Heritage Crafts

Withy pot making

Making traditional crab/lobster pots from willow, called withy pots.
Craft category
Historic area of significance
Along the south coast, especially west from the Isle of Wight, throughout Devon and Cornwall coasts, South West Wales and South West Ireland.
Area practiced currently
Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, South West Wales, Ireland, Isles of Scilly
Current No. of professionals (Main income)
Current No. of professionals (Side income)
Current No. of trainees
Current total No. of serious amateur makers
Current No. of leisure makers


Withy pots have been recorded in old painting dating from 400 years ago, but the craft would go back further as humans have used traps to catch fish and crabs since we first inhabited our shore line. The problem with a definitive date is nothing was written down in the regions or families… it was learnt from father to son, although in some areas the wives also made them. Fish traps have been found in peat bogs.

This craft evolved over centuries from the earliest basket type trap used by wading into low tides and fixing traps to the beach. When boats evolved to go further out into the bays and open waters the ability to trap the catch in deeper water meant the trap also had to change – the ability of the trap to withstand the wear and tear tide and sea bed imparts meant it had to be big enough and strong enough, but not too heavy that you could not carry it and pull it up from the depths.

All of our coastline had these pots up until the late 1960s. The demand for saving time in their making and needing stronger pots which could withstand attaching multiple pots together in a line (string of pots). Withy pots would not be able to withstand the added strain of being hauled with a winch pulled a string of multiples. This meant quite a rapid change to wire and net pots then the plastic ones you see today.

The withy pot had a life span of just over one season with ongoing repairs meaning every winter you started all over again. Unless you had a withy bed to cut your withies from you had to purchase them, normally from Somerset at great expense.


The bending and twisting of willow to form the shape of an inkwell by hand. In South Devon the funnel is a paired weave that continues into bands of ringing (fitching) that hold the uprights or standards in an evenly spaced conical shape. The base varies regionally but is a continuation of the paired weave, sometimes finished with woven plaiting. The bait was attached with elm skewers or ‘skivers’ piercing the funnel and adding to the trap effect.

Willow was grown locally, mostly hybrids of Salix Vinimalis and Alba, more latterly, Salix Triandra or the Black Maul willow grown commercially in Somerset.


The weave and use of a wooden mule is similar to some fish traps, and forms that are now used as plant supports.

Issues affecting the viability

  • Few people are taking this craft up because it is not financially viable to rely totally on fishing for a living using willow pots. A revival in the use of withy pots is most likely in situations where businesses combine fishing, food selling without the middle man and tourist related sidelines.
  • Those left still making these pots fall into age brackets 60-70, 70-80 and Alan Lander in his early 80s. The big problem is time and the ability to carry on. If makers’ hands weaken through arthritis etc or the public no longer support them the craft will become extinct within a very short time.
  • These pots were used up till the mid 1960s as the only way of catching crab etc. As modern pots made from synthetic materials came along the need for willow pots died out. These days members of the fishing families that keep the craft alive do so because of public interest and also the need for them in TV dramas such as Poldark where they are critical to that period in time.
  • A limited demand and the cost in man hours of hand made pots means that you cannot earn a sole living from making them.
  • Within the families few people are learning or passing on the skills. Those who come to make a pot often say how hard it is on the hands and although they enjoyed the experience they had no intention in carrying it forward.
  • The profit margin is small as pots use a lot of willow, which is expensive unless homegrown, and people are not willing to pay enough to cover the work of a heavy duty pot.

Support organisations

Support mainly comes from local events close to the coast where makers are invited to show off their craft, e.g. Salcombe Crabfest, Clovelly Lobster Days, Hope Cove Weekend, Brixham Crabfest, Plymouth and Sidmouth Sea Festival etc.

Craftspeople currently known

  • Dave French
  • Nigel Legge
  • David Harrison
  • Richard Ede
  • Sue Morgan
  • Alan Lander
  • Sarah Ready
  • Rob Edlin
  • Tom Chambers, Porthleven
  • Steve Perham, Clovelly
  • Roy Gollop
  • Sarah Ready – Fishing with withy pots in Brixham, Devon
  • Malcolm Baker, Cornwall
  • John Vercoe, Gorran Haven
  • Joff Hicks – Scilly Isles
  • Max Gaudion – Guernsey

Joe Hogan is a basketmaker who has knowledge of a range of Irish pots.

Other information

The pots vary regionally, and only those with direct knowledge from fishers know the dialect words and the reasons for particular variations in shapes and ways the pots are made. Those left need to have their own forms recorded.


National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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