December 12, 2022   8 mins

All maritime countries are interested in the edibles a-swim along their coasts, but in Britain, sea-fishing has long had a near-talismanic significance. In 2016, trawlermen personified the “island nation” for many Brexiteers — adventurers, out there on the high seas risking their lives to find food for us. The patriotic piscatorial pack was long led by Grimsby — which was, by the early 20th century becoming not just Britain’s, but the world’s, largest fishing port. It maintained this distinction with tough pride until the Fifties. But now, the name conjures bleak deprivation, rather than heroic trawlermen.

The docks today are eerily still, with boarded-up Victorian and Edwardian buildings, chain-link fences, and the occasional vessel, up out of the water, waiting to be serviced, dismantled, or quietly abandoned. There is a memorial garden to lost trawlers, with rusted anchors instead of gravestones. I have the nameplates of one Grimsby trawler, the Nimrod, found burned out on a beach, on the wall of my house. All along the shorelines south of the Humber, fragments of a once-great industry wash up after northeasterlies — bits of boat or quay timbers, sections of net, lifebelts, lobster pots.

This town was founded on fish. According to a 13th-century epic, it was fathered by a Danish fisherman called Grim, who saved the infant son of Denmark’s legitimate king instead of obeying orders to drown him. Not that such mythmaking feels relevant to many Grimbarians today. For most of the town’s history, any fish caught locally was for local consumption, although it has been a busy port since at least the 11th century. The simultaneous 1848 arrivals of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, and the East Lincolnshire Railway, changed everything. Fresh fish, from the apparently endless stocks of the North Sea, could now be carried quickly aboard 40-wagon “Fish Specials” to the bottomless markets of the South. Grimbarians perfected the technique of preserving fish in ice, at first brought from Norway, until the Grimsby Ice Factory was established in 1900. Long the world’s largest, it produced up to 1,200 tons of ice daily, until it ceased production in 1990. The Factory survives, still with much of its machinery, the unique but crumbling centrepiece of the network of surviving dockside streets known as the “Kasbah”.

A century ago, Grimsby was frantic with fishing. Over 160 trawlers might unload their catches in a single day, with boats moored two deep along quay walls. Between a third and half of all residents were directly employed in the industry, everyone connected to it in some way. Fishermen from as far away as the Thames and even Devon relocated up here. (Between 1841 and 1901, the town’s population grew from 3,700 to 75,000.) They prospected the wide and unpolluted German Ocean as far as Greenland, almost imperial in their ambitions. A vastly expensive, Italianate-style, 309-feet-tall Dock Tower was opened by Prince Albert in 1854, evidence of the trawling industry’s importance to the Empire. The Tower still stands: a striking seamark and symbol of vanished might.

Trawling is one of the most dangerous occupations on earth. A few years ago, the Marine and Coastguard Agency reported that UK fishermen were six times more likely to die at work than those in any other profession. Apart from falling overboard, dangers include being injured by nets, ropes, and occasionally even the quarry, with “sea cats” (Atlantic wolffish) able to inflict nasty bites. Deckhands are not even well paid, with average salaries of under £16,000, although they often get a share in any profits.

All this would have been even worse in Grimsby’s glory days. In the 19th century, apprentices as young as 13 endured desperately hardscrabble lives aboard stinking smacks, sometimes brutally or incompetently captained. The bulwarks were only two feet six inches high, and inexperienced hands could easily be swept overboard, even in moderate seas. A list of losses between 1878 and 1882 shows 169 causes of accidental death, ranging from “Lost during heavy gale” to “Fell asleep whilst holding light when net was being drawn in” and “Fell overboard when larking in rigging”.

Many apprentices deserted, and if recaptured, frequently chose imprisonment over returning to sea. That Grimsby was particularly problematic is suggested by the levels of incarceration in comparison with other fishing ports. In 1889, the town locked up 123 apprentices, and Hull 15 — and other fishing ports, such as Brixham or Lowestoft, almost none. In 1873, shocked national newspapers reported on groups of returned apprentices being marched through the centre of Grimsby, chained together. As the Grimsby Herald repined: “Respectable people said they would be glad if Grimsby could be erased from the map of England. If they knew as much about the treatment of some of these lads… they would feel surprised that the judgement of Heaven did not fall upon us.”

