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The Port of London and docks in Tudor times. By Sue Flockton

Each of the Tudor monarchs took some actions which impacted on the development of the port of London and the docks further downstream. However, it was during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I that there is evidence of the greatest activity.

Henry VII did much to encourage the development of the merchant fleet, establishing the first permanent navy, and using a small dockyard at Deptford for repairs. Throughout the Tudor period it is difficult to provide accurate information about numbers of ships in the navy, as merchants were expected to put their ships into service at times of war and numbers often include these ships, along with captured ships which were then put into service.

The Great Harry (public domain)

Henry VIII ordered construction at Deptford and Woolwich dockyards so that he could construct warships close to his home in Greenwich. These sites were easier to defend than coastal ports. Ships such as the Henry Grace a Dieu, better known as the Great Harry were built at Woolwich. Ships built elsewhere were fitted out at these docks e.g the Mary Rose. Changes in construction of ships, allowing for larger and stronger ships and bigger guns, required more manpower both in builders and crew. There was also an increase in associated trades which proved useful for merchant shipping as well as the navy.

We have information from The Anthony Roll (1546). Anthony Anthony – an official at the Tower – recorded all the ships in the Navy. While the drawings are thought not to be particularly accurate, the roll also included information such as armaments and crew. The roll – actually 3 rolls – was presented to the King and placed in the Royal archives. Charles II gave two rolls to Samuel Pepys who was intending to write a history of the navy. At the time the third roll could not be found. Pepys had the documents cut and placed in book form – now in the Pepys library. The third roll was later found and eventually made its way to the British Library.

Henry’s reign also saw the inception of Trinity House in 1514. This was set up to provide safe piloting of ships in the Thames by experienced English pilots, and followed a number of occasions on which ships ran aground.

The seal of the Muscovy Company, 1555. The legend reads Refugium nostrum in Deo est – God is our refuge. Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

The reign of Edward VI saw interest turn to increased trade and its potential for raising revenue. The number of taxable goods was increased as were the rates of tax. There was also a desire to find new markets and in 1553 an attempt to find a northeast passage led to a contact and eventual trade agreement with Russia. Queen Mary I gave a charter to the Muscovy or Russian Company, and also ordered a further survey of ports and goods.

During the reign of Elizabeth, the Lord Treasurer (William Paulet), further developed the system of taxation. In 1558 a revised book of rates was issued, adding another 300 commodities to the list and doubling duties. This highlighted a need for more effective administration to prevent smuggling to avoid tax.

A commission surveyed the port and in 1559 parliament established legal quays which were the only places where taxable goods could be landed. The list was revised in 1584. Alongside these was a system for recording and checking cargoes, with each being recorded by 2 officials- to make corruption more difficult. This information was recorded in Port Books, of which a few survive.

During these years, trade continued to expand, with the setting up of a number of companies such as the Levant, Barbary and East India Companies. At the same time, there was a development in exploration – and of privateering! Drake – who made a fortune from the latter – was knighted at Deptford and the Golden Hind went on permanent display at the dock. The docks continued shipbuilding, for example, the Ark Royal – flagship of the Armada – was built at Deptford in 1587.


Shad Thames Trail and other booklets available

A new booklet entitled “The Shad Thames Trail” has been published, issued by the Shad Thames Area Management Partnership.  It’s an informative tour of the Shad Thames area, including a map and descriptions of the main attractions marked on the map. It was written by Janet Morris from information supplied by the late and much-missed Stephen Humphrey.  I don’t know where a hard copy can be collected, but it is available as a PDF download from  It’s the first link on the Resources tab.  If you want to enquire about the possibility of acquiring hard copies, the email address is

There are other trails in the series too (Bermondsey Street, London Bridge West, and London Bridge East), available from a different website at

They all look like an excellent way to spend a couple of hours one dry day.

Hay’s Wharf. By Gillian Barton

The location of Hays Wharf. Source: Google Maps

Hay’s Wharf is located in the Pool of London based around a tidal creek. It was the oldest and most successful of all the general wharves.

From the 11th century, the site of Hay’s Wharf was the town house of the Abbot of Battle (Sussex). The house was called the Inn of Bataille and had its own private quay. Tooley Street was a route of pilgrimage to Bermondsey Abbey; crossing various fish-filled streams and fronted by a whole series of large church palaces, as well as the riverside town houses of the church dignitaries. Following the dissolution of the monasteries the area was turned into warehouses and in 1651 Alexander Hay took over the lease of a brew house (Goldings) by London Bridge and set up as a brewer and wharfinger. In 1710 the wharf was officially named Hay’s Wharf.

In the early eighteenth century the Admiralty leased some of the land as an Ordnance Depot and erected a shot tower for the manufacture of gun shot. The wharf was later used as a refuge for German Protestants escaping persecution. Francis Theodore Hay, the last Hay family proprietor, saw no future in wharfingering at London Bridge due to overcrowding and by 1796 most of the warehouses were leased by W. Humphrey & Son, established wharfingers to the west of London Bridge.

The 1861 Great Fire of Tooley St. Source: Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1840 the wharf came under the control of John Humphrey Junior, an Alderman for the City of London, Master of the Tallow Chandler’s Company, Lord Mayor of London in 1842, MP for Southwark 1832-52 and proprietor of Hay’s wharf from 1838 – 1862. In 1856 he commissioned William Cubitt to design and build new warehouse accommodation. He created a small inland dock so barges could gain access from the river, with a five storey warehouse on each side of the new dock. Business was good, until the Great Fire of Tooley Street in 1861. Described as ‘the greatest spectacle since the Great Fire of 1666’, it destroyed the “best warehouses in the kingdom”. The fire started at Cotton’s Wharf, destroying 11 acres of land. London Bridge railway station also caught fire in the blaze. Most of the wharves were rebuilt in the late 1800s as a result of Humphrey’s partnership with Smith and Magniac (whose company later became Jardine Matheson).

In 1867 the Hay’s Wharf company was founded, which acquired more wharves and warehouses: the Gun & Shot wharf was the only wharf between London Bridge and Tower Bridge that was not swallowed up by the Hay’s Wharf company. With the arrival of tea clippers from China and India, Hay’s Wharf became the leading handler of tea in the Port of London. Cottons Wharf was converted into the first commercial cold storage warehouse in Britain, handling shipments from Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Denmark and Holland. Bermondsey became known as the ‘larder of London’ because of its enormous trade in foodstuffs: mainly dairy and meat products and tea and coffee. Up to three-quarters of all London’s imported food passed through the company’s wharves. The company commissioned a new headquarters, Olaf House, and the first private telephone line in London was erected between the Tooley St wharf and its city office on the north bank of the river.

The wharves were heavily bombed during World War II but recovered: by 1960 the company handled 2 million tons of foodstuffs and had 11 cold and cool air stores, as well as many subsidiary companies providing ancillary services: lighterage, barge building and repair, bottling of wines and spirits, transport and shipping and forwarding. However, a bitter labour dispute with the dockers and a change in trading patterns and containerization, with docks at Tilbury and Felixstowe, affected all the London docks and associated industries. The Hay’s Wharf company set up cold storage in Dagenham in 1968 and announced the closure of the wharves in Bermondsey in 1969.

Hays Wharf as it is today.

St Martin’s Property Group, owned by the sovereign state wealth fund of Kuwait, acquired the property assets in the early 1980s. London Bridge Hospital took over the Chamberlain’s Wharf Building and St Olaf’s House. The dock was mostly filled in and paved over and a glass barrel vault installed to join the two warehouse buildings at roof level to create an atrium, for shops and offices, known as Hay’s Galleria. Warehouses were restored to include five interlinking buildings; Goldings, Counting, Shackleton, Tea Auction and Hay’s Lane. It is a Grade II listed structure.

Ada Salter. By Fran Bulwer

Ada Salter. Source: Wikipedia

PLSG’s second presentation from Fran Bulwer on 12th February was the life and work of Ada Salter (1866-1942).  Her achievements as Bermondsey’s own ‘ethical socialist’ campaigner, councillor, Mayor and London County Council (L.C.C.) member have recently been reassessed in a book by Graham Taylor after being considered slightly secondary to those of her equally remarkable G.P. and M.P. husband, Dr Alfred Salter (1873-1945).

