8- Descriptions of Fleeting

At sea the trawlers worked as a fleet: all the smacks fished under the command of an Admiral.

He could be identified by his special flag, and he issued the orders as to where and when the fleet were to fish. This was a difficult job and so not only did he have a skipper under him on his own boat to run his own ship, but he also had a Vice Admiral and a Rear Admiral who relieved him from time to time as necessary.

The Illustrated London News ran an article on the fleet in 1864 which gives a general description of the fleet in action:

            “It is very interesting to see this fleet clearing out for the fishing banks. The fishing vessels are all victualed and watered for a period of six weeks, which is their average cruise; but if they remain longer the carriers bring them out a fresh supply. The trawl beams they carry are 38ft in length, and the warps 160 fathoms; the depth of water fished in is from 10 to 40 fathoms.

            Their great fishing grounds situated in the North Sea, extending from 52° to 55°N lat, and from 1° to 8°E long. Setting forth in the early spring, under the command of their Admiral, they commence off the Dutch Coast, working along from Camperdown to the Texel, and taking quantities of soles, turbot, haddock and plaice. Off Vlieland Island they remain working for some time; about the 1st of May they get down to Schelling, and about the middle of July they finish up the season on that coast off the Island of Ameland. After this, they work their way into the middle of the North Sea to White Water Bank and Botany Gut, where they take soles, brill, haddock and plaice; and directly that the frost sets in, they retrace their course to the southward of the Dogger to valuable grounds called the Silver Pits, which were discovered by Mr Hewett (as indeed were almost all the banks in the North Sea) , and where soles of a very high quality are obtained.

            The fish are packed in wooden boxes, which contain about a half a hundredweight each, with broken ice spread at top; baskets are also used, but not to such an extent as boxes, which are found to stow more handily in the holds of carriers.”

In truth the fleet did not fish the autumn upon the Dogger Bank itself, but often in the Clay Pits which are to the east of the bank. During the winter they always avoided in particular the South West Patches area. The northern edge of the bank was also avoided in bad weather because the combination of wind, tide, and the steep edge of the bank created very dangerous seas.

A typical day would go something like this;

The Admiral signals by white rocket for the fleet to haul at about midnight. The watch shouts “Haul the trawl”. All hands put on their oilskins and boots and get up on deck. They haul in the trawl warp; using the capstan this takes about an hour, in later years the steam capstans could haul in about 20 minutes.

The trawl beam appears and the head is hauled on board using a tackle. Then the ground rope has to be hauled over the beam to close the net; this groundrope is at least 12″ thick. All hands then range along the beam and haul the net in by hand. They put their fingers through the meshes of the net and as the ship rolls towards the net they pull it in, and as she rolls away  they hold onto what they have got. The maxim was haul and hold. When they come to the codend where all the fish are, a sling is put round it and it is hove up by a tackle well above the deck so that a hand can get under it and loose the “poke line knot” – the special codend knot which has many turns round it so that it can never come undone, but which can be easily tripped by pulling on one particular part – and the fish fall out onto the deck.

The Admiral signals on to which tack they are to shoot the gear away on again – green rockets; starboard tack, red rockets; port tack – and the gear is shot away and perhaps 100 fathoms of warp paid out and the sails set. All hands set to work to gut, clean, sort and pack the fish into boxes. When this is done the sails are again trimmed, and all bar the duty watch turn in from the present two o’clock until about daybreak when the Admiral again signals to haul. This haul is completed like the last and the catch sorted.

Then comes the time to transfer the fish to the carrier. The Admiral gives the signal (by flag) and the smacks work their way into suitable positions to windward of the carrier which is flying the distinctive “streaky bacon” flag – an extra large Short Blue with a wide stripe down the middle. The small 16 ft boat is launched and the fish loaded into the boat. The fish may weigh up to two tons.

Two or three men go in the boat, one rowing standing up and one facing each way to keep an eye open for rogue seas. Downwind and downwave they go, until they reach the carrier when one man leaps aboard and receives the boxes that are handed up to him. Strange as it may seem, this operation is easier in bad weather because the roll of the ship allows the men to drop the boxes onto the deck rather than lug them up the side of the ship. This operation is not without danger.

