Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy

10/9/2004

SIGN-ON FOR REAL

In as much as my original intention started out simply to record details of the boats which linked my family connection to fishing, it became somewhat bogged down with the innumerable changes of vessel Name(s), Ports, Owners and eventual demise of these craft it became quite obvious that the cold and indifferent list of particulars forming part of this work would make rather fatuous reading and could not be logically presented without associating some informational knowledge regarding the men who made these trawlers a reality, the crew, shore support staff and so many others dependant and depending on the success of such ventures which like most things progressed from relatively small beginnings to become a major business in the national economy.

Therefore my story spread further a field to include a little bit of insight to the broad outline of what goes on behind the scenes – when someone goes into a fishmonger to buy a pound of nice fresh fish fillet, do they ever imagine the real effort or cost expended to get it there in the first place!.

Subsequently, before memories became dimmed by the passage of time, it seemed right to jot down what I saw of the part played by steam fishermen during one of the peaks of the industrial graph, prior to its demise, through being replaced by a modern diesel powered fleet. I do not claim that this narrative provides a serious contribution to social history surrounding the fishing industry although in many respects the domestic side of these men does come through in so far as the long periods of time they spent away from home and their families. In describing the time engaged fishing and being associated with the industry I have kept as close as possible to those matters with which I was involved personally in a hands-on situation, and many aspects related though family ownership of many steam trawlers, and whilst my main task set out to record and concentrate upon the boats rather than the crews who sailed in them, it is impossible to mention one and not the other, equally the many support staff, without their continued services, all activity would soon have come to a halt.

Sea fishing has been pursued since biblical times, and who knows for how long before, this narrative has moved on in time to cover a period circa 1870 to 1970, and is primarily concerned with steam trawlers although to keep the story in perspective other aspects of the fishing industry have been
incorporated in a simplified way, space limitations dictate a certain amount of restraint detailing any particular department.

It is unlikely that many readers can lay claim to have sailed and worked with a somewhat ageing fleet of – mostly – coal burning steam trawlers, during the immediate post war years of the 1940’s (my old Granddad used to say during the war, ‘it might not be very pleasant to be engaged in mine sweeping but it does give the fish a chance to grow), he, being an ex trawler skipper and owner perhaps did have a somewhat biased interest.

Over more years than I care to remember one of my personal pursuits has been to research and gather, often unwittingly, much and such information about the subject which has mentally driven me to learn more, while researching I referred, consulted and made use of a wide range of books, newspapers and other publications as well as personal recollections of many friends, relatives and colleagues who had sailed in these vessels or had been directly associated in a support capacity. Very many years ago I set out to trace the details of an old steam trawler at one time owned by my grandfather, it was depicted as a painting on, of all things, a round wooden bread board, given to me because I liked it, the outside edge had been carved to represent a piece of rope, I regret now in not having had the fore-sight to keep such a gem, the boat had a fore-sail and mainsail, an open bridge, with some further research I managed to trace the history of this steam trawler which had originated from Hull and became the Granton registered Blue Bell, GN223/96, but the knowledge how to go about such a task resulted in chasing my own tail.. My own background was very salt water orientated, from both parental sides, with an introduction to ships and boats began way back before I can barely remember, what with most male relatives sailing as Skippers, Masters, Mates and Pilots, I was almost spoiled for choice in which branch of seafaring to pursue. The circumstances at that time decreed I opted for the Merchant Navy, so after the requisite pre-sea training period at the Leith Nautical College, followed with shipboard life, courtesy of the Board of Trade, Shipping Pool and an assortment of shipping companies: The war ended and sea trade struggled to forge ahead, albeit subject to restrictive controls and severe rationing also experienced by the civilian population. Not a great amount of financial progress was enjoyed, expected or indeed encouraged towards the lower minions of merchant marine deck officer grades, war risk bonus cut back, overtime grudgingly and rarely sanctioned, general conditions quite abysmal.

A few days leave at home led to a meeting up with some chums who had returned from various sectors of war-time activities, many of them having fallen prey to the post war revived and thriving fishing industry, deep sea trawling in particular, talk of sky high earnings were not to be ignored (says I jingling a pocketful of loose change – to their crisp rustle of bank notes). What were the odds that I was prompted to drop a few words to Uncles, ah hem, any chance of a berth!………………before I had any opportunity to retract I was virtually ‘signed on’, they were not concerned about the lack of fishing experience but delighted to acquire a qualified and experienced watch keeper, never mind bringing a sextant, just keep your gutting knife sharp. Some of the old steam cargo ships were downright diabolical but when compared to the accommodation of a 1916 built steam trawler, which incidentally was a whole world away ahead of some earlier trawlers I had the dubious privilege of sailing in, pronto my sea life changed dramatically and swiftly – (having experienced pre-war trawler trips as an enthusiastic school boy passenger with a nice comfy berth in the skippers cabin below the wheelhouse) – resulting in being brought up with a round turn.

