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The Fishing Industry At Fleetwood
Fleetwood is well known, primarily, as a fishing port. It was not, however, always that way. Indeed, in the mind of the town’s creator, Peter Hesketh Fleetwood, it was envisaged as a resort after the style of St. Leonard’s on Sea, to cater for the needs of the residents of the Lancashire towns. Peter Hesketh Fleetwood did, nevertheless, have a weather eye on the commercial prospects offered by a new town and port but it is doubtful if even he foresaw the value of a healthy fishing industry. So how did Fleetwood become synonymous with fishing and particularly, hake? For the answer to that question we must go back to a time before Peter was the Lord of the Manor at Rossall Hall.
Imagine, if you will, the Fylde coast in the early part of the 19th. century. Sparsely inhabited, desolate, isolated and windswept, with a line of sand dunes stretching from the Ribble to the Wyre. The closest town of any note was Preston, some thirty miles away; a considerable distance to travel in the days when horse drawn transport was the only alternative to ‘Shanks’ pony’. Rossall Hall, now a school, was the home of the Hesketh family. Due to the considerable difficulties involved in what was then long distance travel, large estates had to be self sufficient for most of their supplies and all of their skills. To supplement the estate’s food stocks a small fleet of inshore fishing vessels was maintained to work the fish rich waters of Morecambe Bay, and was kept on the gently sloping sands of Rossall beach.
Following a severe pounding from a succession of storms in 1814, Bold Hesketh, the lord of the manor and the uncle of Peter Hesketh, moved his vulnerable little fleet off the beach. Although an ideal mooring in many ways the beach was open to all the power and fury of the westerly gales that so often battered the coast. He moored his boats in the well-known shelter of the Wyre Estuary, later building huts for the fishermen to live in. By doing this he sowed the seeds that would elevate the, as yet unconsidered, town to the status of the third largest fishing port in Britain.
By 1840 the town’s construction was well underway and the task of getting vessels in and out of port safely could be given some serious consideration. Because vessels were already making the tricky passage upriver to Skippool and Wardleys, already long established as ports, a pilot boat was stationed in Lune Deeps. This supplied inbound vessels with navigators well versed in the vicious tides and currents that swept the Wyre channel. A system of lights was devised to guide ships around the edge of North Wharf Bank and into the deep-water channel that had already been well charted by the redoubtable Captain Denham. Wyre Light, Pharos Light and the Lower Light were all in operation by June 1840, and lit on the 20th. of that month.
To help the pilots pass the time until a call was made on their services they would engage in fishing from their small cutter, selling their catch when they got ashore. Soon the income from the fishing was exceeding that of pilotage. A consortium bought the pilot cutter Pursuit and established the Fleetwood Fishing Company, supplementing the cutter at a later date with four half decked Lancashire Nobbies purchased from Banks, Southport, of the type that would, eventually, become synonymous with the Morecambe Bay fishing or shrimping industry. Soon more of the nobbies, or prawners as they were known locally, began to arrive. They exploited the fish rich waters of the bay, initially landing and selling their catches on the sandy foreshore until the quay was built and quickly became their home. Single-masted, fitted with a short bowsprit and carrying a small sail, they had a long overhanging stern and an open well for working in. These small vessels were the cornerstone of the Lancashire inshore industry for many years, even into the late eighties. By that time, though, they had grown a deckhouse and were fitted with a small engine. This was, usually, a two-stroke petrol/paraffin type. The engine was started, initially with petrol, and switched to paraffin as soon as it had warmed up.
Skate, plaice and codling were just some of the fish that was available from the fishermen during the year, although great care had to be taken to avoid the ‘miller’s thumb’, a small weever fish that increased in numbers during the summer. A prick from one of his spiny fins would result in a rather painful hand.
By 1851 the town’s population had grown to over 3000 and regular fish sales were being held. Fish storage sheds had been erected on the quayside and the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company had begun to cater to the needs of the, fast growing, fishing industry. Fish wagons were attached to the trains that were calling at the town, allowing the fish to be transported quickly and easily all over the country. By the time that 1860 came around there were 32 small vessels, including smacks, sailing and fishing from the port on a regular basis. By 1876 this number had increased to 64 and the amount of shellfish and fish being shipped from the town reached 100 tons a day.
The larger smacks, at some forty tons, were much larger than the nobbies and were capable of fishing much further afield. Whilst the smaller vessels restricted their operations to Morecambe Bay, the Ribble Estuary and Liverpool Bay, the smacks ranged as far afield as the Irish and Scottish coasts, chasing the skate, hake, cod and dogfish. The edible crab was also highly prized as a catch. Crewed, usually, by four men and a boy. the smacks towed a fifty feet wide beam trawl on around 150 fathoms of rope. This meant that each boat had to carry a substantial spread of sail, and hope for a strong wind, to tow its gear. Otherwise the vessel would remain anchored by its own equipment which consisted of a trawl net held open by a heavy wooden beam with weighty iron shoes on each side.