Having stowed the fish on board the carrier the crew leave their “fish note”, collect any mail that there may be for them in the Post Office that is to be found on all carriers, and most importantly the letters containing the sale notes from previous landings. They tumble back into their boat and row off to leeward to return to the smack which has meanwhile sailed around to a position downwind of the carrier. That is unless they need empty boxes and there is a carrier newly arrived from London flying the “empties” flag, in which case they would repair smartly aboard that vessel, not only for the boxes, but again for any mail that may be aboard for them.  then back to the smack and the boat is hauled back aboard. It is now probably midday.

The breakfast of fish is ready and devoured. The Admiral signals to “sail” and the fleet thrashes hard to windward to regain the ground lost while trawling downwind the night before. It is very much like a yacht race, each crew trying to outsail the rest. No-one dreams of crossing on the wrong tack or doing anything that would be considered unsporting in a real yacht race, but there is money in it because the further a smack can sail upwind in the day, the further she can trawl downwind at night. This racing goes on until sundown in winter, or about 6pm in the summer, when the Admiral signals to shoot the gear by dropping his flag from the topmast stay.

There is sometimes only a short time between breakfast and dinner, especially in winter when the delivery may not start until a lot later. Dinner is still very popular.

All hands may get a good sleep while the smack is beating to windward, unless sail changes are necessary. When the Admiral signals, the gear is shot away and the sails trimmed for towing. The smack fishes on until midnight, when the whole process starts again.

Life on board a smack was not easy. The boat had to be kept sailing and working for 24 hours a day, and during the winter it was dark, cold and windy most of the time. The conditions below were primitive. Sleep was short, the cabin stank of bilgewater, cooking, fish and unwashed humanity. Sanitory arrangements were non existent, and the cooking was left to one of the apprentices. Rations, which when compared to those of other seafarers were good,  were a pound of meat (salt beef) and a pound of bread (ships biscuit) per man per day, plus a limited quantity of potatoes, treacle, sugar and tea. Fish was unlimited. There also used to be a large bank of oysters in the North Sea. There was no market for them ashore, but the crews used to eat them.

The salt meat was towed astern for a day to remove some of the salt before it was cooked. Boiled salt brisket was preferred because it contained plenty of fat. For second course there would be suetty duff and black treacle – plum duff on Sundays.

The crew would sit on coir matting on the cabin sole to eat. There was no table – things couldn’t fall off the floor. The coir mats did not slip much. All the crew used their own knives, and forks did not come into fashion until later on in the century. In later years the sugar was further limited and tea restricted to one pound per boat per week. There are reports of some fine carvings made of old hard salt beef!

The crew of  a smack would consist of the skipper and 7 or 8 hands, of which 2 or 3 would be apprentices. Apparently the men were typically short as tall men were prone to being washed overboard. The skipper was paid a share of the catch. The rest of the crew of a Barking boat were paid a wage, which was different to fishermen elsewhere in the country (including Yarmouth) who were also paid on shares. The mate received 14s a week, and the hands 12s in summer, but 16s and 14s respectively in winter, per week. While fleeting the crew had about 8 days ashore every 6 to 8 weeks.

In 1847 the smack Pilot earned £731/4/5, and her expenses were £626/7/9, thus making a profit of £104/16/8d. While fleeting in 1850 she was less successful: she earned £574/13/0, but her expenses were £581/5/0 thus incurring a loss of £6/12/0d.

Many of the apprentices came from orphanages; in the case of the Hewett fleet notably from the Foundling School, and they were looked after by Samuel’s wife. The apprenticeship usually started at the age of fourteen and  lasted 7 years, after which they could sail as common hand.