But some boys prospered, and eventually became wealthy skippers and owners. Substantial Victorian and Edwardian villas in Grimsby’s suburbs still testify to some men’s discipline and ambition. In 1882, James Plastow, originally from the Hackney poorhouse, told a Board of Trade inquiry that within five years of coming to Grimsby he had managed to save enough to buy several smacks. He told the doubtless gratified inquiry board, “I believe every lad in the fishing trade has the same chance of a successful life as I have had, provided he saves his money instead of spending it.”

Needless to say, the majority of young men were not so sensible. Enter the “three day millionaires”, with large amounts of money to spend after particularly prosperous voyages. Acutely conscious of the danger of their employment, they played even harder than they worked. Their antics afflicted Grimsby with public drunkenness, high crime rates, and excessive venereal disease, all exacerbated by the borough’s notorious misgovernment.

Grimsby has many of these same problems today, but without the prosperity. A recent film set in the town, Three Day Millionaire, centres on three young trawlermen who decide to carry out a major robbery. Like many popular depictions of Grimsby, it shows the town as a sinkhole of crime and dangerous desperation. (See also Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2016 action-comedy Grimsby, in which Cohen played a feckless football hooligan, as well as the end-scene of 2006’s This is England, in which the disillusioned young skinhead protagonist, played by Grimsby-born Thomas Turgoose, casts a St George’s flag into the sea.) These depictions are overdone, yet not wholly misplaced.

If 19th-century Grimsby had its troubles, the 21st-century town arguably has even more, with an especially bad reputation for sexual assault and violence. Grimsby is Lincolnshire’s most dangerous major town, and one of the ten most dangerous major towns in Britain, with an overall crime rate of 134 crimes per 1,000 people, 78% higher than the rest of Lincolnshire. This is blamed on many things, from bad education to a lack of youth clubs, to the even more nebulous “lack of discipline”. Locals’ attitudes are unsentimental; in a 2019 Grimsby Telegraph poll, an overwhelming majority of respondents favoured solutions to youth crime such as “Bring back borstal”. Causes are doubtless complex, but the removal of community spirit, and sailorly solidarity, cannot have helped.

The town’s fate has always been tied to its fish. The country’s insatiable demand, plus the ever-greater efficiency of 20th-century fishing, had inevitable effects. Cod stocks close to the coast dwindled sharply after the Fifties. Once the town’s trawlermen would have been able to fish off Iceland and Norway instead, but from the late Forties onwards they were faced with increasing resistance from local fishing interests. Between the Fifties and the Seventies, British trawlers were increasingly excluded from these territories, with three long-running “Cod Wars” — a combination of international legal cases, high politics (Henry Kissinger declined to support the British, because the US needed Iceland’s military bases), and angry confrontations on the high seas — trawlers cutting others’ nets, and even ramming each other, while naval vessels manoeuvred nearby.

Then came the EEC’s fisheries policy, to which the UK became subject after 1973. It was in many ways misguided. British fishermen resented suddenly having to share fishing grounds as close as 12 miles offshore with trawlers from other EU countries — sometimes more advanced super-trawlers, or ones using illegal small-meshed nets, which scooped up fry with the adult fish. Ted Heath was widely seen to have given away too much to foreign fishing interests. This launched a “narrative of betrayal…that fishing was considered expendable,” Barrie Deas of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations reflected in 2018. “It tied us into this absolutely atrocious deal — a top-down, unsympathetic system.”

The Common Fisheries Policy introduced in 1983 was supposed to safeguard stocks, but too often, its effects was even more overfishing of key species like cod and haddock, and the counterintuitive dumping overboard of huge quantities of perfectly edible side-catches of other species, because they had been caught outside CFP-designated catching seasons.

