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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 In 1976 the last of the oil fuelled vessels, the Arctic Ranger, was withdrawn from service.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.

Skipper

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.

With the work schedule during fishing operations and the often horrendous weather conditions the deck crew 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 between tired men.  The deckhands were that part of the crew that were most effected by the conditions and circumstances under which they operated.

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 socializing at home when they went for nights out at the local entertainment venues. For all crew members the short time spent between trips was paramount. Once they had been down the dock to settle with the company to learn how much money he had earned for that trip, he then usually devoted his efforts to having a good time with his family. It was not unusual for them to take their children out of school, with or without notice (something that is not allowed nowadays) and go off to the seaside, etc, for the day.  Some of the menfolk liked a day at the races and a flutter on the horses so Beverley Racecourse was regularly visited by fishing families. Their wife’s treat was usually a town visit, to shop and dine out. The evenings were spent at local entertainment venues, pubs, clubs, theaters and dance halls. Such night spots included on Hessle Road, St Andrews Club, Dee Street & Albert Club, and Hessle Ex-serviceman’s Club (due to its extended opening hours) with the Tivoli, the Palace (later the Continental) and the New Theater  being the favourite places to see national variety acts and celebrities. Popular public houses throughout the City of Hull included, the Rayners, Criterion, Half Way Hotel all sited on Hessle Road with music venue pubs such as the Ferryboat, Maybury, Blue Heaven and Dixons Arms situated further afield but attracting many fishermen at night. Dance halls such as the City Hall, Scala, Kevin Ballroom and Newington Hall with a  number of public bath halls, Madeley Street, Beverley Road and as far afield as Withernsea Pavilion who offered a night, for those who liked to dance. (and drink late). The train journey back to Hull afterwards were often quite interesting trips.

Most Hull fishermen, especially the younger ones, were ‘snappy’ dressers with a style all of their own which changed on a regular basis, Their suits featured trousers with 24 inch bottoms and deep Spanish waistbands, whilst the jacket often had pleats in the back. The materials and colour of their clothing was often quite flamboyant ranging from pale blue, lime green and on occasions yellow. There were a number of local tailors who catered to the fishing industry mainly sited in the West of the City in particular Hessle Road. Some of these tailors, such as the Finestein Brothers, visited the trawler owners offices and waited outside to solicit crewmen into buying new clothing. The many tailoring/clothing establishments did great trade, as fishermen almost always bought new clothes when they were home between each trip. Businesses serving West Hull were, Waistells, Clothing House, Edelstons, Henleys, Marcus Bishop and Southwells. In the City center this service was provided by some high end tailors, Maurice Lipman, Jackson’s of Whitefriargate, Brown’s in Carr Lane, Austin Reed in Jameson Street and  Hemworths who claimed their designs were by Hardy Amies a nationally renowned designer. These tailors were more often frequented by trawler officers and officers of the Merchant Navy. It goes without saying that in general these businessmen charged more for their products than others.

Holidays for fishermen in the past only extended to places in the U.K. with a few (usually Skippers) venturing abroad. In the very early days after WW2 sideside resorts and holiday camps were extremely popular, with Butlins at Filey being the main firm to benefit. The east coast,  from Hornsea to Whitby, were the most visited, it was here that the fishermen shared the areas holiday attractions with the hard workers of the mining communities from West Yorkshire who loved to visit the openness of the sea. The caravan parks, in particular those at Withernsea, allowed fishermen’s families to spend school holiday time away in their own trailers, caravans on Trailer Park, Nettleton’s Field and Moons field all within a very short distance from the beach, amusements, cafes, chippies and pubs. In the early years many of the abodes were old converted railway carriages and such, but as time past and people prospered the introduction of modern factory built caravans saw the death of these ‘buildings of character’.

Modern fishermen take holidays far abroad to exotic and exciting places