Life could be hard at sea for the apprentices. The Times in 1827 reported on the fate of a thirteen year old lad called John Jones, who was brought ashore dead from the smack Rambler with his body “showing the marks of terrible treatment. The back and loins bore stripes of a livid gangrenous hue, evidence of heavy flogging, and the breast and other parts of the body showed signs of violence”. Six of the jury were owners of smacks, or connected with the fishing trade, and tried to have the reporter excluded from the enquiry. They did not succeed but the coroner imposed an injunction on him such that the proceedings must not be reported – which he ignored. Apparently the mate of the Rambler said that he found the boy tied to a windlass by his hands and feet, with his back exposed. The lad’s two fellow apprentices set him free, but the captain put him back. The mate was on deck from 2.30 until 8 o’clock, during which time the lad remained tied to the windlass. Eventually the lad was untied and taken below unconcious, but he died soon after. Another witness said that the captain had tied the lad to the windlass and given him about ten strokes with the cat. In the face of this evidence, the jury returned a verdict of “died by exposure to the weather.” The Rambler did not belong to the Hewett family!

To put the other side of the story, albeit from nearly thirty years later, the career of one John Plastow is an interesting example of a hard working and successful apprentice. He was apprenticed in 1854 from the Hackney Union to Robert Hewett. He served seven years until 1861, when he went to sea as a common hand. He then saved £20 in two years, reckoning 14s in summer and 16s in winter to be a good wage. In 1863 he went to Grimsby and worked on shares, saving £105 in three years, of which £65 was saved in just 8 months. Thus in 1866 he was able to put down £100 on a smack and he had paid off the mortgage and interest within three years. Two years later he had saved £700, so he had another smack built and came ashore as a salesman, going on to own more smacks.

Robert M. Hewett said in his reminiscences that he had never heard of a vessel of the Short Blue Fleet being lost through weather alone, but this was probably wishful thinking. This was not to say that losses did not occur; indeed they were unfortunately all too common in bad weather and were caused by strandings and more particularly collisions. Not only was there the inherent danger of a large fleet all fishing close together day and night in all weathers (for example, the visibility in a snowstorm is zero), but there was also the danger from sailing vessels heading south from the Baltic running down the trawlers. There were several bad storms which caused large losses.

The smacksmen did not talk of gales, they called what we would term gale or storm force winds a breeze.

In December 1845 there was a gale at the Silver Pits, during which the cutter Clipper was hove down; the mainsail was split and she lost the capstan. The capstan was later picked up by  the Friends, and apparently they gave the crew some beer for saving it! Incidently the mainsails were cut with the cloth panels running vertically. This was so that if a sea were to burst some of the panels, there would still be some drive from the rest of the sail. Were the cloths to be laid horizontally, the loss of just one cloth would render the whole sail useless.

Disasters could also strike individual boats, as the following extract from Samuel’s ledger confirms:- “Smack Elizabeth. 1852 Nov. Upsett the Capsturn pauls lost the Mate and the apprentice overboard – Injured the Captain – So that they were forced to have the Capn of Joseph Reed’s Hebe to assist her to Yarmouth – The Mate and crew of the Hebe worked the vessell without the Capn and they say caught more fish than any of the other vessels time the Capn was away for 8 Day’s.  Joseph Reed charged me £7 for the use of the Captain. I think £3 or £4 or even £7 to much under all circumstances – we must grin and bear such things.”

On the 3rd of December 1863 there was a storm during which the wind was reported to have been force 11 or 12. Barking smacks were fishing off the Dutch coast at the time, and some 60 men were lost and damage estimated at £6-7,000 occured. In all the storm claimed 24 smacks, of which 15 were Barking smacks, as total losses in the North Sea, and many more were dismasted and otherwise damaged. How many belonged to the Short Blue Fleet is at this time unknown.

The 1860’s saw the loss of many smacks. In all in 1863, 132 smacks were lost, and in the following years 74, 98, 116, 188, 131, 153, 83, and 120 in 1871.