Ada Salter grew up in a prosperous Northamptonshire Methodist family and was encouraged through her family and education to be active in the community. She came to London to work in the West London Mission, where she worked among the poorest and most vulnerable girls and women in central London, before moving to the Bermondsey Settlement in 1897 to set up girls’ clubs, with great success. Here she met a young doctor, Alfred Salter, whom she married in 1900. As a couple they devoted the rest of their lives for over 40 years to improving the lives of the people of Bermondsey through their positions on the borough council, as Mayor and member of the L.C.C. and through a cooperative GP surgery and as M.P. for West Bermondsey.

The death of their only child Joyce of scarlet fever, aged 8 in 1910, was a terrible blow and test of their Christian faith.

Ada’s achievements were hard won and remarkable. She campaigned through the Women’s Labour League for trade union representation for women workers in local industries, notably the jam factories, supporting their children and families during different strikes, keen to improve not only their working conditions and pay, but also to provide support for their children and families with child and healthcare and to improve the environment in which they lived and their housing. She was also a committed suffragist.

Ada Salter opening a playground and planting a tree. Source: Wikipedia

Ada’s ‘beautification’ of Bermondsey – the planting of trees along 70 miles of streets, beautiful flower beds in every available open space and encouraging local people to plant their own window boxes and hanging baskets became famous nationally. Apart from this, she pushed for an ambitious slum-clearance programme for Bermondsey whose greatest success was the 53 houses of Wilson Grove, a mini-garden city next to the docks, still there today. Money restrictions in the 1930s limited further such developments but housing improvements made by the Council were significant with Wilson Grove becoming a much-admired model nationally and beyond.

With Alfred’s medical position and Ada’s organizational skills, health was also a high priority in an area with many problems. Clinics to combat tuberculosis (T.B.), including a revolutionary solarium for T.B. sufferers, sanatorium and convalescent facilities out at Fairby Grange in Kent, ante-natal, neo-natal and child health clinics resulted in dramatic improvements in the health of the local people. They were also responsible for building Britain’s first integrated health clinic in Grange Road, still an NHS health centre today. Nearby public baths also provided state of the art washing, bathing, swimming and laundry facilities while a fleet of ‘cinemotors’ went round Bermondsey to give slide and film shows about cleanliness and good health. 16 of these locally made films have survived and are at the Wellcome Foundation, a reminder of how seriously the Salters and their team considered public education to be.

As life-long pacifists, Ada and Alfred campaigned hard against the First World War and were devastated by the outbreak of the Second World War, which they had fought equally hard to prevent. Bermondsey was particularly badly hit by German air-raids on the docks and all Ada’s beautification projects soon lay in ruins, while her home in Storks Rd was also badly damaged by a bomb. She died in 1942 and Alfred in 1945.

A group of statues on the riverside near Ada’s fist Bermondsey flat was completed in 2014 by adding Ada holding a spade and flowers to that of her husband, daughter Joyce and their cat. It is a tribute to a couple who worked tirelessly for Bermondsey and whose achievements prefigured the NHS and Green movement.

The statues of the Salter family and their cat, entitled “Alfred Salter’s Dream.” Located on Bermondsey Wall East, overlooking the Thames. Photograph by Andrea Byrnes


Tate and Lyle by Jill Napier

Tate and Lyle at Silvertown today. Source: Wikipedia

Tate & Lyle are the last great industrial employers at Silvertown. The refinery dominates the view and the landscape from the DLR. It still appears to be a flourishing industry in a post – industrial landscape now ripe for redevelopment. It was in fact one of the first factories to locate to the new Silvertown site in 1878.  Henry Tate acquired a derelict shipyard there in 1874-5. This was about 25 years after Samuel Winkworth Silver first opened his rubber factory nearby, giving his name to an emerging industrial hinterland, newly served by railways as well as the River. This large area of marshland was to prove an attractive site for many new industrial processes.

