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The early trawlers - Yarmouth and Barking and Brixham

From the book North Sea fishers and Fighters - by Walter Wood 1911

Yarmouth was the cradle of the beam trawling. From that famous old port the first of the beam equipped smacks sailed, and it became the headquarters of the great sailing fleets which worked the North Sea.

In the vast and astonishing developments which have taken place in connection with deep sea fishing during the last quarter century, no port has shared in greater viscissitudes than the town whose harbour is the Yare. Towards the end of the forties there were not more than four or five trawlers leaving Yarmouth; less than twenty years later the number had grown to 150; in 1887, when sacks had reached their highest development, four fleets sailed from the port, and nearly 3000 men and boys were serving in them. The chief spirit of the industry at that time was Mr Samuel Hewett, who began life as a smack's boy. In 1863 he owned between fifty and sixty trawl smacks and carrying cutters, and was paying £20,000 yearly for wages and victuals. He also possessed half a dozen line vessels, catching haddock, cod, and whiting; but he was abandoning these for the trawlers, which paid better. The time was coming, and was not far distant, when the steamboat was to oust the trawl smack just as she had crushed the liner.

Barking and the Thames were very intimately associated with the early days of trawling, but little has been learned of the position which the town held as a fishing port a century and a half ago. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, Barking, Greenwich and Gravesend were building welded smacks, to share in the North Sea fishing, and in 1852 Barking had no fewer than 134 and 46 smacks engaged in lining for cod and haddock. Twenty years later Barking had ceased to be reckoned as a fishing port.

Barking and Brixham claim the renown of originating deep sea trawling. There has been much controversy on the point, there has been much controversy on the point, which has never been satisfactorily settled, nor is it likely to be. Brixham and Barking trawlers were certainly amongst the very first to adopt this form of fishing, and their bluff, stout little smacks were numbered with the first of the reapers of the Dogger.

The early trawler was a vessel of from 30 to 50 tons, carrying six seven hands, men and boys. These were paid by wages, the skipper having five percent of the earnings. As a rule, the smacks did not go so far as the Dogger, but fished on the south edge of it, and about Botney Gut, 80 miles from Yarmouth. They trawled at a depth of from 18 to 23 fathoms, the greatest depth being 40 fathoms, at the Silver Pit, and an average good day's fishing was a ton per smack. In calm weather the vessels got but little fish; a fair catch in a smart breeze, and in a gale nothing. The trawlers remained out for six weeks, though the Barking smacks were at sea for two months together.

An average good days fishing was a ton per smack. A ton would contain about 3 cwt. of soles, and a half a ton of haddock, the rest being plaice and whiting, a few turbot , a few brill, and a very few cod. A good fishing ground, had a smooth bottom, and a smacksman knew by practice when they got to rocky ground. In fine weather short hauls of two or three hours were made. With such hauls the fish were alive, but they came up mostly dead, and the longer the trawl was down the worse the fish were. The fish changed their place according to season. In very cold weather they got into deep water for warmth; in fine weather they went into shallow water, and Mr Hewitt, when on the Dutch coast in the height of summer, saw turbot a few inches from the surface.

As a rule, the trawlers went with the tide for four or five hours. The tide would go from two to two and a half miles an hour, and the vessel would drive a knot or a knot and a half. Moderate weather - a two reefed sail, would suit a trawler best. The total useful speed would be three and a half miles an hour, with tide and wind, though a little faster was desirable for soles, and faster still for plaice and haddocks. It was impossible to fish against the tide, as the bottom of the net lifted up. The early experience of trawling showed that, the more the ground was stirred up, the better produce came from it. Trawling disturbed the ground and brought the insects up, supplying the fish with food. A Hull smacksman stated that the fish followed the trawl, "like a parcel of crows, to catch these things."

"I compare trawling almost to farming." said a Yarmouth fisherman. "You plough the field and cast out all that's bad, and you think every year you get better crops. So it is with us. We disturb the ground and the soil comes up underneath, and the fish are able to get at it." The trawl with a 36ft beam was found most serviceable by Yarmouth men, who worked in strong currents which would break longer beams. Larger beams were used by smacksmen on the north east coast, and these were called by Yarmouth men "sea rakers".

In those early days, the beginning of the halycon period of trawl fishing, some amazing catches were made, for there were still comparatively few beams at work over a vast area, and the fish had not developed the cunning of the modern haddock, of which it has been said that it is crafty enough to see a trawl coming and give it a wide berth. In three weeks one skipper caught 326 packages of fish, of 1.5 cwt. each, and he was at Smith's Knoll with thirty trawlers which, for several weeks, were within hail of each other, working backward and forward with the tide; and there was little or no difference between the catches of the foremost and the sternmost vessels.

It will be seen that for the three weeks' catches referred to the average catch per day was more than a ton, and as a trawler cost less than a thousand pounds - £800 or £900 - and the wages of the mate were only 18 shillings and common hands 16 shillings, and there were ample chances of owners enriching themselves and skippers becoming owners. Many a steady man, who as a small boy had been sent to sea by Boards of Guardians, became a rich smack owner.

It was found in the early sixties that it did not pay to employ steamers to carry the fish from the fleets to the markets , and accordingly fast sailing cutters, specially built for the purpose, took the fish to Billingsgate and coast ports. One of Whistler's etchings shows nearly a dozen of these cutters lying off Billingsgate in 1859, with the porters carrying the fish ashore - a quaint and quiet spectacle compared with the rush and hustle of the steamboat days. The fish was packed in ice, and three of four days - sometimes a week or more - elapsed between the catch and the delivery.

The cutters took from 400 to 600 packages each to Billingsgate, where, daily, several of these vessels would be lying. The packages consisted of about one half prime, and the other half plaice, haddocks, etc. The haddocks were mostly bought by costermongers, who cleaned, cured and soke dried them. These were sold as Finnan Haddocks, and realised on an average 12 Shillings or 14 shillings a basket, but sometimes as low as 8 shillings, at others as high as 20 shillings. Each basket weighed 150 lbs or 160lb. The plaice were mostly bought by "friers", who cleaned the fish, cut them in slices, and fried them in oil, after which they were hawked on barrows or sold at shops in poor neighbourhoods - the heralds of many existing fried fish shops in London and the provinces. At that time plaice would sell for as low as 6 shillings or 7 shillings a hamper of 150 pounds or 160 pounds. There has been a change in this, as in many other respects in connection with fish, for at present plaice is invariably dearer than haddock.

The strong feeling that existed between the line and trawl fishermen was the cause of much trouble in those earlier days, and the liners suffered greatly, both in mind and pocket, owing to a 'contrivance' which the trawlers placed in front of their vessels - possibly the forerunner of the torpedo net cutters - to enable them to cut through a fleet of nets without any interruption.

The trawl revolutionised the North Sea fishing and drove out of the industry the old fashioned methods. From half a dozen in the early sixties the smacks grew in number until, twenty years later there were 3000 British deep sea trawlers, excluding the steam carriers, for inspite of expert prophecies, it was found necessary and profitable to employ steamboats to convey the fish to market from the fleets. Even an authority like Holdsworth, writing in 1874, when steam carriers were at work and a "steam cutter fish carrying company" had just begun working from Yarmouth, wrote: "It is yet a question whether it will pay to apply steam to the actual trawlers." Yarmouth led with 700 smacks, mostly owned by Messrs. Hewett, and Hull and Grimsby came next, these three ports possessing about 1500 smacks, the rest being attached to other ports around the coast.

It was calculated at the time that the total amount of the capital invested in the industry was not less than £15,000,000 and that no fewer than 20,000 men and boys were exclusively employed in deep sea trawling, mostly on the North Sea. From the earlier vessels of 24 and 35 tons the smacks had grown to a tonnage of 90 in some cases, with a corresponding increase in the size of beam and net, the beam being as long as 50 feet, and the net having a length of 70 feet.

The cost of a modern, thoroughly equipped sailing trawler was as high as £1600, and, exclusive of the wages paid, the yearly working expenses were about £400. Similtaneously with the growth of the industry was a change in the method of paying the smacksmen, the tendency being to adopt a plan which would give them shares in the catches proportionate to their positions in the craft. The sum mentioned - £1600 -included a fit out of all that was needed for fishing, which cost £70 or £80. This fit out consisted of a double set of almost every part of the gear, so that loss by accident could be made good without returning to port. Ordinarily a trawl net would last from three to four months, but parts of the net woud have to be renewed during that time, the under parts twice and the cod five or six times before the net was finally condemned.

Smacks derived their name from the smack or cutter rig which in the early days of trawling was almost universal. When the vessels increased to double the original size a change of rig became desirable so that there should not be an undue increase in the cost of working; consequently the size of the mainsail was reduced and a mizzen mast was added, with great success. This new method was called "Dandy" rig, and was generally adopted by the North Sea trawlers. With larger vessels came greater comfort and safety for the crews and the power to carry considerable quantities of ice.

The finest of North Sea smacks were the most splendid sea boats in the world, and they were handled with a skill and courage worthy of their beauty. The old time fisherman and owner pinned his faith to these craft, and nothing would induce him to believe in steam. Only a year or two ago there were sold five of the smacks which helped to build the foundations of Grimsby's success as a fishing port. They belonged to Mr Thomas Campbell, who in the old days was the largest individual owner of sailing trawlers, and steadfastly refused to abandon wood and canvas in favour of steel and steam. The original total cost of these vessels was probably not less than £7000, yet they only realised £215. The prices paid were £60,£53,£40,£32 and £30 the buyers getting all the stores, sails, and running gear as well as the craft. One of the Smacks was built so recently as 1894, the oldest dating from 1884; another of them, with the romantic name Red Nell, was built in 1885. Small though the prices named are, yet they are greater than many of the sums for which splendid vessels have been sold. I have seen a fine smack auctioned for £25, and others withdrawn because not even a bid like that was made. Numbers of these famous vessels are rotting in creeks and harbours on the east coast, because there is no use for them and it does not pay to break them up for firewood. Surely, before it is too late, one or two of these old fighters of the North Sea might be preserved as a link with the past, and kept with just as much care as the Victory.