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The Hull Fishing Industry – post 1950

Kingston upon Hull was for more than 150 years a major renowned fishing port and in the 1950s through to the mid 1970s was recognised as the home of the world’s largest distant water fleet of deep sea trawlers.

From the early 1950s through to the mid 1970s Hull’s distant water fleet developed from old pre-war coal burning side trawlers to crude oil, then diesel electric power culminating in the introduction of stern trawling factory vessels. Many of the older vessels were scrapped and, with the oil price increase in the 1960s, the scrapping of vessels accelerated. In 1975 St. Andrews Fish Dock was closed and operations moved back to Albert Dock, the original home of the fleet. In 1976 the last of the oil fuelled vessels, the Arctic Ranger, was withdrawn from service.

After WW2, fishing the Arctic waters off the coasts of Norway, Iceland, Russia, Bear Island, Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland was prolific and, for the most part a lucrative business. The grounds around those coastlines had, due to wartime hostilities been closed to commercial fishing operations resulting in a massive natural increase in fish stocks.  The area around Bear Island was an example when vessels from Hull and Grimsby were regularly returning to port with capacity catches.

To maximise carrying capacity the crews, when gutting the fish, beheaded them in order to allow greater edible weight of catch to be stowed in the fish hold.  This practice created over supply and, as a consequence, affected fish prices on the fish markets at all ports with unsold fish being sent, at a pittance of their true cost, to the fish meal companies to be turned into animal feed.  In later years the practice of returning fish heads to the sea was blamed for the pollution of the sea bed.   

Over the years a number of factors resulted in fish stocks being depleted to such an extent that the nations controlling the Arctic grounds took action to conserve their commercial interests. This action included the extension of Territorial Fishing Limits around their coastlines.

What effect did the 200 mile limit have on the Humber fishing ports?

The three ‘Cod Wars’ between Britain and Iceland were the consequence of Iceland’s unilateral declaration of exclusion zones eventually resulting in a 200 mile limit around Iceland’s coastline being imposed thereby expelling foreign vessels from thousands of square miles of traditional fishing grounds.  Norway, Canada and other countries also adopted this policy/ban.

For the Humber ports of Hull and Grimsby, who were both extensively distant water operators these actions were a disaster and signalled the beginning of the end for a number of other British ports, in addition the fleets that sailed from Fleetwood and a smaller number of Scottish fleets were left with only home waters to fish. The overall effect was that thousands of people employed in the fishing industries, both in the catching and processing of fish, lost their livelihoods when many businesses folded, with hundreds of ships being laid up/scrapped.

A nationwide workforce of highly skilled experienced fishermen who had developed their knowledge over many years was no longer required and suffered redundancy. Many of the seamen, some of a mature age, were not able to adapt and never sailed again, whilst others found employment in different maritime fields or low paid manual shore work.  

What caused the decline in fish stocks worldwide?

A number of factors which contributed to the depletion of fish stocks were: the development of electronics, fish finding equipment such as sophisticated fish echo sounders, sonar, net sounders, which created the ability to carry out mid water (pelagic) trawling instead of the traditional seabed (demersal ) trawling. With demersal trawling, if the fish were detected more than four (4) or five (5) metres off the seabed, they evaded being caught as they were above the vertical opening of the trawl net.  Once mid water trawls were introduced the trawls vertical opening was much greater and could be positioned anywhere within the water depth, which allowed a greater volume of the water column to be fished giving the fish little chance of evading the net.  This was made possible by the introduction of sonar, which increased detection of shoaling fish, and the net sounder which showed the Skipper at what depth his trawl was operating.

The fact that the mid water trawls did not need to be dragged along the seabed made for less friction which in turn could result in a saving on fuel consumption/costs and allowed vessels to tow much larger trawls. A trawl in mid water was a lot less likely to sustain net damage and therefore increased its catching capability.

A scientific theory was that with the phenomena of global warming, sea temperatures had changed affecting the breeding of fish in the Arctic waters, in particular the traditional breeding grounds along the Norwegian Coast. However, while this was true for adult cod, they appear to be somewhat more conservative in their choice of water temperature when they spawn.  During a comprehensive scientific experiment it was determined that all fish stocks studied, including Cod, consistently sought out water that had a temperature of between one (1) and eight (8) degrees. This indicated that the egg and larvae stages of a cod’s life may constitute a particularly vulnerable time with regard to the effects of climate change.

