Apart from the usual not inconsiderable risks and dangers inherent in running a fishing operation in all weathers and conditions, there was another danger to be challenged by the crews in the North Sea which was not to do with the elements. During the 1850’s enterprising Dutch merchants traded among the fleets, selling tobacco and grog. However, these honest traders were steadily driven out and replaced by unscrupulous traders known as copers, who traded from “devil ships”. The copers became a real menace among the fleets and a coper’s vessel has been thus described: “She is a floating public – house, and cruising with the fleets, brings ruin and misery with her. It would scarce be an exaggeration to say that more lives and property were lost through the grog ships than through storm and tempest.”
The copers sold their grog at low prices – gin at 1/-, rum1/6 and brandy 2/- a bottle. Tobacco was less than 1/6 per lb, compared with 4/6 ashore.
Smacksmen went aboard the copers to buy their tobacco, which was quite understandable considering the price difference. Once on board, however, they would be tempted by a glass of drink – the first one was often free so as to tempt them further. The most vile concoction was an aniseed brandy at 2/3d per bottle. The main danger was that the smacks could end up with the crew totally drunk. Apparently, pornographic pictures were also available. An added danger was that the men would sell the smack’s gear to pay for drink. Either way the men were in danger and the owners were losing fishing gear and fishing time. A more personal danger was that some men were sent mad by the liquor, jumped overboard and were lost, and the families ashore were left destitute.
The copers were mostly continental but there were some English copers as well, including two, the Dora and the Angelina, that sailed out of Yarmouth. Having sailed from Yarmouth just like any other trawler they went straight to Nieudiep where they would take on £500 worth of tobacco and grog. Within two months this would have been sold for £1000 and the ship would return to Yarmouth. These English vessels were after a while prevented from copering by the insurance companies refusing to give them cover while copering.
Samuel had many years previously asked the mission for help in fighting the copers but with little success. However, in August 1881 E.J.Mather, accompanied by a Yorkshire vicar, visited the Short Blue Fleet aboard the carrier Supply at Robert’s invitation. He was secretary of the Thames Church Mission, and immediately saw the missionary opportunities within the fleet, particularly as it was summer and the fleet was off the continental coast and the copers were plying their trade with their customary vigour. Mather was also horrified and concerned by the injuries sustained by the fishermen and the lack of medical facilities. Mather’s descriptions of fleeting have already been related.
It was following this trip that Mather was approached by two skippers, Budd and Barnes, and they persuaded him that a mission ship was necessary. Thus Mather was instrumental in starting the Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen in the form that it is known today.
An anonymous loan of £1000 made the purchase of a vessel possible, and the Ensign was selected from the Hewett and Co fleet at Gorleston. She was refitted at Gorleston under the guidance of Harvey Harvey-George, Hewett’s manager at that port. She was fitted with a space in the hold for a missionary and space for worship, and a small dispensary. She sailed to join the fleet on Friday, 28th July 1882, with skipper Budd in command, flying a twenty foot long mission flag from the masthead. On her port bow in large letters was written “Preach the Word”, and on the starboard bow “Heal the Sick”. She carried in addition to her spiritual facilities, medical facilities, books, and woollen items, all donated to the mission.
Initially the smacksmen viewed the whole operation with scepticism, but within a year she had proved her worth as the men discovered that she had her advantages. The medical facilities were immediately appreciated by both smacksmen and owners. The smacksmen had free medical facilities readily available to help their all too frequent injuries, and the owners were pleased because the loss of fishing time due to injury was much reduced. For example, one skipper whose head had been gashed and who had been treated aboard the Ensign would previously have been taken to Yarmouth for treatment and for the smack to ship a new skipper, probably involving the loss of a weeks fishing.
After a year, the board of Hewett and Co wrote to the mission expressing their thanks for the good work done and saying how the men had been revolutionised. The company became an annual subscriber. Other owners who had initially been derogatory now became annual subscribers as they saw that their nets were no longer being sold to the copers in such quantities.
After two years the facilities provided had reduced the profitability of copering considerably. However, the smacksmen still had to go on board the copers for their tobacco. In 1885 the Mission decided to provide tobacco for the men. Initially this was a bureaucratic nightmare because to be competitive with the copers the tobacco had to be sold duty free. Customs in the U.K. would not allow duty free to be sold direct to the fishermen, and so a consignment was sent to Ostend for collection by the Ensign. Further red tape in Belgium meant that the Ensign could not be a fishing boat and take the tobacco. This was solved by sending her fishing gear to London on a steamer and sailing for the fishing grounds with the tobacco as a merchant ship – all fishing vessels carry ships papers as a merchant ship under the Merchant Shipping Act.
The quality of the tobacco was initially poor compared to that of the copers, but this was resolved by the intervention of W.H.Wills, M.P. of the tobacco company W.D. and H.O. Wills. W.H. Wills was a philanthropist and he persuaded the tobacco company to supply the tobacco at a price that enabled the Mission ships to compete not only on quality but also price. The price was vital if the men were to be coaxed away from the copers and onto the Mission ships.
Another hindrance was that one Mission ship was tied up solely trading tobacco and not fishing, but after a while Customs saw that allowing duty free to the fishermen would help reduce smuggling and so changed their policy and allowed bond to be taken direct from England thus allowing the vessel to carry fishing gear again.
The Ensign sailed and fished with the Short Blue Fleet, so as to defray the cost of her upkeep. In 1885 she was lengthened and refitted at Bideford at a cost of £1062 and renamed Thomas Gray. She was then mortgaged to several firms and on 11/9/85 was mortgaged to W.D. and H.O. Wills for £1500.
By the end of 1885, a further four mission smacks were ordered for other fleets fishing the North Sea, and further vessels added after that. The copers were effectively crowded out, and their demise was ensured by the International Convention of 1893 which prohibited the sale of liquor in the North Sea.
The medical facilities were most appreciated and substantially reduced the suffering of the smacksmen and loss of fishing time. Not only were injuries treated, but if a man went sick, he could be looked after on the mission ship, and a crewman sent to his smack to replace him while he was ill. It became customary after trunking to send the boat down to the Mission ship with any injured crewmen. At first, the skippers of the mission ships were trained in first aid, but in time the vessels carried a fully qualified doctor or surgeon.
The last Mission smack was built in 1927.