How fragrant was Heath and Fisher Streets with the smell of pitch and tar- how well the stores were supplied with sou’westers, oil-skins, big-boots, Guernseys, red-caps, hawsers, rope and twine.
Thomas Auckland, ‘Reminiscences of a fishing town’, Essex Review 1900. Quoted in Mr Frogley’s Barking: A First Selection

For over a thousand years, Barking’s most important industry was fishing and most people who lived in Barking worked in related trades. Barking is not well known today for its fishing history. However Barking could once lay claim to having the largest fishing fleet in the world. Apart from fishermen there were boat builders, sail-makers, net repairers, water-keg makers, waterproof clothing manufacturers, even bakers of ships biscuits.

Some fishermen caught fish locally, but most people set off for the North Sea were there were huge fishing grounds. However, the journey there took over a day and then, once they’d filled their boats, it took them a couple of days to sail back.

A local Barking man – a Mister Samuel Hewett – realised that the time spent travelling would be more usefully spent fishing. So he had the brilliant idea of sending a big fast boat (called a Schooner) out to the North Sea to pick up the fish from all the little fishing boats and to carry everyone’s load back. That freed the little boats up to carry on fishing. The plan worked! More fish than ever before were being sent to market. But the fishermen and boys (girls weren’t allowed on board) stayed out in the North Sea for eight weeks at a time – “when the crews came home they were a sight! No one thought of towel or soap. They had eight weeks growth of beard. They were hairy ruffians black with dirt.”

Thanks to Samuel Hewett’s inventions, Barking became home to the biggest fishing fleet in the world and, from 1840 to 1860 and it supplied Billingsgate, the name for London’s fish market, with most of its fish.

For hundreds of years Billingsgate Market was located in central London – but now it is moving to Barking – soon London’s fish market will take up its new home on the site of old Barking Power Station!

Barking was once one of the largest fishing ports of England 150 years ago. It owned the largest fishing fleet called The Short Blue Fleet, which was first started in 1764 when James Whennel bought his first fishing smack. The thriving fishing industry in Barking attributed to the operating tactics of the Hewett’s Family. They had a strategic fleeting system, and most importantly, the local production and use of ice during the fish processing, which made sale of fresh fish in London markets available and earned a considerable profit from this. To harvest fish more effectively, instead of sailing his fishing fleet up the east coast to the rich fishing grounds in the North Sea, and then bringing the catch back to Barking, the family relocated the Short Blue Fleet to Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth. The demise of Barking’s fishing fleet quickly followed. The advancement of the railway provided rapid transport of fish from the east coast ports, which were nearer to the North Sea fishing grounds, to London. Barking was no longer an important ground before the sale of fish in London.The decline of the fishing industry had serious consequences for the local workforce. Those who worked as sailmakers, ropemakers, chandlers, slop sellers and shipwrights lost their jobs. At this time new industries began moving into the area and factories, spewing out noxious smells, were springing up along the banks of the River Thames. All in all, the fishing industry in Barking had fed the whole town and the town went over a great change due to the advancement of technology in the passage of time.

In 1800 the following evidence was given by Thomas Tyler to a fisheries commission:

“We catch thornbacks, maids, and other flatfish on the Sands, called the Brown Bank off Yarmouth, the Broad Fourteens, and Smiths Knowl, where there is a prodigious quantity of fish. We have 40 sail at Barking constantly employed in that fishery, they sometimes bring such a quantity of fish to market that they cannot be disposed of. They are sometimes sold as cheap as one shilling a basket of 20lbs. At this season, the plaice, maids and haddocks are in prodigious quantities all the way from Lowestoft to the Dutch coast. Soles will succeed them, and at the latter end of the year, haddock.”

Local records show that there were 23 smackowners in Barking in 1805 and that between them they owned 40 smacks.

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The Decline of Fishing in Barking

By the late 19th century the fishing industry in Barking had begun to decline as the railways provided rapid transport of fish from the east coast ports, which were nearer to the North Sea fishing grounds, to London. The Stratford to Tilbury railway line via Barking opening in 1854 and was soon followed by the development of Barking New Town to the east of the Station. The Great Eastern Railway was extended to Yarmouth in 1867 and to Grimsby by the Great Northern. From the 1850s then there was a steady movement of fishermen to Grimsby and after 1865 most of the fishing fleet was transferred to Yarmouth and Gorleston.