These damaging factors were ignored in the pursuit of financial gain, and a large portion of the blame for today’s problems can be laid at the door of national authorities who governed the fishing areas and the fish stock management, over fishing, by trawler owners.

Management of Hull’s Fishing Fleet

The owners of Hull’s Fishing Fleet were hard nosed business men whose ambition and financial acumen turned Hull into a highly successful world renowned fishing port.  Their endeavour provided employment to a large percentage of the local workforce, either directly or indirectly.  Their poor understanding of fish stock management was damaging to the industry and indirectly contributed to its eventual collapse.

Blatant disregard to the preservation of existing fish stocks was completely ignored when vessels from many northern countries fished seasonally along the coastline off Norway during a time when breeding was ongoing. The fish caught had millions of young fish within their bodies in the form of fish roe which were never allowed to develop into fully grown fish. Although the fish roe was saved and landed and sold as part of the catch, the profit realised from this product never compensated for the damaging loss of the potential replenishment of fish stocks.

The Highs and Lows of a Deep sea Fisherman

The business of deep sea fishing was a brutal and uncompromising way of earning a living and was recognised as the most dangerous of jobs. These dangers were also evident in the running of a financial business that relied heavily on day to day supply and demand.

Trawlers often brought a catch to market with the crew having optimistic views on how much their hard earned work would profit them, only for an excess amount of fish being landed or a poor demand by the processors, to dash their hopes.  These circumstances not only affected the crew but the cost of sending a vessel to sea for three weeks or more, fully loaded with the necessary fuel and equipment was an expensive outlay which often resulted in both crew and owner settling in debt.

However, the heartbreaking situation of working for three weeks without remuneration was nothing compared to the dangers encountered on vessels regularly plying their trade in the Arctic which geographically almost always presented an environment fraught with inherent danger.

Gale and storm force winds coupled with sub-zero temperatures, led to extreme icing up conditions which were frequently encountered during the winter months. Accidents, sometimes life changing injuries to crew were normal. Weather conditions made operational activities many times more dangerous and could result in loss of life caused by crew members being crushed, caught by wires, ropes parting under strain, and the washing of a man overboard inevitably led to loss of life. The tragedies which could overcome a vessel and crew more often than not were down to circumstances and weather conditions over which there was very little control.

With vessels experiencing gale, storm and, on occasions, hurricane force winds combined with severe icing up, the ship’s superstructure collected additional top weight which could quickly affect the vessel’s stability leading to it capsizing with catastrophic consequences. Hull suffered many such incidents over the years when vessels sank and all hands on board perished.

However, there were times when decisions, made by the Skipper to continue fishing in extreme weather conditions, led to accidents, loss of life and, in some cases, loss of the vessel.  Trawler owners were hard taskmasters and expected their Skippers to combat and overcome conditions and circumstances that were obstacles to success.

Roles of the Crew

A system of marine education implemented by the trawler owners and government regulations allowed trainee fishermen to be trained in the technical and safety aspects needed for the progress through life in the Fishing Industry. Sea time, during which they learned their trade, was the most beneficial process through which all fishermen needed to become competent and earn promotion. Any ambitious fisherman would during his career observe and learn from the man immediately above him in the chain of command.

Legislation required that all ship’s Officers followed and completed the Department of Transport examinations together with the required amount of sea time. This process spanned a number of years during which time the person worked at each job title stage and achieved the necessary experience and qualifications.


To take command of a deep sea trawler required a number of  disciplines. The way forward for any young person joining the Fishing Industry was as one would expect to start at the bottom of the ladder. Ambition, hard work, intelligence, determination, strength of character and a large slice of luck were the main ingredients needed to progress through the stages to become a Skipper. Being in command of a vessel was the ambition of most fishermen and those who did achieve command took on a great responsibility. The most responsible part of the Skipper’s duties was to ensure the safety of his vessel and crew, a task always made difficult due to weather conditions and operational procedures.

Making his vessel a profitable unit was his objective and the most difficult to achieve as it relied on a number of variables, not least the vessel of which he was Skipper. A modern vessel with the latest equipment and advanced technology gave a Skipper the edge over a rival in command of an older vessel with outdated gear.

