Hull and Distant Water Fishing, Part Three: Postwar Boom
Before you set foot onto the deck of the Kingston Jet, the James Joyce, and the Arctic Kestrel Museum in our North American Premiere of Under the Whaleback, check out this five-part series by Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the rich history, maritime culture, and world-wide impact of Cod Fishing.
Once again, world war gave the cod stocks a chance to replenish. Fishing boomed after the war. But the seeds of distant water's demise had been planted. The only nation fishing commercially between 1939 and 1945 was Iceland, which now had its own fleet of modern trawlers, and was entering the 20th century through a combination of the fishing trade and the result of four years exposure to American culture through the base at Reykjavik. As happened elsewhere following the war, the assumption that the Britannia ruled the waves began to be challenged.
It took years for this to become clear, however. In the meantime there was plenty of fish for everyone it seemed, and the shipowners of Hull responded to the competition with innovation, building new ships powered by oil or diesel that were faster and more maneuverable. There were between 500 and 700 ships in the British fishing fleet, including about 200 over 140 feet in length built specifically for deep water fishing, two-thirds of them in Hull. 20,000 people worked directly in the fishing industry in Hull and Grimsby in the 50s, out of a combined population less than a quarter-million. One-third of the fishermen were sons of fishermen. Most came from fishing families and nearly all had at least grown up in the community.
"It's Nae Fish Ye're Buying, It's Men's Lives"
The editors of the oral history Fishermen aptly suggest that "the sons of the trawler towns were fulfilling a destiny rather than choosing a job and for most there was no choice to make." A often deadly destiny. Synge's play Riders to the Sea deals with the tension of a family waiting for their menfolk to return. In 1816, William Scott reported hearing a fishmonger in Edinburgh haggling over prices, saying "It's nae fish ye're buying, it's men's lives."
Fishing has always been a dangerous profession: in the twentieth century, it has consistently had the highest fatality rate of any industry. Sidewinder trawling is the most dangerous type of fishing. Between 1946, when trawler fishing resumed, and 1975, when the industry collapsed, 32 Hull trawlers sank, with a loss of nearly 200 men. Many other seamen died from other causes. Skippers controlled the working hours aboard ship. If fishing was good, the crew might go 36 hours without sleep, shooting and hauling the net, gutting the fish on the open deck in between. The traditional danger of being washed overboard was joined by industrial-age hazards - being crushed by machinery or decapitated by malfunctioning cables. Two years were particularly tragic. In 1955, the Lovella and the Roderigo sank without a trace within hours of each other (the Roderigo attempting to help the Lovella): all 40 crewmen were lost. 1968 saw the famous Triple Trawler Tragedy, when the Kingston Peridot, the St. Romanus, and the Ross Cleveland sank in the space of three weeks. The Ross Cleveland's mate, Harry Eddom, was the only survivor from the three ships. In 1974, the giant Hull stern trawler Gaul disappeared with all 34 crewmembers.
Iceland had the best fishing, but was also some of the most dangerous water, especially on the west side, and especially in the winter, where the crew of the James Joyce find themselves “dodging” in Act 2 of Under the Whaleback. Bill Hardie of Grimbsy said “The west side of Iceland was rough ground where they used to say, the fishermen that fished there, that they were going where angels feared to tread.” Tom Jacombe, also of Grimsby, said:
The worst weather, I think, was at Iceland. Even in the summer there you got some bad gales. But the ice was a terrible thing. . . . You’d be fishing in fine weather and before you’d got time to haul your gear aboard it was upon you. The winds used to just spring up and bring frosts with them. You couldn’t do a thing about it. The weather conditions were that bad you perhaps couldn’t get to the land for safety. You had to ride it out – what we call dodging.
Photo: The Ross Cleveland. She sank in the triple trawler tragedy in 1968.