The end of the fishing fleet in Barking had serious consequences for the local workforce. Many of whom worked as sailmakers, ropemakers, chandlers, slop sellers and shipwrights. Access to the river was an important consideration for many of the industries that established in Barking on the back of the market and fishing industries. By the mid 19th century, the nature of industry was changing to chemical industries and brewing. By 1906 there were at least twenty factories concentrated around the rover adjacent to the Old Town of Barking, at least half of which were producing chemicals as diverse as soap making, tar distilleries to artificial fertilizers and sulphuric acid manufacturers.

A few clues remain in Barking today as reminders of the town’s fishing heritage, such as pub names The Fishing Smack, a stained glass and statues in Barking Abbey, and public art sculptures.

Barking Town Quay & Mill Pond (1832) | Photo: Valence House, Herbert Hope-Lockwood (0019)
Fish & Ice animation storyboard by Josh Knowles
Children's Illustration of Fishing
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Barking Town Quay & Mill Pond (1832) | Photo: Valence House, Herbert Hope-Lockwood (0019)
Fish & Ice animation storyboard by Josh Knowles
Children's Illustration of Fishing

Fishing Smacks & the Short Blue Fleet

The Short Blue Fleet was started in 1764 when James Whennel of Barking bought his first fishing smack. His son in law, Scrymgeour Hewett, took over the fleet on his death, and the fleet remained in Hewett ownership until the last trawler was sold in 1980.

The fleet was so named due to the square blue flag flown by all the vessels in the fleet. You can see it flying from the masthead of the vessels in the picture below. A square flag is unusual, hence the name “short” blue.

The Short Blue Fleet in its heyday was the largest fleet of vessels of any sort in the world in terms of numbers and by the time of its demise it was also the oldest fishing fleet in the world. Small in numbers at the beginning and at the end, at its high point it comprised some 220 vessels.

Scrymgeour Hewett (1765-1840) expanded on the somewhat token fleet that his father-in-law owned and swiftly handed the reins to his son Samuel Hewett (1797 – 1871). The halcyon days were undoubtedly the 19th century and that was almost entirely due to the entrepreneurial approach taken by Samuel. He not only expanded, revolutionised and modernised the North Sea fishing industry in the early to mid 19th century but most importantly he was the first person to use ice for the preservation of fish at sea. Such method of preservation of fish at sea was unchallenged as the best until the advent of freezer trawlers over a hundred years later, and is still today by far the most used and preferred method.

His son Robert Hewett (1826-1904) introduced steam vessels to the fleet – in particular the steam carriers that were also arguably the first genuine steam trawlers. Dedicated steam trawlers soon followed. Interestingly the first dedicated steam trawler built for Hewett and Co (in 1885) is still afloat today! She is being well looked after in Norway. Robert’s son Robert Muirhead Hewett (1860-1952) continued in the same tradition and was in the forefront of the development of the otter trawl – far more efficient that the beam trawl. However, he and the company were hit by the devastating boiler explosion at Barking in 1899 in which 11 people tragically died and the large fleet of sailing and steam vessels was reduced to a minimum to pay compensation.

Icy Innovations

One of the reasons the fleet became so successful was Samuel Hewett’s idea of packing the fish in ice, therefore allowing the boats to sail to fishing grounds further away from home as the fish they caught was kept fresher, for longer, in the ice.

Samuel Hewett had a brilliant idea – he realised that if you packed the fish in ice they would keep fresh for longer. But remember that this is before electricity was invented, so there are no fridges. So where did they get the ice from in the summer?

Local Barking farmers flooded their fields in winter and when thick ice formed it was cut and taken by horse and cart to a specially built ice house in Abbey Road. Three thousand people – that was half of Barking’s population at the time – were employed in getting the ice to that underground store. The store had had walls that were eight feet thick – and this kept the ice frozen all through the summer months.

Ice, sourced from Norway, was expensive and Samuel Hewett devised a plan to flood the marshes along the River Roding, in Barking, during wintertime. As the marshland froze solid, women and boys were employed to break the ice while numbers of men were responsible to throw or lift it into the carts and wheelbarrow and then stored it in the large ice-house at the Town Quay, ready for its use in the warmer, summer months. This was called an Ice Harvest. This idea transformed the fishing industry.

Samuel Hewett realised that, instead of sailing his fishing fleet up the east coast to the rich fishing grounds in the North Sea, and then bringing the catch back to Barking, it made more sense to completely relocate the Short Blue fleet to Gorleston. His son, Robert, began to improvise the move in 1860 and the demise of Barking’s fishing fleet quickly followed.

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