Beam trawls were the basic fishing equipment until 1894 when a new invention, the otter board trawl, made its debut. In looks it was almost identical to the beam trawl but the revolutionary and successful nature of the new design meant that it would become universally adopted by the larger vessels of the British fishing fleet. The problem with the beam trawl was the heavy wooden beam that effectively restricted the size of the net. The otter board dispensed with the beam altogether and used two large, steel shod, wooden doors that acted like kites. Fixed on either wing of a trawl these kites, when towed, would try to move apart under pressure of the water thus opening out the mouth of the net to its full extent. A further advantage was that larger nets could be utilised by the new breed of steam trawlers that were appearing on the scene. One of the first trawlers to use the new equipment was the Otter and her name soon became synonymous with the new trawl.
Perhaps the most notable of the Fleetwood smacks, though, was the Harriet, registered as FD111 and built in 1893 for Richard Leadbetter. Harriet fished from Fleetwood up until the late seventies, an achievement worthy of note, for a wooden hulled vessel, in an industry that was notably hard on the boats that worked in it. This vessel was, abandoned on a mud flat in the Duddon Estuary where she slowly rotted until she was aquired by the Fleetwood Museum for whom she is now being restored.
It was in 1893 that the fleet of smacks reached its maximum with 95 sailing vessels based at the port. By 1912, this number had fallen to 34 as the advent of steam powered vessels, with their greater endurance and towing power allowing longer trips and larger nets made the smacks relatively uneconomical to operate. The long awaited Wyre Dock was finally completed in 1877. This opened the door for large cargo carrying ships to begin using the port. Initially though, the fishing vessels did not use the dock. Instead they berthed at the Jubilee Quay, where they could do so free of charge (as did some steamers and cargo boats) and a healthy trade in general cargo began to bring a degree of prosperity to the fledgling town.
In 1891, Fleetwood’s first steam trawler – the Lark, tipping the scales at 133 gross tons and with a length of 99 feet, arrived to take up station. Owned by Moody & Kelly of Grimsby She sailed from the port for several years before being sold to the Burmese, eventually being scrapped in 1936. There had been previous attempts to use the paddle pleasure steamer Dhu’Artach to fish the bay during the winter months but the smacksmen of Fleetwood, fearing for their livelihood, strenuously resisted this new development.
From this point the fortunes of the industry and the town waxed and waned according to financial considerations. The largest impact, and the one that had the greatest effect on Fleetwood was, undoubtedly, caused by the opening, in 1892 of Preston Dock, followed two years later by the Manchester Ship Canal. The construction of the canal meant that the cargoes of sugar, flax and timber that had been unloaded at Fleetwood, for shipping by train, could now be unloaded at the industrial heart of the county thereby reducing the transport costs.
In 1893 the Hull fish merchant George Beeching became involved with the Kelsall brothers and eventually established a fleet of up to 32 steam vessels at the port but in 1897 closed down their operations at Fleetwood and moved to Shadwell. The following year, however, saw the arrival of trawlers of the James H. Marr fleet, which steadily increased in size and, in 1902, James Marr & Sons (Fleetwood) Ltd. was established. The Marr story really begins with William Marr, a Scot from Dundee who was born in 1808. A harpooner in the whaling trade, he died at sea and was buried in Greenland, leaving a son that he had never seen. Joseph, his son, entered the fish trade as a fish curer but, in 1870, followed the logical step of buying his own fishing vessel, the smack Adelaide. Later he extended his fleet until he had eight vessels operating out of Hull where, by 1887, there were 448 fishing smacks operating from that port. When the era of steam trawlers dawned at Hull, the reaction was much the same as it was to be at Fleetwood, with the smacksmen and owners being of the opinion that they would never replace the sailing smack.
Steam trawlers cost more to run and required larger crews but they had one great advantage. They were not at the mercy of the wind as were the sailing vessels. They could fish when the wind was light or none existent and could tow larger nets. The Marr family had the vision to foresee the future, however, and one of the sons of Joseph, James Herbert Marr entered the fishing business with his father and together they built their first steam trawler, Marrs, at 100ft. long and with a gross tonnage of 100 tons. Seeing the benefits offered by the new town being built on the west coast, Marr moved his operation to Fleetwood in 1898, taking with him his fleet of three steam trawlers, the Marrs had been joined by Rattler and Lucerne and, by 1900, had been supplemented by Annie and Akranes By 1905 Fleetwood’s fishing vessels had begun to land their catches in the Wyre Dock. The trade in general cargo had steadily declined due to trade being taken by Manchester and Preston. It was at this point in time that, thanks to James Marr, that the town’s reputation as a hake port became established. Up until then hake was not considered to be a fish worthy of bothering with and was often thrown back when it was caught. Cod and haddock were the main species that the fishermen were interested in. James Marr, again showing his vision, was the only one to see the possibilities of hake and consigned a shipment of it to fish merchants at Manchester where it quickly found favour with the public of the Lancashire industrial towns. Very soon regular shipments were being made as Marr’s company developed the market for what was to become the prime fish that Fleetwood became noted for. The town was ideally placed to exploit the hake grounds of northwest Scotland and the west of Ireland as well as the traditional Rockall and Faroe Islands grounds.
