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Has Boris forgotten our fishing history? The sea is woven deep into the culture of the British Isles. Politicians ignore it at their peril

Scottish trawlermen haul in their catch in the North Atlantic (Photo by Chris Furlong/Getty Images)

Scottish trawlermen haul in their catch in the North Atlantic (Photo by Chris Furlong/Getty Images)

September 10, 2020   6 mins

I live nowhere near the sea. But some years ago, sitting on a straw bale at a tiny Yorkshire folk festival, I found myself in tears as I joined in a song about fishermen who died almost a century before I was born.

The song in question, Three Score and Ten”, tells the story of a single stormy night in 1884, and the horrific death toll that came with it:

And there were three score and ten, boys and men
Were lost from Grimsby Town
From Yarmouth down to Scarborough
Many hundreds more were drowned

Their herring craft, their trawlers
Their fishing smacks as well
They long did fight the bitter night
And battle with the swell.

But it’s not just the sentimental pleasure of singing a sad song with a catchy chorus that keeps this song alive. Fishing is woven deep into the culture of the British Isles: so deep, that despite today being only a tiny contributor to our economy, and with little political leverage, it may yet scupper Boris’s Brexit deal.

Why, then, does fishing stir people up? It’s not jobs or money. According to Commons Library research, the UK fishing industry employs about 24,000 people and earns around £1.4bn per annum. As a proportion of Britain’s £2.1 trillion 2019 GDP, that’s small change. And with 27,000 employees in the UK alone, Amazon provides more jobs today than the entire British fishing sector.

The BBC recently had a go, suggesting that ‘supporters of Brexit’ see fishing as ‘a symbol of sovereignty that will now be regained’. But it goes deeper than abstract ideas of control. The environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth argues that if we’re to find national identity anywhere, it’s in the relationship we have with our landscape we inhabit. And for the inhabitants of the British Isles, no matter which wave of migration brought us here since this landmass was settled in about 900,000BC, that identity has been bound up with the sea.

Wherever you live in the British Isles, it’s not possible to be more than 70 miles from the sea. We have around 19,500 miles of coastline: more than Brazil. The sea has sustained and shaped Britain for thousands of years.

The usual angle on this story is about commerce and colonisation. In its pomp, the might of the British Empire was inseparable from its maritime culture. This fact, and Britain’s decline from imperial grandeur, underpinned the recent controversy over singing “Rule Britannia” at the Proms . But so far the culture war has largely ignored those working-class men who plied the same waves not to conquer or trade, but to catch fish.

Fishing has been part of British culture since time immemorial, but especially on the North Sea coast. The monks of Wyke Hull were granted a special licence to fish in the Humber by King Henry II in the 12th century. Then in the 19th century, when the arrival of railways opened up new inland markets for fresh fish, a wave of migration to the area made Hull a fishing boom town. Often-illiterate fishermen set sail in ‘fishing smacks’, light sail-powered vessels of around 50 feet with a crew of around four men, to trawl for deep-sea fish as far afield as the Faroes and Iceland.

Working on a North Sea fishing smack was brutally dangerous: between 1863 and 1871 around 1,000 such boats were operating from ports along the northeast, and every year around 120 of them were lost to accidents. In Grimsby alone, 1,024 men were lost between 1880 and 1893, all from fishing smacks.

Nor was joining a fishing crew always a choice. The historian Peter Anson noted that of the boys and men who made up the Grimsby fishing fleet, “Most of the apprentices had been brought up in orphanages and reformatory schools.” It’s likely that of the “three score and ten” who died on that stormy October night in 1884, some had been forced into the trade.

This hard and dangerous work bred a unique working culture. In his 1934 travelogue English Journey, JB Priestley described fishing as employing perhaps the last of the wild men in this tamed Island of ours; fellows capable of working day and night without food or sleep […] and then also capable of going on the booze with equal energy and enthusiasm.

This culture was transmitted (as is often the case for working-class history) through myth and music. If they survived long enough to be drawn into the culture of working fishermen, apprentice smacksmen would soon learn the songs that beat the rhythms of working life at sea. Shanties and ‘capstan songs’, surviving today only in sheet music and the folk music scene, were tools of the trade: rhythmic tunes sung onboard to give the beat for hauling ropes to work the ship, or turning the capstan to winch in heavy nets.

Indeed, ”The Smacksman”  is itself a capstan song, which contrasts the idyllic appearance of life at sea with its grim reality. Nothing could be more quintessentially British than this cheerful sing-it-on-the-job ditty about having a horrible job:

Once I was a schoolboy, on the shores I used to roam
And watch the boats go out to sea, at the setting of the sun.
I thought I’d like the seafaring life but very soon I found
It wasn’t common sailing when we reached the fishing ground.

