Fishermen in War Time.

By Walter Wood

Printed: Circa 1920

Publisher: Sampson Lowe Marston & Co. London

Dimensions 14 × 20 × 3 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 14 x 20 x 3

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Faded blue cloth binding with black title on the spine and front board. Also has the front part of dustsheet.

  • F.B.A. provides an in-depth photographic presentation of this item to stimulate your feeling and touch. More traditional book descriptions are immediately available.

             A rare fishing book in great order, a true collector’s item.

Nets, mines and bullets

Very rarely, as we warm our hands by a coal fire or eat our fish supper, do we think about what it took to heat our rooms or fill our plates. We may feel grateful that the task was fortunately undertaken by others-that it is something we would not wish to do ourselves-but nothing more. The life of the fishermen of Northern waters is, and always has been, a perilous one, many brave sailors have drowned in pursuit of food for our nation. When war came the fishing fleet, aware of its duty, did not dry dock and hang its nets until peace returned. It still set out to fish, aware that the perils of its trade would be worsened by the presence of an enemy that knows that a hungry nation will be subdued more quickly. It would have been enough if that was all British fishermen had done, but they also gathered intelligence, cleared mines, fought actions from armed fishing vessels and many other incredible acts of courage and devotion. These were not men whose achievements were seen as glamorous, but they were nonetheless brave, unsung heroes in war as well as in peace. This book details the actions of British Fishermen in Northern waters during the First World War; it is, of course, an account so full of action and incident that it is essential reading for those interested in the study of maritime warfare.

History of British Trawling

The British dogger was a very early type of sailing trawler from the 17th century, but the modern fishing trawler was developed in the 19th century, at the English fishing port of Brixham. By the early 19th century, the fishers at Brixham needed to expand their fishing area further than ever before due to the ongoing depletion of stocks that was occurring in the overfished waters of South Devon. The Brixham trawler that evolved there was of a sleek build and had a tall gaff rig, which gave the vessel sufficient speed to make long-distance trips out to the fishing grounds in the ocean. They were also sufficiently robust to be able to tow large trawls in deep water. The great trawling fleet that built up at Brixham earned the village the title of ‘Mother of Deep-Sea Fisheries’.

Painting of A Brixham trawler by William Adolphus Knell. The painting is now in the National Maritime Museum.

This revolutionary design made large scale trawling in the ocean possible for the first time, resulting in a massive migration of fishers from the ports in the South of England, to villages further north, such as Scarborough, Hull, Grimsby, Harwich and Yarmouth, that were points of access to the large fishing grounds in the Atlantic Ocean. The small village of Grimsby grew to become the largest fishing port in the world by the mid 19th century. An Act of Parliament was first obtained in 1796, which authorised the construction of new quays and dredging of the Haven to make it deeper. It was only in 1846, with the tremendous expansion in the fishing industry, that the Grimsby Dock Company was formed. The foundation stone for the Royal Dock was laid by Albert the Prince consort in 1849. The dock covered 25 acres (10 ha) and was formally opened by Queen Victoria in 1854 as the first modern fishing port.

The elegant Brixham trawler spread across the world, influencing fishing fleets everywhere. By the end of the 19th century, there were over 3,000 fishing trawlers in commission in Britain, with almost 1,000 at Grimsby. These trawlers were sold to fishers around Europe, including from the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Twelve trawlers went on to form the nucleus of the German fishing fleet.

The earliest steam-powered fishing boats first appeared in the 1870s and used the trawl system of fishing as well as lines and drift nets. These were large boats, usually 80–90 feet (24–27 m) in length with a beam of around 20 feet (6 m). They weighed 40–50 tons and travelled at 9–11 knots (17–20 km/h; 10–13 mph). The earliest purpose-built fishing vessels were designed and made by David Allan in Leith, Scotland in March 1875, when he converted a drifter to steam power. In 1877, he built the first screw propelled steam trawler in the world.

Steam trawlers were introduced at Grimsby and Hull in the 1880s. In 1890 it was estimated that there were 20,000 men on the North Sea. The steam drifter was not used in the herring fishery until 1897. The last sailing fishing trawler was built in 1925 in Grimsby. Trawler designs adapted as the way they were powered changed from sail to coal-fired steam by World War I to diesel and turbines by the end of World War II.

In 1931, the first powered drum was created by Laurie Jarelainen. The drum was a circular device that was set to the side of the boat and would draw in the nets. Since World War II, radio navigation aids and fish finders have been widely used. The first trawlers fished over the side, rather than over the stern. The first purpose-built stern trawler was Fairtry built-in 1953 at Aberdeen, Scotland. The ship was much larger than any other trawlers then in operation and inaugurated the era of the ‘super trawler’. As the ship pulled its nets over the stern, it could lift out a much greater haul of up to 60 tons. The ship served as a basis for the expansion of ‘super trawlers’ around the world in the following decades.

A Review of Fishing in the First World War

In the second of an occasional series to remember the crucially important role fishermen took on a century ago, John Worrall looks back at the start of the hostilities in the North Sea following the outbreak of World War 1.

So rapid was the chain of events that led to the declaration of war on August 4, 1914, that it caught those at the sharp end by surprise. Both navies had plenty of big, new warships but no match practice, and Britain, for its part, hadn’t lost a ship through military action since that little local difficulty with Napoleon a century before. But those warships, armoured, heavily-armed and fast, were immediately compromised by two new factors – mines and submarines – which would change forever the face of naval warfare. Shortly after war was declared, Admiral Jellicoe, in charge of the Grand Fleet, and afraid of accusations of a lack of fighting spirit, wrote a paper saying that he would not pursue a retreating enemy because they might be feigning flight to lure his ships onto torpedoes or mines. He was aware, as Churchill said later, that he could lose the war in an afternoon. His point was endorsed in October 1914, just after U9 had sunk those three British cruisers of the ‘Live Bait Squadron’, when the Second Battle Squadron was conducting gunnery practice off County Donegal, safely away from any submarine threat as it thought, only for the almost new Dreadnaught Audacious to be sunk by a mine. Thereafter, no British or German Dreadnoughts were sunk by any method, partly because they dared not go anywhere without massive mine-sweeping efforts running before them. That was a real palaver, with the outdated gunboats and destroyers that initially did the job having limited range, and therefore sailing with coal piled on the decks. But mines still caused far more damage to Royal Navy and merchant shipping than torpedoes or gunfire.

So fishing boats were put onto mine clearance and anti-submarine work, part of their advantage being that they could function in heavier weather and, with their fish holds full of coal, were able to stay at sea for three to four weeks. Some were bought by the government, while others were chartered if they were under 10 years old and able to steam 1,000 miles at eight knots. The charter fee was based on 12% per annum of the trawler’s then value, which in turn was calculated at £18 per ton gross, with £40 per nominal horsepower of the machinery and boilers, depreciated at 4% per annum. Sweeping was mainly done in harbour approaches, rather than ahead of warships, for which trawlers were too slow, and by 8 August, less than a week after declaration, at least 114 were in service or fitting out. Many of them were in Lowestoft, which became the chief depot for sweepers. And there was urgency from the outset because three significant minefields were discovered very early in the piece; one during the first few days off Southwold, sown by the Königin Luise, which was duly sunk by the Harwich Force, only for the Force’s flag ship HMS Amphion to be sunk by its mines. Then, in late August, the Yarmouth steam drifter, City of Belfast, fishing near the Outer Dowsing, found two mines in its herring nets and thus discovered the Humber minefield. The skipper kept fishing but when another exploded in a net the following day, he decided discretion was the wiser plan, abandoned the gear and went home. On that occasion, 10 steam drifters – rather than more powerful trawlers – were sent from Lowestoft to sweep the field, working in tandem pairs to get enough pull on the sweep wire, but two of them, the Lindsell and Speedy, hit mines and sank.

Fishermen in WW1 - sweeping all before - Oakland

The Great Yarmouth steam drifter, Oakland.

The third minefield was off the Tyne where, in October, the North Shields trawler/sweeper, Lily, was mined with the loss of seven of her 10 crew, the three survivors being picked up by the Great Yarmouth drifter, Oakland. And by then, with much of the fishing fleet commandeered and a thus much reduced fishing effort, the inescapable law of supply and demand was coming to bear.

While food prices nationally rose by 78% between July 1914 and November 1916, fish rose by 132%, and even when, in January 1918, the Fish (Prices) Order belatedly laid down maximum prices, those maximums, as The Times observed, quickly became minimums. Naturally enough, boats which kept – or returned to – fishing, usually with skippers and crews too old to be reservists, did well. Even dogfish found a market. According to Fishing News, Scottish boats working herring from Yarmouth during the 1915 season ‘only had to go to sea and put their noses in the fishing grounds to come back with at least a catch worth £100’. In Dundee the previous December, the sprat fleet had been getting over £2 a cran compared to six or seven shillings (30-35p) pre-war. But those Scottish boats working from Yarmouth were doing the right thing, donating a cran of herring each in 1914, to be sold for the Belgian Relief Fund in support of Belgian boats and families that had fled to England just before the Germans moved into Ostend. The following year, they made the same donation to the British Red Cross Society. And not only mariners, but also the British public, appreciated the sweepers’ efforts and were always sending them presents, to the extent that the Naval Store Office ‘got fed up with handling the stuff’. Donations were particularly thick at Christmas – balaclavas, helmets, socks, cardigans, pullovers and scarves etc. At the Invergordon depot in Scotland, a large barrel of walnuts turned up, addressed to ‘the officer i/c mine-sweepers’, but, not properly sealed, it was moved to a small outbuilding at the town hall because the depot was short of storage.

When they returned to collect it a few days later, there was a roll of dirty canvas lying on top of it, out of which fell a dead Chinaman who had been brought ashore from an oil tanker, the outbuilding apparently serving as a temporary morgue. There was some debate on whether the nuts might be infected with whatever disease had killed him, but one of the sweeping skippers pointed out that if they didn’t eat the shells or crack them with their teeth, no-one should catch anything, which turned out to be the case.

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