Famous cockleman back doing his Black Country pub round

Imagine being asked: "Have you got crabs mate?" Every working day for 45 years. And laughing every time.

Rod Murtagh, aged 75, from Burntwood, is hiring fishmen
Rod Murtagh, aged 75, from Burntwood, is hiring fishmen

That's the life of cockleman Rod Murtagh, aged 75, who is still putting smiles on the faces of the patrons of the lucky pubs he visits.

Armed with his basket full of cockles, muscles, whelks, fishsticks and pork pies, Rod walks into every pub with a dash of nostalgia which people love.

"It's the cockleman!" comes the joyous shout as he enters The Archers, Yew Tree, Walsall on a wet Friday night.

For some seeing a cockleman is a flashback to happier times - to others it's a chance to get some fishy delight down their throats for a bit of change in their pocket – or a swipe of their bank card, it is 2021 after all.

Rod doesn't just sell the catch of hardy fishermen from the South Coast.

Rod Murtagh at his Norton Canes factory

"It's a bit more in depth than just selling fish from my basket on a Friday and Saturday night," the father-of-four explained.

"I buy my fish from Leigh-on-Sea, it's the best in the country, there isn't better," he says as he breaks apart a crabstick (seafood stick as they are being forced to be called now). The sea-smelling substance stick falls apart in his hands.

I stopped eating crabsticks in the 1990s because they are so hit and miss. But with a bit of his homemade 1,000 island sauce, he was right, it was the best one I've ever eaten.

"I once had 13 different crabsticks in my factory once and they were all rubbish, so when I found a good one I stuck with them," he said.

"Hang on, you've got a factory?" I ask.

"I put my redundancy from my toolsetting job into the business and started off at the side of my house.

Rod with Dave Reeves in 1998

"But with all the rules around environmental health that came in the 1990s I had to get a unit in Norton Canes down the road from where I live in Burntwood.

"I didn't know a thing about the business when I started but I've learnt what needs to be done over the years."

Rod did his first round to make some cash during the seventh week without money whilst striking from his day job as a toolsetter for GKN in 1975.

Since then he even designed the foil packet which can keep a cockle fine and fresh for up to 12 weeks, tried out all different products learning which sells the best and where and when to turn up at a pub or club.

Taking advantage of huge firms who either collapsed or took their fish-eyes off the ball Rod built up Murtagh Fish and at the business height in 2010 had 20 people doing rounds for him.

Express and Star reporter Adam Smith selling cockles with Rod

That recession hit him hard but he built the business back up again only to be laid low by Covid-19. Two of his veteran fishmen died, including the salesman who for decades endeared himself to thousands of pub-goers around Great Barr and Hamstead by doing card tricks, and others retired.

So as lockdowns were lifted Rod had a decision to make. Aged 75 most people would put their feet up and live off their nest egg, or in Rod's case his roe-dough.

"I was going barmy being stuck in house during lockdown so I've decided to build my business back up. It's all game to me, I don't even see it as work because I enjoy it so much, toolsetting was my real job so when I retired from that I do this.

"So in the last few weeks I've got a few guys to do new rounds in Tamworth, Burntwood, Walsall and West Brom but I need some new people to take on rounds."

For anyone who takes up Rod's offer they can be guaranteed of one thing – popularity.

He was kind enough to bring along one of the iconic white coats fishmen have worn for generations and let me enter a boozer with his basket.

Rod Murtagh will travel between 25 pubs on a normal Friday night

The reaction was incredible, seeing so many faces' light up when they saw me walking towards them, and I know it wasn't because of my good looks.

And it appears being a fishman can make you a hit with the ladies, not that extra attention would ever put Rod off his next sale. He was married for 40 years before his wife died at turn of the century and now is very much in love with his long term partner.

He said: "You've got to like people. I've been told I can sell ice to Eskimos, I always did something on the side from my job whether it was Betterware or something else but you have to treat everyone equal to be a good salesman.

"I know what it's like to have no money and have my house repossessed but whatever colour, age or how they look you have to be the same with everyone."

But Rod might be stretching the truth there, because he does not treat every exactly equal.

"I do sing karaoke in some pubs, and I like singing sealed with kiss to some old dears in a pub in the back of Bloxwich. But I've always lived by the rule if you can't do someone a good turn then leave them alone."

Rod Murtagh processes and packs his fish products in his own factory

He added: "People say pubs are dying but I go into about 25 a night and in the Black Country and Tamworth they are doing as well as they were 20 years ago, yes a lot have closed but there were too many and the rubbish ones have closed.

"People want to spend their money, they have been stuck indoors for a year and with the telly so awful they want to go out and have a good time."

Landlords are especially pleased to see him. Barry Gist, gaffer of The Archers, said: "I was in Spain when my partner phoned me and said 'you''ll never believe whose walked in the pub, a fishman!' I said, 'what a real fishman? I've not seen one of them for years, tell him to come back!'"

Ken Wallace, bar manager at Walsall Rugby Club said as he devoured some prawns: "I could not believe my eyes when he walked in last week. I've not seen a cockleman for years, but punters love him, I told him he can come back whenever he wants whether we are putting food on or not."

So Rod came back, if a pub is full on his patch he will be there, he researches which clubs have live music or parties so he can sell his wares.

Among others we visited Walsall Rugby Club, The Brunswick, Friar Park, The Village Inn, Wednesbury, The Horse and Jockey, Walsall, The Leathered Bottel (established 1510), check, The Horse and Jockey, Wednesbury, Darlaston Social Club and the Calthorpe Arms, Handsworth and all were doing a lively trade on a Friday night.

Rod's seen it all over the years, including the fish wars of the 1980s when cocklemen from Wolverhampton and Liverpool would try and muscle in on each other's patches, undercut rivals and race round an area to beat their opposite number.

But now Rod is the only player in the game and if you want to help him keep a piece of cultural culinary history leap alive then visit murtaghseafoods.com.

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