6 – Formation of Hewett & Co Ltd, and use of steam carriers

It would appear that the two years between Samuel’s retirement in 1862 and the formation of Hewett and Co in 1864 were a time of change and re-organisation for the four brothers. Robert probably wanted to build steam carriers but did not have enough capital. George presumably went along with this, but Samuel jnr was happy to continue selling fish as before. It is interesting that Samuel Hewett (senior) had stated at the enquiry in November 1863 that “I own between 50 and 60 trawl smacks and carrying cutters” even though he had retired in August of the preceding year. He had also said that “we find it does not pay to employ steamers to carry our fish” yet only ten months later Hewett & Co had been formed so as to finance the purchase of such vessels.

On the formation of Hewett & Co in 1864 they all sold out to the company, either taking cash or taking shares. A report in the Field on September 3rd 1864 said that Messrs Hewett were to receive £110,000 for the business and goodwill, which was to be paid over 12 months. The Hewett family took up £40,000 worth of shares. Robert and George joined Hewett and Co., Robert as Managing Director. It is likely that Charles took this opportunity to become a stockbroker. Samuel jnr set up his own business selling fish at Billingsgate.

The Prospectus for Hewett and Co Ltd was advertised in August 1864, issuing 12,500 shares of £20 each, giving a capital valuation of £250,000, of which £5 was called up on allotment. The company took advantage of the Limited Liability Act, which had become law in 1862. Eight directors were appointed, including Lord Alfred Paget as chairman, Admiral G.G. Wellesley (son of the Duke of Wellington who was successful at Waterloo), George Hewett, and Robert Hewett as Managing Director. The directors fees were initially £1,200 per year, divided by mutual consent, and Robert’s salary was £1,000 p.a. plus 5% of net profits for an initial contract of five years. The first few years trading were so poor, though, that by 1870 the directors fees were only £500, and total on shore wages were only £940/10/10.

The principle reason for forming Hewett and Co was to raise money for the purchase of steam carriers to bring fish to London. It was considered that fish transported to Billingsgate by sea arrived in better condition than that landed at Yarmouth and sent by train because the fish was handled less and was not available to be pilfered. The purchase of steam carriers would enable the company to bring fish from the fleet to the market on a regular basis, regardless of weather. This became company policy and consequently Hewett and Co fish was sent to London by sea rather than overland. In order to raise money from prospective shareholders the profitability was also strongly emphasised: it was said that the sailing cutters produced a return of 30% on capital, a margin which would be “doubled by the use of steamers”.

picture of carrier "Wellesley"


Steam Carrier Wellesley

The fish salesmen and retailers endorsed this view in the prospectus when they stated: “We the undersigned fish factors, salesmen and retail dealers in fish, carrying on business at Billingsgate market, confidently state that the supply of fish to the London market is not equal to the demand, that it is extremely irregular, and that the fish is often much deteriorated in quality by delay in transit, which occasions frequent loss. We are of the opinion that the demand would be more than doubled were means adopted by which the supply could be made regular. We further believe that the proposed plan of bringing fish to market by steamers will accomplish this end, and prove a great boon both to the trade and to the consumer.”

Steamers had the advantage that they were not limited unduly by the weather – in particular the light winds – which delayed the sailing cutters and meant that the fish could arrive late and in poor condition. This in turn led to the advantage that known prolific grounds further afield could be exploited and the fish still reach London in good condition. This was especially important in summer months. The Illustrated London News of 10th September 1864 stated that “the new steam carriers will carry three times the cargo of any sailing carrier, deliver it in one-third of the time, and as fresh as when taken. No matter what quantity they bring there are purchasers for it all.It appears that there are several most valuable banks, teeming with prime fish, which the fishermen are at present unable to touch, from the impossibility of getting cargoes home in marketable condition. The principle of these lie along the Dutch coast, extending from the Island of Ameland to Heligoland. The Dogger Bank is not half fished, and to the north of it lie the splendid banks of the North-West Flat, Great Fishers’ Bank, Fishers’ Gut, etc., extending from 55 deg. to 57 deg. 15 min. north latitude these have never yet been worked. But the fishing ground which it is most desirable to reach will be that vast tract of sea lying opposite to Lylt Land, where enormous shoals of turbot, soles, brill. haddock, and plaice abound. Small boats from Blankenese, on the River Elbe, occasionally fish these grounds at a short distance from the land, and fill up full cargoes of prime fish in a single night. The English fishing fleet has heretofore been prevented working these prolific banks, owing to the strong east-going tide that sets along the Dutch land, which, together with the prevalence of westerly winds in summer, precludes the possibility of getting cargoes to the London market by sailing carriers. By means of the steam-carriers of the new company it is expected this difficulty will be overcome, and an immense increase of supply very soon obtained.”

The fleet was said to number 60 vessels at that time, including the coal hulk and lugs.

