ID: DJG_TWT / Douglas J. Gurton

TitleThose were the days - Tollesbury fishing
AbstractReminiscences 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.

AuthorDouglas J. Gurton
SourceMersea Museum / Cedric Gurton
Related Images:
 Tollesbury fisherman Harry Myall at the tiller of family smack S.W.H., named for Sidney, William and Harry Myall - taken early 1900s. 
 Used in Smacks and Bawleys page 109. CK492 
 Used in The Northseamen page 66.  ATR_SWH_003
ImageID:   ATR_SWH_003
Title: Tollesbury fisherman Harry Myall at the tiller of family smack S.W.H., named for Sidney, William and Harry Myall - taken early 1900s.
Used in Smacks and Bawleys page 109. CK492
Used in The Northseamen page 66.
Source:Mersea Museum / Alison Taylor