Toilers of the deep

In 2009, a collection of Edwardian images offering an intimate view of life on the North Sea 'boxing' fleets was found in London. Robb Robinson tells the story of the fleets – named after the boxes in which their fish was packed – and their hardy crew

Trawler crew, c1900. (Photo by Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images)

On the night of 21 October 1904, the warships of the Russian tsar’s Baltic fleet opened fire on a group of English trawlers, part of Hull’s Gamecock fleet, as they fished far out in the North Sea. It was a ghastly mistake: Britain and Russia were at peace. The Russians were actually at war with the Japanese, and their warships, commanded by Admiral Rozhestevensky, were in the early stages of a voyage to the far east. They were thousands of miles from the centre of the conflict when they mistook the Gamecock fleet trawlers for Imperial Japanese Navy torpedo boats.

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In the ensuing attack, George Smith, skipper of the trawler Crane, and his third hand, John Leggott, were decapitated as shells rained down on the fleet. The bombardment lasted for almost 20 minutes, and some trawlers were raked from stem to stern. But, despite the firepower turned on them, only the Crane sank, though several other vessels were badly damaged.

Dubbed by the press as the ‘Dogger Bank Incident’ or ‘Russian Outrage’, it seemed for a while that the level of national, and indeed international, anger generated by this apparently irrational and unprovoked attack on the unarmed trawlermen of the world’s greatest maritime nation, might plunge Europe into a major conflagration. The fact that the incident took place not only in Britain’s own back yard, but also on the eve of the 99th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, only added to the outrage.

Within days the Royal Navy had 26 warships at sea. War seemed imminent, but eventually passions waned and the Russians sailed on. Admiral Rozhestevensky continued his tortuous journey east only to see his fleet largely destroyed, perhaps not surprisingly, by Admiral Togo at the battle of Tsu-Shima in May 1905.

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For a brief moment this extraordinary incident put the work of the Gamecock and other North Sea boxing fleets on front pages across the world but they soon slipped back into obscurity. The story of the boxing fleet fishermen was largely forgotten until a collection of Edwardian glass-plate tinted images, discovered in 2009 by photographic historian James Morley following a London house sale, helped throw fresh light on their lives. Offering an intimate view of Hull trawlermen plying their trade, c1910, they are now part of a University of Hull website that tells the maritime story of these fishing fleets and their remarkable crews.

Boxing fleets carried out an early form of mechanised, intensive or industrial fishing. They were named for the boxes in which the crews packed their fish, and worked far from port for weeks on end. Most days the fleets met with fast steam cutters from London, and their precious boxes of fish were transferred from trawler to ship by open rowing boat – far out in the North Sea in every kind of weather. The cutters then dashed for the Thames through all sorts of conditions in order to make the morning market. This system allowed the trawlers to remain on the fishing grounds for almost six weeks at a time – rather than return to shore every time their holds were filled – and yet provide a constant supply of fresh fish. Cutters, trawlers and trawlermen all played their part in a seemingly endless struggle to service Billingsgate market and satisfy London’s insatiable demand for fish.

Fishermen from Barking introduced fleeting in the 1820s. By 1864 the firm of Hewetts, who later moved to East Anglia, ran two large fleets. Other ports, including Hull, Grimsby and Scarborough, followed suit and the system was refined and developed. Originally, fish were transferred in bulk, by baskets, from trawler to cutter and the proceeds from the catch split evenly among the fleet. This method, though, lacked incentives, equally rewarding lazy and hardworking crews. In around 1878, Hull and Grimsby owners began packing fish in boxes, and each trawler attached a unique disc or token to their boxes. This meant that every fishing vessel was rewarded with the fruits of its own crew’s labours.

The lives of many trawlermen were lost while fleeting, yet few contemporaries knew much about the rough, and often brutal, life of this neglected navy of seafarers. One man, however, who visited them at work on the North Sea, was determined to improve their spiritual and bodily welfare. In 1881, Ebenezer Mather, a Londoner who worked in the Thames Church Mission, made a voyage to Hewett’s Short Blue boxing fleet. What he witnessed there both shocked and appalled him. He discovered that the crews spent weeks at sea in small sailing trawlers, lacking even basic amenities, and were left almost totally devoid of any form of spiritual or practical support.

Trawlermen often suffered injuries during this hazardous work but little medical assistance was available. The only, and most dubious, source of support were the coopers (pronounced copers), vessels that sailed from the Dutch coast. Also known as bumboats, they traded hard liquor for fish, much to the chagrin of the trawler owners. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mather noted that drunkenness was an endemic problem among the boxing fleet crews.

