THE ERA OF SAIL
Chapter 4 from 'The Roaring Boys of Suffolk', by Peter Cherry and Trevor Westgate


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Lowestoft Trawl Dock, A Heaton Cooper, 'Norfolk & Suffolk', W G Clarke (1921)

The pattern of fishing techniques has changed rapidly and dramatically since Lowestoft first began to emerge as a major centre following the construction of the harbour in 1832. In those early days Lowestoft, like the neighbouring town of Yarmouth, relied heavily upon the autumn herring voyage, when immense shoals of fish made their annual appearance on the traditional grounds and drifters put out to reap a harvest which seemed as if it would be repeated each year indefinitely.

There were two, less important voyages for the drifters earlier in the year, but the season which began in September was by far the most significant. At the start of this voyage the owners of fishing vessels gave a supper to their crews. The occasion was known as a bending-foy, a name derived from the first bending on of the sails, and a traditional ceremony was to fill and drain a punch bowl in drinking success to the voyage. When the Lowestoft china factory was in being towards the latter part of the 18th and early 19th century, some of the best china bowls produced were specially commissioned for these suppers, and were carefully preserved from year to year.

For hundreds of years before the building of the harbour, herring had been of major importance to the prosperity of the country. It was true that many of the early developments in catching methods were evolved by rival fishermen from Holland, but there could be no disputing the enterprise of the Suffolk men who, by the 15th century, were sending frail sailing boats to the distant northern waters from centres like Dunwich and Southwold to engage in line fishing for cod.

Somewhat primitive trawling techniques were being exploited by some English fishermen even before the 16th century, but major expansion and exploration of new grounds had to await the rapid improvement in communications which followed the Napoleonic wars.

Historically, therefore, the building of Lowestoft harbour was well-timed to secure the maximum advantage from an exciting period in the history of fishing in the North Sea. And this was even more the case with the development of the great railway network with its facilities for moving large quantities of fish quickly and efficiently from the ports to the big centres of population.

Visiting smacks from Ramsgate helped provide the necessary impetus when they began to use Lowestoft harbour a few years after its completion, and within a short time the modest beginnings of a local fleet had been established. Many of the local fishing luggers of the period were used for both trawling and drifting, and as the century progressed local experience gradually brought refinements of both sail and hull design.

Well before the 1880's Lowestoft had become a fishing port of considerable importance. Local drifters and trawlers, many of them built at the port, were designed to meet and overcome the harsh conditions encountered on the North Sea grounds. They were graceful and they were fast, and the men who sailed in them gained an enviable reputation for seamanship and skill.

Nearly all the vessels in the local fleet were clinker built, but in 1876 the local Richards yard turned out the 52-ft. fishing dandy Nil Desperandum, a carvel built drifter which was the forerunner of many similar vessels built at the port. A drifter of this type would be completed, ready for sea for as little as £360, and even allowing for the vastly increased purchasing power of the pound in those days the craft were clearly considered to be good value for money.

One vessel in this mould which passed into local legend was the drifter Paradox, built by Richards in 1884 for Walter Haylett, of Caister, and a craft which was reckoned to be able to leave most other sailing ships of her size well astern in any race.

By 1898 there were nearly 500 fishing vessels registered at Lowestoft, half of them sailing drifters and the rest sailing trawlers. Each autumn the local fleet was joined by the rakish visitors from Scottish waters, fifies and zulus with their dark brown and black sails complementing the red and tan of the canvas worn by the local fleet.

What was life like for the Lowestoft fishermen in those latter years of the 19th century, when it seemed both to them and to the proud local owners that nothing could ever displace the sailing craft which had been perfected by long experience?

Out on the fishing grounds of the North Sea there was little that was picturesque about fighting for survival in the teeth of a raging gale, even on board the sturdiest of smacks. Casualties among ships and men occurred with grim regularity. Many vessels came to grief within sight of home, when the tricky approach to harbour in bad weather could defeat the most skilful of skippers, and the beaches and inshore sandbanks claimed many victims.