Henry Tate (1819-1899) had bought the British rights to Eugen Langen’s sugar cube manufacturing process in 1875 – a process which was to revolutionise the sugar market – and he was keen to acquire a suitable site to exploit this and a ready market in which to sell it. A new base on the edge of London proved to be ideal. Tate was an entrepreneur and a risk taker – an enlightened employer, by the standards of the time, and a philanthropist. He was to make a fortune with the new and revolutionary process. Gone were the old and cumbersome sugar loaves; here at last was hygienically packaged and accessible quantities of sugar for everyone’s convenience and use.

Henry Tate (Public Domain)

Tate was born in Chorley, Lancashire, the eleventh child of a Unitarian minister. He was apprenticed to his eldest brother Caleb, who owned a grocery business, at the age of 13 years but acquired his own grocery shop in Liverpool with Aaron Wedgewood in 1839. Henry focused on the sale of tea and by 1855 had six shops. His partnership with a Liverpool sugar refiner led him to sell the shops and the wholesale tea business he had built up. By 1869, he had bought out the partnership too and his two sons entered the business, which was subsequently renamed Henry Tate & Sons.

Henry Tate & Sons acquired the rights to a new French sugar purification process in 1872, giving the firm serious advantages of scale over competitors. A new refinery at Love Lane, Liverpool produced 1000 tons of sugar each week and employed 400 people. The old small scale, inefficient and unhygienic refineries that had operated in the East End of London and the City were seriously outmoded. Enter his competitor and, finally, the other half of the business…….

At the other end of what was to become known as “The Sugar Mile”, Abram Lyle from Greenock arrived to purchase Plaistow Wharf in 1883. Formerly a cooper and a shipwright, Lyle had interests in shipping sugar and finally added a sugar refining business to his interests. His own special product, known originally as “Goldie”, had been a waste product of the refining process sold at first only to his employees. Lyle’s Golden Syrup, however, reached a mass market and was a huge success. Over one million tons are still produced each month today. It’s iconic branding – personally developed and approved by Abram Lyle with its biblical reference – is Britain’s oldest brand. Like Tate, Lyle was an enlightened employer and philanthropist. The two firms were rivals; their amalgamation came in 1921 after World War 1 and with the threat of European competition from the newly exploited and large scale developing sugar beet industry. Cane sugar products from around the World had to compete.

Abram Lyle (Public Domain)

Much of the innovative tradition begun by Henry Tate and Abram Lyle seems to survive in the Company today in what is a challenging global market. The Company is no longer family owned and was sold in 2010 for £211m to American Sugar Refining. Their website lists their range of products and expertise. There are many sugars including specialist sugar products and sweeteners but the Company has long since diversified. Its interests include other food products – food texturants, food stabilisers, industrial starches and food fibres. They work with food companies to develop new products and their food technology expertise extends from drinks,  to dairy products, soups, sauces and dressings. They produce bulk industrial goods and pet foods. Their website professes that the Company focuses on fair trade and environmental issues, on being a responsible and fair employer, on research and new innovative techniques and community involvement with a concern to succeed in partnerships in a global and changing world. All things to which Henry Tate and Abram Lyle might readily have signed up……

Selling Fish. By Ian McBrayne

Monday 29th January was a very fishy day.  After Sheila had told us about the history of the Barking fishing fleet, Ian talked about two venerable institutions involved with the selling of fish, Billingsgate Market and the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers.

Billingsgate Dock, early 19th C. Source:

Billingsgate is a ward in the City of London just east of London Bridge.  A dock was dug there around the 9th century and a market grew up around it in the Middle Ages.  Originally it was a general market, but from the 16th century it increasingly specialised in fish.  By Act of Parliament in 1698, it was confirmed as a fish market, run by the City Corporation, where anyone could buy any sort of fish.

There must have been some sort of cover from an early stage for this all-weather operation, but the early history of the market buildings is not well documented.  In 1850, a building in Italianate style was constructed to the design of the City Architect, J B Bunning.  It soon proved too small for the growing trade and in 1877 a new and very beautiful building, designed by a new City Architect, Sir Horace Jones, was opened by the Lord Mayor, with three times the sales area of its predecessor.