The most positive and valuable asset to any potential Skipper was the ability to predict where and when to take his vessel to the most prolific fishing grounds. Successful Skippers seemed to have this inbuilt sense coupled with experience and historic information collated over years which enabled them to consistently complete profitable trips. The recording of information relating to date, time of year, location, weather and sea temperature, etc, being logged and retained for future reference was absolutely necessary for them to build up a catalogue of vital personal knowledge. There was a saying in the Industry that went ‘A Skipper was only as good as his last trip’ Over the years a number of Skippers were noted for their ability to catch fish.  People like Roy Waller, Richard Taylor,Charles Drevers, Bernard Wharram who all were very successful. The most successful was  Bill Brettell who on a number of occasions won the top award. Many people claimed that fish which became stuck in the meshes of his net (stickers) were trying to get into his trawl, not out. 

Many of these top men regularly featured in the Silver Cod/Challenge Shield Competition which identified the ship, Skipper and crew who, over twelve months landed the most fish and generated the most points making them the top vessel for the year. Although these competitions were open to all vessels operating from the Humber ports, it is a fact that no Grimsby trawler won either the Silver Cod or The Challenge Shield. The nature of these competitions led to criticism from many people who claimed that the aim to be top ship led to recklessness on the part of the Skipper, in that he would continue to fish in weather conditions that were considered too dangerous.

Although there were a number of trawling companies trading from Hull, successful Skippers sailed mainly for one employer and were coveted by the Company. Less successful ones often had to move to another company to seek a command. Many failed to be a success at all and spent a great deal of time sailing as Mate or even lower rating.

There was an unwritten rule practiced by trawler owners which banned ship’s officers, in particular Skippers, from seeking work with alternate companies. A company which agreed to give a Skipper a job had to seek agreement from the company from which the Skipper was leaving. This rule was often used as a form of punishment by a company who did not want a Skipper to transfer his employment and therefore did not allow a transfer to take place. Under these circumstances an individual could be unemployed for weeks/months at a time.

The Mate 

As second in command the Mate was required to assume overall responsibility when the Skipper was otherwise employed e.g. sleeping below. The Mate organised and supervised the watch keeping rota and the daily work schedule for the ‘day men’ who prepared the fishing gear en route to the fishing grounds. During fishing operations the Mate managed the deck when the trawl gear was being shot and hauled and was responsible for the stowage and landed condition of the catch.  When the Mate had his watch below period, he had to appoint a ‘fishroom man’ to cover a twelve hour period .  (The twelve hours consisted of the Mate’s watch below and his time in command on the bridge whilst the Skipper slept).

The ‘fishroom man’ had to be hard working and conscientious and ensure the fish were sorted and stowed correctly. For this added responsibility the fishroom man received a (secret) gratuity when the catch was landed and sold. The Mate was personally obligated and liable for the payment of this tax free bonus (known as a backhander).

Fresh fish trawler trips to Iceland, Norway etc, were normally of 21 days duration but when fishing distant grounds off the coasts of Greenland, Labrador or Newfoundland, they were away for up to 28 days. The landing of fresh fish which was more than sixteen or seventeen days old could result in a poor quality product which, in turn often led to fish being unsold and sent to the fish meal plant. Profitability depended upon a catch being a good quality product. If a poor quality catch was presented on the market the Mate was held responsible and this often led to him losing his job.

When fresh fish trawlers landed their catch, the sale of the fish was sold by a system known as a  Dutch auction. This was the accepted way of doing business but could be a hit and miss method due to supply and demand of the day.  Dutch auctions start at a high price and come down in stages with the buyers making their bid as and when the price suits them.

The crew of fresh fish vessels could, and sometimes did, complete a trip which resulted in them owing the Company money. Assuming the crewman sailed on the vessel’s next trip, the deficit would be deducted from the monies earned on that trip.  Settling in debt occurred when a very poor trip was brought to market coinciding with poor demand and low prices.  If a vessel had  a major breakdown and returned home, it rarely cleared expenses. These incidents not only cost the crew but also the owners.  

