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 Ernie James - Obituary



Ernie James, formerly of Plover Cottage, Bedford Bank, Welney, and for the last five years a resident of Marifa Lodge home for the elderly in Welney, passed peacefully away in Kings Lynn Hospital on 5th July 2005, aged 99.

Ernie He was one of the last (some said the last) of the legendary "Fen Tigers" - the elite breed of men who scratched a seasonal living on the Fens of East Anglia. He was born in Welney on 8th January 1906. His parents lived in a cottage that had been home to several previous generations of the James family, on land they owned between the rivers Delph and Old Bedford, close to the two bridges.

The cottage was known as Ferry House because Ernie's father operated a ferry service across the Washes in winter when the Wash Road (the A1101) road was impassable. Ernie took over the service in 1922 when only 16 and continued it right through the 2nd World War.

He spent all his life in Welney, working for his father on his smallholding when he left school until his 20s, then making a living from a square mile of land and water close to his cottage. At the age of 21 he married Doris, a local Welney girl whose father was employed as a mole-catcher by the local drainage authority.

Ernie never had a 'regular' job - his work, in deed his whole life, was ruled by the seasons. Winter was for punt gunning and his shooting skills were recently recognised by the Shooting Times which listed him as one of the 12 great shooting eccentrics. His greatest achievement was killing 48 birds with a single shot one morning and another 30 in the afternoon.

Shortly after his marriage, his father-in-law became ill and Ernie inherited his job and worked for many years between October and February as a mole-catcher along the banks of the Delph and the Old Bedford rivers. Winter recreation was ice-skating when the washes froze over, and he and his friends would skate for miles on wooden "fen runners".

Springtime saw him busy in his osier beds along the River Delph cutting willows to make eel traps and griggs. He caught thousands of eels during his lifetime, and continued to catch them until he was in his early 90s. One of his great pleasures was to walk along Welney high bank observing the movement of the wild fowl and changes in the scenery of the washes as the seasons passed. Summertime was ditching in the washes and harvest work.

Autumn saw the start of plover-catching which continued until the frost came, and the cycle began again. Although he never travelled far from home he gained a reputation as a master of country lore. People came to visit him from all corners of the world to listen to his stories, view his collection of photographs, and learn about calling birds, trapping eels and catching moles.

In the 1950s he began a media career which lasted for almost 40 years. In 1975 Anglia Television made a documentary about his life in the Fens and he worked with personalities including Dave Allen, David Bellamy and Harry Secombe.

Acknowledgements and Sources:
Site designed and maintained by the Welney Webmaster, Peter Cox.
In 1986 his daughter-in-law Audrey James wrote his biography “Memoirs of a Fen Tiger” which not only chronicles hs life but also a good deal of Welney's history too.
He leaves a son, two daughters, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His wife of 72 years, Doris, died in 2000.

His funeral service and burial were at St Mary's Church, Welney, on Monday 11th July 2005.

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