A fishing fleet cannot operate independently. There has to be a support structure in place to cater for all its needs. Provisions have to be supplied, repairs and maintenance has to be carried out as well as refuelling and preparing the vessels for the rigours of a long sea voyage in the severest of weathers. Ship’s chandlers were needed to supply a multitude of items. Rivetters had to repair the plating and riggers had to supply and maintain the ropeworks and the towing cables. Tinsmiths, blacksmiths, plumbers, pipefitters, netmakers, ropemakers, boilermakers, joiners, shipwrights, compass adjusters, sailmakers, wireless technicians and engineers were just some of the industries that sprang up along Dock Street as business began to take off once more.
By 1900, Fleetwood had a second dock in operation, with a covered fish market, for the use of the trawlers. Then the First World War interrupted proceedings. As can be expected, the war severely disrupted fishing operations with many of the trawlers being taken by the Admiralty where they served with great distinction as patrol vessels, armed escorts and minesweepers, jobs for which these hardy little vessels were superbly suited. Marr had no fewer than eleven new trawlers on order or in the process of being built and all of them went for war service, leaving only the Fly and the old Rattler to continue fishing for the company. A total of 34 fishing vessels, however, were lost during the war years by enemy action as well as through the normal operating hazards inherent in such a dangerous occupation as deep sea fishing. The total lack of radio equipment fitted to the trawlers meant that a number of boats just vanished without trace and with no record of how they met their fate, be it enemy action or weather.
One spin off for the industry was the construction, by the Admiralty, of a fleet of large modern trawlers, most of which were auctioned off cheaply at the end of hostilities as surplus. These provided the impetus to rebuild the industry. The Castle class boats, built during the war, were the mainstay of the industry for many years. Unfortunately, though, the large numbers of these boats being available at relatively cheap prices resulted in the flooding of the market. Too many boats landing too much fish caused a dramatic downturn in fortunes that lasted for almost a decade. During the war years Fleetwood experienced a resurgence of the general cargo trade that had fallen off so drastically following the opening of Manchester Docks. Following on from the war the trawlers began to seek out and develop new fishing grounds, sailing to Iceland and Bear Island on a regular basis in search of the silver prize. On the east coast the North Sea grounds had gone virtually unfished for the duration of the war, minefields and restricted areas had curtailed operations severely and this gave fish stocks plenty of opportunity to replenish themselves. The result was some bumper catches of Dover and lemon soles, plaice, halibut, monkfish, saithe, turbot, cod and haddock, when fishing resumed once more.
Then in 1926 came an incident, seemingly unrelated to Fleetwood that was to have a major impact on the town’s fishing industry. On the East Coast, in 1885, the Boston Deep-Sea Fishing & Ice Co. Ltd. had been formed. Fred Parkes, a remarkable man, was elected to the board in 1919 and by 1924 had become chairman of the company. Prior to that date, in 1922 in fact, an incident had occurred when a collier, the Lockwood, lost her steering gear and grounded in the River Witham, causing a severe navigational hazard to vessels attempting to enter Boston. The Boston Harbour Master approached the Boston Deep-Sea Fishing Co. and asked if they would be prepared to help move the stricken collier. This they were prepared to do and the trawler William Browns succeeded in refloating the collier, which then sailed with the ebbing tide. Unfortunately, as a result of an unusually low water level, as she neared the mouth of the river, she grounded once more. When the tide turned the Lockwood was carried stern first, by the flood, across the river where she grounded once more and capsized, all but blocking the Haven. She remained in the same position for almost five months while the Harbour Commissioners haggled with salvage companies. The salvors were not too happy with the conditions that the Harbour Commissioners were trying to include in the contract to salvage the vessel, namely that any damage to the banks of the river caused by the operation would be the responsibility of the salvage company. This was unacceptable and they broke off negotiations. In any case, the lowest quote that had been received was from a Grimsby company, which wanted £70000 for the job. Eventually, the Harbour Commissioners approached Fred Parkes once more and asked him to take on the difficult task of moving the wreck. Although the company was not in the salvage business, Fred agreed and the company successfully raised the capsized collier once more despite the tragic death of one of the seamen during the operation. However, when Fred Parkes presented his bill for £1212,000, the Harbour Commissioners – on behalf of Boston Corporation – challenged the amount and refused to pay. The result was a messy court case in which the only winner was the legal profession. The Boston Corporation was compelled to pay up but the Boston Deep-Sea Fisheries Co. had to settle for a lesser amount than was originally agreed. The real loser in all this was the Boston Corporation. Their quibbling and petty mindedness so infuriated Fred Parkes that he announced that he was moving the entire fishing operation, lock, stock, and barrel, to Fleetwood, and by 1923 the move had begun.
The Boston Company was, eventually, to become one of the largest operators of trawlers out of Fleetwood as well as Hull, Grimsby, Lowestoft and Aberdeen. The businesses under their control or in which they held an interest contributed greatly to the affluence of these towns, but they never returned to Boston. Over the years, Boston operated as many as 82 boats from Fleetwood alone, as well as a large number of other vessels jointly owned with other companies. Boston Corporation’s loss was Fleetwood’s gain. By their penny pinching attitude, the town of Boston lost the opportunity to share in the prosperity that the boom years of fishing brought, and the loss of the Boston trawler fleet heralded the decline of the town as a major fishing port. Once established in Fleetwood the Boston Deep-Sea Fisheries fleet, after two lean years, soon became profitable and their fleet expanded over the years until they owned or operated a third of all the trawlers sailing from the port.
