Article courtesy of Fred Edwards
At the best of times Grimsby fish dock was not a place to inspire thoughts of adventure or romance and this was certainly not the best of times. It was 1947 on the sort of day in late summer that reflected the mood of the country in those early post war years – grey and depressing. I was standing on the North Wall of the dock with my back to the penetrating damp wind, peering across the bleak windswept water, which seethed with the detritus of an ancient but prosperous industry. Then my watering eyes found her; over on the far side of the fish dock among a cluster of trawlers tied up against the Icing Berth – my first working ship.
In written in fading white letters just below the whaleback on her high sharp bow I could just make out the name ‘Drummer Boy’. Her hull, in common with virtually the entire trawler fleet, was painted black with the obligatory streaks of rust caused when hauling her gear disfiguring her battered sides.
Like all the other ships in the group she had a long raking foredeck broken at about the half way mark by her wheel house. Aft of the wheel house stretched the raised engine room casing from which protruded the single tall thin funnel and two spindly ventilators. The casing ran along at about shoulder height until it culminated at the after end in the slightly raised hump of the galley. Between the after end of the galley, and reaching to the stern, was a raised grating to which was lashed the lifeboat.
She had two masts, one on the foredeck used for handling the fishing gear, and one aft fitted with a boom which some long dead optimist responsible for designing steam trawlers had intended for use when hoisting out the boat; the after mast, usually called the mizzen mast was also rigged with a red triangular sail. In those post war days most of the ships comprising our fishing fleet were old; but even by the standards of the time Drummer Boy was old. She had probably been launched around about the turn of the century, which meant that at the time I was due to join her she was getting on for fifty years old. That didn’t worry me too much at the time because my knowledge and experience of ships was very limited.
She was taking ice on board as I stood looking at her and listing quite heavily to starboard. She struck me as being like a tired old lady leaning up against a wall for a rest after a hard day; which, in a way, if you equate ships with human beings, was exactly what she was. The list caused her to expose an indecorous amount of her lower hull on the starboard side to my critical inspection. This was scarred with decades of incidental damage and painted a sort of red that closely resembled rust, and may well have included a large proportion of that encrustation that slowly brings death to all steel ships.
Viewed in the most charitable light, she was not an impressive sight; and certainly not one likely to stir the blood of a young man seeking adventure. I had already spent some time at sea but not in ships that worked for a living. My earlier experience had been based on wartime service in aircraft carriers of the Royal Navy. After several abortive attempts to volunteer for that highly regarded service I was eventually accepted on my seventeenth birthday and classified as a ‘Special Boy’. This impressive title could have implied that I would be singled out for special treatment; but in fact, once in, Special Boys were barked at, bullied and abused, in exactly the same way as all the ordinary boys. For some unaccountable reason this treatment had not dampened my ardour for the life of a sailor although by the age of twenty I was had matured enough to know that my future would not be served in the Royal Navy.
Now this meeting with the Drummer Boy was my first face-to-face encounter with ships that had to earn a living. From early boyhood I had clung to an uncritical, dreamer’s desire for a life at sea which, in retrospect, seems rather odd for someone born in a Birmingham slum. In the thirties though, the idea was not altogether surprising or unrealistic. A successful criminal career or life in one of the services were two of the very few ways open to a working class boy that would enable him to escape from the back streets and into the wider world outside. And since failure in the first option was likely to remove you from the outside world for some time, I opted for the second one because I figured that I would generally be locked up for much shorter periods.
For reasons that are not clear to me today, all my thoughts about going to sea centred around life in the Royal Navy; and this vague dream, once it took hold, became something of an obsession with me to such an extent that, had I been reliably informed that life in the Navy involved being flogged twice a week, it would not have deterred me. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that there was any other way to go to sea; and in those days the prestige of the Royal Navy was very high. Even people who had never set eyes on a warship in their entire lives were firmly convinced that our Navy was the best in the world – and it certainly was the biggest. Although subsequent events were soon to put the quality in some doubt.
I cannot think now why the life of a soldier did not have the same appeal for me; most of my uncles had been soldiers; but I just knew it was not the life for me. One of the obvious drawbacks to my determination to be a sailor was that, geographically, Birmingham was not a good place to observe or study shipping. Apart from a trip on paddle steamer while on holiday, I never did set eyes on a real ship until after I joined the Navy. I managed to indulge my seagoing fantasies to some extent when I went to live in North Devon as a wartime evacuee. A regular visitor to Ilfracombe harbour was a very ancient and very grimy little collier called with unconscious irony ‘Snowflake’.
Every few days she would struggle across the Bristol Channel bringing coal from Swansea. I can only imagine that the Germans did not consider her worth the expenditure of a bomb or torpedo because although the Luftvaffe often subjected Swansea to raids she was never attacked.
In addition to the Snowflake the RAF had a couple of target towing and rescue launches operating from the harbour; and these held a much more glamorous attraction for me. Rather deviously, I joined the local Air Training Corps with a view to ingratiating myself with the Flight Sergeant in charge of the launches. I certainly had no love for flying or any interest in aircraft. My membership of the corps simply gave me the chance to work on the launches whenever the crew fancied taking someone along to make the tea. In spite of the regular bombing attacks on Swansea and Cardiff no aircraft, either German or British, was unfortunate enough to crash in our area of operations, consequently very little of their time was spent in the exciting business of rescuing downed pilots.
Most of the work the launches did involved towing a target for bombing practice or recovering practice torpedoes; but I loved every minute of it. After a couple of under age attempts to get myself into the Navy I finally managed it in 1943 and joined H.M.S. Royal Arthur, which, in spite of the vocabulary used in such places, was not at all ship like. In reality it was, rather prosaically, a Butlins holiday camp on a bleak stretch of the east coast at Skegness. A place where, no matter what the calendar said, it always felt like winter.
One of my first official duties, which occurred within days of joining, was attending the funeral of a boy who had joined about a fortnight before I had. It was rumoured among us boys that he had died of consumption. This depressing incident might have put a lot of recruits off but it made little impression on me. Little else of note happened during my time at Skeggie except for a flying visit by two German bombers presumably on the way back to a base in Holland or Norway. They must have already dropped their bombs on a more inviting target for they crossed the camp at an altitude of what looked like fifty feet machine gunning enthusiastically. In spite of the fact that about eight thousand men and boys closely populated the camp and most of the buildings were made of plywood and tarpaper, no casualties were reported.
The Royal Marines were manning a couple of Bofors anti aircraft guns on the seaward side of the camp but by the time they had stirred themselves and were ready to fire the Germans were long gone. This left me with an impression that either German airmen were rotten shots or that machine gunning from the air was not cost effective.
When I joined up I fully intended to make the Navy a lifetime career. In reality my career prospects in the Navy would always have been blighted. The Navy very soon discovered that I was colour blind. I had always had a lurking suspicion about my ability to recognise colours, but I had managed to keep the feeling hidden even from myself. All the fantasies of my boyhood had somehow refused to recognise this deficiency.
Perhaps I visualised myself reaching high rank in the Navy where my colour identification skills would not be called into question. If such a situation were to arise I would always be able to ask some junior officer to help me with my problem. In any case, I wasn’t too sure what ranks they actually had in the Navy. But deep in my soul I was convinced that some act of daring on my part would ensure that I would almost certainly wind up as a high-ranking officer. It didn’t take me long to realise that in practice most of the people who performed daring deeds tended to wind up dead.
In the event, by the end of the war I had qualified as an ordnance mechanic, which meant that I serviced the guns on aircraft; and I had reached a rank about equivalent to a lance corporal in the army. In view of my earlier ambitions this seemed pretty slow progress and, owing to the distinct lack of any opportunity, or indeed, a willingness to perform daring deeds, I calculated that at this rate I would need to stay in the Navy for about two hundred years to make admiral.
Quite apart from all that, the mood among service men at that time, even those who had originally volunteered for service, was that they had done enough for king and country and it was now time to look after number one. I was serving with the British Pacific Fleet when the war ended, and in many ways I had enjoyed my wartime service so I had no hard feelings. But when our captain called us on parade and gave us what he thought was going to be a recruiting speech for the peace time Navy not a man among us volunteered for further service.
He was a regular officer and the picture he painted of service in the post-war Royal Navy, presumably based upon his own pre-war experience, was of one long round of inter-ship football matches, fleet regattas and cocktail parties for the officers. He was a good captain, popular with the hands, with a fine war record, I have no idea what became of him, but I hope everything worked out for him just the way he visualised it. But that was not the life for me; I was hopeless at football and rowing, and my lowly status made it unlikely that I would ever get an invite to the cocktail parties.
I left the Navy with a very small silver handshake, a change of clothing consisting of one suit, a trilby hat, two shirts, a pair of shoes, and a tie. Typically the Navy never relented, and even on our very last day in the service we were marched down to the nearest railway station in uniform carrying our civvies in a cardboard box; but I was happy enough. I was just twenty years old and I had no clear idea of what I was going to do except that I would not be rejoining the Royal Navy.
I spent the silver handshake on an army surplus motorcycle and, finding that there was not much call for armourers in civilian life, I took a job as an insurance agent. This involved riding around on my motorcycle and collecting the premiums each week from people who, very frequently, would not or, in some cases, could not pay. To do this conscientiously involved a considerable amount of determination and guile together with a fair knowledge of human nature.
Somewhat to my surprise I found that agents were also expected to sell new policies; but since I lacked skills in all of these departments, I can only describe myself as a complete failure. My long suffering boss didn’t put it that way when he accepted my resignation, but the way his face lit up told a different story. It must have been obvious to him that I was totally unsuitable for the job; and the only bit that I actually liked was riding the motor cycle. In spite of being basically an insurance salesman, my boss was a pleasant, rather sensitive man and was obviously embarrassed at the idea of sacking a young returning hero; so my voluntary resignation solved a problem for both of us.
In truth I had been scanning the newspaper ads for some more adventurous profession all the time I had been working in the insurance job. In fact I had already written off to a variety of companies asking about jobs with the whaling fleet, deep sea diving and once, rather bizarrely since I am not Jewish, for a job as an air gunner in the Israeli Air force.
Not surprisingly these efforts met with no success. Then, very shortly after my failure to make my mark in the insurance industry, almost as though some unseen hand was guiding my future, I read an article in one of the national papers about a training school for aspiring trawler men that had been set up in Grimsby; and it even mentioned high earnings. This sounded just the sort of thing I had been waiting for.
I made my way down to the local Labour exchange and announced my willingness to enrol immediately. This was my first visit to one of these establishments and I was not impressed. There was an odd smell about the place compounded of old clothes and stale cigarette smoke that did little to lighten the generally depressing air of the place. I would not have been surprised to find the words ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter’ carved in the lintel above the entrance.
The clerk behind the desk, a bored individual in an old and very shiny suit who probably spent much of his time working out how long he had to go for his pension, announced with obvious pleasure that he had never heard of the scheme. Determined not to be put off so easily I suggested that he could phone the Grimsby Labour Exchange and ask someone there about it. He stared at me in disbelief for some time, and then said “I can’t make a phone call about something like that, I’ll make some enquiries and you can come back next week”.
His manner suggested that he regarded the use of the telephone as an underhand practice never indulged in by exalted members of the bureaucracy such as Labour Exchange clerks.
I wondered briefly how he intended to communicate with anyone in Grimsby by the following week; I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that he was going to use carrier pigeons. There were a lot of people like that about in those days. The war had been a Godsend to them. Any request likely to involve them in making an effort could be met with the fatuous question, ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ Of course there was no answer to that, nor did they intend that there should be. Oddly enough it was often directed at people in uniform so I can only imagine that they thought we had just joined up to get a free suit.
In the event I decided that I couldn’t afford to let another week slip by in case all the vacancies were filled, so, fearful and nervous but quite determined, I took the liberty of phoning the Grimsby Labour Exchange myself. This was probably the first phone call of any consequence I had ever made, largely because I didn’t know anyone who had a phone. To my surprise the person who answered my call was not only knowledgeable but very helpful, he gave me another number to call and advised me to ask for a Mr. Humberstone. This was getting very exciting and I lost no time in calling him. Mr. Humberstone was apparently the person who had suggested the training scheme to the trawler owners association and, presumably as a reward, had been made responsible for the administration of it. This must have been a very early example of ‘job creation’. I have no idea what his background was but when I eventually met him he turned out to be a large, sleek gentleman with a slight paunch bulging beneath his waistcoat and the shiny well shaved jowls that were to my mind the hallmark of a confidence trickster.
He was nattily turned out in a dark blue suit and had a way of addressing people that somehow hinted without actually saying it that he might have once have been a Naval officer. Having met a fair number of real naval officers I suspected that his ex-officer manner was nothing more than a front. His true background was probably closer to that of an estate agent or a used car dealer. I was quite sure that he had certainly never spent any time in a working capacity on the deck of a trawler; and this was confirmed by the numerous, and probably slanderous, calumnies heaped on his character by my future shipmates.
Once I got away to sea I never heard any trawler man express anything other than contempt for him even though none of them seemed to know much about him. This attitude was not altogether surprising because trawler men had an all embracing contempt for all male office workers anyway; and indeed, of anyone who went to work in a suit. All the same, when I spoke to him on the phone he was surprisingly receptive to my suggestion that I might be suitable material for a deep-sea fisherman. In any event I would have been prepared to ‘Sup with the Devil’ to help my case.
After some preliminary chat, he simply asked me how old I was and whether I had served in the Royal or Merchant Navy. I was unsure whether it would help my case to adjust my age upwards or downwards. Faced with such a quandary, I decided to go for the truth and explained to him that I was twenty years old and had served for three years in the Royal Navy. At this stage I thought it best not to point out that much of this time had been spent working on aircraft and that, from my point of view, a ship was just something for planes to land on.
As near as I could tell, Mr. Humberstone seemed quite pleased with my replies and even went so far as to say that he thought I was ‘Just the sort of chap’ he was looking for. He then assured me that if I made a written application addressed to him, then he was quite sure that he could find a place for me on one of his training courses. I think this was an early example of people being paid for putting ‘bums on seats’. In retrospect, and in view of what I was to learn later about the enormous wastage rate of trainees, he would probably have been just as encouraging if I had told him I was fifteen years old, was a registered blind person, and had once been on a boat trip around the park pond.
Within hours my application was in the post, with a glowing and almost accurate account of my life to date, but leaving out the bits about being expelled from grammar school; and also the stuff about working on aircraft. Almost by return of post I received not only a favourable reply to my application but a travel warrant and some directions to report to an annexe of the Grimsby Nautical School for further instructions. The very speed of this reply should have put me on my guard; but in truth caution was not a word in my vocabulary at that time. I could hardly wait to get cracking on this new adventure. I simply packed a case with whatever items I thought might be useful to a prospective trawlerman, stowed away the motorcycle and made my way, as instructed, to Grimsby.
In many ways my time in the Navy had served me well because it had made me quite accustomed to arriving in strange places and reporting to people, we did it every time we were given a new posting. This would sometimes mean having to travel from Portsmouth or Lee on Solent to some remote Naval Air station or base anywhere in the U.K. This could frequently entail not only a train journey of twenty four hours or more, but the almost superhuman task of moving your large kit bag, hammock, ditty box and toolbox, from Waterloo Station to Euston and humping it onto an already over crowded train.
Sometimes this ordeal was complicated even further by taking place very late at night or in the early hours of the morning after the tube trains had stopped running. Sometimes taking place in the middle of an air raid warning even further complicated it. It was a common sight at that time to see groups of sailors dragging those large station trolleys piled high with kit through the blacked out streets between one station and another.