Prior to sailing on the appointed morning having reported on board with my sea-bag, the ships husband come runner promptly whisked me away (in a lovely car, no less) to the local ship chandler, at that time Patersons in Newhaven Main Street, supplier of each and every item for ‘johnny newcomers’, to be kitted out with rubber thigh length boots, yellow water proof smock and sou’wester, the staccato voice of the zealous shop assistant perched at the top of a lofty ladder – all the items we wanted were hanging from the ceiling – called out (having seen it all, done it all, knew it all) one pair thigh, pronounced ’fi lenf’ rubber boots, white, large yellow oilly an’ a yeller sou’wester, best ter get yellow cos the black one’s don’t show up, besides we ain’t not got none!, after that you’re on your own lad. All beautiful non-utility gear [utility being the standard war time government issue rubbish everyone had to suffer even after hostilities ceased] no sonny, you don’t pay now, the company looks after t’bill, great, thinks I cept when it came to first wage settlement, said items were somewhat hidden amongst ‘crew disbursements, never did find out how much I had been taken for – ah those care free days of youth (stupid boy).

The practical fishing aspect of trawling has been written about in great detail elsewhere, my own immediate impression of life afloat on a trawler was akin to thinking it was very simple and relatively straight forward whilst on the run towards the Faeroe Islands, or Iceland, for example, almost boring in so far as whoever was on the regular four hour steaming watches had very little to do apart from a turn (trick) at steering, keeping a look-out and consuming lots of tea, no chart work to attend to – the skipper did all his own navigating and only consulted the Mate if there was dense fog or other similar hazard – such was routine until the rugged outline of the mountainous land gradually came into view, then smoke trails began to appear from other trawlers obviously fishing in the same area, the engine having been stopped and all hands, except the engineers and cook, were mustered at the various stations on deck to perform their own allotted tasks, every man was dependant on each other to blend into a team, very few words were needed or indeed spoken, the fireman (who was effectively the third engineer) had the responsibility of operating the big steam winch, the deck hands busy untying the net from its stowed position along the inside of the bulwark plating, reeving the steel warps from the winch drums round various deck rollers and guides to link up through the gallows with the big steel shod thick wooden Otter boards, or doors, which keep the mouth of the net open whilst it is dragged along the bottom, soon after everything is ready and the Mate is satisfied all is well he indicates this to the skipper, usually impatient to get the gear over as soon as possible, with the wind on the starboard side of the vessel, to blow it off the trawl, the entire net is put over the side and the ship moves ahead in a circular motion, during which time the doors are lowered into the water until they reach the required depth, wires secured and winch brakes applied, for the next three to four hours the trawler will tow the net over the ground, during which time the deck crew will eat or sleep or be on watch until it is time to haul the net in.

At the time when all is ready to haul in the net the vessel is carefully positioned with the wind slightly abaft the beam so that when the towing wires are suddenly released from the securing block the entire weight of the trawl will bring the ship broadside to the wind and thereby blow the trawler away from the gear and prevent the net being caught up in the propeller. All hands will have arrived at their respective posts by the time the big steam winch will have wound in a great length of the warps, the doors are carefully brought up to the head of the gallows, firmly secured with a massive solid link chain, which allows the net to be released in order to pull it on board by hand, all hands line the rail and pull in unison with the down roll of the ship, on the up roll everyone lays on the net over the bulwark rail, which can be quite dangerous, eventually the cod end may come into view, depending upon how much fish it contains, the sooner it is seen the greater the quantity of fish, with all the air within each fish it acts like a huge balloon, much to the delight of all the observers, with an average size of bag the cod end is quickly brought alongside, a stout rope becket is passed round the outside of the net and hooked onto a thick wire leading up to the fore mast head, the wire wrapped round the winch barrel and lifted clear of the water, in the event of a large amount of fish being caught the process of lifting the entire catch may take more than one lift, as each full cod end is swung on board over the fish ponds the Mate or Second fisherman has to reach under the bag of fish, cascading with water, to release the special knot securing the net, once broken free the fish pour out, if another lot has to be picked up the same routine is gone through, otherwise the cod end is re-tied in readiness to start the whole cycle of fishing again.

