Devon fishermen used beam-trawl methods first and the idea came to Scarborough and Hull in the 1830s. A large wooden beam kept the mouth of the net open. From 1840 to 1860 trawling spread swiftly along much of east coast of England and the North Sea.
The discovery of the ‘Silver Pits’ area in the early 1840s, deep water off Dogger Bank (about 40 miles from Scarborough), brought large catches of demersal (seabed dwelling) fish.
In 1844 Scarborough’s outer harbour was dredged, allowing more trawlers to use the port.
The introduction of ice to preserve the fish extended the time trawlers could spend at sea.
The ‘Fleeting’ system was developed meaning large number of smacks fishing together for up to three months at sea. Fish was collected and delivered to port by a fast carrier boat. There could be over 100 fishing boats under the direction of an ‘Admiral’.
The development of the railways, arriving in Scarborough in 1845, enabled fish to be distributed inland more quickly.
The demand for fish in Scarborough increased as it expanded as a tourist resort.
For sail trawling, the favourite was the ketch-rigged (two masted) smack, usually up to 60 feet long, which was strong and fast for the North Sea. The smack era was the beginning of modern deep-sea fishing.
There was a gradual increase in the size of new smacks (up to 80 ft.), so that they could carry even larger beam trawls. This pushed up the cost, meaning that the fleet at Scarborough fell increasingly into the hands of wealthy smack owners and fish merchants.
In the 1870s more capital than ever was ventured in the construction of trawling smacks, especially by Scarborough businesses, like Messrs Sellers and Wywil. For the first time boat builders at Scarborough began to take a lead in such construction. This enabled the remnants of the local shipbuilding industry to survive when other vessel construction was dwindling. In Scarborough, some of the herring yawls were fitted out for trawling after returning from the Yarmouth herring fishery in November. Some yawls were used for triple purposes: catching herring, trawling and long lining.
By the mid-1870s Scarborough was well established as the most northerly of the North Sea Trawling stations, boasting a fleet of about 40 specialist smacks and at least 50 more dual-purpose vessels which crowded all parts of the harbour to capacity. There were few trawlers on the Yorkshire coast apart from at Scarborough and Bridlington.
Smacksmen were a floating population of 12-15,000 fishermen in the North Sea. The smack was a sailing trawler, each having a small crew of 5/6 men and boys.
There was a new class of fishermen in the 19th century, spending longer at sea, often two months at a time, and facing greater risks. They were not boat-owners or venture-sharing fishermen. They have been described as a maritime ‘proletariat’, like the land-based factory workers in 19th century Britain.
Smacksmen were often recruited from workhouses and reformatories. Younger crew and apprentices were treated with cruelty, punished by whipping, followed by sea water thrown over their wounds.
Life on a smack was extremely tough, with long shifts, little sleep, shooting and hauling the nets, gutting and then packing the fish.
The men were at sea for 8 weeks at a time, with a week or so between trips. They could be at sea for over 40 weeks of year. Living conditions were usually uncomfortable, dirty and cold. They slept in cramped cabins with shelves for beds. It took 1-2 hours to haul in the heavy nets by hand. The most dangerous part of the job was taking the catch in small boats to courier boats, which went back and forwards from the fishing ports. Trawling in smacks was the most dangerous type of fishing.
This story appeared in a series of articles by Forrest Frank in 1920 in the Scarborough Daily Post - This story came from Captain John Wilson
Already, even when I was a boy, there were a few smacks, whose coming in the first place had been much resented, and the men who came in them and settled in the port were regarded practically as foreigners. But they brought trade to the sailmaker, the carpenter, the blacksmith, the butcher, and the baker, and their number increased so that Scarborough lads went prentice in them, yawls were converted to trawlers, and local money went in provision of more.
Some of the original Smacksmen lived in the little cottages on the sands, between where the Lifeboat House and the Salt-Water baths now stand, before the foreshore was built. Amongst them were the Besoms, the Tobeys, the Perkins, and the Buckets. Nicholas Maddick, who afterwards kept the Fishermen's Arms, between the Brittania and Pump Hill, was another who came to town as a smacksman. Old Mr Alwood, another of them, lived in Princess Street, where his sons, George and James, were brought up. They went 'prentice with their father out of Scarborough, and as young men went to Grimsby, where they developed the smack industry tremendously, took the flowing tide of steam trawling in its infancy, and founded the Alward Fleet, which became one of the biggest firms in the Kingdom, and materially helped to make Grimsby what it is today.
Scarborough Smacksmen on Strike, 1887
The smack owners took most of the profits from trawling. The boat owner took 4½ out of 8 shares of profits and as ‘share fishermen’ the skipper and two members of the crew shared the remaining 3½. Other crewmen were paid a very poor wage.
In the 1880s owners began to install an ‘engine’ on their boats, i.e., a steam capstan to haul larger catches onto the boats. They charged the crew 5% of the gross profits for a catch, an ‘engine charge’, for the privilege of having a capstan. They also required crew members to contribute to the purchase of oil for the capstan.
The crews were infuriated when, at Christmas 1886, the owners decided to increase the engine charge to 6½%. The smacksmen already had grievances. The owners were making good profits, whilst the crews received scant reward, the job was gruelling and dangerous and the owners were inflating the food bills and asking the crew to pay more.
In April 1887 the Scarborough smacksmen held a meeting and decided to go on strike. They organised a march around the town, followed by a Church service, where the vicar voiced his support for the fishermen and condemned the greed of the owners.
The owners tried to recruit ‘blackleg’ labour in Grimsby, but the fishermen there pledged solidarity with the Scarborough fishermen. The owners were anxious to restart fishing and backed down over the capstan, returning the engine charge to 5%. Keen to avoid losing face they insisted that the crews should now receive a smaller proportion of the so-called ‘stockerbait’, fish that was not part of the intended catch. Nevertheless, the Scarborough smacksmen had shown what could be achieved through solidarity and collective action.
Steam Paddle Trawlers
In 1877 in North Shields fishermen experimented with pulling a beam trawl behind steam ‘paddlers’, which were ex-tug boats. The idea was picked up in Scarborough in the 1880s. The first two in Scarborough were Dandy and Tuskar. In 1882 the paddle trawler Knight of the Cross, became the largest of the new fleet. Later in 1882 the newly formed Britannia Steam Shipping Company of Scarborough announced its intention to use one of its paddlers as a fishing boat in winter and a pleasure boat in the summer.
An unusual paddle trawler loss was the 97 ton Tuskar (SH 45) in 1895. She trawled up a huge stone, which unbalanced the boat in bad weather and then crashed into and holed the boat.
By the beginning of the 20th century paddle trawlers were becoming outdated. They were only suitable for inshore fishing, and were therefore not a threat to the North Sea smacks.
Scarborough’s last paddle trawler was Constance, wrecked at Hartlepool in 1910.
The Coming of the Steam Screw Trawler
Steam power was used in maritime activity before the mid-19th century. Coastal steam packets had carried fish to market since the 1830s. Some sailing trawlers and drifters used steam tugs to tow them to the fishing grounds when the weather was unsatisfactory.
The 1880s also saw the emergence of steam screw trawlers (i.e., propellor-driven). The first one may well have been the Pioneer, built in Hull and registered in Scarborough in 1881 by the local smackowner James Sellers and his associates. Such boats, requiring considerable investment, led to the development of limited liability companies in Scarborough. By 1883 there were over 20 steam screw trawlers based in Scarborough. By 1900 Hull had replaced all of its sailing trawlers.
Such steam trawlers were set to dominate the first half of the 20th century.
Article by Stewart Macdonald