The first General Meeting of the company was held on the 10th May 1865, after just six months trading. The Chairman reported that the first two steamers were due the following month. Since the formation of the company, three vessels had been lost, of which two had not been fully transferred from Hewett Bros, and they had generously taken the loss upon themselves. Hewett Bros had also put £4,000 into the insurance and reserve fund. The profit for the period had been £4,619, a return of 17% on capital, and a dividend was declared of 10%. The company owned at that time 62 sailing vessels, and it was proposed that the company would in time build five steamers altogether.

The second meeting, in November of that year, confirmed that the steamers were successful, with the bonus that they were useful in rendering assistance to other vessels in distress, particularly standing by them in bad weather. The directors assured shareholders that it was not the company’s intention to flood the market with cheap fish, but to maintain a steady supply. During the half year, five new fishing vessels had also been added to the fleet. A 10% dividend was declared.

This report would seem to have been unrealistically upbeat, for during the next meeting, held on Monday 6th of May 1867, the directors answered several searching questions from shareholders. When asked why the directors had not received any remuneration, Lord Alfred Paget answered that “not having been very successful last year the directors agreed not to accept any remuneration”. The shareholders then agreed that they did not expect the directors to work for nothing, and thus £1,100 was set aside to cover their fees. He then reported that there had been no fishing vessels lost in the previous five months, and that there had been a large increase in foreign vessels joining the fleet. A shareholder asked after the steamers, enquiring “are they paying now?”. Lord Alfred Paget replied that they had “lately done very well”. He further reported that the dock at Gorleston had now been completed, and that they had let some of the Barking properties.

It is interesting to note that some of the company’s properties were still owned by old Samuel, as indeed they continued to be for a long time, eventually forming part of his residual estate on his death, the beneficiaries deriving the benefit for many more years.

At that meeting, Admiral G.G. Wellesley retired from the board. He had been appointed Superintendent of H.M. Dockyard at Portsmouth, and thus was unable to continue. His place was taken by Robert Steward of Yarmouth.

The steamers in reality probably only halved the transit time of the sailing cutters, but the increased regularity and quality of the fish landings meant higher prices and less wastage with consequent greater profits. Sometimes the carriers would make two trips a week, but it was more usual to make three trips a fortnight. The transit time of course depended on where the fleet was fishing at the time. The steamers could of course carry far more fish (average 2,900 trunks per trip) than the sailing cutters (4-600 trunks per trip). It is also worth remembering that Robert had (on the formation of Hewett & Co) stated that they had transported all fish by rail previously. The truth is obfuscated; maybe they used sailing cutters, trains and politically advantageous wording to the powers that be as and when it suited. Probably all three.

The first four carriers were named after directors of the company. The first two were the Lord Alfred Paget and the Wellesley, built in 1865 and 120 ft long, and these were followed in 1866 by the Hallett and Frost which were 10 ft longer at 130 ft and included a few minor necessary improvements which became apparent when the first vessels started work. All four were built of iron by M. Pearce & Co at Stockton on Tees, and were fitted for fishing as well as carrying. This was to avoid the heavy dock dues imposed by the Port of London on cargo vessels, but they only fished for the minimum time necessary to avoid being thus classified. Each had a capacity of 3,900 boxes, packed alternately one of fish one of ice. The Wellesley was eventually lost at sea in 1893-4, and according to Robert’s diary the Hallett sank alongside Warkworth Pierhead on Sept 21st 1891, but she is listed in Olsen’s of 1893 so she must have been salvaged.
The steamers also carried a large amount of sail, their mainmast being 61ft long from keel to truck. They carried a jib, staysail, main and topsail, and mizzen and topsail. These sails were first supplied to the Hallett and Frost in 1866 by James Lapthorn of Gosport (for £145), despite Hewett’s having their own sail lofts at Barking. The sails were presumably used for fuel economy and comfort: they would have been of particular use when hove to collecting fish from the fleet.

The advent of the steamers meant the decline of the sailing cutters. Some were sold to Shetland where their speed was appreciated, and some were converted to trawlers.

1867 was a year of very poor weather and large losses were incurred. The company had to rearrange its approach to business. At its inception, 60 vessels were taken over from Hewett Bros of which it is likely that 57 were fishing smacks (there were two barges and a coal hulk), and in 1868 the 29 smacks of James Morgan’s fleet were bought from his widow for £10,150. At least two smacks were built at Barking, including the William and Mary, the last wooden smack to be built at Barking (1866). Smacks were probably also built at Southtown, and the lengthening of some of the smacks would have been taking place at this time.

By 1870 all the smacks had been sold, although Hewett and Co still held mortgages on most if not all of them, and the company was concentrating on the carriage and sale of fish. This is remarkable. Presumably the smacks which had been sold were fishing as the Short Blue Fleet, so although the profit on the fish they caught would be lost to the company, this loss would be largely offset by sale commission, transport charges, and interest on the mortgages. According to the balance sheet as at 30th June 1870, the company was owed £32,558/6/4 in respect of mortgages on 79 smacks and interest due, a not insubstantial sum of money.

