|Abstract||Reminiscences of childhood memories of over fifty years ago by Douglas Jack Gurton.
The report by the Fishery Officer on the decline of the fishing
industry in this area, reminds me of the struggle of local
fishermen to gain a livelihood over fifty years ago. There were
117 smacks owned in Tolleebury at the turn of the century.
Most of the smacks bore ladies' names or a combination of family
initials, like "AEFA", "SWH", "ADC", "MKT", but others had more
prosaic names like "S£CRET, "CORSAIR", "EXPRESS", "PARAGON" and
maany others. "BOADICEA" owned by the Binks family was the oldest,
and "PARAGON" a former Ramsgate pleasure boat, owned by
Capt. Steve Barbrook was the fastest in these waters. None of the
smacks which with few exceptions were typical of Colne built craft,
had engines, and with their tall topmasts, cross-trees and rigging,
presented a veritable forest at Woodrope at times. The only motorised
commercial craft in use as I remember was the "DAN", a large carvel
built launch, some 40ft in length, with turtle back foredeck, and
towing posts midships and aft. It was
owned by the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Fishery Co and was kept in
impeccable condition by the coxswain, Mr. Laban Pearce, who also undertook
maintenance of the engine, a large "Dan" single cylinder hot-bulb
type, which had to be started first thing in the mornings by means of
a blow-lamp. The initial explosion could be hoard for miles.
The "DAN" in its gleaming coat of light grey paint, looking more like
a Naval craft than a tug boat, presented a wonderful sight when coming
up to Woodrope Hard on the full tide towing two or three heavily laden
skiffs and attendant row boats. At the Hard, horses and carts would
be waiting to take the bags and barrels of oysters up to the Railway
Station. Apart from the smacks on the Hard, there were usually a
number in South Dock and in what was termed "Rotten Row"
quite wrongly in fact, as these craft were usually waiting their
turn for oyster dredging in the river or laid up temporarily for
repairs or crew. It can well be imagined that in those days
there was plenty of work to be done, and more or less full
employment, but wages were very poor and the fishermen had
a very hard life indeed. In the wintertime the majority of the
fishermen went "starfishing" or "five-fingering" as we knew it
on the Kent coast known as "The Cant". The "star-fish" were
always found on the North Side of the sandbanks, never on the
south. These starfish were used for manuring the land, and no
better manure has been found. I well remember the stench caused
as the large tumbrills and wagons usually drawn by pairs of
horses, trundled up the road through the village, with their
heavy loads of offensive smelling fish and dripping slime.
The smacks were usually away for a week or fortnight, and were
very lucky if they could get a catch of 5 to 6 tons in that time,
although some were most fortunate at times in getting a good
catch within a day or so. As they only fetched l6/- to £1 a
ton, there was never a very big share-out for the four man crew.
The other main fishing occupation in winter-time was
"spratting" or "Stowboating" as it was called then. The sprats
when small were used for manuring the land, but when in prime
condition were sold for food and barrelling for export.
Sprats fetched round about l/6d a bushel. It was a beautiful
sight to see the smacks, under mainsail, foresail and jib,
tacking up the creek to Woodrope, all vying with each other
to get the most favourable berth.
At times it seemed that they would strike the mud at the
sides of the creek, as their long bowsprits swept over the
saltings. Men were always stationed forrard and aft to
tend the sails and sheets as they come about so swiftly.
When out on the fishing grounds the smacks carried
topsails, and must have presented a glorious scene.
Many of the smacks worked from Brightlingsea and Harwich, but the
Fleets, Mell and Thurslet Creeks always had a very full quota of
vessels moored in the fairways.
Uusually towards the end ef November each year, whenever the sprats
were becoming larger size and full of oil, word would be sent to the
sprat merchant in Edinburgh, and he together with his manager and
coopers would come down from Leith, Scotland, to superintend the
pickling and barreling of sprats for export. Weeks previously,
hundreds of new white-wood barrels weuld be unloaded from trucks
at the Railway Station and stacked by the roadside at the small
brickfield at Woodrope. Capt. Steve Barbrook was usually the local
foreman and recruited local fishermen and women to wash, sort and
prepare the sprats for pickling. The sprats were placed in the
barrels between layers of bay leaves, spices, salt and sugar.
There were two bushels of sprats to a barrel, and hundreds of
barrels were despatched by barges from Woodrope Hard to London
Docks, and from Tollesbury Railway Station for Immingham Docks,
Hull, where they were despatched to Russia, Poland and other
Baltic countries. Some were sent to New York but the story
that they were despatched to that place as "anchovies" is without
foundation. This annual activity unfortunately only lasted a
few weeks, and to mark the departure of the Scotsmen, who were
held in great affection in the village, a smoking concert would
usually be held in the large tap-rooms of the old "Hope Inn", when
local musical and vocal celebrities would render songs and sea
shanties, some of which could not be published in writing.
Prizes would be awarded to the best "artistes", and as these were
the days of food rationing fifty years ago, the prizes would consist
of tea, sugar and the like. This was the only diversion apart
from the "Gooseberry Pie Fair" on St. Peters Bay (29th June) and
the annual regatta, when the smartest saacks competed against those
of Mersea and Brightlingsea.
For a week or so prior to the event, the gear of the
smacks would be overhauled, best canvas bent on, and
bottoms scrubbed smooth and clean. This was prior to
the days when patent anti-fouling compositions became
in general use for smacks, and to ensure a good racing
surface plumbage mixed with urine would be applied to the
bottoms of the smacks. The liquid for mixing the
composition, was never in short supply, as buckets were
placed at strategic and secluded positions on the Hard so
that they could be used.
A silver trophy and medals were awarded to the owner
of the winning smack and crew.
Apart from the "spratting" and "five-fingering" other
smacks were always employed in the River dredging for
oysters, and others fish trawling off Clacton and Harwich.
Some enterprising fishermen from Brightlingsea and Tollesbury
would take the large ketch "Guide" down channel off the French
coast for scallops which fetched 6d to a 1/- a dozen when sold
ashore. Oysters were sold 5/- a hundred and "hoppers" (a small
kind of plaice) would be taken front door to door in the
village and sold for 6d for 40 "already cleaned and ready for
the pan". Believe it or not there were as many refusals as
there were takers in these days of fifty years ago.