2 – Development of the Fleeting System

As the Short Blue Fleet increased in size it would have been necessary to look further afield for fish to maintain catch rates. In 1833 in the report Samuel had said that fishing from Barking had been poor so vessels were presumably looking further for fish anyway. Demand was good. But as they fished further from home they were spending more time travelling.

Smacks and fishing boats had originally only landed fish to their local markets, but as they ventured further afield it became necessary to find ways of keeping the fish in an edible condition for longer.

The earliest method of preserving and keeping fish was to salt and dry it. Smacks had used this method for cod for many years and they continued to do so, even after the introduction of well smacks, on the Icelandic voyages. The well smacks were, however, a large step forward.

Well smacks were the smacks built with an integral circulating sea-water tank in which the fish could be kept alive for some days. By 1830 there were 30-40 well smacks, or “fish pools” as they were called, working out of Barking. The smack Saucy Jack was probably fairly typical. She was built at Gravesend in 1836, and was 60ft overall and weighed 51 tons. They were cutter rigged. The Saucy Jack served many years and was the last well smack to leave Barking, in 1880, although well smacks continued to be used for a very long time after that in other ports. Some vessels built later on in the nineteenth century were still fishing at Faroe in the 1950’s.

Most well smacks were around 50-60 feet long and carried a crew of 7 or 8. They were initially used for lining but could also be used for trawling. The well smack was more suited to the lining methods as most of the fish came aboard alive and in better condition, and would last longer in the well. The trawled fish would often come up suffocated, which meant that either the trawlers threw away a lot of fish or they worked nearer home to reduce wastage. All this will be covered in detail later.

The midships portion of the ship, ten feet or thereabouts, was entirely separated from the bow and stern by watertight bulkheads. Augur holes were bored through the hull below the water-line – well down so as to prevent air from entering at large roll angles. These holes enabled the water to enter and circulate and therefore remain fresh within the well. The present day versions are called “viviers” and are used extensively by French shellfish fishermen.

Access to the well was via a hatch on deck, and in front and on either side of it was the welldeck, which narrowed the mouth of the well into a funnel, thus keeping the level of the water within certain limits when the smack was rolling or pressed down under sail. It also allowed passage along each side below the main deck. The watertight space was divided into two by a bulkhead, but many of the larger vessels had three compartments. Wellheads, decks and funnel were made of the best wood, exceeding in strength any other part of the smack as the design meant that they were subjected to great strain. This work greatly increased the cost of a welled vessel relative to a dry bottomed one.

Round fish such as cod and haddock moved freely about the well, but halibut and plaice tended to lie on the bottom or sides choking the holes. Halibut were usually secured by the tail with a length of line fastened to a wooden rod at the top, but plaice had to be stowed in open sided boxes which were lowered into the well and stacked under the deck. The well was examined every day and dead fish removed, split and salted, or thrown away.

When landing to the London market, the smacks did not proceed further upstream than Gravesend due to the pollution in the Thames. Here the fish would be transshipped to smaller boats known as “hatch boats” which would take the fish upriver to Billingsgate. Each hatch boat could carry 50-60 bushels ( a bushel is a volume approximately equivalent to 9 gallons/ 36 litres). The fish was apparently bought in the ship and it remained in the ship until such time as it was needed on the market.

As the smacks of the Short Blue Fleet were at this time spending 8 – 14 days away each trawling trip, before returning to market, some of the fish would be getting old, particularly in warm weather. Although using the well to keep the fish was obviously a better method than salting and wind drying, it had several drawbacks. Well smacks were not very fast or seaworthy due to the effect of several tons of sea-water within the hull. The extra scantlings required and the manufacture of the well itself resulted in a significant increase in the cost of the vessels themselves. In bad weather the fish would be damaged in the well, and if the wind was from the southwest for any length of time while the ships were trying to get back to market then the fish would die anyway. These considerations were offset when lining because line caught fish fetched a better price. A more pressing problem was the wastage when trawling. The smacks would tow the trawl for several hours at a time, and a lot of fish were suffocated. It would be preferable to be able to keep all the fish even when dead and bring all to market.
Thus the idea was evolved whereby a smack would take fish from other vessels when leaving for home. The fish would be sold much fresher, and the smacks themselves could also spend more time fishing and less time travelling to and from port. As the fleet increased in numbers fleeting became more efficient. The system was steadily developed so that the vessels would stay away for about six weeks followed by about eight days at home.