All crew members profited from the sale of the catch based on a percentage of the gross earning of the vessel. The Skipper and Mate, as ‘share men’ were paid on the nett earnings of the vessel, i.e. after all expenses incurred on that trip were deducted.  These expenses included all payment made to sources such as the crews earnings, fuel costs, landing of the catch, etc.  If the vessels catch realised £12,000 gross the crew members would receive their agreed percentage of £12,000.  The Skipper and Mate would receive their agreed percentage after expenses, e.g. if the expenses for the trip was £4,000 they would  settle on £8,000.

The Skipper, as  a share man, earned £100 to every £1,000 of the nett amount the catch made. So in the example above he would settle on £8,000 which meant his share would be 8 x £100 = £800 plus trip money of £80 totalling £880, less any personal expenses.  The Mate would settle on £75 to the thousand, e.g. 8 x 75 = £600 but no trip money. The Mate was also responsible for his own personal expenses.  Personal expenses included items from the outfitting store, such as personal protective clothing, and his bond bill incurred during the trip, items such as tobacco, cigarettes, chocolate and a limited allowance of alcohol.

Boatswain (Bosun)

The position of boatswain required a man of good seamanship and net technology knowledge. He deputised for the Mate during the periods when the Mate was sleeping or acting in command during the Skipper’s watch below. It was a role that most men progressing through the ranks had to master. Quite often the Boatswain was a mature seaman who never achieved his ambition to be in command or serve as Mate, sometimes as a result of failing the required Department of Trade eyesight test.

On passage to and from the fishing grounds the Boatswain was the Officer in charge of one of the three watches but whilst fishing his role was total committed to deck work. The major part of his job was organising the hauling and shooting of the gear during fishing operations. A specific quality required for this role was expertise in net fixing and repair. Further to this, the ability to sort out foul gears, a situation that often occurred when a main wire, such as the warp or cable was severed whilst the gear was on the seabed leading to the gear having to be retrieved via a single wire, warp or cable, was expected of the Boatswain. But by far the greatest ability a boatswain could have was to be an able net repairer.  The Skipper determined where he wanted to tow his trawl, sometimes the seabed was even and kind to the net, other areas were not and the trawl would often be hauled onboard with substantial damage done to it. The Skipper would solicit from the boatswain the extent and time required to repair it. Experience allowed the boatswain to estimate how long the repair would take. His answer to the Skipper would either lead to repairing the net or the Skipper instructing the crew to put a full new trawl in place. To mend a badly damaged net the boatswain would organise the deckhands who were proficient at mending to start repairs, one from either end of the split but could also by calculation perform a manoeuvre whereby he started two other deckhands at a ‘jump’ point in the middle of the tear. This meant that the time to repair the damage was halved.  Many Skippers carried regular boatswains for this skillful ability.

The boatswain was not a shareman and was paid a percentage of £12.5 to every thousand pounds of the gross amount the vessel’s catch made, plus liver money.  He was paid a weekly wage to his family or designated representative.

Deckhand (Sparehand) 

All qualified deckhands were paid a weekly wage. Their settlement from the catch was equal to £6 for every thousand pound of the gross amount the vessel’s catch made, plus liver money. Many fishermen were content to sail always as deckhand and did not, for whatever reason, wish to attain promotion. A large percentage of these men were very capable, hard working, excellent shipmates who frequently stayed in a particular vessel for long periods of time. It was a bonus to sail in a vessel manned by men such as these; the camaraderie made life at sea that little bit more acceptable. A crew of competent seamen, who were not afraid of hard work, who hoped for good fishing was a boon to a Skipper. Team work on board always led to a productive and, in general, a happy ship.  A feature of deckhands who worked well together, led to socialising at home when they went for nights out at the local entertainment venues.

With the work schedule during fishing operations and the often horrendous weather conditions they were subject to, it is surprising that any harmonious atmosphere existed at all. It is easy to see,  after eighteen hours of hard work in extremely hazardous and freezing conditions, how discord could start amongst tired men.  The deckhands were that part of the crew that were most effected by these conditions and circumstances.  













Personal Memories of a Hull ‘Schoolboy’ Trawlerman

It was quite normal in the late 1940s and into the 1950s/60s for young male schoolchildren to go on what was termed a ‘pleasure trip’ on board Hull trawlers.  A three week trip could be fitted into the then six (6) week Summer holiday period.

