14 – Distant Water Grounds

As already mentioned, the Hewett fleets also sent vessels to grounds further afield as well as fleeting in the North Sea and it was customary for Barking well smacks to make the 14 week trip to Iceland each summer. Apparently Robert Hewett even sighted Jan Mayen island on one occasion.

The Saucy Jack was the last well smack to leave Barking, in1880. Later in the century the Iceland grounds were exploited during the summer by a small fleet of steam trawlers of the Short Blue Fleet. There were only four or five trawlers in the fleet, with six carriers supplying them and running the fish to London.

They nearly always fished on the same grounds, near a big rock called Trisker. The trawlers would go under the lee of the rock to transship which apparently rendered this operation fairly danger free. There was no shortage of fish, and the main problem was getting the fish gutted and packed. To this end the trawlers carried extra crew, and the long summer hours enabled plenty of light by which to work. The fish was mostly “long stuff”, jumbo cod haddock and ling, with only a small proportion of dabs and plaice. These were stowed in the usual fish boxes, even though they were too long. It would have been better to stow the fish loose in bins, but that would have made handling difficult at Shadwell and thus a compromise had to be reached.

The Icelandic authorities had no objections to the operation, even though some of the grounds were inside territorial waters. This was because no-one else worked there, the fleet did not interfere with anyone and the fleet did not go into the fjords.

The fleet was a commercial success, but prices realised were very low. All the fish had to go to Shadwell, of course, even though much higher prices could have been made elsewhere, in particular at Hull. Robert M. was of the opinion that Billingsgate would have been unable to handle the fish.

Robert M., and Hewett and Co at Shadwell, were also involved in 1899 with a company called the Deep Sea Fishery Company Limited, of which Robert M. was a director. This company was formed in order that it could take a shareholding in an Icelandic company which was known as the Gardar Company. The purpose of the venture was to circumvent the increasing interest being paid by the authorities of the Danish Government (Iceland was still under Danish rule) to the Icelandic fishing grounds. The Gardar Company owned a smack and two steamships, and land in Holland. The theory was that the money raised should provide a small fleet of 4 steam trawlers and 21 smacks, and the two carriers would then run fresh fish to Hewett and Co at Shadwell. Other fish caught was to be salted and landed elsewhere – in Liverpool, Belgium or Holland. What happened to this company is not known, but it is reported that the general manager of the engineering works at Barking, Donald Gordon, sailed to Iceland in March 1900 with two steamers to supervise the construction of a facility, returning in September of that year.

When the Icelandic season finished, the carriers would bring herrings back from Norway. Back in the late seventies or even early eighties, Hewett and Co had received some experimental consignments of herring from Norway preserved in borax. It was found that if one added about half a pound of boracic acid and a pint of salt to a barrel of herrings, then the fresh herrings would remain fresh, or comparatively so, for about a month.

A few cargoes of these were run to London, but the customers became prejudiced against them. Robert M. then tried fresh herrings, packed in trunks and preserved in ice, in exactly the same way as trawled fish was delivered from the fleet. This proved to be a great success, and by following the fleet around the coast of Norway a supply of herrings could be maintained all winter. Over the years the fleet made collections at points all round the coast from Sweden to the Arctic Circle.

This trade was very popular with the Norwegian fishermen, from whom the company bought direct. If fish were scarce, the boats would discharge alongside, but more often the carrier would be taken right inside the net “stang” and the fish were taken aboard almost alive. The carriers used to catch what they would call the “fourth day’s market”, i.e. if the vessel left on Monday the catch would be sold on the Thursday. Trips from up north would take a bit longer than this, but even so the freshness of the fish when loaded and the cold weather always meant that there was no problem in maintaining quality.

Robert M. said that it was exciting and dangerous work as the carriers were not insured, but that only one was sunk and that he had been lucky enough to be able to get her up as she had sunk at the end of the season, April or the beginning of May, and the weather was exceptionally fine. He did some diving himself, until it began to affect his ears. The carriers also occasionally lost a propeller blade or two, going amongst the rocks in the dark, but this did not usually prevent them from trying to, and often succeeding in, making their intended market.

The carriers took ice from London because it was cheaper. They would also, on occasion, buy cargoes of frozen cod, and from the east coast of Norway, kippers.

The herrings would fetch from 2/- to 6/- a trunk at Shadwell. Higher prices might have been realised at Hull, but again the fish had to be landed at Shadwell. The Hull men began running their own trips to Norway, but they used much bigger vessels, with larger trunks, larger cargoes and longer turnaround times.