Fishing & Ice

Children's Illustration of Fishing

“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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