By the end of the Eighties, Grimsby’s fishing had almost gone.

Eventually, and grudgingly, Brussels offered substantial subsidies for British fishing — over €243 million between 2014 and 2020. But it was too little too late: the sum could neither revive the industry, nor compensate emotionally. At the apex in 1891, there were 861 Grimsby-registered trawlers. As of December 2022, there were seven, only four of which operate from the port, each of those ten metres or under, fishing for shellfish, which are not subject to quotas. EU-registered trawlers extract around eight times more fish (by value) from UK waters than British boats do from EU waters.

Grimsby’s strong pro-Brexit showing in 2016 was propelled by such bitter economic facts, but also by nostalgia for departed pride and brave heydays. Fishing today makes up just 0.1% of the British economy, but when a flotilla of 30 trawlers sailed up the Thames in June 2016 to fly the flag for Brexit, they carried as cargo not just Nigel Farage, but the hopes and dreams of multiple seaside towns. As one retired fisherman said sadly in 2020, “You’d got guys in a cake factory — perfectly brilliant skippers sticking cherries on cakes. Where does your pride go with that?”

Now that the UK has decoupled from Europe, is there hope for Grimsby? Brexit does offer the theoretical opportunity to revive the fishing industry, and to manage fish-stocks better, at least while they remain within the UK’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. Last December, the UK reached a six-species quota agreement with the EU and Norway, in a deal the Government claims will add £190 million to the UK industry. But foreign-owned trawlers still operate within the UK’s not yet exclusive Economic Zone Any vessels that break any new agreements may get away with it, as the UK has only 12 fishery protection vessels to patrol an area three times the size of the UK’s land-area.

Even if there were a resurgence in British-owned boats, Grimsby may be too far gone — its last few large vessels now operate out of elsewhere, its workforce is mostly retired, its skillset largely dispersed, its attitudes altered. Industry veterans often live in straitened circumstances, sometimes suffering long-term ill-health, including a high incidence of asbestos disease from long onboard exposure. At least 1,000 have depended on the Grimsby branch of the Fishermen’s Mission, which helps “retired or shipwrecked” fishermen. Their example hardly encourages young Grimbarians to work on trawlers.

But the tradition is not quite dead. Although no Grimsby-registered trawlers land white fish at the port today, the Fish Market is still busy selling creatures caught predominantly off north-east Scotland, Iceland, the Faroes and Norway. The fish arrives in the evening, to be graded and sorted overnight before the Market opens at 6am the following morning. Sellers and buyers bid on pallet-loads of fish packed into 50kg boxes, and the whole auction (normally around 125 tons of fish) can be over within an hour. Frozen fish is also sold, originating from as far away as Russia, India and China. Although some of the fish is trucked off west along the A180, much is still sold to local processors, and through fish and chip shops, stalls at markets, and vans delivering door-to-door across Lincolnshire and beyond.

The smell of the past still sometimes literally fills the air, courtesy of surviving factories making fish-fingers, preparing shellfish and smoking all kinds of things that swim. Grimsby is the UK’s premier seafood processing centre, with more than 50 factories adding around £2 billion annually to the economy. (The European Commission, ironically, granted “Grimsby Traditional Smoked Fish” Protected Geographical Indication in 2009.) Brexit seems to be making some firms consider pulling out, but the Government is taking up some of the slack, for example in November giving a local cold storage facility a £5 million injection.

Fish processing is monotonous and unglamorous but it is also nationally important. One Grimsby firm alone, Young’s, provides around 40% of the fish eaten in the United Kingdom.

The switch from exporting to importing and processing is emblematic of modern Britain, but it seems especially sad here, in this town with a vanished raison d’être — this town that has worked so hard, endured so much, and made such a contribution to national life. Back at the disconsolate docks, on a gull-grey December’s afternoon, it is impossible not to regret the departure of an epic fleet.


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Derek Turner is a novelist and reviewer. His first non-fiction book, Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire, has just been published by Hurst.