It is worthwhile, at this point, to take a look at the men who sailed on the trawlers. What kind of man would readily give up the relative comforts of a shore based life to take up a life of hardship and deprivation, often in the freezing waters of the Arctic? The life of a trawlerman, especially in the early years of the industry was extremely hard. To someone who has never experienced the life it is almost impossible to visualise just what the fishermen had to endure; and endure it they did, without a second thought. It was just a part of the job and it had to be done. Life on board left little room at all for niceties of life that others took so much for granted. The crew’s only luxury was often the chance to close their eyes and snatch a few moments sleep.
Forecastle accommodation was very cramped and Spartan with tiers of bunks at either side of the tapering compartment, and a mess table in between. Often, the deckhead was not much higher than six feet, meaning that the taller members of the crew had to stoop to avoid the risk of braining themselves. In this space, usually heated by no more than a small and inadequate solid fuel stove in the bitterest of weathers, men tried to sleep and eat. That was, when the weather condition allowed the cook to cross the exposed foredeck with the food – there was no room or time for them to do much else. In bad weather the noise and shock of the bow slamming into the waves and the violence of the motion meant that men had to sleep jammed into their bunks as best as they could to avoid being thrown out onto the deck, which was often awash with water.
Such was the motion at times that it was akin to riding a roller coaster and trying to sleep at the same time as the bow would, alternatively, climb skyward and then nosedive into the trough of a wave while, all the while, rolling viciously from side to side. My uncle, Peter, once recounted a curious tale that demonstrates the violence of the motion experienced in the forecastle.”We were,” he recalled, “dodging in heavy weather. It was too bad to fish and we were in the process of trying to turn head to wind to ride out the weather. We had almost made it when a vicious wave caught us on the bow and knocked us down into a trough. The whole boat just fell sideways, she must have dropped forty feet or so in a few seconds. I found myself floating off my bunk to be jammed into the underside of the upper one. It was a strange feeling. In one of the bottom bunks there was a pair of seaboot stockings. As I watched, they were thrown out of the bunk and, with the boat falling off into the waves, they were tossed into the upper bunk. That was really bad weather.”
On deck the crew had to work in the most appalling of conditions, often waist deep in the icy water that poured onto the deck over the low gunwales. It just went with the territory as did working between the two bar-tight steel warps that ran the length of the deck when towing the trawl. Warps that were capable of slicing a man in two if they parted under the strain and the ragged end slashed back across the deck. This was an event that had happened on more than one occasion. Such things, though, were never remarked upon but merely considered to be one of the hazards of a job hat was all hazard.
At hauling time the skipper would call the hands. The winch would be started and the warps reeled in, cracking and banging under the strain and sending showers of water squeezed from the strands, everywhere. Then the birds would appear. How they knew that there would be fish about I could never work out, but they knew. Mollymawks, kittiwakes, gannets, they all appeared wheeling and diving as they waited, calling relentlessly. First the otter doors would appear, to be shackled onto the gallows by their chain preventers. Then the cod end, heralded by a frenzied screaming from the excited birds, would break surface and sit bobbing in the swell as the avian pirates did their best to empty it. The trawler would have fallen beam on to the sea by the time that the crew had to bring the footrope with its line of huge, iron bobbins, inboard. The gilson would slowly lift the footrope out of the water and clear of the rail to drop it behind the rail, guided by the crew. The cod end would be brought inboard to hang, dripping, over the deck. Stooping under the load of fish the mate would release the knot securing the net and allow the fish to cascade down onto the deck.
All this would be taking place in a heavy swell that could see the weather rail lifted ten feet above the water one minute and then plunged a foot under it the next. It’s no wonder that limbs and fingers were crushed or amputated. Sleep was a rare and precious commodity that had to be snatched one or two hours at a time when fishing allowed. When on the fishing grounds, the job had priority over eating or sleeping. If the fish were plentiful and double bags occurred, the deck would not be cleared of fish before it was time to haul the gear once more and drop the next catch on the deck. Food, often just sandwiches, had to be grabbed by exhausted men as they headed for their bunks to try for a few precious hours sleep before they were shaken awake, once more, with the cry of “Hauling time.” In between hauls the crew would often be roused out to chip away the ice that was forming on the standing rigging and threatening to capsize the vessel. Or they would have to turn to and mend a torn or damaged trawl, repairing the meshes with large, wooden needles loaded with rough and abrasive manila or sisal twine. Small wonder, then, that their hands would be as tough as leather and with fingers thick and powerful. Day and night for up to three weeks the crushing routine went on and a man would have to be really injured to stop work. My uncle remembers, “Many’s the time that my hands have been poisoned through a cut or with being spiked by a sharp fin. That was no excuse to stop, though, the skipper or the mate would lance it to let out the infection, patch it up, and it was back to work. Any sewing up of wounds had to be done there and then, a man had to be really ill before the skipper would put into port.”