The “Graphic” ran an article on fleeting on the 23rd September 1876:

“Billingsgate is largely supplied by the fish steamers of Messrs Hewett and Co., who kindly gave me a passage on one of their boats. The English, it will be observed, use steamers instead of fast sailing yachts for bringing the fish to land. They arrive daily at market, the trip out to the fishing banks and back occupying about a week, but varying according to the position of the fleet. A pleasant voyage across the German Ocean brought us in sight of the colony of “Toilers of the Sea”, some miles off the coast of Ameland. The fleet numbers about 200 sail, chiefly Yarmouth vessels, and is under the control of an “Admiral” whose signals as to lowering and raising the fishing gear, direction to be taken in trawling &c., must be obeyed. As our steamer hoists the signal for boats to put off for “empties”, we catch sight of a return carrier steaming away full for London. The flag has not been flying long when numbers of small strongly-built boats dash alongside manned by sturdy weather-beaten crews, who tumble pell-mell on board in their haste to secure empty boxes wherein to pack their fish. The Captain and Mate who superintend affairs have no easy time of it, as something very like a free fight often occurs. The latter, with cut forehead and generally dishevelled appearance, assured me that it “wasn’t nothing to what it usually was!” – anyhow it was bad enough. As the fishermen are at sea for six or eight weeks at a time, home news is welcome, and the temporary post-office in the cook’s galley is soon besieged by eager applicants for the packets of letters and newspapers. The steamer is ransacked for the latter, a quid of tobacco is reckoned a blessing, and the engineer has to steel his heart against the many applicants for a “morsel of coal”. Towards dark a fresh breeze sprang up suddenly, when the Admiral’s smack burnt” a flare”, the signal for dropping nets, and also sent off a rocket indicating the direction to be taken by the fleet, and soon the long line of twinkling lights was lost in the distance. Next morning we were again amongst the smacks, with small boats crowding alongside, the boxes of yesterday filled with the harvest gathered during the last eight hours. A hundred and fifty one boats sent on board over a thousand boxes of soles, turbot, plaice, haddocks and skate – all neatly packed and ready for market. About seventy haddocks and sixty pair of soles go to the box – the steamer has stowage room for 3,900 of those. The work of packing in the hold, alternate layers of ice and boxes, is done rapidly as the crew of the steamer are assisted by that of a smack engaged by previous arrangement. No sooner is their boat cast loose than, full steam on, we are off for Billingsgate, hailing as we start another carrier arrived on the fishing grounds.”

In the years 1878-82 the Short Blue Fleet lost 25 men, including 4 drowned while ferrying fish to carriers, such losses being considered slight when compared with the 260 smacks and 471 lives lost in the whole of the U.K..

In October 1880 the North Sea was hit by a north-east force 11 which accounted for many losses. In March 1883 a NNW storm burst upon the North Sea after several days of calm and hit the north side of the Dogger at about midnight. The fleets of Hull and Grimsby were fishing to the north of the “Edge” (the dreaded north edge of the Dogger), and the Edge immediately became a lee shore. The ferocity of the wind, the confused seas, the need to claw to windward and the need to haul or cut the fishing gear all contributed to massive losses. 225 men and boys were lost. The Short Blue Fleet were working the Swatch Bank to the south of the Dogger, and sustained little damage. Their luck was not to last.

Nine months later the Short Blue Fleet was fishing the Botney Gut when a northwesterly gale struck. Among the 26 smacks lost altogether in the North Sea, 4 were fishing with the Short Blue Fleet. Others sustained much damage.

Life was not always easy for those left ashore. The following letter was received in 1893;



          I hop you will pordon me for trouble you with thes few lines in teling you to provent W. Brown froun going in your steam carriers as he tould me he have got another women he tell me she is a married women and have not got any chrildren and he is going to forsak me and my five chrildren he tell me he can alwys get a berth by finding Mr hallet and Mr Hallet in hard tobaco sir will you be kind enofe to let Mr hallet on wednesday when he come to shadwell sir i noh you will be a gentelman and a firend to my chrildren he is in one of your smacks now and i hope you will let him remain there as he say he is coming up when he come home sir i remain yours truty

          Mrs Brown


          Mrs Brown

          No 6 Belvierdere Place

          Semetery Rd Gt




          Sir pilse will you send me a raply


In 1894 a WNW gale blew from the 8th to the 12th of February. The Short Blue Fleet was fishing the Clay Deeps, and lost 7 smacks belonging to Hewett and Co.


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