Making traditional prawn withy pots is not for the faint-fingered, as KAREN YOUNG discovers when she visits retired fisherman Jamie (James) Lawrence in West Sussex.

Willow or ‘withy’ pots are traditional traps that fishermen would make in the winter and then use to catch prawns, crabs and lobsters in the warmer months. While the craft is believed to be centuries old, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where they first originated as, historically, the process has been very poorly documented.

In 2019, less than 20 people were known to be keeping the tradition alive along the shores and small neighbouring islands of England, Wales and Ireland. It’s therefore no surprise that withy pot making is among 63 traditional heritage crafts currently listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the Heritage Crafts Association.

And as far as he is aware, Jamie (James) Lawrence is one of very few fishermen, if not the only one, who is still making traditional Sussex withy pots designed to catch prawns.

Jamie Jamie (James) Lawrence’s family has been fishing off Selsey Bill in West Sussex since the mid-1700s. Like generations before him, he learnt to make pots by watching his father as he was growing up. “I made my first prawn pot when I was 12,” Jamie recalls. When asked if it was a success, he replies: “No – it was a disaster. It had huge gaps and fell to pieces after about three weeks. A lobster pot would have been easier to make but my dad wouldn’t have wanted me to waste bigger rods while I was learning.”

A ‘rod’ is the name Jamie gives to the thicker willow sticks or ‘withies’ that form the vertical lines in the pot. The smaller the ocean-dwelling creature the pot was intended for, the smaller the rods and the smaller the gap left between each one (no bigger than the little finger, in the case of a well-made prawn pot).

Coast character: Melissa Thom on Hope Cove

Like many traditional crafts, withy pot making requires just a handful of rudimentary tools and materials, but it takes years of practice to master. Jamie starts the process by inserting 11 rods into a round wooden ‘swedge’, which will form the mouth or ‘ache’ in the top of the pot that the prawns crawl into.

Smaller withies or ‘waling’ are then weaved in and out of the rods horizontally, before more rods are inserted vertically and carefully bent back on themselves to start forming the top and the sides of the pot. Making the bottom (“the easy part,” as Jamie describes it) involves more of a plaiting process. “Before a new pot was used, flint stones, usually from Climping, would be tied to the bottom to anchor it to the seabed,” Jamie explains. “The whole pot would be dipped in tar, so that it would last three years, four if you were lucky.”

Watching Jamie make a prawn pot from start to finish is mesmerising and, it has to be said, a little awe-inspiring. He has larger-than-life hands that have been toughened by decades of hauling pots and reeling in fish, yet they move with such speed and precision that not only is it a struggle to capture on camera, you can’t help but wonder – how hard can it be?!

I discover the answer when we switch seats and I suddenly find myself bracing the prawn pot between my knees, with Jamie showing me how to position my fingers and where to apply a level of thumb pressure that simply isn’t human – all while I’m simultaneously instructed to push and pull three pieces of waling into seemingly impossible directions.

My poor little digits, not remotely toughened by decades of typewriting, are exhausted after just three or four turns and my breathing rate has at least doubled. At this point, I gladly hand the pot back to its maker. Not child’s play, after all, even if that’s how Jamie makes it look.

When he’s completed the pot (approximately three hours and one lunch break later) we gather a few more that are being stored in his wife’s summerhouse and drive to East Beach to take some additional photos. A couple of passers-by immediately comment on how beautiful the pots are and ask Jamie questions about how they are made and how long it takes.

Jamie clearly takes pleasure in providing the answers and explains that now that he’s retired, he only makes them to sell to people who appreciate their authenticity and want to display them in their home or garden. Not backward in coming forward, Jamie offers them one for £40, but he doesn’t make a catch. Not today, anyway.

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Withy pots were made in a beach or garden shed during the winter months, when the sea was too rough to go fishing. It was a tradition in Jamie’s family to start cutting bundles of withies on Boxing Day, from farmland around the edge of Pagham harbour.

Today the area is overgrown and no longer used for this purpose, so Jamie sources his withies from a family-run business in Somerset. Ideally, he likes to use the withies around three weeks after they arrive, while they are still fresh and malleable. Soaking the ends in water helps to keep them hydrated, but they are at their best when they still have their original sap.


While the art of willow weaving was predominantly used by the Selsey fishermen to trap and store crustaceans making their way across the seabed, the same techniques were used to create other handy day-to-day objects.

From a fishing point of view, there was the ‘dosser’ which had a rope strap and a flat side, designed to sit flush against the fisherman’s back, enabling him to carry his catch from boat to shore. Baskets of varying sizes and designs would also be used around the home for logs, vegetables, laundry and clothes pegs. Jamie continues to make some of these items with leftover withies, as well as hanging baskets that can be used as bird feeders or plant pots.