From Boom to Bust: The Rise and Decline of the Fishing Industry
A fisherman ashore could always be recognised by his weatherbeaten complexion the red and toughened skin around his neck and wrists. Salt-water boils, caused by the constant chafing of his ‘oily-frock’, thickened the skin in those areas. painful though the affliction was, it would not stop him turning to for the next haul. Their hands would give them away, too. Thick and tough from immersion in salt water, their fingers were swollen and the skin rough and thick with calluses from pulling wet nets inboard. Theirs was a gallows humour. Injuries were part and parcel of the job and an injured man received little or no sympathy for an injury that was not perceived to be life threatening. They would not expect nor want any. Trawlermen would laugh at how old ‘so and so’ fell off the casing and broke his leg but any one of them would take the most appalling risk to himself to stop an accident from happening to someone. It was not that they were bereft of feelings and emotions it’s just that these were very private things that were to be kept locked away inside themselves, it’s the way they were. When my uncle was washed over the side into the bitter waters off Iceland, the first words that the mate said to him as they pulled him back aboard was “Na then Peter, tha’ takes a bath in yer own time.” One deckie was also heard to remark that was “A bloody ugly girt fish” that they’d just brought inboard, “let’s get it gutted and iced back.”
After docking, the fish was landed by lumpers and auctioned off the following day at the early morning auctions on the dockside. Once the owner’s expenses were deducted, the crew could be paid. They would gathered at the office of the company cashier for their money – less any subs or expenses – and for the free ‘fry’ of fish that they always got, before heading off to the nearest available pub, usually in each others company. Each man was only too well aware that his survival was often in the hands of his fellow crewmen and the tragic loss of a man or vessel, as did happen, devastated everyone connected with the industry. Small wonder then that the fishing community was such a tight knit and cohesive unit and who could begrudge the trawlermen their rip-roaring, hard drinking reputation during the 36 hours that they had ashore before starting the cycle all over once more?
The thirties saw a downturn in the fortunes of the Fleetwood fishing community. In 1929 there was almost 200 vessels sailing from it, a number that contracted to 112 and the number of owners operating from the port had fallen from 60 to 21. Despite the lean years of the depression, two notable companies moved to Fleetwood in the early thirties one, the Iago Steam Trawler Company Ltd., was founded by Commander E.D.W.Lawford after being invalided out of the Royal Navy. The first vessel owned by this company was the Iago, from which the company took its name. The Hewitt Fishing Co. was another new firm to see the benefits offered by Fleetwood. The oldest established fishing company in England Hewitts, at one time, had as many as 200 sailing smacks working the East Coast grounds. One intriguing fact that I came across while reading a book on the history of the lifeboat service, involved an east coast fleet of smacks which fished under a short blue flag and were known, not unsurprisingly, as the ‘Short Blues’. The funnel emblem of Hewitts was a short blue flag and I am left wondering whether or not this was the same company. More than likely it was. It was this fact that gave me the first clue towards solving a mystery that had puzzled me for a long time. My mother’s uncle, Billy Wilson, owned one of these little boats prior to his death from a stroke. At one time he wanted me to crew for him but my parents, mindful of the fact that prawning was a casual and not a full time occupation, were against it. The name of the boat was the Short Blue, an odd name and I always wondered how it came by such a name but, perhaps, it stemmed from the Hewitt fleet.
The MacFisheries fleet of ‘Northern’ trawlers arrived. They were owned by MacLine Ltd, London (Leverhulme Ltd) and managed by Edward D. W. Lawford. Built in German shipyards these boats were fast, modern and well liked by the men who worked them. For some years fishing carried on as normal. Fleets were built up and business boomed, and then the madness began all over again. With the advent of the second world war Fleetwood trawlers were, once more, called upon to act in the role of escorts, patrol vessels and minesweeper, as they had been in the previous conflict and, almost immediately, two of Marr’s boats fell victim to submarine attack. The Lord Minto and the Arlita were sunk by gunfire after their crews had been transferred to a third vessel, the Nancy Hague.
Some seventeen vessels were requisitioned by the Admiralty for naval use and, in the first few months of the war, seven of the fleet that had been left fishing had been lost. This was a total that rose to seventeen and included the Oona Hall, run down in thick fog by an armed French Auxiliary Cruiser, in the Irish Sea. Trawlers from the Fleetwood fleet were called upon to assist in the evacuation of Dunkirk, rescuing troops from the French beaches while under almost constant attack by enemy aircraft. One of the vessels was the Evelyn Rose, a 138ft. trawler of some 327 gross tons and under the command of Arthur Lewis who would, eventually, became the manager for the Boston Deep-Sea Fisheries Fleetwood operation. Returning from a trip to the fishing grounds, the Evelyn Rose was quickly landed and re-provisioned and then sent south the next day. Arthur Lewis managed to rescue 317 soldiers and transport them to Ramsgate, after being guided into the beach by patrol vessels – the men being ferried or swimming out to the trawler – despite the vessel taking some damage from shells and bombs landing close aboard. Not content with this feat, Arthur returned to Dunkirk harbour where he managed to embark some 400 of the British, French, and North African troops that were fighting a desperate rearguard action. On the voyage back to England, 37 of the passengers were wounded by enemy aircraft fire and the vessel had to be beached at Ramsgate to allow the wounded to be taken off. The Evelyn Rose was the last vessel to leave Dunkirk harbour and Arthur Lewis received a well-deserved O.B.E. for the part that he had played. After the war the Evelyn Rose returned to fishing and worked until 1954 when, on the 31st. of December, she went down off the island of Mull. Arthur Lewis was not on board, illness had taken its toll of him shortly after Dunkirk and he had been forced to come ashore.