short blue fleet trunking

The fleeting system appeared to be complete when vessels were purpose built as carriers. The first carrier was the Saucy Lass, built at Ipswich by Read and Page and launched in October 1843. The use of this fast vessel to service the fleet meant that the smacks could stay out even longer, but this did not meet with universal approval, to say the least. In November 1844 there was a strike for which Samuel Hewett would appear to have been largely responsible. The fleeting system for most owners was at the stage when a smack would be despatched each day for London. Many owners sent hatch boats to meet the smack at Gravesend and offload its fish and reprovision it, so as to save time. This was called making a “Gravesend Voyage” and kept the men at sea for longer periods. This strike was reported in the Illustrated London News of November 30th of that year and the following from that article takes up the story: “Formerly these Gravesend voyages were not so common as they are at present; and the men generally found means to get home on the average once a month. But to meet the increased competition that the supply of fish by railway has introduced, the owners have made them more frequent, till the usual time of absence has increased to six or eight weeks, and often more. One extensive proprietor, the owner of about 50 vessels, has also for the last year employed a very fast sailing cutter to carry provisions to his smacks, and those of the numerous small owners who are his dependents, and to bring their fish back to meet the boats at Gravesend. By this means, the crews of more than half the smacks belonging to the place have been kept out at sea for periods of from three to six months. This lengthened absence from home and its comforts, the working fishermen have long felt to be a great privation. The middle class of owners thinking probably that a partial return to the old system would place them on a more equal footing with the extensive proprietor above referred to, lent a favourable ear to their complaints, and with their concurrence the crews of seventy vessels have struck and returned home. The other owners have, it is said, promised to take an additional hand in each vessel, to prevent any being thrown out of berth, should the men’s demands not be acceded to. The apprentices, of whom more than 200 are already on shore, will, of course, be thrown upon their masters’ hands.”

The result of this strike was an agreement whereby the vessels carried stores for six weeks, but if fishing was particularly heavy then the trip would be extended to eight weeks and vessels returning to the grounds from home would bring some fresh supplies.

When fleeting first started, Samuel started using wooden trunks rather than the traditional “peds” – wicker baskets. These trunks would have stowed better and probably lasted longer, and were possibly easier to transfer from smack to smack at sea.

In 1845 two further cutters, the Clipper and Flying Fish, were built at Ipswich, followed in 1846 by Racer and in 1847 by Ranger. These vessels were of similar section to the smacks but were longer. Ranger was 74’3″ OA, 52 tons, and was built by Thomas Harvey at Wivenhoe. She was launched on November 11th 1847 and sailed on her maiden voyage on November 25th. She cost at the time she sailed, including food etc., £1271/5/2¼.

The cutters could sail very fast and were driven hard, light airs being the least favourable weather. They were said to sail to windward faster than any other vessel. This led to some of them making a trip to Spain for fruit in the autumn, usually September, in competition with the Salcombe fruit schooners. This was the era when some or all of the smacks would be up north lining at this time of year. The Racer’s maiden voyage was to Lisbon for fruit, and her second voyage was to Gijon for nuts. If there was any beating to windward at all on the way home the cutters would win and the fruit fetched a high price in London. The skipper of the first ship home would win £20 and his vessel’s owner would be furnished with a new suit of sails. There is a record of a trip made by the Transit in 1857 to Malaga, when she made £139/10.

A carrier left the fishing fleet every day bound for London. The fleet was controlled by a Admiral who gave the orders as to when and where to fish – including shooting and hauling – and when to transfer fish to the carrier. The fish was transferred to the carrier by dinghy which necessitated not only the whole fleet of up to 100 vessels (more in later years) converging on the carrier, but also a high degree of seamanship. The trawler approached the carrier from windward, dropped the dinghy with the fish in it, sailed round and retrieved the dinghy to leeward of the carrier. The dinghy passed the fish to the carrier, together with the “fish note” or delivery note, collected empty boxes and returned to the trawler. This operation was undertaken in nearly all weathers and there were surprisingly few accidents, but the crews were careful to row the boats downwind and downwave which was much safer than across the waves. As soon as all the fish had been taken aboard, the carrier sailed for home. The carrier would stow on average around 500 packages, being some 40 tons of fish.

