Water Features in Cornwall – with special reference to the Eagle Ponds at Trewithen

by Sue Pring

For comparative purposes, a brief description of the types of ponds and lakes to be found in the county is as follows:

  • Small, mostly square or rectangular ponds were used as fish ponds during the medieval period with examples at Coldrenick, Godolphin and the Priory, Bodmin.
  • Many estates throughout Cornwall had more elongated rectangular ponds during the 17th century these were known as canals (for fishing and boating) such as those at Enys and Penheale, the former has been made less formal and sinuous along one bank with the onset of the Picturesque movement.
  • Serpentine informal lakes were constructed during the Georgian period at sites such as Chyverton and Trelaske with further developments of  both formal and informal nature during the Victorian period.
  • Many ponds and water bodies were constructed for practical purposes such as mining and milling these were often converted to landscape features after falling into disuse.
  • An unusual type (particularly in Cornwall) was the duck decoy.
An engraving, included in The Book of Duck Decoys by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, that shows the entrance to a decoy pipe, with a dog at work and wild fowl following him up the pipe

An engraving, included in The Book of Duck Decoys by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, that shows the entrance to a decoy pipe, with a dog at work and wild fowl following him up the pipe

The earliest description of decoys is in the Universal Magazine of 1752, although there are references to driving ducks into nets as early as the 16th century and a very early reference in the time of King John. However, John Ray (1678) spoke of them as being a new artifice and it is only from the 18th century that they became popular. Many were constructed in the east of the country where flat marshy areas were the natural haunt of overwintering ducks.

The design of the nets, pipes and side panels is detailed extensively by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey. Ponds intended as decoys had a depth of 2-3 feet (60-90 cm) with flat landing areas at the entrance to the pipe. The surrounding area would have been kept relatively free of trees, with some shrubs to give shelter without over-shading the water.

This engraving of a decoy pond from 1665 from Payne-Gallwey's The Book of Duck Decoys is described as: 'the earliest sketch of a Decoy and its pipes as now used in existence. It is from "The Fables of Æsop Paraphrased in Verse, adorned with Sculpture and illustrated with Annotations. By John Ogilby, Esq., Master of His Majesty's Revells in the Kingdom of Ireland. Printed by T. Roycroft for the Author, MDCLXV."' It illustrates Fable LXXIX, 'The Husbandman and the Stork'

This engraving of a decoy pond from 1665 from Payne-Gallwey’s The Book of Duck Decoys is described as: ‘the earliest sketch of a Decoy and its pipes as now used in existence. It is from “The Fables of Æsop Paraphrased in Verse, adorned with Sculpture and illustrated with Annotations. By John Ogilby, Esq., Master of His Majesty’s Revells in the Kingdom of Ireland. Printed by T. Roycroft for the Author, MDCLXV.”‘ It illustrates Fable LXXIX, ‘The Husbandman and the Stork’

Initial research shows decoy ponds in Cornwall at the following locations: ‘At Trengwainton may be seen remains of an old decoy constructed by Sir Rose Price about 1815-1820, abandoned before Sir Rose’s death in 1835. There were three different pools, a pond 60 yds square, at each end was a small short pipe leading to a net covered enclosure of a few feet long. Entrance had falling nets . in each enclosure was a sunken slab of stone on which grain was placed to attract fowl.’ [Payne-Gallwey]

At the Pendarves estate near Camborne, a series of ponds were shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map, the majority of a simple shape but two in particular also exhibiting curved pipes. Most are marked as fish ponds, however one is indicated as Brick kiln pond on the tithe map. It may be conjectured therefore, that former brick clay pits were altered to provide decoys and lakes forming part of the Picturesque landscape.

 

Trewithen the Eagle Ponds

The name ‘Eagle Ponds’ refers to the Eagle statues formerly located near the ponds. The statues may date from the 18th century when a number of statues were taken from Philip Hawkins’ dwelling at Pennans in Grampound which were the subject of extensive and acrimonious correspondence with the Carlyon family regarding the move. [Carlyon papers, Cornwall County Record Office] The ponds are located in a small valley at the south-western extremity of the estate at Trewithen; the area is now completely overgrown but an examination of late 19th-century OS maps indicates that there were three ponds at that time.

A comparative study of a number of estate and OS maps has indicated the development of the area from 1747 through till the early 20th century. Various ponds are shown throughout the period but it is the 1841 Symons Map (at Trewithen and the Cornwall CRO) showing three ponds adjacent to each other, with a curved arm to the north-west and a pointed arm to the north-east, that is the most intriguing.

It has been suggested that the Eagle Ponds at Trewithen may originally have been medieval fishponds. However, following map study and comparisons with other known pond structures both within and out of the county, a number of conclusions have been reached.

Although Trewithen was mentioned in Domesday (as Trefitent) and as early as 1347 in the Mount Edgecumbe papers (ref ME /387), there are no indications as to the precise position of the old house. However it is certain that Philip Hawkins built his new house on the same site as a previous house this is shown on the earliest map c.1732; also on this map are shown rectangular ponds to the north-east of the new house. These are likely to have been fish ponds associated with the former house and fit with the general principle of a number of relatively small ponds of a simple rectangular shape. Medieval ponds were invariably placed close to the dwelling, mainly to protect against intruders stealing a valuable resource. The Eagle Ponds are well away from the house complex and there does not appear to have been any former habitation in the vicinity.

Another option is that the ponds were not for utilitarian purposes but were part of the wider landscaping carried out during the 18th century when gardening became more outward looking. This seems unlikely as the 1745 map shows southern and eastern vistas.

However, during the 19th century the wider landscape became more accessible both visually and in the form of rides or circuits of the estate. The proposals by St Aubyn in 1824 confirm that a circuit was intended, taking in a large pond (in the location of the Eagle Pond) and suggesting a series of five more ponds downstream. The area could also have been the location for clay extraction to provide bricks for the house.

A plan for a three pipe decoy from Payne-Gallwey's The Book of Duck Decoys The text (top right) reads: 'Set out Triangle ABC-each side 110 yds-from B measure BD=26yds-along BC measure BE=7yds BF=27yds, BG 36yds. Join DE & produce to H making DH 30yds. Join BH & Produce to K making HK 7yds-Join KF & measure KM=9yds-set off LM-4ft.& join MG=20yds. N.B. If the soil is light, the Decoy will require round its edges, a twisted wattle fence fixed level with the water to prevent the banks from falling in, and crumbling down.'

A plan for a three pipe decoy from Payne-Gallwey’s The Book of Duck Decoys The text (top right) reads: ‘Set out Triangle ABC-each side 110 yds-from B measure BD=26yds-along BC measure BE=7yds BF=27yds, BG 36yds. Join DE & produce to H making DH 30yds. Join BH & Produce to K making HK 7yds-Join KF & measure KM=9yds-set off LM-4ft.& join MG=20yds. N.B. If the soil is light, the Decoy will require round its edges, a twisted wattle fence fixed level with the water to prevent the banks from falling in, and crumbling down.’

By the time of the 1st Edition OS (1879), the ponds are shown with a much more definite shape which includes projections to the west and north-west. This form is very similar to that used as a duck decoy where pipes (curved projections narrowing towards the extremity) were constructed to lure ducks into the associated nets. The pipes are not that long but may have grown over. Both Thomas and Christopher Hawkins were keen agricultural improvers; John Hawkins (brother of Christopher) of Bignor Park also took an interest in the planting of the estate and may also have been responsible as a decoy pond was present at Bignor. (It is unlikely that the ponds were constructed after 1850 as C.H.T. Hawkins did not involve himself in the estate.)

In conclusion, map evidence indicates that the ponds have almost certainly been in existence since 1824, and probably much earlier. A reasonable conjecture is that their usage was changed over time, possibly from brick pits to informal pools and then to decoys.

 

Bibliography and References

1. Hawkins and Johnson Papers (Cornwall County Record Office, Truro)

2. Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, The Book of Duck Decoys (1886)

3. Douglas E. Pett, The Parks and Gardens of Cornwall (1998)

4. O. Rackham, Illustrated History of the Countryside

5. Pamela Dodd, ‘Building Country Houses on Cornish Estates’ (Cornish History Network conference, 2002)

6. C.K. Currie, ‘Fishponds as Garden Features, 1550-1750’, Garden History, vol. 18

7. Henderson Papers, Courtney Library, Royal Cornwall Museum

8. Elizabeth Banks Assoc., Trewithen Landscape Restoration Plan, 1993

An illustration from The Book of Duck Decoys showing how to construct the hoops of a decoy

An illustration from The Book of Duck Decoys showing how to construct the hoops of a decoy