My father recounted a curious tale from this period. Serving in the army he was one of the soldiers taken off the French beaches. Because of the congestion on the Dunkirk Beach he and a companion headed further up the coast. They came across a small port with a stone quay alongside of which lay a Fleetwood trawler, the Cloughton Wyke. Oblivious of the shells whistling overhead the crew was lined up in and excited bunch on the forecastle head. Wagering each other packets of cigarettes they were trying to ring the church bell with shots from .303 rifles. Being from Fleetwood it is not really surprising that Dad was known to some of them and they were only too happy to take him off and return him home.
Three of the Marr fleet also served with distinction at Dunkirk, the Jacinta, Edwina and Velia. With the cessation of hostilities in 1945, some of the Admiralty requisitioned boats were returned to their trade. Others were still needed, however, to carry out the dangerous task of clearing the extensive minefields left, both Allied and German, so that the sea lanes could be opened to the desperately needed commercial traffic. Designed to tow a heavy trawl in the worst of conditions, trawlers made ideal minesweepers and several of them continued in this work for a long time after the end of the war.
The Boston Deep-Sea Fisheries Co. was not the only one to see Fleetwood as an ideal operating base. J.Marr, another large company had already played a major part in the development of the port. After the war these companies undertook a period of rapid expansion. Iago, who had seen all twelve of their trawlers go off to war, The Hewitt Fishing Co., Wyre Trawlers – whose Lord Lloyd would be the last coal burning steam trawler to sail from the port – all began a program of modernisation of their fleets. It was after the war that it was realised that the era of the coal fired trawler was almost at an end. Oil fuel was not only cheaper but it also was much easier and cleaner to handle and gave more power than coal.
The first oil-fired boat ordered by the Marr Company was the Southella, sailing out of Hull and built in 1945 by Cook, Welton and Gemmell. Six other boats two of which, the Marinda and Navena, were to strengthen the Fleetwood fleet soon followed her. The Boston Deep Sea Fishing Co., in a co-operative venture with the Marr company, were instrumental in incorporating the first oil fired vessels ever built for the British fishing fleet, eventually extending the co-operation to ordering the first of the diesel motor trawlers to be built.
As the fifties came around, they ushered in a period of change unlike any that the industry had seen. The more modern oil fired steam trawlers that were much cheaper to run, as fuel oil was extremely cheap at that time, were rapidly replacing the older coal fired boats. Some of the finest and most elegant steam trawlers ever designed came into service during this period. The zenith of these fine vessels was reached with the last of the steam powered boats just prior to them being ousted by the more economical diesel boats that started to enter the service, Low slung and with graceful, flowing lines, the last of the oil burners had an aggressive and purposeful buccaneering air about them. The older vessels such as Royal Marine, Imperialist, Kingston Diamond, Westella, Kirkella and vessels of this ilk all achieved a curious elegance out of all proportion to their intended purpose. With their raking stems and long forecastles, low midships sections and swept back funnels, all features that complemented each other, the vessels were lent an air of purpose.
The advent of the diesel boats, however, presented the opportunity to refine the design of the trawler even further. But a lot of work and research was required to improve the performance of the diesel engine as it lacked power and torque. Tall funnels were no longer needed to carry the smoke clear of the wheelhouse, diesel fuel produced much less smoke than fuel oil, so the funnel became an integral part of the bridge superstructure. The mizzenmast, so long a feature of boat decks disappeared, as davits appeared to handle the lifeboats. No longer was a mizzen staysail required to help keep the vessel head to wind. Eventually, even the fishing gear along one side was sacrificed and the space saved was utilised as living accommodation. The basic outline of the trawler had, however, remained static and would do so until the advent of the stern trawler. Undoubtedly, the area that had the most impact was in the field of electronics. These were improving by leaps and bounds. Radar was making an appearance and the honour of being the first company to fit it to Fleetwood boats went to Iago when they equipped the Red Rose and Red Hackle with it. Navigational improvements such as Loran allowed more accurate pinpointing of position to take advantage of the fish finding sonar that could locate a shoal of fish and also indicate their depth.
Once the diesel powered motor trawlers had become generally accepted, the pace quickened. At first, they worked alongside the oil burners but soon began to replace them as the oil burners had ousted the coal-fired boats. A series of international crises saw the price of fuel oil rise to a point where the boats were struggling to make a living. The relative economy offered by diesel sounded the death knell for the oil burners. Diesel powered motor trawlers were the obvious road ahead. As the Margaret Wicks, registered as FD 265, and built for Clifton Steam Trawlers, had been the first oil fired steam trawler to be built for a Fleetwood company, so the Samuel Hewitt, built at Beverley in 1965, saw out the oil fired era by being the last of Fleetwood’s oil burners to go to the breaker’s yard in 1968, at the young age of 12 years. Thereafter, the diesel engined side trawlers – or sidewinders, as they were known – became the mainstay of the industry, at least until the advent of the stern trawler. The last sidewinder ordered for Fleetwood was the Boston Kestrel, built in the yard of Cook, Welton and Gemmell of Beverley, in 1966. The Kestrel was just one of a long line of fine trawlers to be built by that yard and she met her untimely end at the hands of the breaker in 1993.
