Esther The last Grimsby Sail Trawler
Grimsby Ice Company
The Esther story cannot be told without including a brief history of the Grimsby Ice Company who were her first owners. Esther was bought from new in 1888 and sold 8 years later as the Grimsby Ice Company sought to be rid of the sail trawler fleet in favour of the new technology represented by the up and coming steam trawling fleet.
She was sold along with the rest of the fleet to Messrs Hewetts Co who were originally from Barking but had located to Gorleston to the south of Great Yarmouth around 1860. The Hewetts were an old company very experienced in managing sail trawlers and sailed what was known as the Short Blue Fleet. There is much on the internet about the Hewetts and some of their story can be found on the Great Yarmouth page.
In 1882 the Grimsby Ice Company owned some 1,500 tons of shipping most of it being sail trawlers. With the rise of the steam trawler fleet the profit margins of the sail trawler fleet were being eroded. A method of increasing the profitability of the sail fleet was the practice of "fleeting" which had been in use for a few years in Grimsby and was common mostly in the South East fishing ports.
The issue facing the fishing industry was the same then as it is now, how to get their product to market in prime condition. Fish is a time sensitive product and the further from the fishing grounds it was to the market where the fish were sold the greater was the challenge deliver that product in a condition which would get the best prices.
Fleeting helped because it allowed a steam cutter to take fish from the sail trawler at sea and get that fish to port without worrying about the wind or tides. Fleeting bought valuable time for a perishable product and was great for the profits of the company but bad for the fishermen because it meant that they were often at sea for weeks at a time instead of coming home weekly as in the days of the indpendent trawlerman.
Fleeting was normally only done in the summer between April to September because the practice of transferring boxes of fish from the small boat to the steam cutter, known as " boxing", was very dangerous and had claimed many lives as can be seen from this video from the 1920's. During the winter the skippers of the fleet were allowed to fish as independents as the colder weather helped to keep fish fresher and time was less of a worry. These independent fishing trips were at the mercy of the weather but it was like the old days and was generally more preferred than fleeting.
Directors of the Grimsby Ice Company however had to find a way to maintain the profits of the sail fleet so they decided to try and introduce winter fleeting. Fishing generally was a very dangerous occupation and the fishermen knew that boxing in the winter would claim many more lives so resistance to winter fleeting was high. The fishermen would have nothing to do with it and went on strike not only because of the dangers but, as one fisherman put, it "we would not see our families from one end of the year to the next".
Fishing before the days of fleeting had been very much an individual effort which meant that once a boat was full of fish it had to return to port. This was inefficient but it meant that the fisherman had some sort of quality of life because it allowed men to get home every few days and though the work was still hard and dangerous being able to get home gave the body a chance to recover from the days of cold and damp.
Once fleeting was introduced the men became part of an industrial fishing machine and could be at sea for weeks at a time without a break from ever present danger of random death and injury and the constant bleeding of energy and will by the harsh weather and biting cold. Young men were able to endure these harsh conditions but it was the older men who had the experience of the industry. The fisher men were just able to cope with fleeting in the summer months but when fleeting was introduced in the winter months it would have been at the limit of human endurance to survive on a sail trawler. The toll on human life steadily rose as the millennium drew to an end.
The long weeks at sea often brought out the worst in human nature as men were driven day after day under the tremendous strain of constantly battling the elements and with the ever present knowledge that with a moment of inattentiveness and the sea would snatch you away from your home and families. To cope with the stress and fears some fishermen would often buy from Dutch traders who would ply the fishing grounds selling cheap rum, brandy and tobacco.
There were more than one occasion where a number of smacks would lay up together on a calm day and their crews would drink and make music whilst the boy kept watch. Such was the problem with accidents fuelled by drunkenness and the fleet away for extended periods of time that Mission Smacks were a common sight on the fishing grounds in the late 1800's. Funded by church groups they were sent out to give spiritual guidance to wayward sailors. Mission Smacks were converted sail trawlers that apart from offering a religious service to the faithful they would also tend those with cuts and broken bones or sickness who would often have to wait days or weeks until their ship would return to port before they got medical treatment.
Gone were the glory days of fishing as drunkenness, theft, physical and sexual abuse of the apprentice boys all in the name of profit began to overtake the industry. Mr Mudd, a director of the Grimsby Ice Company describes in the local news papers of the loss of £1,000's of company equipment lost by some inferior crews. Company fishing gear was often reported as lost at sea but in fact could easily be sold to independent trawlers, cashed in for rum with the Dutchman or deliberately cut away or sabotaged as an excuse to return to port.
Fleeting reduced the skill factor of the skippers and crews of the sail trawlers because the fleet fished where and when it was told by the fleet Admiral. Where as before the days of fleeting each skipper was responsible for knowing his craft and had built up skills over perhaps decades as to how to get the best from a sail trawler and where to find the fish.
Fleeting introduced a more industrial flavor to fishing and with it went some of the independence, sense of community, and shared camaraderie and the general skills needed to know the fishing grounds. The lack of a good skill base led to increased accidents and collisions at sea due mainly to lack of experience, discipline and poor seamanship.
As a result of fleeting the age and skills of the skippers dropped as did the quality of the men and boys of the fleet. The fisher apprentice was no longer part of the family but just expendable labor. The skipper was not his own master and his respect was diminished. The golden age of fishing by skilled independent skippers on state of the art sail trawlers was drawing to an end.
Against this back drop of changing times and technology, damaging reports of the poor treatment of fisher boys, and loss of life in the industry put down to the working practices as much as the weather, all compounded by the industrial disputes against winter fleeting, forced directors of the Grimsby Ice Company who were no longer able to manage the sail trawler fleet and make a profit for their share holders into calling an extraordinary meeting of share holders at the Royal Hotel Grimsby on the 18th of December 1895 to put the company into liquidation.
By February 18th 1896 the fleet had been sold to Messrs Hewetts and Co. as widely reported on the day. The Grimsby Evening News reporter who covered the story was not convinced of the way the company had handled its business and he smelt more than rotting fish when he saw a company that was valued at over £100,000 could go down for the sake of £10,000 of debt and then the whole lot be sold to Hewett's for £30,000 leaving the share holders to carry the loss. Had the Directors of the Grimsby Ice Company seen the writing on the wall years before they might have managed a more orderly transition from sail to steam.
The Esther Story continues with her working life in Grimsby