It was, “Heave on the trawl my boys, never mind the storm!”
When we get the fish aboard we’ll have another haul.
“Heave away the capstan, merrily heave away!”
It’s the same old cry in the middle of the night as it is in the early day.

The rhythms of fishing life occupied not just those at sea, but everyone onshore too. The whole community turned on the rhythm of the ‘long-tripper’ boats that by the onset of the First World War employed some 17,000 full-time fishermen. ‘Fishwives’ would mend nets, bait lines and process the catch, selling fish from the docks or carrying it to market in woven baskets. Even lullabies had a tang of the sea: the Northumbrian lullaby “Dance to your daddy” promises the baby “You shall have a fishy/When the boat comes in”.

As North Sea white fish grew in popularity, inland fishing declined. Britain lost the taste for herring (today, we export 93% of the British herring catch) and embraced cod-and-chips. Meanwhile, advances in fishing technology began to transform the industry from the dangerous sail-powered work of the 19th-century smacksman to something more industrial, increasingly carried out by huge trawlers with refrigerated holds and even on-board canneries, that could put to sea for weeks at a time.

Then, in the mid-20th century, a sector focused not on inland fishing but North Sea trawling collided with the ‘rules-based international order’ — and sank.

The 1970 Common Fisheries Policy was an attempt to address the growing problem of overfishing resulting from the ever more efficient design of 20th-century trawlers. It wasn’t the first such attempt to allocate fishing rights; the nations signing the 1964 London Convention on Fisheries are all now EU members.

But when Britain joined the EEC in 1973, it was allocated quotas set based not on the total catch by British vessels, but only on fish caught in EEC waters. And these didn’t include the more distant North Sea fishing-grounds where the bulk of the British trawlers worked.

Thus it’s both true and not true that ‘Ted Heath sold British fishermen down the river’, as the popular perception has it today. Yes, CFP quotas were skewed against Britain — but this wouldn’t have mattered had Britain been able to go on fishing further afield. And Britain’s ‘long-tripper’ fishermen were defeated not by Brussels, but by geopolitics.

In the 1970s, in another effort to manage the excesses of overfishing, the UN established Exclusive Economic Zones around coastal states, giving each state the sole right to economic exploitation of these waters. This triggered the Cod Wars between Britain and Iceland, over the right to fish off the Icelandic coast. At the height of the Cod Wars, British trawlers were shot at by Icelandic fishermen, and one large vessel was even shelled by Icelandic artillery after it was spotted fishing inside the limit.

Britain’s military clout seemed sure to guarantee victory in the Cod Wars. But Iceland had a trump card up its sleeve: geography. The Cod Wars took place at the height of the Cold War, and the US naval base on the Reykjanes peninsula in western Iceland was critical to America’s efforts to track Soviet movements via the key chokepoint between Greenland, Iceland and the UK.

So Iceland threatened to withdraw from Nato if the British did not stop fishing in Icelandic waters. Fearful of losing its naval base, the United States put pressure on Britain. Britain folded: the Cod Wars ended in 1976 with Britain agreeing to respect an exclusive 200-mile Icelandic fishing zone around its coast.

But by then there was nowhere else for the British fleet to go. As an EEC member, quotas for British territorial waters had been set meanwhile by the Common Fisheries Policy. It’s no surprise, then, that that the peak year for British fishing was around 1 million tons of fish caught, in 1973 — the year Britain joined the EEC.

Thus British fishing sank under the triple weight of European treaties, marine conservation and Cold War geopolitics. Neither the Right nor the Left saw fit to fight for it: too working-class for the 20th-century Tories, and too old-fashioned for the Thatcherites, nor was fishing ever a unionised power-base for the Labour Party. No one noticed as Britain’s once-thriving coastal communities slid into despair, becoming some of the most deprived in the country.

But if Brexit teaches us anything, it’s that ignoring something lots of people care about doesn’t make that thing go away. Today, fishing once again threatens to blow Brexit off course — and Boris may find that even his ‘compromise’ position is not enough to calm the political waters.

The Leave vote was as much about identity as substantive economic matters. And below the surface of Britain’s supposedly modern 21st-century culture is a powerful undertow of maritime memory, that has nothing to do with imperial grandeur — and everything to do with fish. Boris’ deal may yet founder on our yearning for the unquiet sea.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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Benjamin Jones
Benjamin Jones
3 years ago

Very interesting. I raise my glass to you. 🍺