The Life of a Bobber

When the distant water fishing fleet brought their catch back to market it had to be unloaded overnight to be ready for the sales which took place in the morning at the beginning of the working day.   

This labour intensive job was carried out by a workforce known as ‘Bobbers’ and, although the procedure was in the main manual tasks, the men involved were very skilful in the different roles they played in the overall discharge of the catch. These workers were employed by the Hull Fishing Vessel Owner’s Association (H.F.V.O.A): an amalgamation of the business men who owned the vessels which made up the Hull Fleet.

At its height the Bobber’s Scheme employed a total of 600 permanent staff comprising of 540 bobbers and 60 board scrubbers.  They were divided into gangs of 10 men which meant that there was 60 gangs in number.

To get (on the scheme) a permanent job, one had to turn out and seek work when the ‘All Hands’ order was issued; casual workers could only get work when all the regular bobbers were working and extra hands were needed. This was the only way a person could hope to get on the scheme.  To keep turning out in the hope of work was not so bad in the Summer time, but in Winter, to turn out and fail to get set on (a job) was soul destroying. The average time a person could spend turning out as a casual could stretch for up to two years plus while working your way up the casual list, waiting for a regular man to leave or retire, only then were you offered a permanent job and allocated a gang number.

Each gang of bobbers was comprised of the following:

(1) Swinger – worked on deck at the fishroom hatch

(1) Weigher out – worked the scales on the market


(4) Below men – who worked down in the fishroom area



(1) Winch man – who manned the winch on the market

(1) Barrow Lads – who transferred the weighed out kits of fish from the scales


(1) Board Scrubber – On deck responsible for washing the fishroom boards


                                             (1) Fifth man

These men made up one ten (10) man gang.

When a catch was to be landed the allocation of fish per gang was 300 ten stone kits. For example if a trawler came to market with 1,500 kits onboard, 5 gangs would be required and ordered to work.  A vessel with a catch of 1,800 kits would need 6 gangs, and so forth.  The Arctic Corsair with her fishroom full could land as much as 3,000 and more kits which would require 10 gangs (100 men).

The gangs were numbered 1 to 60 and were ordered out to work in rotation; the information was posted on the office door of the *G.M.W. Union in West Dock Avenue at 6.00 pm each day except Saturday, as there were no Sunday landings. *General Municipal Workers  

An example: if four vessels were to be landed the following day and required a total of 20 gangs then the number of gangs (1) to (20) would be displayed to start work at 2.00 am in the morning.  The orders for the following day which may require a total of 15 gangs would start with gang (21) to gang (36) and so forth. This system gave all members of the workforce an equal share of the work.  On occasions, especially over the Easter period, when extra vessels and large catches reached the market, the whole workforce would be ordered out to work. The orders on the G.M.W. Union office door would then read ‘All hands at 2.00pm’ meaning that 60 ten man gangs would be employed the next day. 




Work as a bobber was mainly night work as landing operations began from 2.00 am until around 7.30 am. This ensured the catch would be ready on the market prior to the 8.00 am sales, thereby allowing the buyers (fish merchants) the opportunity to look over and evaluate the condition of the fish they may wish to purchase. 

Sometimes circumstances due to weather and tide times meant a vessel may not arrive to land its catch at the normal time – these were known as ‘late landers’ often arriving at, for example, 5.00 am. When this occurred,  the instructions to work on these vessels may be displayed as  ‘6.00 am, gang (37) to gang (42)’ indicating that the amount of fish to be landed was around 1,500 kits with five gangs being employed.

These late coming vessels would be met at the lock head (the dock entrance) by bobbers who would rig their gear (slings (gins)) as the vessel was towed through the dock to its landing position on the market to begin the unloading; no time was wasted. Fish would begin to be offloaded onto the market within half an hour of the trawler entering the dock.

Occasionally when a trawler had a catch of, for example 1,200 kits of fish, an extra gang was ordered out in case any one in the other gangs ordered did not turn out to work. In this case, the extra men would be employed into their positions.

In the winter months a vessel may be prevented to make a market tide and could arrive as late as 10.00 am and would still be landed especially when the normal landings were low, i.e. when only one or two vessels had landed which meant premium prices for the catches landed.

When this occurred, the buyers could not wait for all the catch to be landed, as this could take up to five hours, so as soon as 40 ten stone kits were landed ready for sale they were offered for sale. The method of sale was by ‘Dutch Auction’ in which the salesman would pitch the starting price high and gradually reduce it. The buyers would make their bid when the price reached a level at which they were prepared to buy.  As each 40 kit batch was landed they were sold, this process went on until the whole of the catch was sold.

The urgency of landing, selling and purchasing was essential to the fish merchants as their purchase had to be filleted and packed to catch the goods trains which serviced the fishing industry and were located at the rear of the fish market. The rail company provided eight (8) trains a day with individual wagons destined for a network of specific stations throughout the U.K.  Individual wagons were sometimes full whilst other carried only a couple of boxes.  The trains always ran on time and left from the  St. Andrews Fish Dock on the dot. This meant if you missed the train the order was lost.

In 1964 the railways were cut in numbers reducing the number of trains from eight to two a day, and on 1st Feb 1965 a further reduction  saw just one train daily leave the fish dock site, the 6.35 pm to London Kings Cross.  Later that year the train service was withdrawn leaving road transport companies in the role of distribution of Hull’s fish landing to inland sources.

The relationship between the shore side worker (the bobbers) and the sea going personnel (the trawlermen) was a love hate affair.  The shore workers were quite militant and would often withdraw their labour (strike) if circumstances were not to their liking. If this action took place during the landing of a catch from a vessel the crewmen were extremely angry as it meant the process had to shut down until the issue was resolved, usually on the following day.  The repercussions of this was felt at the sales the next day. Fish merchants did not like to buy fish that was another day old and had been exposed to the environment. They liked their purchase to be landed and processed and transported to their customer within twenty four hours. The expected proceeds from the sale of a catch would be greatly effected by these factors and result in the fishermen losing money from their settling, (money earned) .