Posted: 18th December 2022
Victorian Fishing Disasters
As part of the Ferens Art Gallery winter exhibition, Queen Victoria and Hull, Hull and District Local History Research Group have been researching Victorian Hull. This blog is the latest in a series revealing the hidden stories of Victorian Hull.
Many will recall when 59 Hull fishermen lost their lives in a three week period during January and February 1968. The St. Romanus with a crew of 20 was lost off the coast of Norway early in January, to be followed by the Kinston Peridot which sank off Iceland on January 26, also with a crew of 20. Finally, the Ross Cleveland went down off Iceland on February 5 with only one survivor from her crew of 19. Experienced fishermen and boys as young as 15 years of age were lost. Many people will remember those days when the whole city was in mourning for the brave men during those tragic days.
And yet, as appalling as these losses were 54 years ago, there have been worse disasters to hit Hull and it is perhaps worth looking back in time to recall just two such little known tragedies of well over 100 years ago. Records show that in 1880 Hull has 420 registered trawlers, all of them sail powered and in those days called fishing smacks. These sailing vessels were usually of between 50 and 80 tons in weight, stayed at sea in all weathers and had a crew of 5 or 6 men. The vessels were very good sailing smacks, heavily built, extremely strong and very fast. Many were fitted with an air-tight compartment in the hold to carry up to 4 tons of ice. The use of ice enabled the vessel to remain at sea longer with the ice preserving the quality of the fish caught. The boats were normally manned by a skipper, first fisherman, second fisherman, deckhand and cabin boy, who also acted as a cook. Sometimes an apprentice was carried.
What were such boats like to and live in during the weeks spent at sea in those days? I can say without hesitation that the conditions would horrify present day health and safety officials, The conditions on board were extremely primitive and the entire crew of 5 or 6 had to live, eat and sleep in a single cabin, usually about 10 feet wide and from 12 to 17 feet long, in the cabin would be a cooking strove, a small pantry and wooden shelving for beds. It was often wet or flooded for weeks on end and hot meals would be impossible to prepare during rough weather. A wooden ladder led from the deck to the cabin and this was the only access. The only natural light was from a small sky-light which was also used as ventilation if the weather permitted. In bad weather it was battened down making the cabin dark and stuffy. The coal-fired stove provided heating and drying facilities as well as for the cooking of meals. The fumes of tobacco smoke, the smell of cooking and damp clothing, combined with the sulphurous stove would have created a stifling atmosphere of 70-80 degrees. Weather permitting, the crew ate well with two hot meals a day, usually a fish and potato fry-up in the morning and salt meat in the evening. Otherwise it was the staple diet of ships biscuits. Sanitary conditions on board did not exist, fishermen never changed their clothes and rarely washed.
Such were the working condition when some of the Hull fleet were out in the North Sea in the early days of March 1883, the year that the first steam trawler was built in Hull. On March 6 a sudden and severe storm, later referred to as ‘the great storm’, broke upon the hundreds of British fishing vessels in the Dogger Bank area. All in all some 250 men were lost along with 43 fishing smacks, while countless others returned to their ports in severely damaged craft to recount terrifying tales. Hull, Grimsby and Scarborough were the worst to suffer with Hull losing 26 smacks plus 180 men and boys. Sixty women were left widowed and over 200 children orphaned. The sheer scale of this disaster, and the plight of the widows and orphans left behind attracted an enormous amount of sympathy for the fishermen’s cause with many ordinary people collecting money for the families. Conversely the parsimony and greed of the trawler owners, not to say the disregard for the loss of life, was shown by the fact that they raised just £900 in relief of the 260 people. This was about half the costs of the price of building a new smack, although many of these owners were former fishermen themselves and had become very rich from the profits from the fishing industry.
Another black day for Hull was on December 22 1894 when 106 men and boys were lost at sea, along with the loss of 6 steam trawlers and 9 smacks. This was a terrible tragedy by any standards. Once again the greed of the trawler owners was shown when they raised a meagre £2400, half of the cost of a new steam trawler, for the dependants of the drowned fishermen. It was again very evident that if the price of fish was cheap so was the lives of the men who caught it.
When I was a young boy in East Hull my widowed mother would send me to the fish shop for a ‘fish and six’ (a fish was four pence and the chips sixpence) for her and myself while my younger brother would have a ‘patty and three’. Nowadays fish and chips for my wife and myself cost about £8. Fish has gone from being a working man’s meal to almost a luxury meal. As the son of a former merchant seaman who was killed on a convoy taking supplies to Russia in 1942 I can appreciate the huge sacrifice made by the Hull fishermen to bring cheap food to our tables. It is estimated that over the years of the Hull fishing industry, just over 6000 men lost their lives so the people of England could eat cheap fish. We have so much to thank them for.
Written by Norman Angell
You can visit the Queen Victoria and Hull exhibition at Ferens Art Gallery from 20 October 2022 until 19 February 2023.
The image is a watercolour of The Pier, Hull, by artist John Menzies Junior. It is a watercolour view of an area of Hull docks with warehouses overlooking an enclosed dock area, behind a pierside in the foreground, with a raised bridge platform behind it and figures walking over the top walkway, with curved supports below. Steamers and ships can be seen on the Humber beyond, with one steamer approaching the side of the pier from the left and a fishing trawler already moored alongside it. Cloudy sky at sunset above the horizon. Signed and dated, bottom right, 1887.