A typical day will be described in detail later, but the basic system was that the smacks beat upwind during the daylight, and towed the trawl back downwind during the night. Travelling and trawling downwind were safer at night with less chance of serious collision as all the vessels were sailing the same direction, and when trawling were only moving slowly. The smacks would offload to the carrier in the morning.

The skipper of the carrier received a percentage of the price obtained for the fish and as the value depended on quick delivery it was up to him to make a quick passage. This usually varied between 24 hours and 3 days, but if weather was very light then steam tugs were sent out from London to tow them in. Predictably it was during the summer that supplies to London fluctuated.

After the railway arrived in Yarmouth in 1847, some cutters landed at Yarmouth and transferred their fish onto the beach, then to the station and the fish was then sent by rail to Billingsgate. This was a quicker way of getting the fish to market, but it was a method which involved much handling of the fish and it generally arrived in a poorer condition.

If weather was inclement and a carrier did not arrive then a smack was despatched instead. At other times carriers were queueing for their turn to take on fish, and would trawl themselves while waiting their turn. It was also difficult for the carriers to find the fleet when returning from London. The carrier would know in which general area the fleet was working, but as the fleet changed grounds nearly every day the exact location was not known and in poor visibility even a fleet could be difficult to see.

In summer many Brixham men would come round and join the fleet. This was known as the skilling season. These vessels landed to the carriers as well, a charge being made for the transportation and landing.

The Hull trawlers also joined the fleet in summer. During the winter they worked their own fleets nearer to home without using carriers, but after a refit at Easter they would join the Short Blue Fleet off the Dutch coast. These men were largely fishermen from Brixham and Kent who had moved north following the discovery of the Silver Pits. The Hull trawler fleet increased rapidly from about 1845 despite the general lack of facilities and the lack of co-operation from local councillors, probably as a direct result of the effectiveness of the fleeting system.
The Hull men eventually decided that the 20% commission charged by the Short Blue Fleet for the transportation and sale of their fish was excessive and in 1859 they built carriers of their own and imported ice from Norway.

This fleeting system also eventually affected the design of the smacks. Up to this time the emphasis had been on speed, but with the introduction of the carriers this was less important. It was later found that by reducing the size of the mainsail and adding a mizzen mast the smacks became easier to handle. This furthermore meant that larger smacks could be built without having excessively large sails to handle. The ketch rig used by the Barking smacks was known as the “dandy” rig. Vessels were therefore increasingly purpose built with attendant increase in efficiency.

It should be said that Samuel was all this time, in addition to fleeting, also sending smacks further afield in search of fish, in particular lining trips to Orkney or even Iceland during the summer. In winter the weather was too rough, and in any case it was dark most of the time and so the men would not have been able to see to work. Samuel or his father first sent a smack to Iceland in about 1815. Why Samuel wished to send boats so far afield is not obvious, but East Coast fishermen had been fishing Iceland and Shetland for a very long time. A Barking smack would land two cargoes at Shetland and then bring the third to London. The fish was mostly salted, this being the only useful method of preserving the fish as a round trip usually took 14 weeks. The first two trips would be salted and landed in Scotland, and the last trip would provide large live cod that they brought back to London. This was often supplemented by turbot bought from Northumberland gillnet fishermen with silver from the “turbot bag” of money which the owner placed on board before each trip. These smacks would have been handliners and they would have initially used halibut as bait due to its low value. Before long they started using live whelks which they would pick up on the way from either Kent or Northumberland.

These trips continued for most of the 19th century (the Saucy Jack was the last well smack to leave Barking, and that was in 1880), but whether they were still going when the first steam trawlers started working Icelandic waters is not known and is unlikely.

The cutters also went mackerel fishing during the season. An extract from Samuel’s ledger tells us that the “Cutter Clipper 1846 May 16 Sailed on the mackerel voyage out 8 weeks & brought home £42 – a bad settling”.