Our habitual poverty and the fact that they were monopolised by American servicemen ruled out the use of taxis. After that sort of experience, travelling to Grimsby in the daytime with just a suitcase was child’s play. I soon found the annexe to the Nautical School at which I had been instructed to report; it was in what turned out to be an old school building not far from the dock station. Inside I found two or three small groups of young men who were muttering among themselves in that cagey way adopted by people in the services when they were not too sure what was going to happen next. Astonishingly there always seemed to be someone in such a group who was able to inform the rest of the congregation with some certainty what their fate was going to be. And although he was invariably wrong, this didn’t seem to cause him any loss of face with his shipmates
On this occasion we were not to be left in doubt for long; a ruddy faced, balding gentleman, with a very powerful voice, and wearing a faded navy blue suit introduced himself by bellowing “Nah then lads”. This, I was to discover, was not only a greeting but was also a preliminary to any proclamation, conversation or announcement among all Grimsby trawler men. “My name’s Mr. Hodson”, he went on, “and I’m going to be in charge of you for the next three weeks; but today we are just going to sort out some lodgings for you. Tomorrow at nine o’clock I shall want you all back here again – alright!” Then from a list of addresses he allocated each of us our lodgings and told us to make our way there and settle ourselves in. As it turned out, two other trainees were going to the same address as I was and after mutual introductions we opted to take a taxi from the station and share the cost between us – we were all in a pretty expansive mood at the time. The lodging turned out to be in the rear and the top part of a greengrocer’s shop which stood just on the boundary between Grimsby and Cleethorpes. It was very handily placed for us as there was a bus stop immediately outside and a large pub on the opposite corner, both of which were to prove very useful to us in the fullness of time
Our landlady was, or claimed to be, a widow, and she was in that sort of easily recognised but not easily defined sexual wasteland of womanhood in that she was neither old nor young nor handsome or plain: entirely without allure, and in two words – utterly unremarkable.
The rest of the household consisted of a daughter of about fourteen who was certainly remarkable and unforgettable. She seemed to have been cursed by her creator with every unattractive feature that could had been imposed upon any human being. Her skin had the texture and colour of old rice pudding, her mousy hair was lank and greasy, she had uneven yellow teeth and a permanent sniffle. Whenever she spoke, in a voice that clearly denoted some kind of problem with adenoids, she seemed to be whining about some obscure problem in her life; and she certainly must have had many. Once glance was enough to convince me that she was never going to distract any of us from our studies.
After taking us up to the rooms we were to occupy and allowing us a short spell to work out who would sleep where, the landlady called us downstairs for a meal, which turned into an educational introduction to the normal pattern of life in a Grimsby lodging house. She introduced herself and explained to us that although she only had two bedrooms available, she felt perfectly capable of catering for five trawler men because, in the normal way, most of them would be away at sea at any given time. In fact at the time of our induction there were, nominally, two other trainees entitled to stay at the house; but at the time of our arrival they were both away at sea on their first trip.
This was something of an eye opener to us. Accustomed as we were to sharing crowded barrack rooms and messes in our service life we half expected to be allowed a reasonable measure of privacy in civilian life. Our earlier inspection of our present quarters had not impressed us for the accommodation consisted of only two rooms one containing a double bed and a single bed and another much smaller on containing one double bed.
She went on to explain that while we trainees were at school our bed and board was paid for by the Trawler Owners Association. Once we began going to sea professionally however, we, in common with the normal trawler man’s practice, would pay what was always referred to as ‘in or out money’. This was, as it’s name implies, a sum of money that was paid out to the landlady each week by the trawler owner and was deducted from the lodger’s wages. This sum was quite a lot less than the amount that a full time payment would have been but was not inconsiderable. At the time I seem to recall that it was around 30 shillings a week. The system was something of a gamble from the landlady’s point of view because a number of unforeseen factors could influence the length of time a lodger might stay in port. And this could vary a great deal.
The steadier type of competent crewman might stay in the same ship for trip after trip. This would mean, in the normal way, that he would only be ashore for two days in between trips that could last for anything between ten to thirty days. Unfortunately for the Grimsby landladies this type of paragon was very thin on the ground. Much more common was the rootless young single man who would either leave or be fired after only one or two trips in a ship, and who then had a tendency to stay ashore until all his money was spent. Sometimes this might take as long as three or four days. And, what made it even worse, in spite of being more or less permanently drunk; he would unerringly stagger back to his lodgings for his meals. There was no shortage of jobs and being sacked from one ship was no bar to signing on another ship in the same company, and often, after an interval of a few weeks, in the same ship. It was a widely held, and probably justified, belief among fishermen that some owners instructed the skippers to fire the deck crew at the end of every trip to avoid paying them wages for the two days they were in port.
After finishing our meal we trainees sat around for a while chatting generally about past experiences and future hopes. The landlady joined in the conversation from time to time, and in between times verbally instructed her daughter in the arts of clearing the table and washing up. My two fellow trainees turned out to be quite congenial company. The younger of the two, Mike, who was about my age or a little less, turned out to be a one-time apprentice in the Merchant Navy. He had been unable to complete his apprenticeship on account of some obscure medical condition connected with his ears. The other, Jack, who was considerably older than either of us, was a very interesting character and he became a long-term firm friend of mine. He hailed from the Nottingham area and had been a staff sergeant in the army, serving much of his wartime service as quartermaster at a large storage depot just outside Nottingham. He was married, which, among trainees, was in itself unusual. After leaving the army and until a few weeks prior to our meeting he had been in business as a bookmaker in Nottingham.
Jack had a rather unfortunate character trait for a bookmaker in that he had a propensity to lay bets on horses himself. Apparently, prior to some big race on the calendar, possibly the Grand National or the Derby, I can’t remember which, he had placed all the money he had taken in bets on a horse by the name of Airborne, a nag which he had convinced himself was going to win. Unfortunately the horse failed to live up to its name and rather than being airborne it fell.
This left Jack in a very precarious position financially because a number of his clients had placed bets on the horse that did win and Jack of course had no money to pay them. My understanding is that bookmakers usually do not back horses themselves and generally ‘lay off’ stake money when they feel the need to reduce their possible liabilities; but Jack was the ultimate all or nothing kind of gambler.
The upshot of all this was that Jack now had a large number of unpaid and angry clients. Most of these were now searching Jack’s usual drinking haunts around Nottingham in an effort to get their debts settled one way or another; and since some of them had a habit of conducting negotiations with baseball bats, Jack decided to slip off to Grimsby to rebuild his shattered fortunes. Or at least to lay low until things had quietened down.
All of this I was to learn later when Jack realised that he had nothing to fear from me since I knew absolutely nothing about backing horses. On this, our first evening in Grimsby, we sought the advice of our helpful landlady on suggestions as to how we might spend our evening. She suggested we should adjourn to the pub on the opposite side of the road and get to know each other better. This seemed as good a suggestion as any and we duly crossed the road accompanied by our obliging landlady – possibly she was worried in case we couldn’t find the place.
This particular establishment seemed to have a clientele composed almost entirely of ladies with feminine attributes strikingly similar to those of our landlady. Indeed when she formally and proudly introduced us to the assembled company it transpired that virtually all of them were, in fact, ‘in or out’ landladies. This particular hostelry, which had pretensions to grandeur somewhat above those of the run of the mill Grimsby pub, did seem to serve as a gathering place for these ladies.
On the odd occasion when I later visited it at lunchtime, it was not unusual to find a convivial group of them, each with a glass of milk stout to hand. Often they might be busily engaged in shelling peas or slicing beans for dinner while gripping a large colander between their knees. This, our first evening passed off well enough with our landlady regaling us with stories of previous trainees to whom she had given succour and encouragement. Meanwhile she sustained herself by partaking of liberal doses of port and lemon and the occasional gin and tonic at our expense. At the close of the evening we all lurched happily back across the road in a slight alcoholic haze. Finally we topped up on fish and chips brought in by the ugly daughter before retiring for the night.
The building we were quartered in had a somewhat odd layout, – the entrance to the ground floor was in a side street immediately behind the greengrocer’s shop. To the left of this entrance was what could be termed the living area, which consisted of one large room. At the far end of this room was a passage that contained the kitchen, and beyond that a small room or closet containing a lavatory and washbasin. There was no bath but the washbasin had a gas water heater mounted above it which, after much hissing and popping, could sometimes be coached into delivering a small amount of warm water. Now and then, usually when you had just placed a hand under the tap to check the temperature, it would give a cough and emit a blob of scalding water onto the questing digits.
To the right of the entrance was the staircase, which went up to a small landing with three doors leading off it. The one to the right was the landlady’s room, while the one to the left was the bedroom of the ugly daughter. The one straight ahead was our room; and although our hostess always insisted that the area immediately above the shop, contained two rooms, it was actually one room that had been crudely divided into two. In its original state it must have been quite a large room because in its present divided state it contained a double bed and a single bed in the front part of the room, and closely confined double bed in the rear part behind the division.
The front part had a large window over the top of the shop window and a smaller window looked out onto the side street. The rear part had no window at all and very little natural light apart from whatever made its way in from the side window. It was able to do this since there was no actual door between the divisions of the room. The window over the shop was to prove a great boon to all the lodgers. The journey down the steep stairs, and the subsequent navigation through the living room and down the passage to the lavatory, would have represented a serious hazard to a trawler man loaded with beer. The window provided a safe and convenient alternative. Sometimes it also provided an unusual form of entertainment for the upper deck passengers on the late night busses that stopped immediately outside the window.
The following morning we had the chance to meet the all rest of our classmates who were starting the course at the same time as ourselves. The full class consisted of about thirty trainees; the majority of them in their early twenties. As near as I can tell, virtually all of them were ex-service personnel of one sort or another, though certainly not all ex Navy men. This was somewhat encouraging because I immediately surmised that many of them would have even less sea service than I had.
The school itself was an example of an all too familiar architectural style in those days. A gaunt Victorian building; it consisted of one large room with a high arched roof with heavy wooden beams running across between the walls. At one end of the room, suspended from these beams was a fine scale model of, what we were about to learn, was an otter trawl – technically, a Small Granton type.
Around the walls at this end of the room were some coloured charts informing us of the various kinds of fish that were reputed to inhabit the North Sea, some examples of rather decorative rope-work and knots, and a large poster depicting a compass rose. Various hooks and rails were set into the walls and on some shelves at the far end of the room we could see balls of coarse, whitish twine, some coils of rope and some curious flat wooden implements about ten inches long and one and a half inches across. These were known as braiding needles and they were used to actually make or repair the nets. At the other end of the room some chairs and folding tables were set out facing a dais, and behind the dais a blackboard had been set up against the far wall.
The dais was occupied by the aforementioned Mr. Hodson who looked and sounded exactly the same as he had on the previous day even to the extent of bellowing “Nah then lads”, when he wanted to call us to attention. We quickly sorted out our seating arrangements and after re-introducing himself, he gave us a brief run down on the kind of things we would be doing over the next two and a half weeks.
The last two or three days of the course would be used up allocating trainees to ships and sorting out some basic seagoing kit. After this explanation, he led us down to the other end of the room then, standing under the model trawl and holding a long pointed stick, he proceeded to instruct us in the nomenclature of the different pieces of net that made up an otter trawl. This turned out to be a lot more complicated than I had thought. In spite of a trawl being basically a bag made out of net; it is in fact made up of very carefully contrived pieces of net shaped and designed to make it as efficient as possible.
These pieces were almost always made by women working at home and the individual sections were then laced together to make up a trawl down in the fish dock in a building known as a braiding loft. Braiding was extremely harsh on the delicate hands of the trainees; but the local women were so accustomed to it that it became a pastime almost akin to knitting. Often we would see them chatting to a friend while doing it and the small children would be occupied loading the twine onto the braiding needles.
Bill Hodson was not a trained teacher. His background was that of a poorly educated working man who, by his own strenuous efforts, had dragged himself up to the status of a trawler skipper. But I have to say that he made a fair job of teaching. He adopted a somewhat patronising attitude towards us best described as a mixture of amused contempt and pity. This attitude was probably generated by his firm belief that none of us would last long as fishermen in spite of anything he was going to teach us. As it turned out his belief was well founded because, out of the entire class, only two of us were still fishing two years down the line. So far as he was concerned teaching us was a living and he was going to do it to the best of his ability. His attitude didn’t bother us a lot because, as ex-service men, we were quite accustomed to being treated like ten-year-old half-wits.
Eventually I came to understand that all trawler men had an ambivalent attitude towards anyone who earned a living other than at sea. On the one hand they were contemptuous of them, but at the same time stood in awe of them. This attitude stemmed from their belief that fishermen were not like other people, and in this they were quite correct. They also held a firm conviction that they themselves were not fitted for any other type of work. Although I have, through my own experience, proved many times over that this attitude is a fallacy, for a while I even developed the attitude myself. In truth I now believe that a good trawlerman is one of the most adaptable people on earth – because he has to be. Some years after I had given up fishing, I got into casual conversation with a man I was doing some work for, and he remarked that I gave him the impression that I was a man apart and not as other men. After some consideration I felt that I had to agree with him – I had become a trawler man.
Nearing the end of our course we had learnt to name all the points on a magnetic compass; to make and repair nets; tie some knots, and stream a patent log. This was an instrument used for telling the speed of a ship through the water, but not necessarily over the ground. This implement consisted of a very long thin line with a metal impeller at one end. The other end of the line we would have to attach to a sort of speedometer dial that was fixed to the stern of the ship. As the ship moved forward the impeller would spin round in the water and register the approximate speed of the ship. All of the ships used this and for some reason that escapes me now, it was important to coil the line left handed when we were pulling it in. Regardless of all the care that we took in streaming it whenever we were steaming, and the great emphasis that had been placed on it during our training, most of the skippers took not the slightest notice of it.
We also learned a little bit about the rule of the road at sea and about the lights that ships, provided they were behaving themselves, would carry. A trawler when fishing during the day would carry a basket, ball, or shape on the forestay – in my experience it was always a basket. At night she would carry a tri-coloured lantern over an all round white light on the fore mast visible for five miles in clear weather. At the stern was an additional white light showing from dead aft to two points before the beam and visible for a distance of three miles in good visibility
Under the guidance of Bill Hodson, and with the help of the model, we also came to understand not only how an otter trawl worked, but also the reason for its existence. Apparently the otter trawl and the steam trawler were virtually made for each other for the simple reason that the one was useless without the other.
Trawl nets were in use before the invention of the otter but these took the form of beam trawls; that’s to say that a wooden beam with a metal skid on either end held the mouth of the net open. The other widely used type of trawl was the seine net which is said to have originally been developed in the area around the delta of the river Seine. This is an ancient method of fishing and is still carried out in one form or another all over the world. In its simplest form one end of a long net is anchored on a beach and a boat takes the other end out into the water laying out the net in a circle. When the boat returns to the beach both ends of the net are drawn up onto the beach either by manpower or machinery. This method can also be adapted for use in the open sea, and for some types of fish and in the right conditions, it is very effective.
The otter trawl on the other hand has to be towed at a set speed in order to deploy correctly; and this only became possible when steam propelled ships became a practical alternative to sailing ‘smacks’. The net itself takes the form of a long tapering bag with a wide mouth. – A rather unkind description of some women I always thought. When deployed in the water the mouth takes the form of a wide arc with the leading edge of the arc being the upper part of the bag, which extends forward over the bottom or belly of the net. The upper part of the net at this point is known as ‘the square’.
The rope stretching the leading edge of the square out between the points of the arc has a number of floats attached to it; this is called ‘the headline’. The two leading points of the trawl are known as ‘the wings’; and these join the main part of the net at the ‘quarters’. The bottom part of the net is held down to the seabed by a ‘ground rope’ on which are threaded a number of steel balls or wooden bobbins, rather like a large string of beads. From the mouth the trawl tapers down from the square to the ‘belly’ and ‘back’, then to the ‘baitings’ and finally, to the ‘cod end’ or the bag part of the net where the fish who have been foolish or unwary enough to get caught eventually wind up. This bag is closed off at the end by a cod line, which is a very slippery length of rope that draws the final meshes of the bag together and closes the bag with a very ingenious knot that is not really a knot at all.
