For the most part, the following was taken from a published article of mine, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Mass Deep-Sea British Fishing Industry in Two-Hundred Years’ in the 12th edition of The Family and Local History Handbook:-



Fish have, of course, been an important contribution to people’s diets in these isles as far back as prehistoric times. All the same, it was not until the nineteenth century that various elements combined to produce deep-sea operations on such a large scale to make white fish, fried with chips, so popular as to almost enter the British nation’s psyche!


Until the eighteenth century certainly, the majority of fish taken in Britain had been for subsistence only, whether on a part-time basis, or seasonally. Depending on the species that apparently numbered around twenty, these were caught variously using lines and hooks, traps and nets.


That is not to say that there was not larger-scale fishing though. As far back as the mid-tenth century there was a Scots herring fishery that exported their products to the Netherlands. Being migratory and surface shoaling, these were taken by seine and drift netting all along their annual routes. For instance, in Cardigan Bay, the transit of herring and mackerel immediately followed the autumn harvest period ashore and so, farmers and labourers turned their hands to this gift from the sea at an opportune time. Preserved in salt, these could and were transported considerable distances inland before consumption.


During the mediæval period sea fishing expanded in Europe while freshwater fishing contracted: the latter through overworking and degradation of inland habitats. Also, the Catholic doctrine of meat-free days was clearly an important inducement to sea extraction. And, although probably due to ecological reasons as well as over fishing, there were massive fluctuations in fish stocks of all varieties in the North Sea. From the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, the Dutch were the masters of the deep-sea herring trade, with their busses: especially in Scottish East Coast waters. This not only caused the usual political, diplomatic and military clashes, but also gave rise various Royal schemes to increase the Scottish fisheries. Incidentally, the demise of the Dutch superiority in this industry can be seen in the same terms as in Arctic whaling: as mentioned in an article of mine in the eleventh edition of The Family and Local History Handbook.


With similar environmental problems in western waters some West Countrymen ventured north to Iceland, then west all the way to Newfoundland and Maine as early as the fifteenth century. By the early the eighteenth century, while herring and cod were still caught, dried or barrel-salted and transported across the Atlantic from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, by then they were cargo of merchantmen as part of their mercantile ‘triangular trade’.


Taking an older technique used inshore, with modern more efficiently fore-and-aft rigged vessels, beam trawling in relatively deep sea had also begun in the eighteenth century. In this a net was towed, the mouth being secured open with a heavy wooden beam. Two different ports claim to have invented this, Brixham, in Devon and Barking, in London. Scouring the bottom, species such as plaice, sole, turbot and perhaps most importantly, cod were forced into the nets. Previously, these fish had been difficult to catch by line and because they were so perishable, had been luxuries.


As well as coastal towns London also had a fresh fish market, with Billingsgate’s first charter dated as far back as the ninth century. From a time as yet unidentified by me, Billingsgate had originally been supplied by vessels with wells (to keep the fish alive) from Harwich and Barking. Even with high overland transport costs, the Devonian fishermen had also managed to service the London market, certainly by the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, it was not until the next century that the trawling industry really got going.


The railways largely provided the answer to the internal shipping problems. While trawling took off in other parts of Britain, the North Sea became the focus for this particular part of the industry and with good railway communications, a considerable percentage of Devon’s fishermen moved to Hull and Grimsby from the late 1840s. They then competed with traditional East Coast ports such as Yarmouth (that had also had a herring fleet for centuries) and Scarborough.


As well as taking the expensive species, the deep water trawling also scooped up everything else, including the far more populous and therefore, cheaper stocks such as haddock, plaice and smaller cod. Ashore, fish for the masses was marketed assiduously. Incidentally, all sectors of the industry benefited from this including those operating inshore, getting increased sales of their shellfish for instance. In fact, fish consumption expanded in Britain until the 1930s.


Trawling was not regarded as beneficial by all though. Traditional fishermen saw this as wasteful and destructive of fish stocks. Inevitably, the trawlermen decried this, maintaining that they were not a threat and Her Majesty’s Government agreed, sweeping away past restrictions in an Act of 1868. That said, foreign boats were banned from British coastal waters, through a three-mile limit.


Although experiments with paddle-tugs towing trawls were conducted in the 1870s, it was not until the development of the triple-expansion engine in the 1880s that steam trawlers, made their appearance. With a much enlarged range and greater towing power when compared with the sailing smacks, the steam trawlers were far more efficient fish catchers. Not insignificantly, this coincided with signs of over fishing. Although the steam trawlers allowed for new grounds to be opened up in time, fleeting only exacerbated the problems in the existing North Sea grounds. Begun in the late 1870s, or early 1880s, entire sailing fleets worked the more accessible areas for periods up to eight weeks, employing fast steam cutters to get the fresh fish to market regularly. Incidentally, it was a Barking company, Hewett’s, which had first introduced steam cutters in 1864.