Having such a busy market in the centre of the City was not entirely popular.  The surrounding streets were often grid-locked and the stench was legendary.  Pressure grew for a new fish market, led by Robert Hewett of the Short Blue Fleet at Barking.  In 1882, he secured an Act of Parliament to use a site at Shadwell, but the market there never prospered.  In 1899, the Hewetts sold it to the City Corporation.  It struggled on until 1914, after which the site became a public park.

Billingsgate continued on its City site until 1982, when it moved to its present site in Poplar.  The building in the City became an events and conference centre.  The freehold of the new site is held by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.  The City Corporation, who still run the market, pay an annual ground rent of one fish.

True to the Act of 1698, anyone can still buy fish at Billingsgate, as long as they go during the trading hours of 4.00am to 8.00am, Tuesday to Saturday.  The main trade is of course wholesale, with up to 150 varieties of fish on offer, annual sales of 25,000 tonnes and a turnover in the region of £200 million.

Billingsgate has its own constabulary, with police uniforms and a police car, though its role is now primarily to provide security and an emergency medical service.  The famous Billingsgate porters, with their flat-topped leather hats, were abolished in 2012.

The retail fish trade is changing.  The National Federation of Fishmongers, which had 9,000 members 75 years ago, was down to 1,300 by 2005, with a 13% share of the market.  The other 87% had been taken by the supermarkets, up from 10% in 1982.  The trend is doubtless set to continue.

The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, like Billingsgate Market, goes back to the Middle Ages.  It got its first charter from Edward I in 1272, but will have existed as a guild of City fish merchants some time before that.  Successful guilds were given charters and became livery companies, with responsibility for training and regulation of their trades.  By a ruling of the City Aldermen in 1515, the Fishmongers’ Company ranks 4th of the 48 livery companies then in existence.  Today the number of companies has grown to 110 and new ones are still being created.

Arms of the Fishmongers’ Company Source:

Some of the companies own splendid halls in the City.  Three prominent fish merchants, all of whom served as Lord Mayor, built a great hall on land to the west of London Bridge, which they gave to the Fishmongers’ Company in 1444.  It stood until the Great Fire in 1666, and its successor until 1828.  Part of the site was then required for the new London Bridge and the hall was in need of repair anyway, so a replacement was built a little to the west.  Serious damage in the Blitz has been repaired and this third hall still serves the Company today.

Membership of the livery companies is not granted lightly.  The main route used to be by apprenticeship.  A young man would serve a member of the company for a period, usually seven years, learning the trade.  At the end, he would be “granted his freedom” and become a member himself.  The apprenticeship route is now rare and not used by the Fishmongers.

There are three other routes to membership: patrimony, redemption and invitation.  Membership by patrimony is open to those who had a parent who was a member at the time of their birth.  Redemption involves a fee, and is only granted to those with a close link to the company.  Invitation is a great honour: the Fishmongers admit one person by that route each year.  Their total membership is around 800.

Many of the livery companies have little connection today with their original trades, but the Fishmongers are still very much involved.  James I granted the Company a charter in 1604, appointing them as inspectors of all fish sold in the City and in Southwark.  The area of their jurisdiction was extended when Billingsgate Market moved to Poplar, and a team of the Company’s inspectors still operates in the market every day.  The Company also administers the Master Fishmonger Standard, an accreditation scheme for practising fishmongers.

Billingsgate Seafood School. Source:

In 1998, it helped to set up the Billingsgate Seafood Training School, which lives above the market.  It teaches fishmongering skills, promotes the health benefits of seafood to the public and offers free teaching to children about fish in the diet.  The Company also grant aids three other industry organisations: the Marine Biological Association, the Shellfish Association of Great Britain and Salmon and Trout Conservation UK.

The Company’s charitable work extends beyond the world of fish.  In 1970, several livery companies including the Fishmongers helped the City and Guilds of London Art School in Kennington to reinvent itself as an independent charity.  The Company continues to provide financial support and has a member on the board.

The largest recipient of the Company’s charitable funding  and governance is Gresham’s School at Holt, set up in 1555 by Sir John Gresham, a leading London merchant.  The Company took over support of the school when Sir John died the next year and has continued it ever since.  It also provides the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Scholarships for women studying at the University of London Medical School.  Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain, set up a forerunner of the Medical School and her son and grandson, both leading members of the Fishmongers, endowed the scholarships.

