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.
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.