Hull and Distant Water Fishing, Part Two: A Trawlerman’s Life
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.
A Trawlerman’s Life
As a result of this fishing boom, Hull and Grimsby prospered. They built the ships, their fishermen - skippers, mates, and deckies - sailed the ships and caught the fish, bobbers or lumpers (depending on the town) unloaded the fish for merchants who sold the fish to points south.
Communities centered on the fish trade grew up "down dock.” In Hull, this was Hessle Road, near St. Andrews Dock; in Grimsby, Freeman Street. In the oral history Fishermen: The Rise and Fall of Deep Water Trawling, Ken Robinson of Hull describes Hessle Road:
Hessle Road was marvelous. Nobody had anything but it was a wonderful place to live. There was nowhere else in the world like it. They were all fishing families, from one end of Hessle Road to the other. Maybe two and a half mile, from Osborne Street to Dee Street, it was almost completely fishing families, fishing or connected with fishing. There were that many pubs you could have a drink in each one and by the time you got to the other end you'd be blind drunk. The pubs were always crowded. There was either a pub or a club [private social clubs requiring membership and with longer hours than pubs] for nearly every street.
These communities were built around the structure of the fishing industry. Boys would go off to sea as "snackers" (or deckie learners) or galley boys assisting the cook, often as young as 14 or 15, on voyages that averaged three weeks for the distant water trawlers. If they could cut it - if they could overcome the seasickness nearly all trawlermen faced until they got their sealegs (some confessed to always feeling it for the first couple of days sailing), if they could stand the 18 hour days (longer if the fishing was good) shooting and hauling nets then gutting the catch on an open deck, often in subfreezing sea spray - they would get another voyage. Some worked their way up the employment ladder: from deckie to Third Hand, Third Hand to Mate, Mate to Skipper. Others stayed at lower levels their entire careers.
But the routine commenced. Late at night or early in the morning, the shipowner would send a cab to fetch the fishermen - from their home, the pub, the brothel . . . Three weeks at sea, then three days home, hopefully with so much money in your pocket from a good catch (deckies were paid based on pounds landed, skippers and mates a percentage of the profit) you were a "three day millionaire," with money to burn at the pub, to buy a new suit that showed the world you were a deckie, and perhaps to buy some gifts for the wife and children and pay the bills. Then off to sea again. Ten percent of sailors logged 350 days at sea each year, half changing ships one to three times a year.
Photo: Illustration of St. Andrew's Dock, Hull