The End of Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, Thomas Rowlandson. Source:

The final role of the Company which we heard about took us back if not to fish at least to the river.  In 1715, Thomas Doggett, manager of the Haymarket and Drury Lane theatres, started what came to be known as Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, in tribute to George I whose reign began the previous year.  Six young men who had just completed their apprenticeships and become members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen were invited to row from London Bridge to Chelsea, for a prize consisting of a scarlet coat with a metal badge on the sleeve.

Doggett continued to organise the race each year until his death in 1721.  The Fishmongers agreed to take it over and still run it today.  There are still apprentice watermen and each year those gaining their freedom still get their chance to compete over the same course.

The Barking Fishing Fleet. By Sheila Dobner

The position of Barking relative to the Thames. Source: Google Maps

Surprisingly for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Barking was the most important fishing port in England.

Back in the 1860’s in Barking ‘there were six sail makers, five mast, pump and block makers, five shipwrights and boat builders and four rope and line makers…. four marine store dealers, four slopsellers and two ships chandlers, as well as makers of specialized products such as ship’s biscuit, sea boots, kegs, casks and nets. The stores were supplied with sou’westers, oilskins, big-boots, guernseys, red caps, hawsers, ropes and twine.”’ (Richard Tames “Barking Past) It had become the largest fishing fleet in Britain and possibly the world!

Fishing in the River Roding for local consumption is mentioned in documents from the 10th century. [Barking Abbey, which had Royal patronage, was one of the most important in the country and was rich, so the nuns and tenants of the abbey were important customers.

Salt-water fishing in the Thames estuary was mentioned as early as 1320 when Barking’s fishermen were prosecuted for using nets with too small a mesh. At the time the fishing would have been quite small scale as it was from many other Thames-side locations.

By the 1660s Barking was listed as having 14 fishing smacks, crewed by 70 men and boys, and they were fishing for cod, plaice and other fish in the North Sea, including as far away as Iceland. In 1722 Daniel Defoe visited the town and describes it as a large market town “chiefly inhabited by fishermen, whose smacks ride in the Thames at the mouth of the river Roding, from whence it (fish) is sent up to London to the market at Billingsgate, by smaller boats” He doesn’t mention North Sea fishing. [A Journey through the whole Island of Great Britain by Daniel Defoe]

By 1814 the fleet had grown to 70 smacks. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, with the return of men from the fighting, by 1833 the fleet had grown to   120; by 1845 approximately 150 and by 1850 at least 220.

In the first half of the 19th century when the population of London more than doubled there was huge demand for fish. Increasing restrictions on fishing in the Thames encouraged the move out into the North Sea.

The growth of the Barking fleet was the work of one family, the Hewetts. In the mid 1790’s, Scrymgeour Hewett (1765-1840?), a Scotsman from Fifeshire came to London. His father, who must have been fairly well off, had died and his mother brought the family to London. In 1795 he married Sarah Whennel, daughter of James Whennel, who owned 2 fishing smacks. Scrymgeour worked for his father-in-law and was left the boats when James died. He was a good businessman and increased the number of boats which fished as part of the Barking fleet.

Scrymgeour’s second son Samuel was destined to become a banker like his elder brother, but he obviously had other ideas and ran away to sea while his father was away at the Napoleonic Wars, where he was an officially sanctioned privateer. On his father’s return Samuel at the age of 14 was apprenticed to a fisherman, becoming a captain at 21. In 1815 Scrymgeour retired and handed over the fleet to Samuel.

A smack. Source: Wikipedia.

By 1833 the Hewett fleet, known as the Short Blue Fleet after the small blue square on their flag, consisted of 10 vessels.  In Barking as a whole the fleet now consisted of 30-40 smacks, and by 1839 there were 133. Fishing in the winter was mostly trawling. In summer it was line fishing which generally produced fish in better condition. The vessels were “well smacks” which had been developed in the early 1700s. Each vessel was equipped with a large well of water within it, in which the fish could be kept alive. Typically on each voyage the men would fish 3 times. The first 2 catches were gutted and salted on board and taken to be sold in the towns of Western Scotland or the Orkneys and Shetlands. The 3rd catch was kept alive in the well and taken back to London. The men were away from home for around 6 weeks each voyage.