The company did return to profitability in the early 1870’s. There were setbacks such as warm winters resulting in the failure of the ice crop in 1868/9 and 1871/2 thus necessitating the importation of ice from abroad. The purchase of galvanised iron fish trunks also ate into the profits because they were expensive “but this outlay, however, is most remunerative, not only on account of the improved state of the fish, particularly in hot weather, but because the iron boxes being of no value for other purposes, comparatively few are lost, is beyond all doubt”.

The annual report of 1873 contains the following item of interest:-
“The shareholders will remember, that in December last they were informed by circular that the late Secretary, Mr Clink, had absconded, having wrongfully withdrawn a sum of £3660 from the Bankers, who were then taking proceedings against the Company for the amount. At that time the Directors, under legal advice, believed that they could successfully defend the action; but on subsequent further consultation with Counsel, it appeared that the question was more one of custom than of law, and an opening having offered for a compromise, they were recommended to embrace it. It was, therefore arranged, that on payment by the Company of half the overdraft, the Bankers should give up all claim against the Company; this has now been done.”

Profitability was enhanced by the increase in rail transport charges in 1873 due to the rise in the price of coal which meant that water transport regained its competitive edge. Hewett and Co increased its carriage charge from 2/- per package to one fifth of the gross proceeds of the sale, plus 5% commission on the sale, but the Great Eastern Railway increased its charges by 50% and furthermore started to weigh the fish that they carried, which of course meant delays in its transport.

Enough money was made to declare dividends and in 1873/4 profits, carriage capacity and a good ice crop were considered sufficient to enable £4,500 to be spent on the building of a new steamer, the “Major”, built 1874. A very interesting vessel.

The “Major” was built in 1874 of wood (oak on oak, elm on oak below the waterline) in Dartmouth. She was the same size as the other carriers but was fitted with an engine of only 30HP which meant that she was too slow. As can be seen from the sketch someone drew at the time she also looked remarkably like a large smack even to the extent that a bowsprit had been drawn in at one time. She was therefore an experimental vessel and in time became the first vessel to be fitted with a refrigeration plant. Robert M. Hewett later commented that “the refrigeration was not a success, and even today it appears to be useless unless each fish is frozen separately”. This was because whereas before the ice in which the fish was stored slowly melted and washed the slime off the fish, the freezer froze the slime and the fish ended up with yellow marks. Later, in making further experiments, Robert M. found that very low temperatures could be produced in the hold by a mixture of ice and salt, without any installation, and at very little expense.

It would appear that such experimentation was not well received, because in 1876/7 the “Hewett” was built to the old formula, i.e. of iron by Pearce at Stockton on Tees, to the same basic design as the “Frost” and “Hallett”.

The increased profitability of 1873 also enabled the company to uprate its shoreside facilities and a new engineering works was built in Fisher St, Barking. The new factory was to manufacture machinery such as steam winches, and other machines for turning, drilling and so on. The plant was also equipped to repair and service steam boilers, and a moulding shop was constructed.

In 1880 the Progress (65HP) was bought from Hull, and by 1881 Hewett’s also owned the “Supply”.

photo of carrier Supply



In Robert’s report to the Parliamentary Select Committee in 1882 he said that the company owned 8 steamers. The carrier Supply was later lengthened by 30 ft, and converted from carrier to collier. She collected coal from the north east, and would also tow old smacks as coal barges as far as Gorleston where they would be dropped off and towed into harbour by local tugs. This coal would be used by the tugs and the first steam trawlers, and the empty hulks would be picked up again on the return trip north.

In 1881 the carriers made 286 trips, bringing to market 376,426 trunks (about 15,000 tons) which sold for £182,772 (average 9/8d per box). The carriers were driven hard; they were in the river long enough to unload, take on about 3,000 empty boxes, 30 tons of ice and 45 tons of coal. To save time, they collected the ice and coal from a “coal hulk” which was moored off the entrance to Barking Creek at Rainham, and which was replenished as necessary from ashore by ice lugs. Later on in the eighties several more carriers were obtained. Four were bought from the London Fish Market and National Fishing Co (which supplied the Columbia market) in about 1884, namely Celerity, Dispatch, Precursor and Velocity. Four more were bought from the Great Yarmouth Steam Carrying Co Ltd, namely Endeavour, Energy, Industry and Perseverence. These were lengthened, being too short for the Hewett operation, and were flying the Short Blue by 1890. In 1893 the company owned 17 steamers, most of which were carriers. Another four were bought in the early 1890’s from the Grimsby Ice Co fleet of Grimsby which had run fish to Billingsgate as from about 1880, and later bought a further nine from the G.I.C. in 1896. One of these was the Gannet, shown below with her GY registration before being bought by Hewett and Co..

Robert Muirhead Hewett, Robert’s son, was born in 1860. He went to live with his grandfather Samuel at Yarmouth in 1864, went to Charterhouse in 1870, and in 1877 joined Hewett and Co.