Stern trawlers were a totally different breed to anything that had gone before and represented a radical change in design. Fleetwood’s first stern trawler – or stern dragger – was the Criscilla. At 952 gross tons she was the largest vessel sailing from the port and was one of Marr’s large fleet. She was unique inasmuch as she had been designed with the dimensions of the lockpits in mind, and to enable her to take best advantage of the unloading facilities offered by the port. The side fishing boats had their main superstructure situated amidships and running aft. This allowed the foredeck to be open for the crew to work on. The low slung rail made the job of getting the nets, with the heavy bobbins and otter boards attached, over the rail when hauling, relatively easy. It also meant that the crew was fully exposed to everything that the elements could throw at them.
Stern fishers abandoned the low foredeck and were built up with accommodation forward. The net was deployed from a trawl deck aft, down a chute over the stern. The fish caught was then tipped down a hatch onto the fish deck where it could be cleaned and processed. The offal was then discharged by chute over the side. The high bulwarks surrounding the stern trawler’s fish deck offered a degree of shelter and safety to the crew that the sidewinders couldn’t. A large wave hitting the boat from the beam would be less likely to take a man over the side, as had happened to my uncle, Peter, while fishing in off Iceland in the Boston Phantom. He was one of the lucky ones; another wave washed him back aboard. It finished his career, however, as he was never free of the effects of a knee injury that he sustained. But the stern trawlers came too late. By 1975 things were really deteriorating for the industry and for Fleetwood especially, although it should be realised that the town’s problems really started as far back as the sixties.
Isolated at the end of a peninsula, Fleetwood was a dead end. It was not on the road to anywhere else and thus got no casual, passing trade. It relied on the railways for its very existence, in the first place, and for much of its prosperity. In 1966 the infamous Dr. Beeching swung his equally infamous axe and severed the town’s main artery. Both Fleetwood and Wyre dock station vanished along with the goods and passenger services that had helped to sustain the town. Overnight, it seemed the very thing that had made the building of the town possible in the first place, the railway, had vanished along with the hopes and the aspirations of those who had relied upon it for their livelihood. The loss of the rail link did not just mean unemployment for those that worked on it, however, there was a more sinister, knock-on effect. With the loss of its railway the town began to wither. Most of the fish landed and sold at the fish dock was shipped out of town by rail with the fish trains being a regular feature throughout the day. Trains had also brought thousands of visitors from the inland towns, as had been envisaged by Peter Hesketh Fleetwood. In 1969, the last of the big side trawlers ordered for the Boston fleet sailing from Fleetwood – the Boston Kestrel – slipped quietly out of port to sail to her new home, at Grimsby. Because of already existing doubts over the future of the town and the fishing industry in general, this caused much panic and widespread speculation that Boston was leaving the town for good, a fact that the company’s local manager, Arthur Lewis, was at great pains to deny. What he did confirm, however, was that the era of the distant water side fishing trawler was at an end. The way forward – and the only chance for fishing companies to survive – lay with the stern trawler and its capability to range much further afield. They could also stay a sea for greater periods thereby making them more economical to operate.
But a series of problems was building up that the industry would not be able to weather. Not only was fish becoming noticeably scarcer but also by the 70s a series of price hikes in the cost of fuel oil made the oil burners uneconomical to operate. The cost of fuel oil rose to £44 per ton with the average trawler burning around twelve tons a day. Many a fine boat met a premature fate in the breaker’s yard as owners, seeking economies, switched to motor trawlers that weren’t as fuel hungry, running on the cheaper diesel. By 1959 the fleet of J.H.Marr, at Fleetwood, would be the first at the port to consist solely of diesel engined motor trawlers. Foreign governments, beginning a systematic policy of extending national waters under the guise of conserving fish stocks had a severe impact on fishing and British boats found themselves excluded from many of their traditional grounds.
Iceland’s limits had, previously, been three miles measured from the low water mark. In 1952 they had extended this to four miles, a distance measured from the headlands. Under the conservation pretext the Icelandic Government, claimed (and, perhaps, with some justification) that modern fishing methods involving the increasingly sophisticated fish finding electronics were decimating the stocks of fish in their coastal waters. Britain refused to recognise the new limit, which encompassed in excess of 4,000 square miles of excellent fishing grounds, but a compromise was, eventually, reached. British boats would not fish the disputed area whilst the British Government would not have to recognise the Icelandic claim. This problem could, perhaps, have been overcome by implementing conservation measures that were under consideration at the time. Instead, the Icelandic government fired the opening shots of what became known as the first of a series of cod wars. They extended their national limits, in June 1958, to twelve miles thereby further enclosing grounds that had been traditionally fished by British trawlers. Ones that they had been instrumental in developing.