Interlude………………’Tea – without Sympathy’

Unprepared aspects of daily life on deck whilst fishing, at least it did not happen in the dark.

During a spell of very heavy fishing, and there were many, when every haul, on average this meant bringing the net in after 2 to 3 hours towing, yielded bigger and better bags of prime fish, some of the deck crew would openly hope and pray for a small catch to offer a bit of rest, or even the unspoken hope of having a ripped net to repair, anything in fact to give some respite from the endless gutting sessions, with more and more fish accumulating in the ponds I was directed to help the Mate clear a stubborn cod-end knot [this being specially designed to hold back a vast weight of fish at the end of the trawl net – though, (theoretically) could release tons of fish with a quick tug on the correct rope end – aye aye shouts I, in true nautical fashion and jumped into the knee deep pond of fish, when, wowee – a searing sharp, nay hot pain in my right foot, just at the base of my big toe, made me retract my right foot double quick from the deckful of fish (at the same time an irate voice from under the swinging cod-end is bawling at me to hurry up cos a couple o’ ton of cod is pressin’ on is’ left lug ole, as I endeavoured to lift leg – still with excruciating pain, lo and behold what comes into view but a gi-normous Angler fish (Monkfish), a real corker – to look at it is all mouth – with his huge jaws firmly wrapped round said boot (a spontaneous chorus from the pond wags say you’ll never get im` to let go, try and tickle his belly, and so on, blow that for a caper say I and quickly severed the huge ugly head with rows of needle sharp teeth from body with a large razor sharp carving knife, but too late, the damage had been irretrievable been done, to boot not fish – ever tried to repair a serrated punctured thick sea-boot, at sea, no way, with the Mate threatening all sorts of retribution if someone did not get his head disentangled from a netful of wriggling fish, there is not any chance of getting the least form of sympathy from anyone in the fish pond laughing their head off (except the poor Mate), other than a chorus of ‘go and have nice mug of tea’, compensation !, don’t make me laugh, quote, ‘yer should ave known such a thing was likely to happen; very cold, soaking wet foot rest for of trip…………..end of story.

As soon as the trawl has been ‘shot’, everything on deck squared up, the gutting is started, if a large amount of fish has to be dealt with it is an arduous back breaking job, the basic essential being a razor sharp knife and knowledge of how to slice open a fish on the underside and extract the gut, in one swift movement, from gill to vent in the case of round fish – cod, haddock, whiting etc; with flat fish – sole, plaice being more oblique. The Mate being responsible for the proper stowage of fish in the hold had to work fairly hard in packing the various species and sizes in layers of crushed ice on shelves which were built up as the catch increased, or if the system used 8 stone boxes, when stowage in the hold fell behind the amount of gutted fish being sent below an extra man was sent to give the Mate assistance, in spite of working in the ice laden chill atmosphere of the fish room it was a job to work up a real sweat: on deck the task of grading, gutting and washing the catch continued relentlessly, often in freezing conditions with sea spray being whipped over the fore-deck with monotonous regularity, the second fisherman or bosun was generally in charge of the fish pond although not much supervision was required as everyone knew what was required and got on with the job, the sooner the catch was put below, with all the rubbish thrown overboard – to be eagerly pounced upon by all the gulls, gannets and other birds which perpetually accompanied each and every boat whilst fishing – the entire fore-deck area thoroughly hosed clean of any remaining offal and made ready for the next catch to be dealt with, a routine that continued throughout twenty four hours for the whole trip, unless through the net being badly torn, had to be repaired, again a very unpleasant chore when carried out in adverse weather conditions, in extreme cases when a wire warp broke, bearing in mind these wires are thick as a mans fore-arm, whilst towing the trawl, it became a very long tiresome job to retrieve the net which was trailing a long way behind on a single length, once this had been brought back onto the winch drum and the Otter board secured the next mammoth bit of recovery was to manhandle the net and heavy ground rope, by which time had been further torn, the broken wire end once back on board was usually tied together with a simple but very effective ‘sheet bend’, very easy to do on a piece of pliable rope, though with two ragged unravelled ends of springy steel it could only be carried out with the aid of the steam winch, once the knot was drawn tight and the loose strands secured by whipping it be came functional again although most skippers would undertake such a make-do-and-mend repair, particularly if they were on to some fish, they did not like it as the warps could not be set with even lengths and thereby upset the overall efficiency of the net, with normal wear and tear trawl wires would stretch over a period of time and had to be re-newed.

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