Just prior to my twelfth (12th) birthday in 1948 I went on such a trip sponsored by my brother-law, Skipper John Dobson who at the time was in the early stages of his career. The ship I sailed on was the ‘Davy, a coal burning vessel owned by F & T Ross whose vessels were named after inventors e.g  Humphrey ‘Davy,’ an English chemist who famously discovered Chloride, Iodine, Potassium, Sodium, Calcium, Magnesium, Boron and Barium. His inventiveness led him to produce the Davy Lamp which allowed miners working underground to work safely in close contact with the flammable gases often found in mines. He was born 17th Dec 1778 and died 29th May 1829.

The ship was scheduled to sail on the early morning tide so, under the care of a neighbour, who was a crew member on the ‘Davy,’ we left by taxi from Tadman Street, Hessle Road for the short journey to St. Andrews Fish Dock. I was helped on board the ship and was shown to the Skipper’s berth below the bridge/wheelhouse, my home for the next twenty one (21) days. It was then I found out that I had a companion, another ‘pleasurer’ called Mick Spavin so the accommodation became a little crowded. 

For a number of days on passage to the fishing grounds the weather was not good for youngsters who had never been to sea.  Mike managed to survive the ‘sea sickness’ much quicker than me.  We were almost ready to begin fishing when I finally got my sea legs, this was due to the fact that the weather had improved considerably. Once fishing had begun, the ship’s motion became less reducing the risk of further seasickness. 

With the start of fishing operations the trip became more interesting, to see the skilful way the crew worked when hauling and shooting the trawl was amazing, hectic and also quite dangerous. We were allowed to view the deck operation and also how the Skipper commanded the ship from the comfort of the wheelhouse and the veranda which ran around the bridge sides.

When hauling, to see the bag of fish ‘explode’ through the surface of the sea was really unexpected and many years later after serving twenty five years on trawlers I still marvel when a good catch bursts into view. To two young boys, the procedure for transferring the catch inboard seemed complex and very physical but was accomplished quickly and usually without mishap. 

When the codline, which tied off the codend, was released to allow the fish to spill out on deck, the effect of seeing two (2) or three (3) tons of writhing cod and haddock thrashing about on the deck within the deck pounds was exciting whilst at the same time I experienced a sad feeling knowing the fish would quickly die. I soon accepted this as a fact of life as this was what deep sea trawling was all about, earning a living by helping feed the nation. 

During the trip Mike and I tried our hand at gutting fish, something that for an eleven year old boy was scary and distasteful with an element of cruelty about it, but it had to be done, and fortunately the weather was flat calm with the sun shining. One strange phenomena was that at that time of year and at the Latitude we were fishing we daily experienced almost twenty four hours of daylight. In later years I saw and worked in the opposite perspective with days and night almost being the same when a minimum period of half light was all that occurred.      

Once gutted and washed, the fish had to be transferred to the fishroom. The washing and ‘banging down’ the hatch into the fishroom was all manual backbreaking work at which Mike and I were allowed to be involved at one stage. In 1948 the practice of ‘heading’ the fish was still being carried out which allowed greater weight of fish to be taken to market.  Whilst the fish was being thrown down the fishroom the Mate and fishroom man were actively involved in stowing and icing it; this again was strenuous manual work.

As ‘pleasurers’ we were not allowed anywhere on the deck when the trawl gear was being shot away.  The process was a fast moving operation with thick wire warps being streamed from the winch at high speed with the ship on full speed until the required lengths of warp had been ‘payed’ out.

Mealtimes was one activity we looked forward to greatly. The food, and the good natured banter between the Cook, Engine room staff and deck crew was another special thing I have never forgotten. Meals were a social gathering and was often the only time certain people met during the day. I will always remember certain food items, such as the sweet puddings called duffs, sometimes also cooked as a savoury onion offering. The extremely large tins of jam which were about six times the size of today’s jars and the very large containers of coffee which was more chicory than coffee. The Skipper drank this beverage without sugar or milk and the bottom of his mug always had an inch of ‘sludge’ at the bottom.

It was not all amicable; sometimes the odd spat occurred, in the main down to tiredness, or a small dispute over the food quality. I can still remember the names and faces of some of that crew: the Mate was Tony Stipetic, the Bosun was Fred Pullen with Deckhands, Gordon Sheppard, Buster Fulstow, Fred Netherton and Sparehand below, Bryn Reed. They entertained us with their jokes, stories, experiences and, at times colourful language. Honest social friendly men who Mike and I could only admire for their strength of character and hardworking nature.