Mather returned to port fired up with the desire to make sea life more tolerable for the crews and founded the Mission for Deep Sea Fishermen, which soon became both royal and national. Its initial aim was to support the boxing fleets, and Mather raised money for the venture through an energetic public campaign; his subsequent book, Norard of the Dogger, graphically publicised their life at sea.

With the funds raised, a small fleet of specialist mission vessels was assembled to work among the fleets, providing the fishermen with medical aid and warm clothing, tobacco as well as Bibles – but no booze (international legislation suppressed the high seas liquor traffic). A magazine, Toilers of the Deep, was also launched. The efforts of Mather’s supporters were soon greatly appreciated – indeed, the Royal National Mission for Deep Sea Fishermen still provides Britain’s fishermen with invaluable support today.

During the 1890s, steam trawlers rapidly replaced sailing vessels. Hewetts, by now based at Yarmouth, stuck resolutely to sail but was soon forced out of business. Though the mission by then provided much-needed support to the crews, life among the North Sea boxing fleets remained a hard, hazardous business.

In the steam trawler era, the boxing fleets maintained a constant presence on the trawling grounds for years at a time: as vessels turned for home to replenish food and fuel supplies, they passed other trawlers sailing back to the fleet.

Iron and steam armada

Boxing fleet operations were directed by a man known as the admiral. He was always an experienced and successful skipper; an individual with a lifelong knowledge of the sea and the haunts of fish. He was a man with the presence and personal skills needed to direct the iron and steam armada, ready to cope with whatever the North Sea threw at them. His trawler had a crosstree of lights affixed to the mast so it could be easily picked out by the rest of the fleet.

The last boxing fleet to be introduced was built from scratch in less than nine months by trawling tycoon Charles Hellyer and put to sea in March 1906. Hellyer was a great fan of Shakespeare. He not only christened his son Orlando but named almost every one of more than 40 vessels after a Shakespearian character.

The First World War was to prove the beginning of the end for the boxing fleets. Many trawlers were lost during the conflict, and afterwards the survivors were gathered into just two fleets. During the interwar years, the North Sea became less productive and British trawlermen increasingly concentrated on distant water, trawling off Iceland, the Barents Sea and elsewhere. The last boxing fleet ceased operations in 1936 and the vessels were scrapped or sold off.

On discovering the images, James Morley was keen to find out more about the story behind these photographs, some of which appeared in the Toilers of the Deep magazine as early as 1910. Research shows they were taken among the cutters and trawlers of the Red Cross fleet owned by the Hull Steam Fishing and Ice Company and were attributed to photographer SA Davey. Little else is known about Davey, but the quality of the tinting demonstrates a superb eye for colour. The photographs are remarkable for their level of informality and also show the dogs and cats that became a ubiquitous part of every boxing fleet.

The images have been incorporated, along with other photographs, into a University of Hull website, which shows the life and work of the boxing fleet fishermen. Other material on the site includes audio interviews recorded with contemporary fishermen such as Herbert Johnson, and even a rare piece of early film, which shows the boxing fleet at work in the North Sea. You can view these on www.hull.ac.uk/hmap/visual.html as part of the international History of Marine Animal Populations project. James Morley is trying to gather more information about the vessels and individual crew members and can be contacted at www.whatsthatpicture.com/hull-trawler-challenge.


Boxing fleets at war

Boxing fleet trawlermen and their distant water counterparts were among the finest seafarers of the 20th century. Yet the story of the contribution of British fishermen and fishing vessels in both world wars has often been neglected. While much has been written about Dreadnoughts, Jutland and the like by naval historians, far less has been made of the role of fishing boats in minesweeping and antisubmarine work. That’s not to mention the vital work that fishermen carried out in a multitude of other operations during the two global conflicts.

Historians have underplayed the role of armed steam trawlers, drifters and similar vessels all too often. Yet these vessels were on the maritime front line, dealing with mines and U-Boats in the struggle to keep the vital sea lanes open. Older vessels continued fishing, helping maintain the nation’s food supply, despite regular enemy attacks.

Today, just one vessel survives from the era of the boxing fleet – and that vessel saw action in the First World War. The steam trawler Viola, built in 1906 for the Hellyer fleet, was requisitioned, armed, and sailed off to war with a Hull crew in September 1914.

The little trawler was probably involved in the sinking of two U-Boats. After the war, Viola was sold to Norway and many years later ended her seagoing career in the South Atlantic. Now named Dias, the trawler is laid up at the old whaling station at Grytviken in South Georgia and in 2008 was reunited with its bell – located in Norway by your correspondent. And my connection with the Dias doesn’t end there, for my great grandfather was once mate on the ship.

Robb Robinson is a lecturer at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, part of the University of Hull.

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This article was first published in the January 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine