Commercial fishing in the River Medway has a rather rare and unusual history. The estuary was heavily fished in the Middle Ages, causing species to start disappearing from the waters. To try and regulate this, King Henry VI granted a Royal Charter to the City of Rochester in 1446, giving citizens the exclusive right to fish in the river. Rivalries and feuds slowly increased over the centuries as fishing boats in the river became more and more crowded. The conflicts peaked in 1729, when King George II passed an Act of Parliament to grant the fishing rights to Rochester Oyster and Floating Fishery (ROFF), a working guild based in Rochester. This meant fishing could be regulated much more effectively by giving responsibility to the local community. The guild have managed the river ever since, and are still in charge of fishing in the River Medway.
Fishing in the Guild
The guild requires hopeful fishermen to undertake a seven year apprenticeship on the river, where they learn about the seasonal changes in fishing and how the different fishing methods work. After the seven years, apprentices are summoned to court by the Mayor of Medway where they are awarded the title of ‘Freeman’ of the river.
This unique process gives Freemen direct responsibility for the health and sustainability of fish stocks in the river. Each year, two Freemen are elected as Water Bailiffs to enforce their right to fish in the river, and summon to court anyone who breaches the law.