The Luckiest Thirteen
Today I am pleased to be able to participate in the blog tour for The Luckiest Thirteen by Brian Lavery. My thanks go to Anne Cater from Random Blog Tours.
About the Book
Brian W. Lavery’s The Headscarf Revolutionaries, his achingly human and dramatic tale of Hull’s triple trawler disaster of 1968, is being filmed by the BBC.
The Luckiest Thirteen tells of an even starker high-seas adventure, when the world’s top supertrawler becomes a fireball off the coast of Newfoundland. This is Christmas Day, 1966. Families back in Hull raise glasses to their loved ones while fire sweeps the decks and rescue boats are hurled through storm seas. Brilliantly told, this story is as gripping as they come.
Extract / Review
Today on my blog I have an extract from the book for you to sit down, get comfortable and have a read. If this doesn’t tempt you, I don’t know what will!
Before the late eighteenth century, it you didn’t like your fish salted you could either catch it yourself or live very near the sea.
In those early days London was well place. With suitable fishing grounds off Essex, Kent and the south coast, fish could be taken from net to Londoner’s plate in a day or so. Even then trawling was the most efficient way of catching – and with it came the overfishing and subsequent seeking of new grounds which was – and remained – part and parcel of the industry. The smacksmen of the time, victims of their own success, sough new grounds and found themselves trawling the North Sea.
A typical smack would be crewed by a skipper (usually its owner) and a small crew drawn from family, friends or neighbours. Very soon fishing was to boom, and Hull would lead the way. In 1842 – in a fish trade parallel to the California Gold Rush – the Yorkshire port was to be mobbed with fishermen seeking their fortune.
It was said that one of the Brixham-crewed vessels trawled approximately sixty miles from the mouth of the River Humber and got caught in terrible weather, which it managed to dodge before it was blown off course to a new unfamiliar ground. Then the “miraculous catch” was landed and the legend continued that the sides of the vessel that hauled it in were covered with the silver scales from the mash of fish. Trawlermen even nicknamed one of the grounds within the new Silver Pits “California” because of the prosperity it brought.
The 1851 Census shows that there were more than 1,000 people from Cornwall and Devon settled in Hull. In the 1850s more fishermen from the South West made their way north as the trade in Hull boomed. Among them were Richard Hamling and Robert Hellyer, names to be long associated with the industry. Before the proliferation of the steam trawler towards the end of the nineteenth century, “fleeting” was the main way fish was brought to the land. Smacks hauled the fish in by hand. Boxed fish would be stacked dozens high on open boats that were rowed to a waiting steam cutter for swift transfer to port. Fleeting was done in all weather and the death tolls were spectacular, most lives being lost during these dreadful, dangerous but necessary transfers. In May 1882, at least 255 mean were lost (this is a low-end estimate; others had it as high as 360) and forty-three smacks sank with all hands. Hull was worst hit with the loss of twenty-six smacks and 129 men and boys, accounting for six per cent of the whole workforce. In December 1894, Hull lost 106 men in one day. One the reasons for the lack of complete statistical accuracy is that the many of the boys (and men) were often drawn from the workhouse; effectively non-persons whose demise was often neither noted nor felt. When steam became king, the industry became not only safer but more efficient, but it was still the most dangerous of jobs. The loss of men remained higher than in any other occupation, three times more dangerous even than coal mining, a blight that was to stay with it well into the twentieth century.
A fish supper was no longer the preserve of the well-off or those nearest the water. Fishing caught up with the industrial Revolution. Railways could take catches inland across the country. Fish landed in Hull in the early hours could now provide the evening meal for the hungry factory worker in Leeds, the weaver in Manchester or the coal miner in south Yorkshire and beyond. Sometime in the 1870s fish and chops became the national dish. The high proportion of women and girls both sides of the Pennines working in the textile trade encouraged the boom of the fish ‘n’ chip shop, which provided ready-made affordable food for the families. By 1913, there were more than 25,000 fish ‘n’ chip shops cross the UK responsible for putting away more than a quarter of the 800,000 tons of fish that was Britain’s annual catch. That year, Hellyer Bros of Hull carried out successful experiments with the new Marconi Marine Radio systems and within a few years all fleets were using radios. The Great War (1914-18) saw many trawlers requisitioned as minesweepers by the Admiralty. Almost 800 carried out war service from Hull and Grimsby. In 1915, only a quarter of the Hull fleet remained fishing, and most had transferred to the wester port of Fleetwood. In the way, more than 200 British trawlers were lost, sixty-two of them in service of the Royal Navy.