There were other hazards, too, facing the fishermen. The notorious Dutch copers, or grog ships, were invariably in evidence on the grounds where the fishing fleets assembled, and talk of the evils of drink had a very real meaning when the liquor supplied was the vicious aniseed brandy served up by the copers.

The evils of the copers were finally overcome through the magnificent efforts of the Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. It was the Mission which determined to meet the needs of the fishermen by taking out to the grounds well equipped ships able to supply not only cheap tobacco (which was a powerful inducement for men to visit the copers), but also sorely needed medical attention.

Before the arrival of the Mission ships in the early 1880's there was little which could be done for the fisherman unfortunate enough to suffer injury—and injuries were caused all too often in the course of such hazardous operations as that of taking fish by small boat to be transferred to a fast carrier vessel.

Neglect and exposure caused terrible suffering at times. There was the case of a smack hauling in bad weather on the Silver Pits and which was struck by a heavy sea just as the beam trawl had been got on board but not secured. The force of the water swept the gear back into the sea, smashing the skipper's leg as it went. The accident happened on a Tuesday, and for three days after that the smack rode out a gale while the skipper had to fend for himself in the cabin until his injured leg could be lashed to the side of a fish trunk. Then, on the Saturday, he was transferred to a steamer, and not until the Sunday evening was he ashore and receiving expert attention. Another man who fractured a thigh remained untreated for nine days aboard a smack before he could be got back to port.

Looking back to his boyhood, a fisherman of the time recalled that for the first five years of his seagoing experience as an apprentice on board a sailing smack he never knew what it was to have a proper berth. He was expected to doss down on an old piece of netting in the fo'csle—and to do without such amenities as heating or a change of clothing.

Another man, also at sea during much of Queen Victoria's long reign, looked back to his own apprenticeship on board a fishing vessel when "the time was spent at sea in lying, swearing, cardplaying, fighting, sing-songing and telling ghost tales and stories about witches, which they for the most part were believers in".

The following extract from an article in the East Anglian Daily Times of April 11, 1887, gives a good impression of what living conditions entailed for hundreds of smacksmen when they came off duty.

"It is frequently past noon before the morning's catch is disposed of, and the weary hands are glad enough to go below to get their breakfast, throw off their oilskins, and perhaps their seaboots and turn into their bunks. But there is little comfort in the cabin of a smack. It is a badly lighted, unventilated hole, about eight feet long and four or five feet high. The temperature is unpleasantly hot, generally between seventy and eighty degrees. The atmosphere is stifling. The smoke of strong tobacco and the fumes of cooking combine with the reek of damp oilskins and jerseys and a hundred other evil odours.

"The landsmen, stifled and nauseated, is soon driven to take refuge from suffocation on deck, and to face again the driving spray and the bitter wind".

Hard though conditions were on the old drifters and smacks, there were times when happier moments came along. Pride in the abilities of local craft and their crews, for example, led to the establishment of a whole series of races off the Suffolk port, when the pick of the fleet competed in thrilling contests which were often decided only by a matter of seconds.

During the regatta of 1882, vessels from Yarmouth were invited to race against the Lowestoft smacks, but they declined the challenge and on the day the event took place there were no contenders from the Norfolk port. This roused the Lowestoft men to be represented at the Yarmouth smack races held a little later—and they returned triumphant when the local smack Perseus duly crossed the line in first place.

In the following year the Yarmouth men did race off Lowestoft, but to no avail. They came up against the crack skipper Jerry Crews, who won 13 out of the 14 races in which he commanded a whole series of smacks. In 1883 he triumphed at the helm of the Gem of the Ocean.

Pride in the local fishing vessels by the men who sailed them was matched by the builders, who never spared themselves to supply what was required. On September 1, 1897, for instance, an almost new local drifter, the Breadwinner, owned by George Catchpole of Kessingland, was wrecked on the North Beach at Lowestoft when returning to harbour to re-fit for the autumn herring voyage. On September 4 an order was put in by Mr. Catchpole at the local Reynolds shipyard for a new drifter. A keel had just been laid, and a month later the new Breadwinner was launched, in time to take the place of her predecessor on the herring grounds.

That year of 1897 was a significant one for Lowestoft—for it was the year when another revolution in fishing methods began at the port with the launching of the wooden steam drifter Consolation built by Chambers and Colby. An immediate success, the Consolation was followed two years later by Test and Adventure, which were also built locally, at the Richards yard.

By 1903 there were 101 steam drifters at Lowestoft, continuing a chain of events which had been inevitable since a steam capstan was first employed on a local vessel in 1884.

The change to steam came with startling speed, especially at the Humber ports, but at Lowestoft many local trawler owners were reluctant to turn away from the sailing craft which had served the port so well. Indeed, many smacks moved to the Suffolk port after being replaced by steam trawlers at Hull.

Some of the best of the smacks were reckoned to be able to touch 12 knots under favourable conditions, and skippers were proud to match their craft against sail or steam on the way to the fishing grounds or racing back to port to catch the best markets.

As things turned out, Lowestoft was one of the last strongholds of sail, and though over 150 local sailing vessels were lost in one mishap or another during a period of some thirty years before the first world war many of the losses were made good in local yards which could build a smack in a matter of three months and have it fitted out ready for sea in a further fortnight.

The sailing drifter had been virtually replaced by steam at Lowestoft by 1914, but in that year there were still well over 250 trawling smacks working from the port.

Enemy action brought heavy losses to the Lowestoft sailing smacks during the 1914-18 war, and many fine vessels were sent to the bottom by German submarines after the fishermen had first been ordered to take to their small boats. During the four years of war over 100 smacks were destroyed, and when peace returned the Lowestoft sailing fleet had been reduced to some 180 vessels.

During the next year or so there was a last bid to recapture the glories of the past, and a handful of new smacks were built for optimistic owners. But it was too late. The sailing fleet continued to dwindle through the long and difficult years of economic depression and by 1938 only a score of smacks remained. In the following year just eight were still working from the port—but then came another war and with it the end of an extraordinary era.

A few survivors were converted to motor power, and others were sold to Scandinavia where, remarkably, a number still survive under sail. Among these proud relics of an outstanding period is the Lowestoft smack Diligence, which was built at Brixham and joined the Suffolk fleet in July, 1893. The smack fished from Lowestoft until 1912, when she was sold to Swedish buyers as a coaster. In 1940 she was fitted with an engine, and there her story might have ended but for the remarkable enthusiasm of four young Swedish students. In 1965 these students bought the Diligence, restored her original rig and were so delighted with her performance that in 1969 they sailed her back across the North Sea for a nostalgic visit to her former home port.

They certainly built ships to last in the days when the Diligence first took to the water—but Lowestoft has moved on apace since the time when hundreds of such sailing smacks jostled for space alongside the fish quays.

Even the proud age of steam has finally served its purpose and the last of the steam drifters, Lizzie West, was scrapped in 1961. The herring shoals have gone, perhaps for ever, and Lowestoft has now joined Yarmouth in having not a single drifter still at work.

Fishermen sail from Lowestoft today on board large, modern diesel trawlers equipped with every technical aid and designed for maximum efficiency and comfort. But the job of catching fish remains what it has always been— a tough, demanding way of life calling for both skill and courage and with a heavy price to pay if vigilance is relaxed. The present generation of Lowestoft fishermen has provided worthy successors to that hardy breed of men who followed the same calling in the days when sail was supreme.


Trevor Westgate, a Lowestoft newspaper journalist was an enthusiastic supporter of the 'Following Fish' project and helped publicise it through the local news media