Esther The last Grimsby Sail Trawler


In June 1888 Esther was launched into the river Freshney at the River Head at 8:15 am by a Miss Harrington, daughter of a local dignitary. She was given the name G.I.C. which stood for the Grimsby Ice Company. So began the story of a sail trawler which would span the next 124 years

Esther was built by the Collinson brothers Thomas and George at a time when the call for such boats had all but come to an end. Sail was giving way to steam and the use of boats such as Esther was drawing to a close here in Grimsby.

In the early days of the independent Grimsby fishing fleet sail trawlers were sleeker and a bit shorter than Esther. Sail trawler design was a balance between speed and strength. Strength was needed to with stand the battering of the North Sea and speed was needed to be the first to port with the catch to get the best price on the quay and to get that fish on the train in time for the Friday fish markets in London and other major cities.

This balance between speed and strength became less important toward the end of the 1800's as the methods of fishing changed. In the early days of the sail trawling industry each skipper fished on his own and his experience was vital to locate the fishing grounds. With the coming of the steam ships the practice of "fleeting" was adopted and a new industrial form of fishing was born.

Esther had a crew of 3 men and a boy. There was the Skipper who knew how to find the fishing grounds in the vastness of the open sea. There was the first Mate who was always keen to pick the brains of the Skipper with the hope that one day he would have learned how to locate the fishing grounds and skipper his own ship. Then there was the cook who did everything as well as cook. Then there was the fisher apprentice often very young and more often from the workhouse who was there to "learn the fishing trade".

Eventually though sail would give way to steam but before it did there were a few years where the two joined forces to harvest the riches of the seas in that practice known as "fleeting".

With the advent of steam powered ships, but before such ships were actually used for fishing, a new way of fishing was developed where a steam ship would go to sea accompanied by a flotilla of sail trawlers sometimes hundreds strong. This style of fishing was known as fleeting where a group of smacks fished under the instruction of a Fishing Admiral who resided aboard the steam vessel and instructed his fleet of sail trawlers where and when to fish. The catch of the sail trawlers would be transferred to a steam cutter at sea and this would make for port unhampered by such nuisances as the wind and tide.

Transferring the catch at sea was known as "boxing" and was done with the small boat often in rough seas, and most often by the cook and the boy or some times just the boy alone if he were thought strong enough. It was dangerous work as the boxes were heavy carrying 6 to 8 stone (14lbs to a stone) of fish and could only be put aboard the steamer as the small boat rose on the swell of the sea. Timing was critical and many a young lad, cold and tired, misjudged the waves and went into the sea with scant chance of rescue.

A video of boxing in the 1920's can be seen here and the dangers of the practice are plain to see although in this instance this appears to be a one off exercise and not a daily task as it would have been in the late 1800's.

The Admiral would, I expect, take fish from any smack but increasingly sail trawlers were being owned by companies rather than individuals or as shares by common citizens and the practice of fleeting meant that the big players in the industry, who could make port with their catch any time they wished, would extract the most profits whilst those still relying on wind and tide were always going to loose out. This marked the beginning of fishing as an industrial process and marked the beginning of the end of the independent self made Skipper and the frontier nature of the industry.

The days of the skipper seeking out the best places to fish based on years of experience at his craft were finished because that was now the job of the Admiral. As a result experience gave way to youth and there was a dramatic drop in the age of the sail trawler Skippers of this time, some as young as 25 and below. Sail trawlers were expected to remain at sea for weeks at a time being supplied with provisions and relieved of the catch as required. This new industrial method of fishing worked men hard and only the younger men who did not need the knowledge of their peers had the strength to compete.

Esther was built during this time of change and that change is reflected in the lines and her size. If you have a look at Esther you will notice that she is a bit fuller in the beam and longer than most of her kind. This reflected the need for her to carry more fish and supplies at the expense of the need for her to race to port with her catch. She also had more power to trawl a larger net and fish deeper waters. She was built to reflect fishing practices of her day and her day was fast coming to an end. In a sense she was the Spitfire of her time and represented the pinnacle of sail trawling design.

It was reported in the Grimsby News on the 15th of June 1888
that Esther launched into the River Head her name then being G.I.C.

She did not put to sea until later that summer as I believe she had only been launched as a bare hull and several weeks were required to make her fit to sail so I guess that she was fitted out at the expense of the Grimsby Ice Company.

Whether it was standard practice just to buy a hull and fit it out to your own requirements or whether or not the Collinson's only built hulls and not full trawlers I do not know at this moment. What is known is that she went to auction as a unfinished sail trawler.

She could have been a commissioned build and the original people pulled out or ran out of money, or she could have been a speculative build by the Collinson brothers but they ran out of money and could not finish her. It might be the case that Collinson's had not seen the writing on the wall for sail trawlers and had miss read the market when they started the build only to see the market for these boats collapse and her potential value drop below what it cost to build her. If this was the case they could have been forced to sell at auction by their creditors or face bankruptcy or they could have even gone bankrupt. There is no real way of knowing without a bit of research, however there is no evidence of the Collinson's building another boat so it is possible that they got into the market of sail trawlers just when the market was collapsing and never recovered financially. Aside from the how's and why's the one thing that is clear is where.

A bit of a squashed aerial view of the River Head, Grimsby.

The picture above is of the River Head and shows Esther where she is today. There is a road bridge and a foot bridge and a weir in this picture which didn't exist in Collinson's day. Today the water there is fresh water because of the weir but in Collinson's day it was tidal and open to the sea via the lock gates of the commercial dock. The Collinson's Boatyard was on the bend of the river.

river head
River Head Grimsby late 1800's.

This next picture is of the River Head from the late 1800's taken from the upper floor of the building that still today stands on the corner of Victoria St West and New St. It shows a busy scene of working life on the quay that was for hundreds of years the easiest way to get the goods and supplies into the middle of Grimsby. In the distance on the top left there is an area of open foreshore with timber yards and a large sailing ship in the back ground. It was on that bit of foreshore that Esther was built and launched.

A close inspection of the foreshore on the bend of the river shows a dark timber scaffolding not unlike the framing needed to support the construction of a boat although the image isn't quite clear.

The large building in the top right far distance looks like the present day Victoria Flour Mill. The original flour mill which stood on that site which was gutted by fire in April 1889, a year after Esther was launched, so that must date this picture to some time after 1889.

river head
River Head Grimsby at the time of Collinson's Boat building.

Another picture of the River Head shows the scene at street level and looks to be a few years earlier than the previous one above. At the bottom left, the area where today there is a foot bridge you can see the shape of a boats hull. In the top left is the same view enlarged. Whether or not this is the Collinson's boatyard is hard to say but this is good evidence that boat building was taking place at the River Head at that time. I can't tell what kind of boat it is all though it looks like it might be a Humber Keel but it could also possibly be Esther. I would be grateful for any suggestions but what ever she is, she looks painted and ready to launch.

Esther remained in Grimsby fishing for the Grimsby Ice Company for 8 years until they went bankrupt in 1896. Esther was sold along with the rest of the Grimsby Ice Companies sail trawler fleet to Messrs Hewetts & Co, from Great Yarmouth, in February 1896.

Click here to follow Esther to Great Yarmouth.

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