Like the Brixham men before them who moved on to the Silver Pits, the end of the Great War brought moves further afield from the industry, and the distant Arctic / North Atlantic fisheries took preference over the North Sea grounds from 1919. Hellyer’s finally ceased “fleeting” with their boxing fleets as other had done. Fish landed was worth £2,500,000 that year Hull and its fleet was established as the biggest deep-sea fishery on Earth.
Trawlers were now dispatched to Iceland, the Norwegian and Danish coasts, and to a lesser extent the coasts of Labrador and Greenland. Between the world wars business boomed again. From 1922 to 1928, eighty-six large distant-water trawlers were built for owners in Hull. The lifeblood of labour for this vast industry came from the Hessle Road district of Hull, running parallel to the St Andrew’s fish docks.
In 1939, the outset of the Second World War saw fishing stymied once more. The Admiralty again requisitioned trawler as minesweepers and as anti-submarine patrol vessels. Out of the 277 vessels in Hull’s fleet, 260 were taken by the Royal Navy, seventy of these were lost in naval service and a further eight lost in normal fishing work.
By 1946, new vessels were being built and the catch for that year was a massive 373,216 tons from a fleet of 136 ships. By 1950, fish landed was worth £7,786,752 from a fleet of 160 trawlers. A year later the White Fish Authority was set up to develop and regulate the industry. It would no longer simply be a matter of pitching up at new grounds with a bigger fleet and a gung-ho attitude. In May 1952, the Icelandic government imposed a four-mile limit, cutting off 5,000 miles of prime fishing grounds. Iceland claimed the area was overfished and excluded their own vessels too. The UK hit back by banning Iceland from landing catches at British ports. The Cod Wars had stepped up.
Trawler bosses knew it would only be a matter of time before the Icelanders demanded further limited. They were also aware of the surge of Soviet freezer factory ships that were scooping up millions of tons of many species with their giant, indiscriminate factory-fishing leviathans. It would take bold new initiatives to jeep their lucrative, if precarious, industry afloat.
Owners were not renowned for innovating or embracing new technologist; in fact, they “squeezed and sweated” every asset they ever had, including thousands of men who sailed never to return. By 1960s most vessels fishing from Hull were still sidewinders trawlers, many of them decades old – indeed the last of the old coal-burning shops were not laid up until as late as 1962, which was just one year after the new Icelandic twelve-mile limit was accepted by the UK. In 1960s Hull, a handful of combines controlled the industry, some still bearing the names of those old Brixham adventurers who had come to hull seeking – and finding – fortunes.
Grimsby-based Ross Foods Groups took over Hudson Brothers Trawlers, making a new combined fleet of twenty-two. In 1961, Hellyers, merged with Associated Fishers, whose Lord Line fleet was made up of twenty-one vessels, making a total group of sixty trawlers. T Hamling and Company (eleven trawlers) and Boyd Line combined businesses from one office. So now, just three groups controlled 105 of the 141 distant-water Hull trawler fleet. With the often-outdated and always over-exploited sidewinder distant-water fleet there were many downsides. Fish had to be iced over at sea and brought back in a matter of days to market. Sidewinders had a limited range and could only be at sea for about twenty days, depending on engine power. The new stern freezer trawler could be at sea for months and given that her cargo was frozen there was no rush back to market. These ships could hold at least twice the amount of fish and were better able to withstand the atrocious North Atlantic and Arctic storms that had done for so many vessels in the past. In 1961 the first distant-water stern trawler came to Hull. Built in Bremerhaven, the Lord Nelson was about thirty feet longer that a conventional trawler. It was also luxurious in comparison, with air-conditioned cabins, showers and bathrooms at a time when most fishermen still carried their own bedding abroad. However, only part of the Lord Nelson’s catch was frozen at sea.
In the offices of Thomas Hamling and Co, the board gathered to design and commission a new kind of stern freezer distant-water trawler. It would be able to go further for longer and be safer in the pursuit of better and bigger catches. These Hull men determined their new ship would ensure a future for the fleet, to fish Newfoundland’s Grand Banks and beyond.
Hamling’s rivals were at their drawing boards too.
The race for The Perfect Trawler had begun.
Well that has set me up for reading the rest of the book and that will follow in 2019. My time has been a bit hectic lately and I have not had chance to read the books I wanted to read before the year is out. Once I am back on track, my reading list can be sorted out and I can rectify this.
About the Author
Brian W. Lavery is a former national newsman, whose tales deliver true journalistic flair. Born in Glasgow, long resident in Hull, he writes with a deep knowledge of the community and the dangers faced by those working in extremes. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Hull.
Check out the rest of the blog tour with these fabulous blogs: