Eel Houses, What Exactly are They?

Eel houses in England were a traditional structure used for the purpose of catching eels.

The mysterious life cycle of eels puzzled scientists for centuries, until Dr. Schmidt of the Denmark Scientific Council definitively identified their breeding grounds through research conducted from 1904 to 1920. Eels breed in the deep Atlantic Ocean, specifically in the Sargasso Sea, situated between the Azores and the Bahamas.

Here, adult eels complete their life cycle by breeding and then dying. Their offspring, initially just tiny jelly-like specks, float to the surface and are carried by the warm currents of the Gulf Stream across the Atlantic Ocean to the coasts of Europe, including the enclosed Mediterranean Sea.

Upon reaching coastal areas, these young eels, now three years old and referred to as elvers, navigate up many river estuaries. In some cases, they even traverse land to reach various inland water bodies, such as lakes, ponds, and canals.

European eel (Anguilla anguilla)

In these freshwater habitats, they spend the next ten to twenty years growing, feeding on live and dead fish, insects, and spawn. Eventually, the adult eels feel a natural compulsion to reproduce, which drives them to return to the distant Sargasso Sea.

Leaving their freshwater homes, sometimes crossing land in damp conditions, they make their way back to the river, heading downstream to the estuary. After a period of acclimatization in the estuary, they venture into the sea. Their journey along the Gulf Stream current back to the Sargasso Sea then takes an additional three years.



In medieval Europe, particularly in the British Isles, eels were highly valued for their nutritional content and versatility as a food item. This was especially true in areas where other forms of protein, particularly meat and other fish, were scarce or subject to religious fasting restrictions.

The Eel House is equipped with three water channels that pass through it. These channels were specifically constructed to accommodate iron grills, which played a crucial role in trapping the eels. Alresford Eel House, Hampshire, was built in the 1820s
The Eel House is equipped with three water channels that pass through it. These channels were specifically constructed to accommodate iron grills, which played a crucial role in trapping the eels. Alresford Eel House, Hampshire, was built in the 1820s

During Lent and other periods when the consumption of meat was forbidden by the Christian Church, eels became an essential part of the diet. Their importance was such that eels were often used as a form of currency, with rents and taxes sometimes being paid in eels.

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The construction and use of eel houses along rivers can be traced back to this period. Historical records, including legal documents and monastery records, often mention eel fisheries, indicating their significance in the medieval economy.

These structures were typically owned and operated by local lords, monasteries, or later by wealthy landowners, reflecting the value placed on eel fisheries.

Feudal System

Eel houses during this time were more than mere fishing tools; they were part of a complex system of rights and privileges. Fishing rights were often fiercely guarded and could be the subject of legal disputes.

The operation of eel houses was closely linked to the feudal system, with serfs and peasants sometimes required to work in the eel fisheries as part of their obligations.

The architecture and design of early eel houses were adapted to the specific conditions of each river and the behavior of the eels. These structures were ingeniously designed to capture eels efficiently, reflecting a deep understanding of the local environment and the life cycle of eels. The traps in these houses allowed for a sustainable method of harvesting eels, which was crucial given their importance as a food source.

The Manor Farmhouse in Meare, Somerset, England, was built in the 1300s as the summer residence of the Abbots from Glastonbury Abbey and is now a farmhouse.
The Manor Farmhouse in Meare, Somerset, England, was built in the 1300s as the summer residence of the Abbots from Glastonbury Abbey and is now a farmhouse.

Furthermore, the prominence of eel houses in medieval times also points to a broader understanding of conservation. While eel fishing was a significant industry, there was an inherent awareness of the need to maintain sustainable populations, an understanding reflected in the design and operation of these structures.

Design and Operation

The design and operation of eel houses were a remarkable blend of practicality and ingenuity, tailored to the unique characteristics of the river environments in which they were built and the behavior of the eels they were designed to catch. These structures, varying in complexity and size, were the culmination of generations of knowledge and adaptation to local ecological conditions.

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Eel houses typically featured a series of traps or weirs, which were strategically placed to exploit the natural migratory patterns of eels. The eels, which migrate to spawn in the ocean and return to freshwater to mature, were caught either on their way downstream as juveniles or upstream as adults.

The design of these traps was ingenious in its simplicity and effectiveness. A common feature was a narrow, funnel-shaped entrance that allowed eels to easily swim into the trap but made it difficult for them to escape.

Eel trap and sluice house. Circa early 1800s
Eel trap and sluice house. Circa early 1800s

The construction of eel houses varied depending on the river’s characteristics, such as its flow rate, depth, and the nature of the riverbed. In some cases, eel houses were built with a series of wooden channels or sluices that directed water flow into a central collection area. These channels often had gates or movable barriers that could be adjusted to control the flow of water and eels into the traps.

Operation of Eel houses

In other instances, eel houses were more complex structures that extended over or beside the river. They might have featured a combination of wooden beams, nets, and baskets, all designed to create an effective trapping system.

Read More: What was Feudalism During the Medieval Period?

The materials used for construction were typically locally sourced, such as timber and reed, making them sustainable and well-suited to the local environment.

Longstock, Hampshire, England

The operation of eel houses required regular maintenance and a deep understanding of the local ecosystem. Fishermen responsible for these structures had to be knowledgeable about the seasonal patterns of eel migration and adept at managing the flow of water through the traps to maximize their catch. This often involved adjusting the traps at different times of the year to correspond with the eels’ migratory habits.

The trapped eels were usually collected daily, as eel houses were often part of a community’s daily fishing routine. The eels were either used for immediate consumption or preserved through smoking or salting, methods that were essential for storing food in times before refrigeration.


Initially, eel houses and traps were relatively simple structures. They were often made from readily available materials like wood and reed, utilizing basic designs that had been passed down through generations.

Read More: History of Timber Framed Houses in England

These early traps were effective for capturing eels, but as demand for eels grew, both for local consumption and for broader markets, there was a need to increase efficiency and durability.

Historic trap used in the River Alre for seasonal eel fishing.
Historic trap used in the River Alre for seasonal eel fishing.

This need led to several innovations in the design and construction of eel houses. One significant advancement was the introduction of more durable materials. While wood remained a primary material, it was often combined with metal components to enhance the strength and longevity of the traps.

The use of stone and brick was also integrated into the construction of eel houses, particularly in the foundations and main structures, making them more resilient to the elements and the constant flow of river water.

Sluice and Gate Systems

Another area of technological advancement was in the design of the trapping mechanisms. The basic principles remained the same – using the natural behavior of eels against them – but the traps became more sophisticated.

Read More: The Role of the Manor in Medieval England

This included the development of more intricate sluice and gate systems, which allowed for better control of water flow and the movement of eels into the traps. Some designs incorporated adjustable features, enabling fishermen to adapt the traps to different water levels and flow conditions, thereby optimizing the catch.

Inside the Eel House, Salisbury, Wiltshire.

Furthermore, the overall design of eel houses evolved to become more efficient and specialized. Larger structures were built to accommodate a greater number of traps and to process larger quantities of eels. In some cases, eel houses were designed to facilitate not just the catching of eels but also their storage and initial processing, such as sorting and cleaning.

Decline of Eel Houses

The decline of eel houses was largely driven by environmental changes and overfishing. Industrialization brought about significant alterations to river ecosystems.

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The construction of dams, drainage of wetlands, and pollution from factories and urban runoff disrupted the natural habitats and migration patterns of eels, leading to a drastic reduction in their populations.

This ecological upheaval made traditional eel fishing, which was dependent on the natural migration of eels, increasingly difficult and eventually unsustainable in many areas.

Manze's pie and mash shop in Peckham, London
Manze’s pie and mash shop in Peckham, London

Overfishing was another critical factor. As the demand for eels remained high, especially in the 19th century when they were a popular delicacy in many parts of Europe and North America, the pressure on eel populations intensified. The lack of effective regulation and management of eel fisheries led to a depletion of stocks, compounding the impact of environmental changes.

As a result of these factors, many eel houses fell into disuse. Where they were once bustling centers of activity, they became silent, often forgotten relics of a bygone era. However, in recent decades, there has been a growing recognition of the historical and cultural value of these structures, leading to efforts to preserve and restore them.