Despite a rather weak protest from the British Government, the limits stayed although the distant water fishermen chose to ignore them and risked having gunboats cut their trawls away or inflicting severe fines on those unlucky enough to be caught and arrested. There was a political angle to all this. Iceland, at the height of the cold war, had a considerable U.N. presence, including American bases on their territory. Because their efforts to prevent fishing within their waters were to no avail and their unilaterally declared exclusion zone seemed doomed to failure, the Icelandic’s threatened to expel all U.N. personnel and close down all the foreign bases. The threat against bases with such strategic importance carried a good deal of weight and the Americans rapidly applied pressure against a weak British Government, which quickly capitulated. By 1972, and with the twelve mile victory still fresh in their minds, The Icelandic’s extended the limits to fifty miles and, despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice, they once again began harassing British trawlers with their gunboats thereby initiating phase 2 of the cod wars. Despite a token presence by the Royal Navy, many trawlers had their trawls cut away by the gunboats. In 1974, the British Government once more sold out the fishermen by capitulating to the same threats and recognising the new limits in exchange for 139 boats being allowed to take a pitiful annual catch of 139,000 tons, for a two year agreement. During 1975, however, the situation became ludicrous when the limits were extended yet again, this time to two hundred miles. In spite of this and despite the scant protection afforded them by the Royal Navy, trawlers continued to fish within the two hundred-mile exclusion zone in the third of the cod wars. No one seems to have given much thought to the threats made by the Icelandic Government to remove all foreign bases from their soil. As Iceland was in such strategically important position it would have been one of the first targets for the Russian military machine. Should the cold war have exploded out of rhetoric and into action, the Icelandic’s would have had the most to lose. It is unlikely, given this line of reasoning, that any personnel other that a token number, would have been expelled.
Other countries, notably Canada, Norway, and Russia, then began to extend their limits further and the available grounds for fishing became almost negligible. The writing was on the wall for the fishing industry and many well known companies left the industry, companies whose industrial heritage had stretched back to the sailing smacks, companies whose names were a bye word in their home ports. The problems that beset Fleetwood were felt all over the country. At 0400 hours on 31/11/75, the last trawler ever to sail from St Andrew’s Dock, Hull, the Arctic Raider, slipped her moorings and set out on her last voyage, to Spitzbergen, leaving behind her a dock that was empty of trawlers for the first time in 92 years. It was a period of unrelieved doom for the industry nation-wide. By 1978, all of the side fishing distant water fleet sailing from Britain’s biggest fishing port, Hull, was laid up, rusting, waiting for the attention of the breaker.
Not one sidewinder made a trip that year. The only vessels to sail were the stern trawlers who could stay at sea for much longer periods. By the early eighties, and despite the radical changes and desperate restructuring that went on within the operation of their fishing fleets, most companies were finding it increasingly difficult to survive and the era of the distant water deep sea trawler was drawing to a close. British boats were forced to go as far afield as Canada and Argentina in a last ditch attempt to try to earn their upkeep while the fish around our own coasts were plundered by foreign interests making full use of the European Community’s iniquitous quota system. Many of Boston’s vessels – one of the largest fleets in the country – were laid up awaiting their fate. Some met an undignified end in the breaker’s yards while others found a new lease of life as standby vessels for the oil and gas industries.
By 1988 St.Andrew’s Dock itself had disappeared. Slipways, jetties and offices had been bulldozed and the dock filled in. Bowling alleys and fast food outlets now occupy the site where it once was. A sad end to a proud life. On the West Coast, at Fleetwood, the Boston Company, part of the town since 1923, was almost finished. They had, over the years, maintained a constant presence at the port, owning or operating some 84 vessels. Many fine, tough and seaworthy boat passed through their hands in the years that Boston had reigned almost supreme and the company had proved itself to be at the forefront when it came to innovation and design, often being the first to implement newer and safer improvements. Most of their boats were sold or scrapped and some, sadly, lost at sea. Perhaps this fact, more than any other, reflects more accurately the price of fish on the fishmongers slab. The cost in human life.
By the mid eighties there were no more distant water boats operating from Fleetwood and the Boston Deep Sea Fisheries was no more. Hundreds of men who had known nothing for their entire working lives other than the heave of a deck under their feet suddenly found themselves thrown onto the scrapheap of life.
Gone, but never forgotten by the survivors of that pre-EEC period when the British distant water fleet was the envy of the world and the men who sailed in the trawlers were renown for their toughness. Marr, however, did not lay down and die. Instead, they chose to diversify their operations. As the Boston Deep-Sea Fisheries had attempted to make inroads into the Canadian market, so too had Marr entered into co-operative ventures with South Africa and Australia but they had come to nothing. Now they searched for new markets for their stern trawlers to exploit. Five of their vessels were requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1982 and saw service in the Falklands conflict. A timely reminder of other uses that a healthy trawler fleet could be put to. Crewed by the Royal Navy, the five vessels, Cordella, Farnella, Junella, Northella and Pict, went on to give sterling service as minesweepers, as had their company sisters before them in two world wars.
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