Now, you may ask – assuming that you have been following all this – what stretches the wings of the net apart? This is where the otter boards come in. Attached to the wing ends are long cables called bridles or sweeps. The length of these can be varied but they are generally twenty-five or sometimes fifty fathoms long. A fathom is almost exactly six feet and was the unit of measurement always used on trawlers. We were always told that the average man could span six feet with his arms and this was very handy when someone asked you to measure off several fathoms of rope or line – provided of course that you had two arms.
These bridles are in turn attached to otter boards which are set at such an angle that when towed they tend to turn outwards in relation to the mouth of the trawl. In practice these are never called otter boards but are called ‘doors’ for the simple reason that they look rather like doors. They are very heavy, about three quarters of a ton or more, made of thick wooden boards bound with metal and with two triangular brackets on one side. Because they slide along the seabed in an upright position they are fitted with a thick iron shoe on the bottom edge.
Leading from each of the doors and going all the way up to the ship is a wire cable or warp and this is drawn in, when the ship hauls the net, by a large steam winch. The bridles between the doors and the net, quite apart from helping to keep the mouth of the trawl open, also disturb any fish that might be having a quiet nap in the sand and they tend to jump upwards with a start. By the time they realise that something strange is happening it is too late and they are, as you could justifiably say, ‘In the bag’.
An additional little wheeze used by some skippers to create even more disturbance for these finny sluggards was to suspend long chains across the mouth of the trawl, and these dragged along the bottom just ahead of the trawl. These, for obvious reasons were called ‘tickler chains’. Somewhat illogically, since the gear was designed to be towed behind the ship, it was initially deployed over the side of the towing vessel. And in order to prevent the ship from being blown over the trawl and thus becoming entangled with the rudder or the screw, it was always launched from the side on which the wind was blowing. The two points from which the gear was towed were called ‘gallows’ and these were mounted on both sides of the ship fore and aft. These gallows were steel girders bent into the shape of a inverted letter U, at the top was a roller over which ran the warp. Although all of this knowledge was imparted to us during our course, it was a long time before I was able to relate the tumbled pile of gear encountered on a real trawler with the model suspended from the classroom ceiling.
Over the years I have attended a number of courses in a variety of skills and I never cease to be amazed at how little useful information you acquire from them about the job itself. The initial training that boys received in the Navy would have fitted us very well for life in Nelson’s Navy, but was utterly useless for ratings destined to work on aircraft. This one was no exception. We had no idea of what sort of food we would eat or the times of day it would be served; what sort of etiquette we should observe in the fo’castle or at mealtimes; where we could stow our sea gear and dry it when we got wet; how should we address the mate, the skipper or the chief engineer. We had no clear idea about what we would be doing during the trip or even how we would be paid. In retrospect, this lack of information was probably because nobody asked the questions. Being such a tight knit community where, in the past, sons had followed their fathers to sea and had absorbed all this knowledge as part of their local culture it simply didn’t occur to anyone that we trainees from other parts of the country would not know these things.
At some time around the second week of our training we had to report individually to the offices of the Trawler Owners Association for a medical examination. This was also the occasion of my one and only meeting with the fabled and probably misjudged Mr. Humberstone. This meeting, and indeed the cursory medical that followed, was nothing more than a formality. The conversation at the interview was certainly not memorable and the only thing I call recall about the medical is that the test for colour blindness must have been very sketchy because I passed it.
In the Royal Navy the test consisted of identifying numbers which, I am assured by people who have successfully taken the test, are contained within a mass of coloured dots. In this instance I was simply placed in a darkened room and asked to identify the colours projected at me by some kind of lantern. Even with my limited knowledge of seamanship, I was aware that the colours used by ships when moving or at anchor were red, green or white and on this occasion I got them all right. That was something of a weight off my mind because although I was pretty irresponsible in those days, I did have some lurking worries that my slight disability could result in a disaster. In after years, during which I spent countless hours on watch-keeping duties, I never experienced a moment’s unease when I needed to identify the direction another ship was taking. This has led me to question the validity of the coloured dot method when applied to sea-faring needs. It may be of course that there are degrees or types of impaired colour vision which the lantern type test does not identify.
The Association offices in which these examinations took place were shabby in the extreme, although not out of place in the particular setting of the Fish Dock Road which was typically Dickensian in its squalor. The cobbled road was lined on one side by crumbling brick buildings, mostly two stories high. Many of them looked as though they had once been shops or houses, now they were the offices of prosperous fishing companies. On the other side of the road were railway lines and beyond those were some warehouses and the commercial dock. The office of the Trawler Owners Association was fronted by a window similar to one you would find in a corner shop. Pinned or stuck up in the window were some dog eared and yellowing official notices giving information about legislation concerned with shipping and such like things. Prominent amongst these was a list containing the names of individuals who were not to be employed. This, naturally enough, was known as ‘The Black List’, and the names were those of crew members who had been found guilty of some misdemeanour, or in some cases were simply members of what could be termed ‘The Awkward Squad’.
It was a depressing environment, and hard to believe that this was the hub of what was at that time almost certainly the largest fishing port in the world. The trawler owners were making vast profits but they had no intention of putting money into anything that did not directly relate to catching fish
Our time at the school was passing happily enough; there was no homework to distract us from our pleasures. We spent our evenings and weekends exploring and sampling the delights of Grimsby, which at that time of austerity were surprisingly varied and plentiful. Apart from all the pubs there were numerous clubs featuring entertainers that, although they did not cater exclusively for fishermen were certainly aimed in their direction.
At this time, with the return of the ships and crews from Navy service, the town was booming. Even a pretty average trawler crew man could earn three or four times the amount a manual worker would get ashore. Some of the skippers were earning more money than a cabinet minister – and certainly deserved it more. The rate of Income Tax was very high at that time, but it still left plenty for the hangers on and camp followers to plunder. Very few fishermen had savings and a large proportion of them after their two days ashore would go to sea penniless; fishermen were commonly referred to as ‘two day millionaires’. At some time during this period, the two trainees resident at our lodgings who had been away at sea upon our arrival, returned from their voyages with stories of doom and woe.
The first one to return, a morose individual who told us nothing about his trip, stayed only one night before packing his bags and disappearing to wherever he came from in the first place. The second one was a little more sociable. He at least waited to pick up his wages and treated us to a few drinks before bidding us a fond farewell and vanishing from our lives forever. As if to emphasise that his career as a fisherman was over he even left his sea-going gear at the lodgings; and in the fullness of time, this was to prove very useful to me.
Towards the end of our third week Mr. Hodson began handing out instructions to members of our class to join ships. I don’t remember exactly what the routine was. In retrospect, it is likely that the entire class did not become dispersed until some time in the fourth week. As it turned out, I was the first of our triumvirate to be allotted to a ship. The choice, so far as I am aware, was entirely arbitrary; possibly the names may have been selected alphabetically from the register. And that was how I came to be standing on the North Wall of Grimsby fish dock, inspecting, somewhat apprehensively, the ship I would be joining very early on the following morning. As it turned out, and for reasons for which I was entirely to blame I never did go to sea in the Drummer Boy.
On the night before I was due to start my new career as a trawler man my fellow lodgers and I decided to spend the evening making a pilgrimage through the drinking dens we had come to know so well in the course of our training. One might even say that it was an integral part of our training.
It’s hard to say now whether this pub crawl was undertaken in a spirit of celebration or of a farewell. Our parting might, at best, be for a considerable time, and given the large percentage of ‘drop outs’ among trainees it might well be permanent. We started early and finished late and the only event I can remember with any clarity is a remark made by a young fisherman who we must have bumped into during our pilgrimage. On being informed that I was about to embark on my first trip he assured me that the only qualifications necessary for a successful career as a trawler man were, ‘The heart of a lion, and no brains’. At least I qualified for fifty percent of that; but the first half had me worried. Needless to say we arrived back at the lodgings in a sorry and maudlin state, pledged undying friendship and fell into bed.
The system in those days for crews joining ships was for the ship owners to provide a taxi service which was laid on, not because trawler owners were kind hearted gentlemen concerned about their men using public transport. It was a system simply designed to ensure that they got to the ship by sailing time. Because of this, the taxi industry in Grimsby developed in a rather unusual way. Not only did they collect the men and their gear, but they also undertook to wake them up and get them out of bed, or in the case of day time sailings, to drag or persuade them out of whichever drinking den they happened to be in. In short, the taxi driver’s brief was – get them on board at any time of the day or night regardless of condition.
Sea-farers have something of a love – hate attitude towards joining a ship and going to sea; in one way they resist going, but at the same time, once the ties with the land are broken, they settle down to the routine quite cheerfully. There are even times when leaving gives rise to a feeling of relief that you are once again free of the responsibilities of life ashore. Whatever problems you are leaving behind, no one can get at you. Perhaps, because in their heart of hearts they were aware of this, they never seemed to bear any resentment towards the taxi drivers and would often hire one for the period they were ashore to act as a pub crawl chauffeur. On these occasions the driver, rather than sit waiting in the car, would join the trawler men in the pub and would undertake the onerous task of collecting the cash for the drinks and bringing them over to the table. Sometimes in their sober moments the trawler men would remark upon how rarely they ever received any change from these transactions.
However, since on this particular voyage I was just a humble trainee who, in terms of status, was about a low as you could get, I was expected to make my own way down to the ship. This would not have been particularly difficult. Because of the need for the numerous ancillary workers in the fishing industry to turn to at ‘unsociable hours,’ public transport was always available, and the bus stop was immediately outside our lodging. In spite of this and in spite of the clatter of the fish workers’ iron shod, wooden soled boots as they made their way to work I failed to wake up in time. By the time my eyes had opened and my head had cleared, the sun was well up in the sky and Drummer Boy was well on her way to whatever destiny the North Sea had in store for her. At that time hundreds of ships were working out of Grimsby and although I subsequently spent a number of years in the town, I cannot recall ever setting eyes on her again.
In the normal way missing a ship was the most heinous crime a fisherman could commit short of murdering the skipper, or bedding his wife. Not only could your name be added to those on the notorious ‘Black List’ – fishermen could be, and frequently were, jailed for this offence which was part of the catch-all charge of being, a ‘disobedient fisherman’. Even this draconian punishment did not cure the problem entirely; but it certainly went a long way towards alleviating the problem. All the same it was not the threat of punishment that drove the men to sea, the spur was far more likely to be a lack of cash or simply boredom with life ashore. In recent years I have often wondered about the legality of this action on the part of the local magistrates. The usual penalty for a man brought before the courts on this charge was thirty days imprisonment; usually served in Lincoln jail. I can only surmise that it was covered in some way by the Merchant Shipping Acts in force at that time.
Fortunately for me, because a trainee was not regarded as an actual member of the crew, I was never to experience any repercussions from the owners of the Drummer Boy; and I doubt if the regular crew had any regrets, or even noticed my absence. It was a very serious setback for my hopes of a career in the fishing industry though, and it was with fear, trepidation and reluctance that I forced myself to appear before the terrifying Mr. Hodson. My fears were well justified; he lost no time in citing me to the entire class as an object lesson in shiftless dissolution, and a person totally unsuitable for a noble profession. In many ways I found that I had to agree with him, and I have been proving him correct ever since.
After exhausting his entire range of phrases of contempt, approbation, and disgust; and this was considerable and quite varied for a man of limited education, he ordered me to submit myself for a further verbal thrashing from Mr. Humberstone himself. My session with Bill Hodson left me in little doubt that my burgeoning career was effectively at an end, and I was accordingly in two minds whether to present myself to Mr. Humberstone or to catch the next train home. In the end my Navy experience, which had, to some extent, blunted my reactions to blood curdling admonishments, prompted me to set off in the direction of the lair of the dreaded Mr. Humberstone. This journey inevitably involved a walk down the Fish Dock Road and incidentally passing the offices of several fishing companies on the way.
It was at this point that the guardian angel appointed to protect fools, drunks, and presumably on some occasions, even disobedient fishermen from the consequences of their actions, intervened. He popped out from one of the office doorways; a wiry, sharp nosed little man wearing a battered trilby hat, a well seasoned greasy raincoat. He had the furtive manner of a man engaged in some illegal, and probably unsavoury, transaction; he could have been pimping for a brothel. He sidled towards me, adopting what he no doubt assumed to be a friendly smile, and after the preliminary “Nah then”, asked me if I was, “Looking for a ship”. I correctly interpreted this to mean that he was offering me a job rather than simply being helpful by offering directions, so, after a pause of a few seconds while I gathered my wits together, I intimated that I might be prepared to consider an offer. Within a very few minutes all the formalities were completed. I had signed the Ship’s Articles, informed my saviour of my address and was given my joining instructions. I was now a proud member of the crew of the good, but ancient ship, ‘Riviere’ in the capacity of deckie-trimmer; and she was to sail for the North Sea fishing grounds within the next twenty four hours.
At that time, and for all I know, even today, trawler men carried no documentation or record of employment such as a seaman’s discharge book or identity card; employment depended entirely on word of mouth recommendations or the whim of a skipper or mate. Fortunately for me, there were also times when it could depend upon the level of desperation reaching such a degree that they would sign on almost anyone. Eventually I was to learn that the wiry little man was not really an angel but bore the rather quaint title of ‘Ship’s Husband’. Every trawler company employed one or more of these gentry.
Quite often they were men who had been to sea but had either been forced to give it up for health reasons, or had opted for what appeared to be an easier life ashore. Their powers and authority were considerable; and indeed they needed to be since they were ultimately responsible for taking control of a ship when it returned from a trip and turning it around ready for the next trip. The usual interval between trips was generally no more than forty eight hours and in this time she would be unloaded, bunkered, iced, victualled and quite often re-manned. It must have been a worrying and stressful job. Fortunately, at that time stress as an affliction was quite unknown. And even if it was lurking about somewhere in the background, since the life of a trawlerman was harsh and dangerous in the extreme, the Ship’s Husband received very little sympathy or co-operation from them.
This sudden and dramatic turn around in my fortunes filled me with elation. Needless to say, all thoughts of an interview with Mr. Humberstone were forgotten and I made all possible speed back to the lodgings in a mood of total euphoria. While awaiting the return of my fellow lodgers from our Alma Mater, I occupied myself in sorting out some of the sea-going gear unknowingly bequeathed to me by our erstwhile fellow lodger. The vital components of this outfit, as a minimum, consisted of a pair of thigh length sea boots, long woollen sea boot stockings, an oilskin frock and an oilskin sou-wester hat. These items were usually complemented by a couple of woollen guernseys, a pair of woollen mittens, a flat cap, a muffler, fearnought trousers, several pairs of gutting gloves and a pair of old cut down sea boots known as clumpers.
The smaller items of gear were always carried to and from the ship in a black oilskin kit bag which was always referred to as a ‘shirt bag’. Once at sea, we would change into sea going gear and pack away all our shore going gear in this bag; it could then be used as a pillow. The larger items including bedding were stuffed into the oilskin frock for transportation, and a length of twine was used to tie up both ends. Incredibly, none of this clothing or bedding was provided by the trawler owners. Luckily, everything a fisherman was likely to need could be purchased from shops situated on the North Wall, the point from which all the ships sailed.
In this post war period clothing was still subject to rationing but fishermen were given an extra allowance of clothing coupons to cover their needs. At sailing times, which were always dependant upon the tides, these shops would be a welter of activity. No money changed hands; everything was sold on account and the money was deducted from the fisherman’s earnings by the trawler owners. It was all done on trust and there must have been times when some unscrupulous fisherman welched on the deal but historically, such dishonesty must have been rare.
Just about every fisherman relied upon these shops for his supplies so there was a considerable amount of unintended standardisation in the fisherman’s outfit. Sea-boots were almost always white, oilskins yellow. Sea boot stockings and mittens were thick, oiled white wool, and guernseys were either dark blue or a ‘salt and pepper’ grey mixture with a crew neck. Fearnought trousers were made of a heavy off white fabric and had a buttoned flap at the front rather than a normal fly; they were usually held up by wide canvas braces. A trip in the North Sea would generally mean the purchase of two or three pairs of gutting gloves. These were made of hard wearing cotton material and, after use would be thrown away at the end of each trip. The only piece of sea gear that offered any opportunity for individuality was the muffler; this could be anything from a Rupert Bear scarf to an old, or maybe not so old, item of female underwear – depending upon individual taste, financial status, and the size of the girl friend.
The oilskin frock was a curious garment of ancient origin and was an indispensable part of every fisherman’s outfit. Made of a double layer of oilskin it covered the wearer from the neck to about mid calf. It was cut on generous lines in what I suppose dressmakers would call the ‘A’ line style; the bottom was wide while the neck hole was just large enough for a man to squeeze his head through. It had no buttons and at either side of the stand up collar was a loop from which it could be hung up to dry.
The purpose of the muffler was to close the gap between the neck and the oilskin material of the collar, partly to keep out the water and also to prevent chafing around the neck. The normal method of getting into this frock, indeed the only successful method, was to first wrap the muffler around the neck and then to insert the arms into the sleeves of the frock; you would then shrug the rest of your body into it finally forcing the head through the neck hole.
One piece of equipment the fisherman could never be without whether ashore or at sea was his gutting knife. Rather disappointingly – I had visualised a large macho sheaf knife – this was a small, black handled affair with a single folding blade that was about two and a half inches long. The blade was kept very sharp and it was used for a great many purposes other than gutting. Even ashore trawler men were rarely without this knife; but although brawls were frequent I never came across a case of one being used in a fight.
Bedding consisted of a ‘donkey’s breakfast’ type of straw mattress and a single rough blanket. Bedding was not considered to be of vital importance; at sea trawler men always slept in their clothes. Coming off the deck they would simply take off their oilskins and sea boots and clamber into their bunks. Sometimes a shiftless or penniless member of the crew would join a ship without his donkey’s breakfast and in such a case he would simply throw a piece of spare net into his bunk and sleep on that.
By the time Jack and Mike had completed their day at school and returned to the lodgings, fully expecting that I would be packing up to go home, I had sorted out a basic sea-going outfit. I had inherited a good oilskin and sou’wester and an almost new pair of sea boots and stockings. From my service days I had managed to hang on to some battledress trousers, a navy jumper, a woolly hat and a scarf. All in all I was pretty pleased with myself and my fellow lodgers were utterly astounded by this sudden and undeserved turn around in my fortunes.
They were good mates and when the time came to leave they wished me luck; but they could have been forgiven for reflecting that, in my case, the wages of sin had not been suitably paid. This time there would be no blunders on my part. I had some misgivings, about what a deckie-trimmer’s role entailed, but I kept these thoughts to myself reflecting that I would find out soon enough. We were not due to sail until around nine or ten in the morning; but even so I turned in early, determined to get a good night’s sleep before embarking on my new adventure.
The next morning I was up and about before anyone else in the house and I made a great fuss about humping my gear down the stairs, which took all of about five minutes. After that, deciding that breakfast was probably not a good idea, I sat in the living room impatiently toying with the lanyard of my shirt bag. Suddenly my taxi had arrived and. I was out of the door before the driver had time to knock. I called out what I intended to be a confident ‘Cheerio’ to the household in general and we were on our way. The journey to the North Wall from our lodgings took only a few minutes but for me it was a journey to another world.
Ranged along the North Wall and mostly lying bows on to it were around fifty to sixty trawlers. About half had just arrived from the fishing grounds on that tide while the other half were getting up steam and making general preparations to sail. Men in their shore clothes were piling out of taxis then clambering up ladders onto the ships, dragging their gear along and calling out ‘Nah then’ to shipmates old and new. Others were crowding the chandlers shops which were doing great business in sea gear, tobacco and books; books were always referred to as ‘reading’ and were almost exclusively cowboy yarns or private eye stories. Ships going no further than the North Sea did not carry the bond which meant that we had to take enough tobacco with us to last the trip. This was mostly Old Holborn or Birdseye cigarette tobacco. Non-smokers were pretty well unheard of and the cigarettes smoked at sea were invariably hand rolled; tailor made ones were handed round ashore. On some of the ships the skipper was already up in the wheelhouse casting a jaundiced eye on the arriving crew members or discussing prospects with the mate.
On the ships that were due to depart on this tide the galley stove had been fired up by the shoreside watchmen and some of the crewmen were standing around outside the galleys drinking tea from big white mugs. This tea had always been brewing for some time and tasted less like tea than concentrated tannic acid. Traditionally, it was declared to be too weak if it could not support the weight of a mouse running across it.
The ships, which on first acquaintance, had seemed to me to be shabby and worn, on this closer inspection now impressed me as sturdy and purposeful. Certainly their hulls, particularly on the starboard side, that being the side from which they usually worked their gear, were not only weather-beaten but often bore deeply scored rust marks. Their upper works however tended to be well cared for and some even displayed signs of pride in their appearance. Their standing rigging and lifting tackle looked strong and in good order and all the running sheaves were well greased. The engine room casings on most of the ships were painted in red lead, while the wheelhouse and galley were painted in a wood grain pattern that was much in favour at that time.
The ships had a unique penetrating and totally unforgettable smell about them compounded of coal, steam, tar and fish that I never found unpleasant. Every company had its own colour scheme for the funnel, and this was usually complimented by the company house flag or logo. The ships belonging to the company that I was about to join had a buff funnel with a red horseshoe on it. If this was intended to bring them luck it wasn’t working very well because their ships did not have a reputation for high earnings. The name of the company was Moss Fishing; and presumably because of the horseshoe, they were always referred to as ‘Moss’s hosses’. The poor earning potential of the company’s ships made working in them unpopular with the more experienced fishermen; the most likely reason for taking me on I suppose.
In the midst of all this activity no one took the slightest notice of me; I was just another face in the crowd. Once I had identified the ‘Riviere’ I adopted a nonchalant attitude and after humping my gear on board I climbed down into the fo’castle. I had been on board a trawler during our training period so I had a fairly good idea of the layout, which hardly varied between one ship and another. In a North Sea ship the entire deck crowd, normally six men, slept in the fo’castle which is right up in the bows of the ship. This was a triangular compartment containing eight, or in some ships, six high-sided wooden bunks; the extra bunks were used for stowing spare sea gear. At the side of the lower bunks was a bench on which you sat while you slid your feet into your sea boots before you turned out on deck.
Dead in the centre of the space was a stanchion that went up to the deck head; built around this was a small triangular table, while aft of the stanchion was a cast iron coal burning stove which in my experience was never allowed to go out. Right up in the bow and running at an angle through the fo’castle was the ‘spurling pipe’ through which the anchor chain passed down to the chain locker directly under the fo’castle deck. This was to be my home for around the next twelve days. I dumped my gear in an empty bunk to reserve it and went ashore to buy my mattress and blanket and a couple of pairs of gutting gloves. I already owned a gutting knife although I had not the slightest notion of how to use it.
Arriving back at the ship I laid out my mattress and blanket on the wooden boards that formed the bottom of my bunk and went up on deck with the intention of making some sort of impression on whoever was in charge. I was amazed at the easy going attitude everyone seemed to have about actually letting go and sailing. Unlike the Royal Navy with its rigid and well rehearsed preliminaries to leaving harbour, here there was nothing more than small groups of men still in their shore clothes indulging in casual conversations that were in no way connected with the business in hand. I hadn’t been expecting the Royal Marines band to strike up a rousing sea chantey, but I had anticipated a few brisk words of command from someone in authority. It was now well past high water and still none of the ships had moved.
My knowledge of sea fairing matters at that time was not wide enough for me to realise that ships came in on the flood tide and left on the ebb. Grimsby fish dock is an enclosed tidal dock with lock gates which close two hours after high water. The time was getting on and I began to wonder if everyone had changed their minds about going. Then suddenly – as if to some unseen, unheard signal, ships began to sound off their steam whistles, engine room telegraph bells began to ring, lines were cast off and ships began to slip and go astern out into the dock basin. I was approached by a tall man wearing a shiny well worn suit and a flat cap who said to me, “Nah then Slim”. (I was very thin in those days). “Get up on the whaleback we’re letting go in a minute”.
I climbed up the ladder to the whaleback, a small raised deck covering the area of the bow, and joined a couple of my fellow crew members already up there. A burly man in a flat cap who I correctly assumed to be the skipper leaned out of the wheel house window and said in a conversational tone “Let go for’ard – let go aft.” On the whaleback we let go of our end of the bowline, a bystander on the shore side cast it off from the bollard on the quay, someone else let go of our stern line which had been made fast to a the trawler lying alongside of us. The skipper rang down half astern and we eased out of our mooring into the dock basin. We paused for a few moments as other ships around us cleared, and then suddenly the filthy water at our stern was churning as the skipper rang down half ahead. The mate was steering without any orders from the skipper; I could see him through the wheelhouse windows spinning the big wheel like a man possessed.
We headed for the open lock gates at a very healthy lick and went through them dead centre. The skipper, leaning out of the window called out a ‘Good morning’ salute to the harbour master who nodded an acknowledgement as we went by. Immediately outside the lock gates the old man rang down full ahead. We surged forward, did a sharp right turn and we were away down the muddy River Humber, our old triple expansion steam engine pushing her along at about nine knots on the ebb tide. While all this had been going on our group up on the whaleback had been busy passing the mooring lines down to the fore deck and then stowing them neatly under the whaleback. Having completed that task we made our way aft and hoisted up the reddish brown triangular sail on the mizzen mast.
The purpose of this sail was not to give us more speed but was intended to produce a dampening effect on the ship’s tendency to roll. Whether it did or not was open to question. Shortly after this we were joined by the mate who had relinquished the steering wheel to the care of the third hand. The third hand, it later transpired, was the man in the flat cap who had spoken to me earlier. He had by this time changed into sea gear and was now steering easily with one hand while at the same time leaning out of the window to look for the buoys marking the channel.
The third hand in a trawler acts as the second mate but is never referred to as such. In contrast the mate is never referred to as the second hand although logically I suppose he should be. And following the same line of reasoning the skipper should be known as the first hand… No one ever uttered this blasphemy however, and indeed, it would have been very unwise to do so assuming that you wanted to go on living..
After securing the sail halyards and tossing some sacks of vegetables into the life boat which was mounted on a grating just aft of the galley and looked as though it had not been launched in the present century, we stowed away the stern lines and the mate called us together to sort out the watches. I was allocated to the mate’s watch; one deckie and the other trimmer were told to join the third hand, while the two oldest deck hands were to stand watch with the skipper.
This was the common practice on ships fishing the North Sea; the older or more experienced deck hands were invariably chosen to stand the skipper’s watch because he had, or claimed to have, better things to do, so he left the actual running of the watch to them. Once that was sorted the entire deck crowd went for’ard to change into their sea gear. I had not been looking forward to this moment because I sensed that the time was fast approaching when I would have to declare my lack of experience in trawlers. Sure enough, after we had shifted into our sea gear and the two deckies of the third hand’s watch had gone to join him, the rest sat down in the fo’castle for a smoke and a chat. Since they were pretty well all new to the ship the conversation naturally turned to asking each other what their last ship had been.
After sitting silently and trying to feign a knowledgeable air for as long as I dared, I decided that the time had come to confess that this was my first trip.
I had fully expected them to be more than a little annoyed about my bald statement, but in fact they seemed to regard it as quite entertaining. Noting that, I then concluded that this might be an excellent opportunity to enquire of them what my duties as a deckie-trimmer would involve. Since everyone enjoys giving advice they were quite eager to help me. After asking me what my sea going outfit consisted of, they even went to the extent of equipping me with a pair of clumpers, which they assured me were standard footwear for an aspiring trimmer; and indeed, for everyone in moderate weather. The general attitude seemed to be ‘it’s us against the rest of the world. You stick by us and we’ll put you right’; for which I have always been grateful.
The watches had been set from twelve midday and after we had been sitting around for an hour or so the cry went up ‘dinner – ho’. In company with my new found shipmates we made our way aft to the galley then ducked down the ladder located just astern of the galley which gave access to the after cabin. To my surprise this looked quite snug and cosy. It was a horseshoe shaped compartment running around the stern of the ship and was raised up over the after part of the engine room.
The ladder by which we had arrived was at the forward part of the cabin on the starboard side. Alongside the ladder was a square cast iron stove set amidships in an alcove with a small shelf over the alcove; a fair sized mirror was screwed to the bulkhead above that. There was no natural light in the cabin or in the fo’castle. Port holes would not have been practical as the accommodation fore and aft was almost entirely below the water line. Sky lights would not have been practicable because the decks were more often than not awash; but since people were coming and going in and out of the living spaces at all hours the electric lights were never turned off.
The centre of the cabin was dominated by a large horseshoe shaped table upon which a clean cloth of some coarse material was spread. The entire table area was then subdivided into compartments by long pieces of wood standing about two inches high which slotted into each other. These were called fiddles and were intended to stop the dishes from sliding about. Normally they were quite effective but in really rough weather the common practice was to wet the table cloth as an additional precaution. All around the table was a wide uninterrupted shelf upholstered with leather covered cushions on which the diners sat. At the back of this shelf and forming a kind of back rest, were some sliding doors which concealed the cupboards in which the after crowd stowed their gear and the cook kept some of his supplies. Above these were curtained bunks and in these slept the cook, chief engineer, second engineer and third hand. In most of the ships the mate and chief engineer occupied the two small noisy side cabins running forward from the main cabin over the engine room but on ‘aft siders’ like the Riviere the skipper and mate occupied these.
Arriving in the cabin I soon began to absorb a lesson in the etiquette observed at mealtimes in every trawler I was to sail in. Everyone removed their headgear and shuffled around the table to their appropriate space, which was decided by their standing as a member of the crew. The two trimmers being the lowest in the pecking order, and assuming they were present, shuffled the furthest and sat at the very apex of the table flanked on either side by the deck hands. Next to them on the one side sat the third hand, and opposite him would be the second or chief engineer – one engineer would always be on duty in the engine room. Below the chief engineer and the third hand, at the very widest part of the table, one on either side, sat the mate and the skipper. A deck hand would usually be left in the wheelhouse to hold her on course and he would go down for dinner when a well fed relief took over from him. The hungry one would then dine alone or in company with the cook, thereby missing out on the scintillating conversation that enlivened our mealtimes. Rather unexpectedly the conversation very rarely centred on women or sexual exploits for the very good reason that in a tight knit community you could be referring to a near and dear relation of a fellow crew member. Or – altogether too dreadful to contemplate, of the skipper himself.
The skipper, backed by the mate, would initiate the subject for conversation at almost every mealtime; and lack of any knowledge of a subject was never any bar to putting himself forward as an authority on it. Bearing in mind that many of these old skippers had started life in an orphanage and had been sent to sea at the age of thirteen or so, the talk was often more quietly amusing that intellectually stimulating. Once the old man had left to go back to the wheelhouse or down to his cabin the chat became much more general and relaxed, and the laughs were frequently at the old man’s expense. The only meal, at which conversation was muted, particularly when steaming rather than fishing, was breakfast; this was because one of the engineers or the third hand might still be in his bunk. Oddly, only the skipper and the cook were invariably addressed by their titles. With the occasional exception of the chief engineer being addressed as chief, first names or nick names were used for every other member of the crew.
The quality of the cook on board a trawler, or any kind of ship, is very important, and although in theory he could spend every night in his bunk, his lot was a hard one. Not only was he expected to put on three cooked meals every day, he also had to bake a batch of bread at least five or six times a trip. This was no easy task in a tiny lurching galley equipped with nothing more than a rudimentary sink, a small work top and a coal burning stove. He was also expected to leave out some food to last the deck crowd through the night. This usually took the form of a pan of soup or perhaps a stew.
After meeting all the demands of a hungry crew he would count himself lucky to climb into his bunk much before midnight and was out of it and preparing breakfast for all hands by about six thirty. The meals were plentiful and to anyone who had served in the war time Navy they were good; much better than people ashore were getting at that time in fact. Breakfast would always be freshly fried fish, mostly small dabs, flounders and whiting; and they were delicious. They would be piled up on a plate in the middle of the table and we would eat them straight off the bone without the aid of cutlery; rather like eating kebabs. These were accompanied by porridge and perhaps scrambled egg and hot cakes with syrup, or fried eggs and bacon or sausage. Some cooks would also put out a dish of curry which, unlikely as it sounds now, was very well received. All of this would be helped down by pint mugs of strong tea sweetened with Tate and Lyle golden syrup – we never had sugar because the surroundings and storage facilities were too damp. If anyone still had any room left they could top up on fresh white bread and jam.
All meals were subject to the ultimate priority of hauling time but we stuck to a normal timetable whenever we could. Dinner usually came up some time around one p.m. and started with soup which was supped with a spoon from the tea mugs to avoid spillages. This would be followed by a roast joint of meat and vegetables with gravy. One thing that all cooks seemed to do at dinner was to make two suet duffs. One of these would be plain and would be served with the main course while the other would be chocolate or ginger flavoured and would be served as the sweet, again with golden syrup or custard made with concentrated milk.
For tea time fare the cook would often try to spring something of a surprise. This would present some difficulties as the galley was the sort of place that was open to all hands at all hours. In spite of that difficulty the enterprising cook would now and then come up with perhaps a trifle or some fairly fancy cakes. These would always be presented with something of a flourish to a greatly appreciative crew after the main part of the meal, which would be something like toad in the hole, corned beef fritters, or egg, chips and beans. The galley stove was never allowed to go out and there was always a large kettle simmering on the hob for tea or cocoa. At night there would be a pan of shackles, – a kind of meat and vegetable stew rather like scouse. Or there might be a big pot of thick soup from which the deck crew would help themselves.
In spite of the many draw backs to the job the cook on a trawler was in a unique situation – he was the only member of the crew with anything like a social life. He could, and usually did, chat on equal terms with anyone on board and his hovering attendance at every meal allowed him to join in any conversation or discussion whereas we of the deck crew rarely exchanged more than a few words with the engineers.
The drink with all meals was tea, never coffee; but at night on watch we would make cocoa. Not the sort of stuff you got ashore but the Navy sort known as ‘kai’; this came in large blocks and in appearance resembled chocolate. It was made by breaking off a couple of chunks and pounding them in a jug full of hot water, after which the mixture was left to simmer on the stove for a while until it was judged to be fit for consumption. When poured into a mug it always had a film of grease on top rather like a domestic oil slick. It needed the addition of neither milk nor sugar and was so heavy and rich that it was almost like a meal in itself.
On this first trip, after a fairly leisurely break for dinner I had thought that perhaps we would be able to go back to the fo’castle and turn in until our watch time which I think would have been eight in the evening. The mate, who always made a point of having a trimmer on his watch, had other ideas. He gave me instructions to follow him down into the fish hold while the rest of the crew under the guidance of the third hand started to overhaul and prepare the fishing gear. Of course I had no idea what would be expected of me down in the hold but I was not left in doubt for long. In the next few hours, either by a process of work experience or by the example of my fellow trimmer I would discover what the word trimmer meant in our title of deckie -trimmer.
The normal crew of a North Sea steam trawler at that time would consist of eleven or twelve hands. Starting at the top, this would be the skipper, mate, third hand, chief and second engineer, cook, three or four deck hands and two deckhand/trimmers. Unlike ships going further afield, we carried no firemen which meant that the engineers had to stoke the boiler themselves. This was hard work especially working permanently watch about, four hours on and four hours off.
The task of a trimmer would normally be to ensure that they had sufficient coal to enable them to fire the ship. However, when fishing in the North Sea, on the outward run we would only be steaming for somewhere between four and a maximum of sixteen hours and for that part of the trip the bunkers did not need trimming because gravity would provide enough for their needs. The only support that the engineers would need throughout the trip was in dumping the ash and clinker when they pulled a fire for cleaning.
This clinker was dumped by one of the trimmers every four hours and followed a well established routine. First of all the trimmer from up on the deck would sing out to the engineer down in the engine room to check that he was ready, then the trimmer would make his way to the stokehold ventilator shaft on the lee side. He would then slide open a small door forming part of the ventilator shaft projecting above the engine room casing. This door was just large enough to allow a cylindrical ash bucket, which was a little less in diameter than the ventilator shaft, to be lifted through it. Fitted on a bar across the shaft at a height above the trimmer’s head was a pulley with a rope rove through it and one end of the rope was made fast to a cleat in the shaft. At the other end, down in the stokehold, was a hook from which the ash bucket was suspended. The engineer would fill a bucket and sing out to the trimmer who would then perform like a monkey on a pole.
Standing on the deck he would commence heaving hand over hand until the bucket appeared in the doorway. Then, timing his actions to the roll of the ship, he would lower away as the bucket swung outwards and, at the same time, prepare to grab it when it came down to his level. Grasping the bucket with both arms he would execute a delicate pivoting movement towards the ship’s rail, and if all went well the ash in the bucket would be deposited into the North Sea.
With the trimmer doing the same movements in reverse, the empty bucket would then hurtle back down the ventilator shaft ready for the next load. Executed well, it was quite a graceful performance to watch. That was one part of the trimmer’s job. As the voyage progressed and the coal in the bunkers was reduced the trimmer would need to climb into the bunkers and with the aid of a shovel and his bare hands, he would endeavour to pile up enough coal against the stokehold bulkhead to last the engineers for two or three watches. When a trawler is steaming, – that’s to say moving from one place to another, it’s speed is much greater than when it is fishing; so of course it uses much more coal steaming than it does fishing. Naturally this means that during the fishing period the need for trimming coal is less.
That, unfortunately, did not mean that the trimmer had less to do because the other, and in many ways the greater, part of the trimmer’s role was to assist the mate down in the fish room by shovelling ice onto the catch. He would also play a major part in the hauling and shooting of the trawl and would be responsible for hauling the baskets of fish livers aft and pouring them into forty gallon drums. When the trawl was damaged he had to ensure that he had a ready filled store of braiding needles, and the speed and agility to collect up the empty ones for refilling. So, all in all, a trimmer was a very busy chap, although no more so than anyone else aboard a trawler.
When the mate and I stepped over the fish room hatch combing and descended by a ladder into the fish room I was about to discover what trimming was all about. Down in the fish room I found myself standing on a wooden platform about four feet wide which ran the full length of the fish room and was around seven feet below the deckhead above us. This platform I was to discover was known as the stage and would form the main basis of the fish room, the remainder of which had yet to be constructed. The fish room, easily the biggest open space in the ship, was a gloomy dank cave with its curving sides coated in some shiny white material intended to insulate the hold from the outside world.
At regular intervals throughout this space were slotted metal stanchions which stood the full height of the fish room from the bottom of the hull up to the deck beams. Against the forward bulkhead reaching up to the deckhead and spilling onto the stage was a large pile of ice, and this was confined by boards fitted into the stanchion slots; thus forming what were referred to as ‘pounds’. Aft of the pounds containing the ice were two other pounds containing a large number of flat boards about a foot wide and four feet long. Their purpose in life was to be slotted into the empty stanchions to form still more pounds; naturally enough they were known as pound boards.
My task now was to hand up these extra boards onto the deck where they were being vigorously scrubbed by Luke, my fellow trimmer, who had now concluded the business of dumping our first load of ashes. The mate in the meantime was washing the fish room sides and the stage with a hose and encouraging my uncertain efforts with occasional playful squirts of cold sea water. When he was satisfied with the fish room sides he lifted some of the boards forming the stage and revealed a hollow space underneath. My job then was to get down into the space which was about seven feet deep and give it a good hosing down. Along the centre of this space was a shallow gully running along the length of the ship’s keelson which constituted the bilges.
Any water and sludge running down into this gully then made its way aft to the engine room bilges from which it was pumped overboard. To my surprise I discovered that a tunnel about five feet high ran from the after bulkhead of the fish room, through the coal bunkers and terminated in the stokehold. The purpose of this tunnel meant that a trawler could prolong its time at sea by carrying coal in the fish room which, in the early part of the trip could be shovelled through the tunnel and burnt before the bunkers had been touched.
After the spare boards had been given their laundry treatment on deck they were passed back down to us and we slotted them into stanchions to form pounds on either side of the stage. It was a simple and ingenious arrangement that allowed a considerable degree of flexibility in the layout of the fish room. All of the boards were a standard length, thickness and width, but some had thick strips of wood screwed to either side at the midway point; these were called ‘batten boards’. The idea of batten boards was so that if they were incorporated into a pound on opposing sides, then plain boards could be laid across them resting on the battens to form a shelf, thus subdividing each pound into layers.
The purpose of these shelves was to prevent fish in the lower part of a pound from being crushed by the weight of fish above them. Up on the deck were some considerably larger and heavier boards which also slotted together to form the deck pounds. The purpose of these was to stop the catch rolling from one side to the other and also to enable the deck crew to separate the gutted fish for washing. One other little task for the fish room trimmer was to dig out the daily meat allowance from the fish room ice and carry it aft for the cook. After which he would top up the coal bunker for the galley stove and receive as a reward a chunk of cake or cold duff.
In spite of my earlier misgivings and natural apprehension about my new role I actually experienced very little difficulty in adapting myself to the demands of the job. This probably would not have been the case in a better ship. In a ship with an expectation of bigger catches and higher earnings incompetent crew members were much less likely to be suffered. In the ‘Riviere’ both the skipper and the mate were nearing the end of their careers and both were aware that they were not going to advance any further. This was all too common among aging skippers and mates and resulted in some of them becoming very embittered.
Our present lords and masters however seemed to be reconciled to the situation and did not work out their frustrations on the crew. The mate was a stout, but surprisingly agile man in what I thought of then, as late middle age; he was probably no more that forty or forty five. He was quietly spoken and easy going and often had a somewhat puzzled look on his face when dealing with me. I had a distinct impression that he was wondering what the hell I was doing there, but he was endlessly patient with me and I learned a great deal from him. By the time we had finished in the fish room and climbed up onto the foredeck it was rapidly approaching tea time and after the obligatory smoke and removing sea boots in favour of clumpers, we all made our way aft again and took our places for our second large meal of the day.
If there was ever a time for relaxation on a trawler, the time immediately after tea and before the next watch or the next haul would be it. What in a Navy ship would be called the ‘dog watches’? On some very rare occasions a game of cards might start up in the cabin, but more often the hands would remain at the cabin table and a round table conversation will ensue, often about various well known personalities in the fishing industry. In my experience everyone smoked, and anyone who didn’t would have been regarded as an eccentric; the usual somewhat doubtful justification for the habit being, ‘This is the only pleasure I’ve got out here’.
Others, not on watch would make their way back to the fo’castle, roll into their bunks and read or repair sea gear. The favoured authors would be either ‘Hank Janson’ who wrote private eye stories, or one of a number of writers of cowboy yarns operating under a variety of pseudonyms. These narrators of life in the old, Wild West must all have attended the same educational establishment or correspondence school of writing since they all used a common vocabulary.
One aspect of this, of which I am sure they were completely unaware, was the introduction of a variety of synonyms for the normal activities of life aboard a trawler. At that time no self respecting young deckie ever rolled a cigarette he was always about to – ‘build myself a quirley’.
Tobacco was never just tobacco, it was always ‘Bull Durham’; something that, according to the books, all cowboys smoked. No deckie ever made his way aft – he always ‘forked his bronc, and moseyed on down aft’. This seems odd behaviour in some ways when you reflect that these men, who were among the toughest set of individuals ever to put to sea, should ape the words and mannerisms of fictional hard cases; and tough they really were; not in the way of today’s ‘false hair on the chest’ hard cases with their shaven heads, ear and nose rings and tattoos. These were real, spare, hard men with the quiet confidence that they could handle anything that an unforgiving and harsh life style could throw at them.
I lay in my bunk reading until our watch was called when I rolled out of it and straight into my clumpers prior to going aft for my first attempt at pulling up the ashes. In the event this proved to be less arduous than it might have been because the sea was in one of its better moods and we were rolling along easily on a moderate swell. Once that job was completed I made my way up the ladder to the wheelhouse where the mate promptly ordered me down to the galley to fetch some tea. Tea was a prelude to every watch and in heavy weather it called for the tenacity of a terrified cat to make your way from the galley and up to the wheelhouse clutching three and sometimes four brimming mugs.
A really annoying aspect of this performance was that quite often, after reaching your destination without mishap, the mate would take one sip and would then bawl out, ‘Cat’s piss’, or ‘Cold’ and without further ado would cast it out of the lee side window. It was also around about this time that the skipper would attempt to have a meaningful conversation with one or other of his fellow skippers on the radio. Voice radio in those days was in its infancy and demanded a technical expertise and clarity of diction not often found in trawler men.
Skippers usually tried to neutralise their failings in this direction by shouting very loudly, and finally, after a few high decibel phrases had been launched into the ether, bellowing “Over”, more as a formality than in any real hope of getting an intelligible reply. The reply, when, or if, it reached us would sound something like those optimistic attempts that take place now and again to prove that there may be life on other planets. There would be a series of high pitched whistles interspersed with bursts of human speech that might have been a bad recording of cries for help during a earthquake in Peru just after the obligatory tidal wave had receded. Following that there would be a great deal of cursing by the old man and several more attempts to establish contact before giving up in disgust. He would then emerge from the cubby hole where the radio was located, pass a few comments about the parentage of Mr. Marconi and demand a fresh mug of tea. After his demand for tea had been satisfied he would mutter a few instructions to whoever was in charge of the watch and retire to his cabin. This was pretty much his evening ritual, and although I have no clear recollection of it having taken place on this particular occasion, I have no reason to doubt that it did.
Now that things were reasonably peaceful in the wheel house I had time to look about me. Jutting out from the centre of the rear bulkhead of the wheelhouse was the ship’s wheel which was as tall as the man who stood behind it steering. It had a brass centre boss and one of the spokes was fitted with a brass capping; this was designed to identify it as the centre spoke. Jutting out from the front of the wheel and set about two thirds of the way out from the centre boss was another brass handle. The purpose of this one was to allow the person steering to stand in front of the wheel and whirl it round at high speed to put the helm hard over.
The normal position for the helmsman was to stand in the gap between the wheel and the bulkhead on the starboard side. Set into the deckhead about mid-way between the wheel and the front windows was a magnetic compass and from time to time the helmsman would glance up at this to check his course. Over in one corner was the engine room telegraph and fastened to the front bulkhead just below the windows were two brass speaking tubes capped with polished whistles.
One of these went down into the engine room while the other went to the skipper’s cabin. In the opposite corner was a shelf on which stood our most highly regarded piece of technology: — the echo sounder. Set into the rear bulkhead on the opposite side to the helmsman’s position was a doorway leading into a cramped compartment euphemistically called the skipper’s day cabin. In here was the precious radio equipment and whatever charts or navigational equipment he possessed; which, in every case I ever encountered, was minimal.
Set into the deckhead near this cubby hole was a radio direction finding loop which was reputed to possess the ability to tell us where we were. This was an interesting and singularly useless piece of equipment since in order to operate it efficiently the old man was first required to tune in to some particular radio frequency. He then had to don a set of earphones and manipulate the loop until the signal was at its loudest at which point he was supposed to read off a bearing from a graduated scale. If he managed to do that successfully he then had to tune in to another station giving a different type of signal and go through the whole procedure once again. This exercise provided a considerable amount of entertainment to the other occupants of the wheelhouse but rarely, if ever, resulted in an accurate fix.
The wheel house was reached from the main deck by ladders leading up to doors on either side of the wheelhouse and the wise seaman always used the one on the lee side; that is to say the one away from the wind. Sometimes the wheelhouse would have a veranda around the outside of it and, once again, the wise seaman would first check that no one was taking a leak from this position before he mounted to the wheelhouse… particularly if he was carrying mugs of tea.
On this my first watch the weather was pleasant; I had eaten well and somewhat to my surprise I had not been sick. Emulating the pose adopted by the mate who had wedged himself in one corner with his buttocks jammed against the telegraph and his head sticking out from one of the windows, I wedged myself in the opposite corner lowered the window and gazed out over the sea before us. I could see absolutely nothing of note apart from the glow of the navigation lights and, dimly, the fore end of our ship pushing through the darkness with the white foam sliding along on either side of us. I could hear the thump and accompanying gasp from the steam engines, the hiss of water down her sides and now and then the clank of the steering chains when the helmsman moved the wheel. This was the re-assuring background noise of a trawler at sea in moderate weather and after a while you were only alerted by its absence. The entire watery world around us was at peace and I gazed contentedly for’ard over our tiny part of it.
At sea all ships are small no matter how big they look in dock, and this one was small by any reckoning. About one hundred and twenty five feet from stem to stern and around twenty five feet on the beam at her broadest point. Trawlers are deep ships and this one probably drew about twelve or fourteen feet aft. The furthest point away that I could see was the whaleback which was raised up over the main deck at a little more than head height. It was called the whale back because the sides of it down to where they met the hull were rounded like the back of a whale and were usually painted white. Underneath this was the hatchway leading down to the fo’castle and along each side of it was stowage space for mooring ropes and spare gear.
There was also a small cubby hole with a half door which housed a very crude form of lavatory. Opposite this was a similar cubby hole in which were kept the spare oil lamps in case the steam driven generator should fail. Aft of the whaleback on the main fore deck was the hatch for the for’ard store in which there would be a spare trawl, rope , twine, fish baskets and liver baskets. Then came the fore or main mast and the two for’ard towing bollards. Outboard of these and inclined at a slight angle over the ship’s side were the fore gallows and slightly aft of these was the standing rigging of the mast and the ratlines.
Moving aft from the mast and lying along the centre line were three fish room hatches. These had high combings and were about four feet square. Just aft of the last hatch was a step upwards of about twelve to fourteen inches to the after deck. The first thing mounted on this deck was an enormous winch containing two main drums at its centre part around which were wound the towing warps, – heavy wire cables. On most trawlers, immediately behind the winch would be a deckhouse containing the skipper’s cabin and above that the wheelhouse. The Riviere was a little different. Immediately behind her winch was the raised engine room casing on which were mounted two stokehold ventilators and the tall thin funnel. Aft of the funnel on the top of the casing was the engine room skylight and aft of that again was the wheelhouse. Underneath the wheelhouse and extending a little further aft was the galley then a short gap to the mizzen mast and the grating for the life boat. Right on the stern was another small deck house which housed another crude lavatory and the stowage space for the fish livers. Lashed against the for’ard rigging was a large marker buoy called a ‘dan’ and lashed along the starboard side just under the rail was the ready for use trawl. Ships constructed in this way, such as the Riviere, were always referred to as ‘aft siders’; presumably because the wheelhouse was aft of the funnel.
There was nothing left lying around loose anywhere on the ship; even the most careless hand made sure of that. The canvas hatch covers were pulled down tight, all the hatch battens were in place and the wooden wedges securing them were hammered well home. The deck pound boards were in place and the half doors to the living spaces were lashed back. Drunk or sober no one was allowed to be careless aboard a trawler, and orders were rarely needed; fishermen lived on a knife edge of danger. Every man knew that all our lives depended on. Ashore they were famously heavy drinkers but once away from the dock there was hardly any drinking among the crew; this was especially so in the North Sea as we did not carry bonded stores. If the fishing was particularly good the skipper might send down a bottle of rum but that was a rare treat. On the distant water ships working in the Arctic bonded stores were carried and in addition, there was a very generous free rum allowance from the owners which worked out that each man on deck had a large tot every six hours. Rather unexpectedly, this sort of drinking rarely seemed to cause any problems, not among the deck crew anyway; but some skippers were more than a little suspect.
Shortly after carrying out my visual inspection of the ship the mate suggested that I might like to steer for a while. I thought it best to confess that I had never actually steered a ship. Both of my watch mates stared at me in amazement. ‘But I thought you said you had been in the Navy’ blurted the mate. I affirmed that this was the case and pointed out that all of my service had been spent working on aircraft. The stunned look on the face of the mate told me that the idea of a sailor who worked on aircraft and knew nothing about ships was something he just could not take in. Sadly he shook his head and moaned, “Another one of Humberstone’s bloody discoveries”.
Having resigned himself to the idea of teaching me this black art he indicated that I should grasp the wheel for my first lesson. I stood behind the wheel in the approved manner and looked up at the compass rose. The ship seemed to be holding her course quite well without any assistance from me and for a minute or so I just didn’t do anything. After a while the mark on the compass card denoting the position of the ship’s head began to drift off to one side and I moved the wheel gently in the opposite direction as if steering a car. Nothing happened except that she drifted a little more off course so I turned the wheel rather more drastically in the opposite direction; still nothing happened. A few worrying seconds elapsed and she started to swing with increasing momentum back towards her designated course and then well past it. Frantically I turned the wheel in the opposite direction to the swing and once again she stubbornly paused briefly, swung back towards her true course, and then even further past it. The mate now decided to take a hand in the proceedings. Grasping the handle jutting out from the front of the wheel, he grunted “Let go” to me and with some vigorous action involving numerous full turns on the wheel in both directions he brought her back on course. Relinquishing the wheel to me once more he gave me the only advice I ever had about steering. “You’ve got to catch her on the swing” was all he said. And sure enough, once I had mastered the art of ‘catching her on the swing’, I never had any more trouble.
The watch rolled by without further incident; I was relieved on the wheel after an hour or so and resumed my position at the window. It was now around eleven o’clock at night and in the normal way we would have been due to complete our watch at midnight; and I was looking forward to turning in. Suddenly, the mate turned from the window and said “Go and make a pot of tea then go for’ard and call them out”. This was something quite outside my experience of ship board life. There was a good hour to go before the change of watches and in my short experience you never called all hands unless for ‘action stations’ or ‘splicing the main brace’.
Since neither of those situations was on the cards at that moment, I made my way rather hesitantly to the fo’castle uncertain of what my reception would be. I looked around at the sleeping forms of my shipmates and then went from bunk to bunk shaking each individual and muttering something like, ‘Sorry to disturb you, but the mate would like to see you’. In every case the shaken one would instantly sit bolt upright with a snarl and an exclamatory remark that went something along the lines of, “Goodness me! – What on earth is happening,” although it didn’t sound like that at the time. I learned later that one more unwritten rule among trawlermen was that you never physically touched anyone in his bunk unless it was the ultimate dire emergency.
Because of the threatening atmosphere that now held sway in the fo’castle I retreated back on deck where I discovered that the skipper was now alone in the wheelhouse, the mate was standing by the winch and all the deck lights were on. The third hand was standing by the after gallows drinking tea, and my watchmate was unlashing the trawl; and all were clad in oilskin frocks and sea boots. Shortly afterwards the rest of the deck crowd came straggling aft heading towards the galley to gulp a few mouthfuls of over brewed tea. – We were about to start fishing. In spite of my weeks at the training school, no one had ever explained to me, and it had never crossed my mind to enquire about it, that trawlers worked around the clock.
There now followed some ten to fifteen minutes of frantic action for which I was completely unprepared. The old man swung the wheel to bring the ship around with the wind on her starboard side and rang down to stop her. The winch burst loudly into clanking life and without any perceptible orders everyone took up their stations. Luke, my fellow trimmer, took the running part of the gilson wire to the winch barrel on the port side and indicated that I should take the end with the hook on it to the for’ard gallows on the starboard side.
The gilson was an all purpose lifting device consisting of a long wire rope with a stout hook at the end, and was rove through a single sheaved block suspended from the mast at the point where the standing rigging meets the mast. It was always operated by one of the trimmers who stood at the winch barrel on the lee side when the trawl was being hauled or shot; nets were never ‘cast’, they were always ‘shot’. One of the deckies was already standing by the for’ard gallows and I handed the gilson hook to him.
The mate dropped the clutch on the winch and put it in reverse, the heavy trawl door that would be suspended from the gallows shot up but did not clear the rail. The deckie hooked the gilson onto one corner of the door and Luke took a couple of turns on the winch barrel and lifted it up to the level of the rail. Then, waiting for the roll of the ship to carry the door outboard, he released the gilson and the door was over the side and hanging by its heavy chain. The third hand with the help of a couple of deckies had the after door swinging outboard of the after gallows and now both of the heavy doors were bumping and grinding at the ship’s side.
Now we ran out the bridles from the winch drums and led them over the top rollers of the fore and after gallows and shackled them to the wing spreaders of the trawl. From the top of the after gallows ran a wire rope about twelve feet long with a slip hook spliced into the end. The third hand then placed the slip hook into the ground line of the trawl and a for’ard deckie hooked the gilson into the forward part of the ground line. Luke now took the strain on the gilson wire and the heavy ground line rose up to the rail taking with it the much lighter head line.
As the ship rolled all available hands swung outwards on the ground line and Luke lowered smartly away to drop the ground line bobbins outboard. The mate and one of the deckies locked the ground line against the rail and removed the gilson hook. Simultaneously, the third hand knocked out the slip hook at the after end with the result that all the heavy components of the trawl were now suspended outboard. We now threw over the bunt of the trawl and the cod end and the complete trawl bellied out into the darkness on the windward side. Now the ship began to get slowly under way again and the skipper brought her up with the wind on the starboard bow. The mate and Luke now took station behind the winch each grasping one of the large brake wheels controlling the winch drums. The brakes were then eased off, the long bridles began to run out, and the trawl disappeared from our sight. Suddenly the jamming shackles on the bridles engaged on the strops of the doors and the doors began to strain outboard against the pull of the trawl. At this point in the proceedings a large metal link between the bridle and the main warp was engaged into a G shaped hook on the door. The winch men then reversed the winch lifting the door up to the top of the gallows, thus enabling the deckie at the gallows to remove the chain by which the door had previously been suspended. The entire combined weight of doors, bridles, and trawl was now passed to the main warps. The winch men disengaged the clutches, released their brakes, and the ship increased her speed through the water as the warps paid out. This was quite a delicate operation as it was important not only to pay out both warps at the same speed but also to keep enough strain on the warps to spread the doors outwards.
To assist them in this the warps were marked every twenty five fathoms by having a piece of rope yarn spliced into them. When the requisite amount of warp had been paid out; generally three and a half to four times the depth of the water, the winch brakes were locked on. Now one of the after deckies ran for’ard carrying a heavy hook spliced into a wire rope which was led away aft outboard of the after gallows. This was the messenger hook and the deckie carrying it swung it outboard and upward so that the hook landed over the straining for’ard warp. The hook now began to slide aft along the warp at gathering speed while the third hand raced aft with the bight of the wire and positioned it around a sheave welded into the after rail just before the curve of the stern. Luke now ran the wire around another sheave set into the engine room casing and took up the strain on the winch. Gradually, with much screaming grinding and creaking the hook rose from the water revealing that it had now grabbed both of the warps.
Luke continued hauling away until the two warps held by the hook reached the after rail and at that point Luke surged the wire rope, holding the warps in that position. The third hand then passed a heavy collapsible block around both warps and secured it with a steel locking pin. This block was fastened to a stopper chain that was made fast to the deck near the stern. Once this operation had been completed, the third hand signalled to the winch and Luke let go. The two warps now sprang outboard until stopped by the chain and the ship was now in her towing position with the wind on her starboard bow. I was stunned by the speed and efficiency as well as the inherent danger of this operation. In the Royal Navy an exercise like this would have taken the combined efforts of about fifty men, ten of whom would have been barking orders; and it would probably have taken longer.
Now the deck lights began to go out, the fishing lights came on, all hands shrugged out of their oilskins and the two deckies of the first fishing watch went up to the wheelhouse for their orders clutching the obligatory mug of tea. Everyone else returned to their bunks kicked off their sea boots and after having a smoke and rolling a few cigarettes ready for the next hauling time, lay back and fell instantly asleep. All trawler men quickly developed this knack of falling asleep almost on demand. This was just as well since they needed to take full advantage of every sleep opportunity. The length of a fishing tow on the North Sea grounds was, in normal circumstances, about three hours, and hauling and shooting went on around the clock whenever weather permitted; and it had to be very bad before they stopped. Of course if some emergency or problem should arise, such as the trawl coming fast on an obstacle on the sea bed, or a warp fouling the screw or the rudder, all hands would automatically turn out.
Whenever anything like this did occur, and such incidents were not infrequent, it was never necessary to rouse the hands, they would be instantly awake. They seemed to be able to sense that something was wrong even when asleep. Whatever the problem, every experienced man had a good idea what needed to be done. In incidents like these where the safety of the ship was threatened and swift action was needed, they always set to instantly and with a will. I had not yet developed any of these enviable attributes or instincts and on this particular tow I lay awake reading in my bunk. The ship rolled gently along making about three knots against the pull of her fishing gear. After the frenzied activity of shooting there was an uncanny silence apart from the usual familiar, unheeded noises of a ship under way and the extremely heavy breathing of my shipmates.
After a couple of hours or so of reading and dozing, I heard the winch start turning over slowly; someone had opened the drain taps to clear the cylinders. Then an oilskin clad figure appeared at the foot of the fo’castle ladder and bellowed, “Nah then my hearties, hauling time”. With no further ado the figure vanished up the ladder and all hands rolled out of their bunks, lit up cigarettes and began pulling on their sea-boots. This was an object lesson for me in how to get the crew to rise and shine without shaking them all individually. While we were dressing there was a loud bang from somewhere aft as the collapsible block was knocked apart with a sledge hammer, and the winch started to reel in the warps.
We streamed aft to the galley for a quick gulp of tea then I hurried for’ard to take up my station near the for’ard gallows. Suddenly the for’ard door broke clear of the water and came up tight to the gallows.
The deckie alongside me threw the securing chain through the door brackets and gave an ear-splitting shout to signal to the winchman to drop the door onto the chain. It was not a clear word of instruction that he bawled, just a sort of explosive Aaargh! Once the weight of the door had fallen back onto the chain, the deckie leaned out and disengaged the connecting link from the G hook and the winchman started reeling in the bridles. The first part of the actual trawl to appear out of the water and rise up to the gallows was the ‘Dan Leno’. This was a large metal ball with a boomerang shaped bar attached to it. The purpose of the ball was to prevent the leading wing of the trawl from snagging on some object on the sea bed; the purpose of the bar was to spread the upper and lower parts of the wing.
