On November 16th 1863, an enquiry into “Our Deep Sea Fisheries” was held at the Sailors Home in Yarmouth. The first witness was Samuel Hewett, and the shorthand version of his evidence is reproduced here.
“Yarmouth has not been noted for trawling until within the last twenty years. It was never a line fishing place. There were not more than four or five trawlers here 17 or 18 years ago, now there may be 150. The increase in the last ten years has been very fast, the vessels are larger, manned by more men, the nets are also larger, the tonnage is from 30 to 50 tons, carrying 6 or 7 hands, men and boys, paid by wages, the captain having 5% of the earnings.
The fish supply is increasing very fast, never was so much known as at the present day. From two to three tons is sometimes got in the trawl, from a three hour trawl – the catch is chiefly haddocks and plaice as a bulk, with turbots and soles. We have fished this year on the Dogger, but do not generally go so far north. We fished on the southern edge of the Dogger, and about Botany Gut, 80 miles from Yarmouth. We trawl at a depth of between 18 and 23 feet [fathoms?].
I own between 50 and 60 trawl smacks and carrying cutters, and last year I paid away £20,000 in wages and victuals. Many captains rise to become owners of vessels. We take our fish to Billingsgate, packed in ice, in fast sailing cutters built for the purpose. Three or four days elapse between the catch and the delivery, sometimes a week. An average good days fishing will be a ton. If calm, they get but little – if a smart breeze, a fair catch – if a gale, none at all.
In a ton of fish there will run about 3cwt of soles, 10 or 11 cwt of haddocks, the rest plaice and whitings, and a few turbot; very few cod, a few brills.
The fish change their place according to the season, in very cold weather they get into deep water for warmth, in fine, in shallow water. On the Dutch coast I have seen the turbot a few inches from the surface, in the height of summer.
A good fishing ground has a smooth bottom, and our men know by practice when they come to rocky ground. Fish come up mostly dead, the longer the trawl is down the worse they will be; in fine weather we make short trawls of two to three hours, and the fish are alive. We generally go with the tide for four to five hours. Our length of beam is from 34 to 37 ft, in the north they use larger. The haddocks are half as large again as they used to be, they run 18 inches.
I have five or six line vessels catching haddock, cod and whiting about the Well Bank; they make short voyages and bring the fish very fine: one vessel, a day or two ago, in five days had over 100 score, the vessels run from 50 to 60 tons, and never go into harbour, carry eight hands, all line fishing. I have been giving them up, finding trawling pay better.
A trawling smack, with fittings, costs £800 or £900, they used to be dearer. I have about eighteen carriers, twelve or fourteen of them first rate. The only fish caught which fetch a comparatively inferior price, are large cod. If not alive, they will not do to crimp, and fetch but half the price of line caught cod.
No part of the fishery grounds has fallen off or become exhausted. If you stop trawling you will raise the price of beef and mutton 2d per lb. We send from 100 to 200 tons a day into London from trawlers from Yarmouth, Hull and Grimsby. Turbots fetch the highest price, next brill, soles, plaice, and haddock, which last, from the great bulk caught, are low priced. A large trade is done in smoking them. We want no interference with the fisheries.
Our trawlers from Yarmouth remain out six weeks, those from Barking, eight. The cutters make about a voyage a week; forty fathoms, at the Silver Pits, is the greatest depth we fish in. We find it does not pay to employ steamers to carry our fish.”
Christopher Splashett, formerly a master and part owner of a Gorleston smack, was examined next and he –
“Agreed with Mr Hewett that haddocks were getting larger. Has seen three tons of fish hauled at once. The trawl mesh is larger than formerly, and the small fish escape. A trawl net costs £8 to £10, and on very level and nice fishing ground will last two months. We ascertain such ground by the lead. The best fishing depth is from 22 to 24 fathoms. Fish gather around Smiths Knoll, Brown Ridge Bank, and such places, because the ground is rich in food there. Fishermens wages here are, mates 18s, common hand 16s, weekly, the same as has been for thirty years past. All trawlers here fish in the deep sea.”
A letter from a Billingsgate salesman in The Times of June 7th 1863 on trawl fishing affords some insight into the prices realised by the catch:
“The cutters each bring from 400 to 600 packages, and we have daily at Billingsgate one or two and sometimes more of the cutters. Their freight consists of about one half prime and the other half plaice, haddocks, etc.. The haddocks are generally purchased by costermongers who clean, cure, and smoke dry them. These are sold as Finnan haddocks, and many a poor person is engaged through them that otherwise might be doing worse things. They realise on an average, 12s or 14s a basket, but sometimes as low as 8s, at others as high as 20s, weighing 150 or 160lbs.
The plaice are mainly bought by persons who are termed fryers, who clean them, cut in slices, and fry in oil. These are readily purchased by the poor, and a hearty wholesome meal is well relished for a penny. Many cannot afford to purchase meat or keep fires in their confined dwellings in summertime; so thanks to Providence for so bountiful a supply of this cheap and good food. Some portion of them are hawked on barrows, and others are sold at shops in poor neighbourhoods. They are often sold as low as 6s or 7s a hamper, weighing 150 or 160 lbs.
The prime fish are enjoyed by all classes, and when more than two cutters are at market, are often sold at very low prices.”