Hull and Distant Water Fishing, Part One: The Rise of the Sidewinders


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.


In the 16th Century, Europe fishing entered a “Cod Rush” after John Cabot’s discovery of the Grand Banks fishing grounds off Newfoundland. The only nation that didn't join in was England, although cod may be the origin of Britain as a maritime nation. "It was cod that had first lure Englishmen from the safety of their coastline in pre-Roman times," Mark Kurlansky writes. But the British fishermen could ignore the Grand Banks. The North and Irish Seas brimmed with cod. In addition, adventurous British fishermen had found good hunting further afield. "By the early fifteenth century, two- and three-masted ketches with rudders were going to Iceland and the Faeroes. Not only were these some of the best fishing vessels of the day , but not until the twentieth century would Icelanders have vessels of an equal quality for fishing their own waters." The British left Icelandic waters at the end of the 16th century after a brief confrontation with Norway, which controlled Iceland, but would return 3 centuries later with repercussions directly connected to the story of Under the Whaleback. Fishing remained a local industry until the 19th century, when a series of events would make the East Yorkshire towns of Hull and Grimsby the fishing capitals of the world.

Part One: The Rise of the Sidewinders

Both towns had relied on fishing for centuries, although in the 18th and early 19th centuries, whaling was the real focus of industry. This started to change in 1837, with the discovery of the Silver Pits, south of the Dogger Bank fishing grounds (and basically in their backyards), in 1837. Making this discovery more attractive was that the new industrial working class of London, dependent on buying its food, had been developing a taste for fried fish, and a recent invention, the railroad, had made London convenient for fresh (or "wet") fish from the north. (Britons had never developed a taste for salt cod.)

The Silver Pits were the first fishing grounds where bottom dragger nets became the norm. Within decades, metal-hulled and steam-powered ships began to appear. In fact, the first steam-powered trawler, the Zodiac, was built in Hull in 1881. "By the 1890s, not a single sailing trawler was left in Hull, and steam-powered trawlers were becoming commonplace in the North Sea." These trawlers shot and hauled, or wound, their nets over the starboard side and became known as "sidewinders." A new type of net, the "otter trawl," which could conform more closely to the sea bottom, became standard equipment by the end of the century.

This was a huge technological innovation, and Hull and Grimsby were the Silicon Valley of the late 19th century fishing world. "Steam ships with otter trawls were reporting catches more than six times greater than those of sail ships," reports Mark Kurlansky in his book Cod. "By the 1890s, fish stocks were already showing signs of depletion in the North Sea, but the primary reaction was not conservation." (When has it ever been in these circumstances?) "Instead North Sea fleets traveled farther to richer grounds off Iceland." These Icelandic ships were almost exclusively out of Hull and Grimsby. Hull, in fact, gave up North Sea fishing altogether for a fleet of trawlers that fished off the short of Iceland, Greenland, in the Norwegian fjords, and north and east to Bear Island and the White Sea of Russia. This was what is called “distant water” in Under the Whaleback.

By the beginning of World War I, a trawler off Iceland could haul as many fish as three fishing in the North Sea. And there was little competition: the Icelanders were just beginning the transition from using the same open row boats they'd relied upon 400 years earlier. But cod got a reprieve: their decimation at the hands of the English ceased when all the trawlers were requisitioned for military use in the human decimation of World War I.

Fishing resumed after the war, and the fishing towns’ resumed for a while. The Great Depression also saw the cod stock declining again from overfishing.

World War II again put an end to British trawling. All the ships were requisitioned for military use. Most served as minesweepers or convoy escorts. Two armed Hull trawlers sailed to Iceland with Royal Marines to seize the port of Reykjavik before the Germans could, providing the Allies with a stopover point through which supplies, arms, and soldiers passed in the fight against fascism. Hull itself was bombed frequently by the Luftwaffe: 95% of the houses in Hull were destroyed or damaged during the war.

Photo: Trawler by Goole Ship Building and Repair,1903


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