I was never entirely sure why this was called a Dan Leno but I understand that there was once a music hall artist of this name and I can only assume that, unlikely as it seems, he possessed a similar shape. Now we started to haul in manually on the head line of the trawl until we were able to reach the fore and after quarter ropes. The head line formed the upper leading edge of the trawl and was equipped with a number of floats which enabled it to keep the mouth of the net open. These quarter ropes were made fast to a becket, – the becket being a loop of rope made fast to the headline at the quarters. The long quarter ropes and passed outside the trawl at the quarters, the point where the wings joined the main body of the trawl. Reaching down to the heavy ground line they were shackled to it at the point where the wing ground line met the main bobbins. Once the quarter ropes were released from the headline they were taken over sheaves on the engine casing and led to the winch. Both quarter ropes hauled away together and with a great rumbling and bumping the bobbins of the ground line came up to the rail. These bobbins could vary in shape and size but were often the same shape and construction as the Dan Leno ball but a little smaller; they performed much the same function as the Dan Leno.
Now the gilson was hooked into the for’ard quarter of the ground rope and the third hand fastened his slip hook into the after part. Now Luke hauled away on the gilson and the whole ground line and headline reared above the rail. As the ship rolled to windward the mate snarled, Luke let go of the gilson and the heavy bobbins of the ground line crashed to the deck just inside the rail. The remainder of the net bellied out and away just below the surface to windward and the cod end – the bag part holding the fish floated, bubbling and hissing, up to the surface. Attached to the centre of the headline by a small becket was another rope going down to a large becket lashed to either selvedge of the trawl where the cod end met the main part of the net. This rope was then taken to the winch and countered the pull of the trawl, which was now acting as a drogue.
Now the crew began dragging in the bunt of the net by hand while the head rope took up the strain. When the becket was hove up tight to the sheave on the casing the mate and the third hand passed a combination wire and rope strop twice around the cod end and slid it down as far as they could. The gilson hook was slipped into the strop and Luke hauled away on the gilson. At the same time the headline rope was released from the winch and made fast once again to it’s becket.
All of this activity had taken place amidships, but now, as Luke hauled on the gilson which ran from the fore mast, the cod end first swung for’ard then started to come up to the rail just aft of the rigging. Running at an angle from the top of the fore gallows down to a point just under the rail near the step of the after deck was a preventer stay made of combination wire. As the bag of the cod end swung up and over the rail it bumped against this preventer which was rigged in such a way that it allowed the cod end to hang just above the fish pounds on the starboard side. While this was happening the third hand had made his way for’ard and was now crouching down to reach the cod end knot. He cautiously passed the trailing ends of the codline back through their retaining loop and flicked the line to remove the turns of the line that were now holding closed the end of the bag. Suddenly the greased ends of the codline slipped away, the third hand stepped quickly back, and the bag burst open depositing the catch with a great splash into the fish pounds.
Luke now lowered the empty cod end down onto the fish. The third hand crouched down again and began rubbing tallow into the cod line before drawing the running meshes of the cod end together and tying up the bag ready for the next haul. The fish, many of them with hugely distended bellies, flapped hopelessly around in the pounds, but for the moment all hands ignored them. The gilson lifted the empty, but still quite heavy cod end, up to the rail then lowered it to rest on the rail. The strop was removed and the pull of the net remaining outboard was sufficient to pull it back over the rail. The quarter ropes were made fast to their beckets, the gilson lifted the ground line over the rail, the after slip hook was knocked away, the gilson hook recovered, and we were ready to shoot again. Once the bridles had been run out and secured to the trawl doors the members of the crew who had no further part to play in shooting, took their places in the fish pound.
I had never gutted a fish in my life and I had some fears that I might be squeamish about it when the time to do it arrived. As it happened I was so engrossed in studying the technique of gutting that once I stepped into the pound and picked up my first fish all my worries on that score disappeared. With round fish such as cod or haddock you picked up a fish by slipping the fingers of your left hand under it’s left gill flap and held it in front of your body with it’s head at about the height of mid thigh. Now you inserted the blade of the knife into the skin where the gills joined the body. You then sliced across towards the centre line of the fish. Reaching this point you sliced downwards with the blade at an acute angle to the belly all the way down to the anal gland. Now, with a flick of the thumb of the left hand, you opened the flap of skin down the entire belly length of the fish revealing all its innermost secrets.
Still grasping the gutting knife you removed the liver with your right hand and tossed it into the closely woven liver basket. Having done that the next move was to slip the blade under the gullet and slice through it; the guts then fell out hanging only by the anal canal. Another quick slash and they fell down into the pound and you tossed the gutted carcass into the appropriate basket. The whole operation took only a few seconds, and the fish wasn’t in the least bit bothered; or so I liked to believe. Flat fish such as plaice, megrims or brill demanded a somewhat different technique since all of their working parts were immediately behind their heads. And since their guts were much smaller in relation to their body, their livers were not worth saving.
My first on the job lesson in gutting lasted for only a few minutes before the mate secured the winch and made his way for’ard to the fish room hatch. He called on me to follow him and we climbed down the ladder into the fish room. Once down on the stage he directed me to shovel some of the ice stowed in the fore part of the fish room back down the stage to where he was standing. He then proceeded to shovel a layer of the ice into the bottoms of the four pounds we had prepared earlier. The gutting up on the deck went on apace and as each basket was filled with one particular type of fish it would be washed and left for a short while to drain. When the mate was satisfied with our preparations in the fish room he called up to the deck and then stationed himself immediately under the hatch.
Now, up on the deck, one of the hands standing by the hatch lifted a basket and, bracing his knees against the hatch combing, lowered the basket containing some seventy pounds of fish, down to a point at which the mate could reach it. When the mate had a reasonable grip on the base of the basket he would wait for a suitable roll of the ship and give a grunt to signal to the deck man to let go. Then in one movement, pivoting and lowering the basket, he would shoot its contents into the pound he had designated for it. The empty basket was then handed back up to the deck. This was back breaking work for both of the men involved especially in periods of heavy fishing when a haul might consist of thirty or forty baskets. When a thin layer of fish had been deposited in a pound, I was told to shovel a layer of ice on top of it. And when this layer of ice and fish reached a depth of three or four feet we would lay a shelf of pound boards across the battens and start a new layer.
In the period when I started fishing the price of fish at the dock side was controlled by government imposed limits. A price was set for each species – a low price for cod, which was regarded as a common fish, and the highest prices for prime fish such as turbot or soles. This regulated price made no allowance for the quality or condition of the fish, which could vary considerably depending on how the fish had been stored in the fish room. Eventually the price controls were lifted and retaining the quality of the catch became much more important.
The very best quality of fish that we could land was ‘shelved fish’. These fish, usually large cod, were placed on an ice covered shelf and nothing was placed on top of them. Such fish made the best price on the market and were often used by fishmongers as display fish on their slabs. The price for some kinds of fish that are now extremely fashionable with television cooks was truly pitiful and much of this, such as monk fish and John Dory went for fish cakes or fish meal.
Although it was rumoured among trawlermen that monk fish was sometimes passed off as lobster by some of the most exclusive dining places. A fish that was very popular with fishermen themselves was skate wings but this was never one of my favourites. Baked cat fish was also very popular as a main course when the meat ran out and I really enjoyed that. With our primitive method of preserving our meat in the ice we were limited in the amount of fresh meat we could carry. To supplement this cook had a tub of brine lashed up on top of the galley and at the beginning of each trip he would salt some joints and place them in it for use towards the tail end of the trip.
In spite of the horror stories I had read about salt beef on the old sailing ships, this was one of my all time favourites. We also carried enough tripe for at least one meal, and whenever I sailed as a fish room hand, I always tried surreptitiously to dump it over the rail since I loathed it. In case we should ever run out of bread we also carried a store of ship’s biscuits locked away in a metal box in the cabin. These were like very large dog biscuits to look at but, in spite of these also having a bad press, I quite liked them.
After the catch had all been dealt with and the guts, offal, and undersized fish had been washed out through the scuppers, the mate and I secured the fish room and went aft for what I considered to be a well earned mug of tea and a smoke. After that we had about two and a half hours left before the next haul and this time I went for’ard and slept.
Sometimes, if a meal was impending around about the anticipated hauling time, the skipper would adjust the towing time to allow for the meal to fit in with our fishing schedule. On this occasion, with just such an adjustment, we hauled nicely in time to shoot and put the fish away before the cook called breakfast. This was my first fishing watch and in the normal way, as the most junior member of the watch I would have been left in the wheelhouse alone while the other two members of our watch had breakfast. Fortunately for me the mate’s faith in my steering prowess was not great enough for him to trust the safety of the ship to my uncertain hands and I was able to attend the first sitting.
After breakfast the mate took over the wheel while I undertook the never ending job of dumping the ashes. Considering the enormous number of coal burning ships that spent the greater part of their lives roaming the North Sea and the generations of trimmers dumping ashes into it, a considerable area of the sea bed must be liberally coated with a compound of ashes and clinker. I feel sure that future oceanographers will come to quite a different conclusion about the cause of this phenomenon. They will probably ascribe it to volcanic activity or to some strange religious rite that was practised in our times.
I can’t help noticing that archaeologists in our day always try to attach religious significance to any pile of stones they can’t account for. Why do they never conclude that the ancients might have done some things just for fun or because there was no alternative? Take Stonehenge for instance – why do they never conclude that it might have been used as a very early form of football ground? The two teams could have raced about in the middle and all of the stone arches could have been goal posts. Each arch could have had its own goal keeper, with half of the goal posts defended by each side. Or indeed, they could have had several teams playing simultaneously. What an exciting game that would have been, especially if the losing sides were ritually sacrificed by the druids after the game. I think that this proposal, as unlikely as it sounds, is equally as valid and realistic as some of the nonsense that the experts are prone to come up with; and it would certainly make for more exciting football.
On completing my duties as a trimmer I assumed the mantle of the deckhand part of my title and relieved the mate at the wheel. To be fair about it, fishing watches were not usually onerous and apart from the permanent state of tiredness engendered by the lack of sleep, they could be very enjoyable. There are few things in life to compare with the feeling of peace and contentment that you can get from being alone in the wheelhouse of a small ship, leaning out of the window at the end of a fine night watching the new day arrive. Supposing the weather is reasonably kind, then above the creaking of the gear and the hiss of the sea along her sides, you will soon hear the cook rattling his pans and stirring up the fire in his stove. Then if the wind is coming from aft you will savour the appetite inducing smell of the breakfast cooking. All professions have their consolations and this is one experience that will only ever be appreciated by a small, and certainly dwindling, number of people.
Skippers would rarely give you specific courses to follow. More often they would tell you to stay at some particular range of depths, which you would need to check at frequent intervals by referring to the echo sounder. This was our most useful and sophisticated piece of equipment, and men of the deck crew relied on it to a great extent. It even played a big part in our navigational techniques. My understanding is that it only became a standard fitting on trawlers after the Second World War, and prior to that it had been common practice to rely on a hand held lead line. We had been taught something about the use of a lead line on our training course, and I had seen it in use on old films.
It consisted of a lead weight of seven pounds attached to a long thin line which was marked in an ingenious way so that when you dropped the weight over the side until it touched the bottom, you could tell by the feel of the marks on the line, even in the dark, what depth of water you were in. As this depended upon the users’ ability to identify the difference, by feel, between leather, cotton rag and canvas, and given the horny handed state of most fishermen, I had little faith in this system.
The bottom of the weight was hollowed out and the idea of this was that if you filled this hollow with tallow, you would then be able to see what the composition of the sea bottom was when you recovered it. For a trawler man this is not as stupid as it sounds, and on a few occasions over the years I did see it used for this purpose.
The echo sounder at the time I began fishing was contained in a box in the wheelhouse which I understand was linked to some device down on the keel. This under water device transmitted a sound wave from the ship down to the sea bed and the sound wave then obligingly bounced back up again to the ship. The box in the wheelhouse measured the time it took for the sound wave to go down and back up again and displayed the results on a small screen.
These early versions demanded a high degree of concentration since the depth was recorded as a band of light moving across a scale which peaked at the mark appropriate to the depth of the water. Later versions were much more user friendly; instead of a light they had a revolving stylus that continuously recorded the depth on a roll of sensitised paper, thus giving the user an on going picture of the sea bed. In my experience, covering a span of several years in many parts of the world, I never once witnessed a trawler skipper using a sextant or chronometer for navigation. Everything was done by the time honoured system of dead reckoning; or perhaps more accurately ‘By guess and by God’.
Even when making passages to Norway and the Barents Sea we relied upon a combination of dead reckoning and light houses, light ships and the contours of the sea bed. In spite of this we were very rarely lost even in heavy weather and negligible visibility. One of the illusions that had sustained me in the period before I actually went fishing was the belief that fishermen sought shelter in harbour during rough weather. This may have been the case with some inshore fishermen, but steam trawlers hardly ever did. The ships would always keep working until the weather conditions ruled it out completely. There was no hard and fast ruling about this as the ships varied considerably in size and sea-worthiness. After the skipper had decided that fishing was no longer possible – and this decision was more often based on a fear of losing his gear than concern for our welfare.
Once he had made the decision we would lash up the gear and steam slowly up into the wind until we reached the windward edge of the ground on which we were working when the ship would be stopped with the wind on the beam and the helm lashed hard over towards the windward side. We would then drift down wind keeping a watchful eye on the echo sounder until the ship seemed likely to drift off the ground; at that point we would take the lashings off the wheel and steam slowly up into the wind until we regained our original starting position.
When fishing off the west coast of the U.K with its indented coastline and numerous islands the opportunities for taking shelter under a lee shore were much more frequent: but this was rarely possible on the east coast. Trawlers at that time were not fitted with radar we avoided collisions with other vessels or land by that good old stand by – the mark one human eyeball – and when, eventually, some of the new ships were fitted with it, many of them ran into something – usually the Spurn lightship. The main thing we had to beware of when we were fishing was to make sure that a combination of wind and tide didn’t push the ship over the fishing gear. If this did happen there was a good chance of the warps becoming entangled in the screw or the rudder.
This would entail hours of intricate, strenuous and dangerous work with messenger wires, hooks and a thunderous volume of curses, and could in the worst case result in the loss of all or part of the gear. Loss of the gear was the ultimate heartbreak for the skipper and mate as they were partly responsible for the cost of it, their pay being based on a percentage of the value of the trip after expenses. The impression among the deck hands was that many skippers would rather loose a man than loose a part of the gear.
The result of this was that they would drive the deck crew into taking quite unacceptable risks before finally acknowledging defeat and deciding to cut the gear free. Even when everything was running smoothly the risk factor was extremely high. Bear in mind that you were working inside a cat’s cradle of steel cables under tension, and dealing with heavy gear that would swiftly trap and remove fingers or limbs; There was never a time when anyone on the deck could afford to relax. Add to this the hazards of a deck that could be lurching through an arc of sixty degrees at the same time as it was rising and falling by as much as fifty feet; and there you had a recipe for disaster.
To counter this, deck crews developed a degree of awareness and agility that would not have shamed a fencer of a ballet dancer. There were only two kinds of people on the deck of a working trawler; in biblical terms they could be classified as the quick or the soon to be dead or injured. I actually sailed in a ship in which the mate, a young man who had only recently married, was decapitated by a warp. In any other industry this casual attitude to safety would have been unacceptable; but among the fishing community it was regarded as the norm.
Over the years, a whole way of life had developed among this comparatively small group of people that gave little consideration to safety or comfort at sea. This somewhat callous attitude was reinforced by the actions of the ship owners who accepted no responsibility for the long term prospects of even the most loyal employees. Both crews and skippers were regarded as a wasting commodity that could be thrown aside the moment they were no longer productive. There was only one way to become a skipper and that was the hard way: from deckie learner, through deckie to third hand, then, if he was lucky to mate. After a minimum of twelve months sea service as mate he could sit for his skipper’s certificate; and then, if he was extremely lucky, and had friends in the right places, he might be offered a skippers berth.