The workload of all on board, in particular the deck crew was to me as a schoolboy unbelievable, the hours each man spent on deck seemed endless  yet was accomplished without question. The fact that the good weather conditions were a bonus, I could not believe what it would have been like when the weather included rough seas and freezing conditions that were commonly experienced in the winter months. The old hands made it clear to us ‘passengers’ that it was all so different between December and March which included the ‘dark daytime;’ it was as if they were trying to put us off the idea of taking up fishing as a job when we left school.

After ten days fishing the Skipper instructed the crew to haul the net for the last time. This induced great excitement and much activity amongst the crew. The catch on the last tow produced a small amount of fish and crew quickly brought it on board and began the process of ‘clewing up.’ This procedure was started by the dropping of the large otter boards inboard. In a short time the fish was gutted and put into the fishroom and the hatches battened down to prevent sea water from entering and also to keep the fishroom as cool as possible on the journey to market.

When the trawl had been lashed alongside and everything secured, the deck became a large clear area with all the deckboards being stowed in the fore hold. The deck crew then took up a different work schedule with some being designated watch keepers; this included day and night watches during which the deckhands steered the ship in spells whilst the Officers safely navigated the vessel. A number of men worked only during the day on maintenance and cleaning.      

The homeward bound passage had an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation with all on board  wishing for a good market and a good payoff on settling day.  The crew’s messroom was also the place where the crew spent their leisure time playing dominoes, and card games including, cribbage, canasta, and listening to music or reading, although most read in their bunks.

On the last day, when entering the River Humber, the crews prepared themselves by taking a ‘bath’ which was accomplished in a bucket; facilities and water quantity dictated that this natural function was limited. However, once bathed the men changed into their going ashore gear, usually a suit with shirt and some even sporting a tie. Fishermen were always noted for their smart dress and distinctive style.

Once the vessel reached the clocktower off St. Andrews Dock, the crew went to their stations on the bow and at the stern, whilst the Skipper manoeuvred the vessel which involved turning through 180 degrees allowing the ship to go  stern first (backwards) into the lockpits. At this time the Customs men jumped on board to search the vessel and crew for items such  cigarettes, alcohol, in case they were attempting to take home more than the duty free allocation. Once in the lock, the outer gate was closed off and with the water level adjusted the inner lockgate was opened allowing the vessel to be towed by the docking tug to its allocated place on the fish market.

Depending on the number of vessels due to land, the landing position could be on the first (North Sea) market or the second (Iceland) market. Overall, the number of stands(the sections rented to the fish merchants) was approximately 205, starting on the fish dock and stretching to the far Westerly end of the second dock. The number of individual merchants was displayed with their name on the small office facility at the rear of the stand area. The main areas of the stand facilitated the landing of the catch of each trawler and was laid out in kits, each containing 10 stone in weight. These two markets could accommodate about ten vessels which, if each had 2,500 kits on board, could result in up to 250,000 stone of fish being up for sale on a single day.

Once the vessel reached its landing place, the mooring ropes securing the vessel were made fast on the bollards. The Skipper rang off finished with engines on the telegraph allowing the engineers to start the close down of the engine room and the ships boiler.  The crew then started to disembark and be met by their personal taxi driver who was waiting outside the market to take them home.

The following day the crew went down to the Company office to settle up and as fish prices had been good they left with a lucrative payoff and a feeling of satisfaction. Their reward for three weeks of hard work then needed to be celebrated with their family usually with visits to the city centre and a meal out at one of the large store restaurants such as Hammonds.  A visit to the main music shop Sidney Scarboroughs to buy the latest records (vinyl) was always a must, especially for the younger crew members. The shop had booths and earphones to hear any new record and the sales girls were often pretty young females who the young deckys loved to chat up.

My trip as a pleasurer was not a catalyst for me to go to sea for a living, but I did and in 1952 at the age of 16 years old I signed on a vessel called the ‘Loch Seaforth’ owned by the Loch Steam Fishing Company and began a career of 25 years in Hull’s  Deep sea Fishing Industry.