George constructed the Winterton Decoy in 1807 and worked there until he died aged 80 in 1840. Henry, his fourth son, succeeded his father at Winterton and worked the decoy until his death aged 52 in 1861. Both Father and Son are buried in the churchyard there. The decoy they both worked was abandoned in 1875 and the area is still known as Decoy Wood .
Our George's brother William moved to Combe Abbey Warwickshire where he constructed a decoy for Lord Craven and worked it until his death aged 78 in 1867. Brother Richard was a decoyman for many years for the Gurney family at Hempstead. He also worked the decoy at Methwold for a short time before his death in 1849 aged 53.
Our George married twice. His first wife Lucy Armstrong died in 1820. The daughter of this marriage, Sarah Ann, married William Emmerson of Ingoldisthorpe in 1841.
With Mary Daw, his second wife, Old George had two sons, George and William and daughters Mary Ann, Lucy, Susannah and Sophia. Son George married Matilda Farrow from Ingoldisthorpe on May 24th 1856. He is recorded at first as a decoyman but subsequently proves a very elusive character. Matilda is recorded in the census returns of 1861 as living with William March a farmer with property in both Dersingham and Ingoldisthorpe. She is listed as the daughter but there is no mention of her husband George. In later census returns Matilda is recorded as living with her brother-in- law William but again no mention of husband George. The mystery continues when Matilda is recorded in further census returns living in Grimsby without George until finally in the 1891 census she is in Grimsby recorded now as a widow. So what happened to George? We have found a George Skelton of the right age recorded at Greenwich, Deptford listed as a bricklayer in 1861 but the search continues.
Mary Ann married and emigrated to Australia. Neither Susannah nor Sophia married but Lucy married George Balding of Dersingham. George died in 1908 aged 79, while Lucy died in 1926 aged 81. The gravestone of both Lucy and George can be found in our churchyard.
More facts about decoys.
Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey who wrote the book on decoys in 1886 stated that there was not a park or property in Great Britain where a decoy could not be constructed costing from £100 to £150 to construct. (about £5000 -£7500 in today's money) The annual expenditure would be between £30 -£40 (£1500 - £2000 today).
The first reliable description of a decoy is made by John Evelyn the diarist about one made by Charles 11 in St. James' Park London. They were, however, said to have existed since the time of King John and were frequently the cause of litigation. For instance in 1432 a mob armed with swords and sticks took 600 wildfowl out of the Abbot's decoy at Crowland Abbey which resulted in court action and punishment.
The early methods of driving wildfowl indiscriminately at any time in the year into large nets using many boats caused a serious reduction in the number of wildfowl in some areas. In 1534 an Act of Parliament debarred wildfowl being taken between 31st May and 31st August in an effort to preserve stocks. This was often disregarded especially in remote areas like the fen country.
The law of decoys.
A decoy owner has no claim to ducks flying outside his decoy but is protected by law from injury to them when within the decoy.
Decoys are protected by Common law from wilful damage to the decoy nets, fences or the ducks within it.
The owner of a decoy can recover damages from the perpetrator should any such damage occur.
A neighbour on his own land can fire a gun at wildfowl passing over him but he cannot fire into or over a decoy to disturb the ducks within. He may not try to disturb the fowl within the decoy so that he may shoot them as they pass over him.
If a man invade a decoy he can be sued for trespass.
Owners can be compensated if a neighbour tries to cause damage to the decoy by alarming the ducks within it, even if he is on his own land at the time.
There were many court cases involving incidents at decoys. Decoy owners would sometimes try to damage the property of a nearby rival and armed locals would find the temptation of a ready supply of wildfowl nicely caged too much to resist.
In 1810 in Essex a wildfowl shooter on a tidal creek near a decoy fired a gun from his boat on purpose to disturb the ducks. He then shot several as they flew over him. At court he argued that he had the right to fire at the ducks in the creek as that was free to everyone and he had not ventured upon the land near the decoy. Unfortunately for him the case went against him.
I have not come across any report of such activity here in Dersingham but I suspect that Old George probably had to contend with a few armed locals at times.
The Decoy in more recent times
The decoy was right down on the marsh in some trees on land that was used by a farmer from Ringstead to graze his sheep on.
In the 1950s and 60s there was a bird trap in the decoy called a Heligoland trap. It was not unlike the old traps of years ago with a large mouth supported by iron hoops set in the water with a narrow end. It was used by the R.S.P.B. to trap and ring any sort of birds not just water fowl, so they could keep records of where they flew to and from.
Dick Stanton of Manor Farm
In an interview for the Village Voice magazine (33) Dick recalled that in 1953 the farm had 20 bullocks enclosed in a temporary yard of bale and twine down on the marsh. During the night of the East Coast floods in that year these bullocks were washed into the decoy then owned by a farmer called Lambert from Snettisham. The next morning workers from Manor Farm had to take to boats and swim the cattle out of the decoy.
References: The Book of Duck Decoys by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, Bart published 1886
Google for the satellite image of the Dersingham Duck Decoy