Nobody knows for certain just when deep-sea trawling began, but certainly by the late 18thcentury the fishermen of Brixham, keen to overcome the problem of limited fish stocks in South Devon waters, had begun to develop a new design of fishing vessel.
Its sleek underwater lines and very tall gaff rig gave it the speed to make long passages to and from the fishing grounds in relatively short times. The power that gave them that speed also enabled them to tow large trawls, in deep water and in all kinds of weather.
The result was a great increase in the size of the catch, and a corresponding decrease in the time taken to make that catch. Nowadays it would be described as a quantum leap forward.
The men from Tor Bay did not describe it in terms of that kind, but they knew that what they had developed gave them a major advantage and they were sufficiently entrepreneurial by nature to exploit it.
Fishing stocks in the English Channel were now more accessible, but were still limited. It was not long before they began to go further and further afield to fish.
Giving evidence to a parliamentary enquiry in 1833 one of them, Walter Smith, said he had been fishing off Dover since before the French Revolution of 1789 ‚the first from Tor Bay to go so far east. However he also said that by the 1830’s he had fished from Sunderland, Durham and Hartlepool and all round the coast.
Meanwhile others had gone west, to the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea. From there they could make a fast run home with their catch, using the prevailing westerlies. The fastest of them all, Ibex, once made the 140 miles passage from the Bristol Channel to Brixham between 5 o’clock one afternoon and 8 o’clock the following morning, at an average speed of almost ten knots.
However, fishing in more distant waters meant living locally, initially for only part of the year but in due course inevitably led to some settling there permanently.
To begin with they had their boats built back home in Devon. But over time many vessels were began being built locally to the Brixham lines in the new fishing ports that had sprung up as fresh grounds were discovered and opened up: places like Ramsgate, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Hull, Grimsby, Scarborough, Fleetwood and Dublin.
Numbers grew steadily, and by the latter years of the 19th century there were more than 3,000 sailing trawlers in commission in UK waters.
There were 200 at Brixham, but 375 at Lowestoft, 450 at Hull, 625 at Great Yarmouth and 840 at Grimsby, with smaller numbers at other places.
British-built trawlers were eagerly snapped up secondhand by fishermen along the coast of Northern Europe, from Holland to Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands. The Germans ordered twelve as the nucleus for a home-built fleet. A major new industry had been born.
The rise of the sailing trawler coincided with the coming of steam railways, which were able to transport fish from landing place to markets in distant towns in a matter of hours. That also coincided with a population explosion, which in turn led to a major increase in the demand for fish.
Fishmongers now appeared in every High Street — as did the now ubiquitous fish and chip shop.
To find out more…
As part of the ‘Leader Project’ volunteers researched, wrote, designed and produced a booklet which tells the story of the development of the sailing trawler and the rise of Brixham as a major UK fishing port.
If you would like to order a copy please call the Trinity office on +44 (0) 1803 883355.