History of trawling

Brixham trawlers through the decades

Brixham, at the southern end of Torbay in Devon, has long been a fishing port.


Like fishermen elsewhere the men of Torbay used trawls for inshore waters, but a technique known as long-lining for deep sea fishing.


As its name suggests, long-lining involved towing a long line through the water, with baited hooks suspended from it at regular intervals. By the 19th century in the North Sea a complete set or “string” consisted of 180 lines (each 240 feet long) daisy-chained together, with hooks every nine feet. That meant the string was eight miles long and carried 4,680 hooks, each of which had to be baited with a whelk.


This was a laborious and inefficient way to farm the sea and make a living. But help was at hand.


Back in Brixham the local fishermen, in their desire to overcome the problem of limited fish stocks in South Devon waters, had begun to develop a new design of fishing vessel. Superficially it was not too different, but its sleek underwater lines and tall gaff rig gave it the speed to make long passages to and from remote fishing grounds in relatively short times.


The power that gave them the speed also enabled them to tow larger trawls, in deep water.

These two drawings show how a net was ‘shot’ and then towed by a sailing trawler

And so, in the closing years of the 18th century, the deep sea sailing trawler was born – and the Torbaymen began to go further and further afield to fish.


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.


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.


Two of these pioneers were Robert Hellyer and his son Charles, who left Brixham in 1854 and settled in Hull, after years of going north in October and returning home to Devon at Whitsun. Like nearby Grimsby, Hull had no previous history of fishing, but the discovery of astonishingly rich fishing grounds in the central part of the North Sea led to a Klondike-like stampede of Brixham men.


The Hellyers, and many others, had their boats built back home in Devon. They became two of the most successful fishing entrepreneurs, owning a fleet comprised of some of the largest sailing trawlers ever built.


The first sailing trawlers were cutter-rigged, with a single mast, and up to about 65 feet length on deck. The advent of steam donkey engines around 1860, enabling even larger trawls to be towed and larger mainsails to be set, led to an increase to around 80 feet in length for the largest boats. At the same time a mizzen mast was added aft of the mainmast, and so these boats were ketch rigged.


By then many vessels were being built 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.


A major new industry had been born.


The history of the Brixham Sailing Trawler

Our thanks to Toni Knights for his kind help with the filming of this video and for providing the drawings of the sailing trawlers in action and thanks also to the Brixham Museum for providing the photos from their archive.

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