Samuel realised that the system was uneconomic. Often the fish was not in good condition by the time it was brought back. His great innovation was the use of ICE. Instead of wet-salting the fish were packed in boxes of ice. Samuel also changed the rounded wicker baskets, called peds, for boxes which allowed more to be packed in.

Fast boats, called carriers or cutters, regularly collected the boxes and took them back to market in London. The carriers would then call in to pick up stores, water and ice before heading back out again. A carrier left the fishing fleet every day bound for London. Each carrier packed about 500 boxes, around 40 tons of fish.

The smacks now about 50 tons and 75 ft long, carried a crew of 8-10, half being apprentices who were generally orphans from the workhouses. The fishing smacks stayed out at sea continuously for 3 to 6 months at a time. They fished Dogger Bank and the coasts of Holland, Germany and Denmark as well as Iceland. Fishermen from ports such as Brixham and Hull also joined the fleet. Single smack owners also sailed with Hewett’s fleet and shared in the profits.

This “fleeting” system was very successful and the Short Blue fleet had increased to around 50 in 1844 – which was when Hewett’s men went on strike, complaining about being away from home and their families for so long. The fleet was now one of the largest in the world.

So how did they get the ice? Ice from Norway was available but expensive. Samuel’s great idea was to flood the marshes near Barking using sluice gates. The area was already prone to flooding and this system was well known in China. “Watchers” were employed to ensure the ice was not damaged by skaters. The ice which formed in the winter was then collected by the local residents on a great social occasion known as the Ice Harvest.  A large icehouse was built at Town Quay to store the ice ready for warmer weather. There were other ice-houses too, generally brick above-ground structures. Farmers also began to flood their fields and sold the ice for profit.

Samuel’s ideas transformed the fishing industry. By the early 1860s almost every Barking family was involved in the fishing industry, either as fishermen or as makers or suppliers of goods for the industry. The pool at Barking formed a natural dry dock at the mouth of the River Roding, which enabled repairs and scrubbing to take place there at low tide. The fleet had increased to around 200. By now the population of London had increased to 2 million and demand for fish was exceeding supply.

The 19th Century Jolly Fisherman public house in Barking. Source: Richard Rogerson, Geograph CC BY-SA 2.0

But the downfall of Barking as a major fishing fleet was coming. Others followed Samuel’s ideas and set up their own icehouses elsewhere. Ports such as Grimsby, which had opened its no 1 Fish Dock in 1856 were taking over Barking’s trade. The new railway ensured that the catches could be transported quickly from these East coast ports to the London markets. In 1863 Barking was struck a blow by the Great Storm in the North Sea which killed 60 of its fishermen and apprentice boys, and shortly afterwards the Short Blue Fleet was itself transferred to Gorleston, near Gt Yarmouth. By now Samuel had handed over control of the fleet to his son Robert. Robert tried out various new schemes and introduced steam trawlers. He also opened a new fish market at Shadwell to compete with Billingsgate but this venture failed.

The end of the fishing fleet in Barking had serious consequences for the local workforce, many of whom worked as sailmakers, ropemakers, chandlers, slop sellers and shipwrights. However new industries, including a large jute factory which opened in 1882, began moving into the area. Many factories, often of the more noxious variety, were springing up along the banks of the River Thames.

The Short Blue fleet continued in existence until 1980. An engineering plant for the fleet remained at Barking, but a major boiler explosion occurred in 1899 and the works were gutted. 10 workers died. It was a major financial blow.

Some traces of Barking’s fishing history still remain or have been commemorated in pub and street names – The Jolly Fisherman pub, Whiting Avenue, Fisher Road which is now Abbey Road, Fresh Wharf Quay- and there are some newer decorative features such as the steel sculpture “The Catch”. These days the ice house and nearby buildings are used as art and cultural centres, and the area is known as the Ice House Quarter.