Having advanced this far down the road towards being a ‘Don Skipper’ did not mean that he was home and dry; he now had to prove that he could catch fish. Given that he now had a ship and a crew to work the gear, it may seem a logical supposition that, provided he went through the normal exercise of shooting and hauling, fish would be caught. Sadly, as many aspiring skippers learnt by bitter experience, this was not necessarily the case. This was where family or friendly connections came to the assistance of the newly appointed skipper.
Over the years the established successful skippers built up an arcane and extensive mental library of knowledge that enabled them to consistently bring home a good trip. This skill was based not only on knowledge of the geographical location of the fishing grounds, but also on an understanding of the life cycle and habits of the fish they were hunting. They needed to be aware of the time of the year when the fish would be on some particular piece of ground and how to set up their gear to the best advantage. This knowledge, once acquired, became part of the encyclopaedia of closely guarded secrets held in every skipper’s brain. It would only be imparted to a close relative or to some favoured protégé.
This system obviously worked to the advantage of those who had fathers’ or near relatives who were already skippers; but even this blood tie did not guarantee an easy passage. Many skippers, and indeed fishermen at all levels, tended to discourage their sons from embarking on a fishing career; but in the nature of things, this fatherly advice was frequently ignored When faced with a son determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, most skippers would bow to the inevitable and would push him along towards getting his certificates. I sailed with a number of father and son, skipper and mate combinations, and it was rarely a peaceful or comfortable relationship. The father would invariably be tougher in his conduct towards his son than he was to the rest of the crew and this would lead to the son, sailing either as mate or third hand, taking out his resentment on the crew. Conversely there were occasions when a skipper would take a liking to some quite unrelated member of the crew, usually some young deck hand, and would actually encourage him by imparting tips about fishing grounds or ship handling techniques. Such an individual would be referred to by the rest of the crew as ‘the skipper’s fair haired lad’, or ‘the old man’s blue eyed boy’.
In a couple of cases I attained this exalted position, largely based upon my ability to entertain the old man with a good yarn. It was not an easy role to maintain because it involved laughing at the old man’s jokes and keeping him well supplied with tea. In one particular case I became the ‘blue eyed boy’ of the mate who was sailing with his father as skipper. This was in a ship where we carried the bond which included a generous stock of rum of which the skipper was inordinately fond. The only thing that prevented the old man from being permanently three sheets to the wind was that he was disinclined to drink on his own. And since some of the deckies’ were old cronies of his he always tried to call one of them up to the wheelhouse when he felt the urge for a drink.
His son, the mate, would always veto this and would insist that I went up as a substitute. On dropping whatever I was doing, and before making my way up to take over the wheel, the mate would enjoin me not to allow the old man to have a drink, as he put it – “Whatever happens”. Since the skipper of any ship tended to regard himself as being only one small step lower than God, this was not an easy prohibition for a deckie to enforce. My method of dealing with this was to aim for a sensible compromise. This meant that I would join the old man in one drink and then, by keeping up a continual patter about some aspect of the trip, I would hope to take his mind off any further drinking. This sometimes worked but more often it failed. In that case I would be reduced to making silent but appealing gestures or facial expressions through the wheelhouse window in the direction of the mate in the hope that he would realise what was happening. As soon as the mate realised that his plan of action had failed he would storm up the ladder and into the wheelhouse. A furious argument would then ensue between father and son while I contrived to hold the ship on course as though nothing untoward was happening. Curiously, the end result of these altercations was that the skipper would always back down and retreat to his cabin until the even tenor of our lives was resumed. The mates closing words at the end of these storms were usually along the lines of ‘I’m going to tell our Mam about this’.
This particular skipper, with whom I sailed for some time, had a number of slightly eccentric habits; adjoining his cabin below the wheelhouse was his own personal lavatory on which he liked to sit while studying his charts.
This in itself would not have been objectionable except that whenever I was in the wheelhouse at that time, he would call up from his perch immediately below the wheel house, ‘Slim! – bring me a pot of tea will you’. Upon this command I would first procure the tea, and then clamber down the ladder to be confronted by Ollie on his throne, with his fearnought trousers hanging down to his clumpers and a chart spread out on his knees. When I pointed out to him one evening that his conduct was not exactly becoming for the master of a fine vessel he excused himself by saying, “This is where I does all my thinking Slim”. He was a most remarkable character having been sent to sea from an orphanage at a very early age. He was barely literate; but this did not prevent him from being an exceptional, if unconventional, navigator. How on earth he did it I shall never know; I can only surmise that direction finding was almost as instinctive to him as it would be to an albatross. On one trip, in thick weather he took a final bearing on Cape Farewell on the southern tip of Greenland and made his next landfall at the entrance to the Pentland Firth. All of this without radar, sextant, chronometer or direction finding equipment.
Ollie was certainly not the only skipper to indulge his eccentricities; a lot of his contempories developed some very unusual habits. Many of the more established fishing skippers were referred to, and instantly recognised by a descriptive prelude to their given names. This usually referred to some habit, celebrated incident, or characteristic. In my time we had Stormy Bob, Hurricane Hutch, Comfortable Charlie, The Black Bull, Shitty Bob and Sugar Bob. The last named was so called because he was a diabetic; but a very successful skipper in spite of his ailment, in fact I did my most profitable trip under his command. One old boy who’s name escapes me now was noted for his practice, in reasonable weather, to stand out on the wheelhouse veranda and play the violin to the lads who were busily gutting down on the fore-deck. The words to his favourite piece of music were, ‘Although you belong to somebody else, tonight you belong to me’.
In spite of their autocratic mannerisms – when I told one skipper that he was appointed skipper under God, he thought that I had put it the wrong way round – most skippers were no more secure in their employment than the greenest deckie learner. It was often said that a skipper was only as good as his last trip; and while this was not strictly speaking true, it was not too far short of the mark. A ‘Don Skipper’ with a really impressive past record to fall back on could afford to have perhaps two or even three bad trips in a row without the risk of being fired. But even the very best would certainly be living life on a knife edge in those circumstances.
Once a man was knocked down from skipper it seemed somehow to break his pride and his spirit. He never quite managed to get back up again. A newly promoted skipper therefore, was under tremendous pressure to succeed right from his very first trip, for the simple reason that his first trip might very well be his last. Even the more established skippers, who were paying a huge proportion of their earnings in income tax, were afraid to take time off in case someone else stepped into their sea boots. There was no lack of candidates either; I once sailed as trimmer in a ‘Don’ ship where, out of twelve deck hands, ten had skippers or mates tickets. This constant pressure on skippers to succeed on every trip regardless of the weather conditions, and regardless of the risk of injuries, made them drive crews until they literally dropped. The one exception to this rule that I encountered was Comfortable Charlie with whom I sailed for some time and probably filled the slot as his fair haired lad. The only snag with Charlie was that he seemed to be given ships that were jinxed.
My theory was that the owners tolerated Charlie because he engendered an amazing degree of loyalty amongst his crews. On one trip we had to take on two firemen who had come directly from Aberdeen jail. A pair of real hard cases who looked as though they lunched on small babies: by the end of the trip they declared that Charlie was the finest gentleman ever to wear sea boots. They were not far wrong either. The hard driving skippers and mates were not brutal or callous by nature. They, like the men who served under them, were cast in the same mould as the men who drove the clipper ships. First class seamen, they took pride in their harsh and unforgiving trade. A disappearing breed even then and now virtually extinct. They were simply men of their time.
My first trip rolled away haul by haul rather than day by day since with us day or night made little difference. Nothing of any significance occurred to implant this trip indelibly on my memory apart from a serious bout of constipation. This was not eased by the appalling lavatory facilities which were not confined to this particular ship, but were replicated in all of the old style trawlers. Theoretically there were two crude, but adequate heads on board, one forward under the whaleback and one aft. In practice, both of these were unusable for about eighty percent of the trip. Neither of them had any sort of none return valve arrangement. They consisted of nothing more than a fixed wooden seat mounted on the top of a steel funnel which went down directly into the sea. Whoever was responsible for deciding that this was the correct type of heads for a small vessel must have had a very warped sense of humour.
A trawler spent virtually all of it’s time at sea either plunging into a sea or rising up from one. It requires very little imagination to visualise what happened in the lavatory in the course of these plunges. On the down stroke of the plunge a powerful geyser of sea water rushes up through the funnel to the great discomfort of anyone foolish enough to be sitting on it. On the upward stroke a strong suction would be developed. Add to this the fact that no toilet paper was provided by our caring employers, and it is easy to understand why constipation and piles were endemic among trawler men. Inevitably, no matter what the weather or your personal squeamishness, eventually you had to go.
Now you were presented with three alternatives all of them unpleasant. If you were really determined or truly desperate you could tough it out and brave the lavatory facilities during a spell of comparative calm. Alternatively you could plead with the engineer on watch to let you crouch in the stokehold and perform on the shovel, after which you flung your contribution into the furnace. This usually brought some ribald comments from the wheelhouse when you emerged on deck regarding the pungent effluvium wafting from the funnel.
The final method was to perch on the rail with your feet hooked into the lashing wire as a precaution against being lost overboard. It was also a wise move to call up to the wheelhouse to inform them of your intentions in case you did fall over the side: it was considered more sensible to invite an audience rather than risk finding yourself trying to swim ashore with your fearnoughts round your ankles. After a while you became fairly blasé about these alternatives as you did about so many other things that would be regarded as unacceptable in any reasonable working environment. But I never entirely lost my distaste for it. In spite of these setbacks, every haul was advancing my skills, and I became adept at helping the mate to stow the catch in the fish room. Surprisingly in view of my inexperience I was never subjected to any bullying Before the trip was over I had even been entrusted with working the gilson and the quarter ropes and I could even make myself useful in the coal bunkers.
These bunkers occupied the space between the fish room and the stokehold and held enough coal for about fifteen days. In order to extend this period when required, a tunnel about five feet high and three wide ran from the after end of the fish room through the bunkers into the stokehold. This extended the bunker capacity by a considerable amount but gave plenty of work for the trimmers as the coal then had to be shovelled from the fish room through the tunnel and into the stokehold. In some extreme cases this idea was carried even further by carrying coal in the fish pounds on the fore deck, but this could only be done in fair weather when there was no chance of it being washed overboard.
On a long trip to a distant ground this coal was always used in the earlier part of the trip and whenever possible ice would not be loaded until the ship reached Norway or Iceland. The great skill of a trimmer when the bunkers were low lay in his ability to create a substantial wall of coal around the sliding hatch through which the coal was delivered into the stokehold. To do this he would sort out the biggest lumps of coal he could lay his hands on to use as building blocks. Once this wall was created, the trimmer would fill up the space between the wall and the stokehold bulkhead and the engineer or fireman would have enough coal running down to last for up to twelve hours. When fishing in the North Sea we very rarely ran the bunkers out as trips normally never lasted longer than fourteen days and were often a couple of days less.
Unlike some of the other fishing ports Grimsby had three different types of trawler operating from the port; and the market had developed to match this variety. Firstly, and perhaps the most numerous, at least in actual numbers of ships, was the North Sea fleet. This was generally composed of the older and smaller ships and its activities were confined to the North Sea. The limits of this fleet would be the Dutch coast in the south, Heligoland in the east and the Moray Firth in the North. Eastward the grounds extended about half way across to Norway. Next, and these made up a fairly small proportion of the fleet, were the Middle Water ships.
These were usually slightly larger and a bit younger than the North Sea vessels and they fished the waters around the Faroe Islands, the Shetlands, the Norwegian coast as far as the Lofoten Islands. On the odd occasion they might even go to the southern coast of Iceland. At the top of the tree came the Distant Water or Deep Sea ships. These ships were the largest and most modern ships, mostly coal burners with a few oil burners. All of the ships whatever their class were driven by triple expansion steam engines of outstanding reliability. The distant water fleet fished the waters of the Arctic; mostly around the Barents Sea and Bear Island, or North West of Iceland, with occasional forays to Nova Zemlya or Greenland. There was a huge disparity between the size of the catches brought in by these differing classes of ships. The distant water ships went for quantity while the remainder relied upon quality to boost the value of their catches.
The North Sea ships relied upon catching such highly prized fish as soles, plaice, brill and turbot, although in the normal course of events they also caught a proportion of cod, haddock, coley, skate and dog fish. A reasonable trip for a North Sea ship at that time would be between two hundred and three hundred kit – a kit was two baskets or ten stones. The middle water ships relied upon catches of large cod, haddock, ling and halibut. But they also would incidentally catch a certain quantity of highly priced flat fish and rough low value stuff such as Pollock, skate and monk. The distant water ships relied upon catching large quantities of one species of fish depending upon whatever ground they were working. At Bear Island this would be almost exclusively three year old codling of about two feet long.
Off the Lofoten Islands the catch would be large haddock, and at Nova Zemlya large plaice. A good middle water trip would be around seven or eight hundred kit while a good distant water trip could be up to four thousand kit of cod or codling. Quantity was certainly not the defining factor as to the value of a trip; because of the variation between the different types of fish, a moderate catch of plaice could exceed in value a much larger catch of cod. This was not such a significant factor when the price of fish was controlled by the government but became very important when price controls were removed. After the controls were lifted the price difference between fish caught in home waters compared with that caught in distant waters became much greater.
The main reason for this was not so much in the quality of the fish at the time they were caught, but in the quality when it was landed. Distant water fish was not only older but, because of the volume of the catch, it received less care in the stowage and was prone to crushing. The time of landing could also make a difference to the value of a trip; if there was a glut of a particular species on any market day then the price went down. This led to skippers spending long hours in the radio shack trying to decide on the basis of the information they could pick up, what would be the best day to land. Traditionally, Thursday was reckoned to be a good day to dock in order to catch the Friday market when many people ate fish for religious reasons.
My first trip ended with more of a whimper than a bang. As casually as we had set out, after one unremarkable haul the old man leaned out of the wheelhouse window and said, ‘Get the gear in and lash up we’re going home’, and so we were. As soon as the gear came aboard the skipper rang down ‘Full ahead’, we lashed the trawl tidily under the rail and dropped the doors inboard, the mate set the watches and the rest of the hands turned in. After a few hours steaming we entered the river and dropped anchor lying just off the dock gates of Grimsby in company with a number of other ships waiting for the gates to open. My shipmates had already told me that this was the point at which it was customary for the mate to come along to fire those members of the crew he wanted to get rid of. I fully expected after my relatively poor showing, that my services would no longer be required, but for some reason the expected blow did not fall.
Astonishingly, when we gathered around the fish room hatch to pick up our allotted fry of fish the mate even asked me if I was coming back next trip. Of course he may very well have convinced himself that I would not be coming back anyway, and so simply didn’t bother to formally sack me. When we finally docked after spending so long cooped up in the confines of the ship, I made up my mind to walk back to the lodgings carrying just my shirt bag and my fry of fish.
Setting foot ashore was the strangest feeling; it was like having legs of two different lengths. For the first two or three hundred yards I lurched and stumbled along like a drunk, nor would my eyes focus correctly. After watching an horizon that was perpetually tilting one way or the other for so long, my brain could not immediately accept one that remained stationary. Gradually the feeling wore off and by the time I reached the lodgings I was pretty much back to normal except for a realisation that I felt inexpressibly weary. I handed over my fry of fish to the landlady which was my first serious mistake because now fish was going to figure very prominently on the menu for the next few days. This fry of fish was the only perk that a fisherman ever had from his employer. The size and quality of it depended to a large extent upon the generosity of the mate since he was the man responsible for doling it out at the end of the trip. For a single man living at in or out digs, the wisest thing was to hand it over to a lady friend or sell it to a fish and chip shop.