During the last two decades of the nineteenth century there was increasing concern from the industry over falling catches. Not only were there national conferences with the aim of seeking regulation over conservation and in limiting foreign competition, a Royal Commission on trawling sat in 1883. While much of the trawling community had reversed its earlier opinion on man’s ability to harm fish stocks, the findings of this Commission were lukewarm, in acknowledging the possibility of this within coastal waters at least. As most trawling was conducted outside territorial waters, it was not seen as the government’s responsibility though. Meanwhile, the smacks continued their intensive extraction.


In 1895 the introduction of otter trawls meant even more efficient working by the steam-powered boats. In the previous five years Hull and particularly Grimsby steam-trawlers had worked among places as far north as the Faeroes and Iceland. At the very edge of their operational range, seasons were short, returns were limited and the fish not all that fresh: with little space for ice, since most was taken up with coal. This resulted in the building of larger, more powerful craft suitable for the northern waters. 


Steam trawlers required much more capital in building and running than had traditionally been the case with smacks that had very often been owned by their skippers. Therefore, joint stock limited liability companies utilising outside money met these needs. Hull and Grimsby specialised in the long-range Icelandic grounds; while other ports such as Aberdeen, North Shields and Fleetwood, did not venture quite so far. The ports that prospered were those that could provide the requisite engineering and coaling back up, those without ambling along with the old sailing smacks.


As could be predicted there was friction with the Icelanders. In the 1880s they sought to keep the foreigners out of four-mile territorial waters by law: failing. A colony of Denmark, in 1894 this law was strengthened unilaterally by the Icelanders, but in doing so created three-way political strains. Eventually, the Anglo-Danish Territorial Waters Treaty was negotiated in 1901. Saliently, the Icelanders lost out and the British had unfettered access of Icelandic waters except within a three-mile limit: with the Danish Navy enforcing this.


In the Edwardian era grounds even further were explored in the quest to provide ever larger tonnages of white fish for frying. As well as returning to Newfoundland, the Barents Sea was at least reached in 1905.


The Great War (1914-19) disrupted this process badly. Apart from many hundreds of craft and their crews taken up for the Auxiliary Patrol and Minesweeping Service, large areas around the British Isles and in the North Sea were put out of bounds, although some fishing in the north continued.


With this brief, if unplanned respite for breeding, following the Armistice there was an eighteen month boom period in the North Sea. Even so, once again catches and prices began to decline. Hull, however, increased its landings, concentrating on the insatiable frying market. Even if Icelandic waters remained the main haunts of the large steam-trawlers, this required even longer voyages from the late 1920s. New grounds off the Lofotens, Bear Island, Spitzbergen and even Novaya Zemlya in Soviet Russia at far end of the Barents Sea came into use. Also, although this had already begun prior to the war, Hull was also the first port to go into large-scale, modern filleting operations. These not only added value to the products; and saved on transport costs; fish-meal factories used the by-products for further profits.


Saturation of the market had to come at some stage and for the fish-frying business this was in the early 1930s. Supply at last outstripped demand, not helped by the Great Depression that gravely affected the heavily industrialised areas. By this time business had been concentrated into large companies and Hull’s collective answer was to get rid of her last North Sea craft in 1936 and build, ever-larger boats that were capable in virtually all Arctic weathers. Meanwhile, times were poor for all other ports and the herring trade was in a state of collapse. This decade also saw the first British legislation limiting catches and introducing quotas.


If the First World War had been hazardous to fishing craft, through mines, surface warships, submarines and occasional if not spectacularly successful air attack, the Second World War (1939-45) was far worse. Aircraft especially had evolved much in the interwar period. But, once again fishing craft were required for the war effort. Initially as the Royal Naval Reserve Patrol Service, with the influx of non-fishing personnel ‘Reserve’ was dropped from its title. Generally, the R.N.P.S was known as ‘Harry Tate’s Navy’.


Post war, until the 1950s there was again expansion, but with general contraction ever since. This has partly been through European countries gaining control over their own Exclusive Economic Zones, an invention of the United Nations. The three so-called ‘Cod Wars’ between 1958 and 1976 whereby Britain’s Royal Navy unsuccessfully disputed Iceland’s zone can be seen in this light. These E.E.Z.s have not prevented over-fishing though and falling stocks have brought about great hand-wringing. The European Economic Community introduced a Common Fisheries Policy through the Treaty of Rome in 1967, with schemes of paying off fishing fleets and imposing quotas. That the quota system is basically flawed in conception is not a topic for this article; or indeed changing palates for other types of fish, such as tuna...



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