The Rogers Family made coracles in Ironbridge for perhaps 300 years. They were not the only coracle men in Ironbridge but probably the most well known. Eusty, the last of the Rogers coracle men died in 2003.
The Rogers family are typical of the many generations of coracle men who knew the river like the back of their hand. Tommy Rogers, was born in 1843 and died in 1927. He was one of the last generation of watermen who worked the barges and Trows that plied their trade on the river. He was a larger than life character, and great bear of a man, who had several brushes with the law. A strong swimmer and boxer he was also a friend of Captain Matthew Webb the first man to swim the English Channel.
Tommy had two sons Jimmy and Harry who carried on the family coracle-making tradition. Jimmy was employed full time at the Coalbrookdale ironworks and Harry worked at a sawmill. Both were countrymen who gained a living from the river in their spare time and were celebrated for their expertise in times of flood or when someone had to undertake the grim task of fishing bodies from the river. They learnt country skills, including how to make a net, splice rope, trap game and make and handle a coracle.
When the family were under threat of eviction from their condemned cottage on Severnside Harry his brother in law and friends worked through the three months of winter 1938 to build a new larger house on Severnside, with its distinctive arched doorway looking out on Harry’s coracle shed.
Harry had a succession of pet foxes, all of which seem to have been called Billy. There are photos of him with Billy sitting on his lap in 1944. In 1967 he was being interviewed when a fox walked into the house
“Hello Billy, he said, anything up? The fox rubbed his mask against his master’s legs, as if it were a terrier…. he owned a succession of foxes and as each one died he replaced it with another, and each one of them lived in the kennel… Billy used to roam one or two miles down-river… but he usually came back at night.. “Faithful as a dog, aren’t you Billy?”Harry
Eustace ‘Eusty’ Rogers was born in 1914. He lived alone at the family home on Severnside when his father Harry died in 1967 and his mother Chrissie (nee Christiana Owen) died 18 months later.
Eusty worked full time at Ironbridge Power Station but he also carried on the family tradition of country pursuits, coracle making and handling. He even had a go at making several prehistoric-style coracles from bullock hide over a woven willow frame, tied together with horse-hair.
During the winter months he made miniature model coracles which were given to family and friends. A great raconteur, he continued the family tradition of sharing his coracle stories down at the old coracle shed. Eusty died in 2003 aged 88, fittingly one of his model coracles took pride of place on his coffin.
Christiana Owen, (Chrissie) from Madeley Wood married Harry Rogers in Ironbridge in 1909. They had three children, one son and two daughters.Their son Eustace (Eusty) was born the day before war was declared in 1914. Chrissie did not approve of poaching, so Harry promised to give up poaching and rented a plot of land where he raised rabbits for the pot.
She never went into the coracle shed, believing it to be ’the men’s shed’. Harry died in 1967 and Chrissie 18 months later.
Coracles come into their own during the regular floods that affect the Gorge. During the great flood of 1946/7 Harry took food and coal to families at Dale End who were marooned in their bedrooms. There was 5ft 6inches of flood water along the Wharfage for 8 days. Harry was interviewed by several national radio and TV programmes and enjoyed the celebrity. It is a joy to hear the rich Shropshire dialect in these early interviews.
During hard times poaching put food on the plates of starving families.
Coracles were an essential piece of kit for the local band of poachers, who were all expert coracle men. They hunted for rabbits and pheasants in the woods and fields along the banks of the river using fine nets. The coracle was used to ferry the nets across the river and at the end of the night the catch and nets were loaded into the coracle. One member paddled it home, whilst the rest of the gang walked back into Ironbridge empty handed, much to the frustration of the local police!
These latter-day Robin Hoods – Fussler Potts, Bunkus Owen, Hell Fire Jack, Pottery George, Dick the Keen-un, Gambler Baugh, Gunner Boden, Nacky Brady, Tommy Rogers and many others risked time in jail to feed their families.
Until 1923 salmon and other fish were legally caught using a coracle and nets on the River Severn at Ironbridge.
Landowners along the river would claim the salmon rights where the river came up to their land.
The poachers were licensed to catch trout and eels, but if they caught salmon on a landowner’s stretch of water they were supposed to throw it back. Of course they never did!
Unlike the net fishermen of West Wales who fished with a net slung between two coracles, only one coracle was needed at Ironbridge. One end of the net was pegged to the bank and the other end paddled out to the middle of the river. They would beat the water with a beating pole, which was like a broom stick with a big leather disc on it, to drive the fish into the net.
The other method was to lay eel line. This was set across the river three times with links every four feet with bated hooks on them and left overnight. They would return in the morning and pull the line in across the coracle, removing any eels.