Catching fish for food in Torbay dates back to medieval times. The monks at Torre Abbey had permission to fish there but this was probably only for their own table. The landing of larger numbers for sale may date back even further. It is now known that Brixham fishermen were supplying the "London market" in the 18th century. In the run-up to the passing of the first turnpike acts in Devon, a census of traffic took place in 1764 which was printed in the Journal of the House of Commons. Traffic included "fish carriages on the Brixham-Newton road". The drivers complained that it took four hours and added three shillings to the cost of transport due to the very poor condition of the roads west of Exeter.

"Landmark" dates include:

1850. Brixham was said to have the "largest fishery in England" - there were 130 fishing smacks and the average catch a week was 150 tons.

William Salisbury was skipper of the Peerless when war broke out with Russia in 1854. Before leaving he was told this fact by the Customs Officer, who warned him to be on the lookout for Russian merchantmen. In the Channel he met a vessel and exchanged fish for spirits and tobacco. He was, however, given a coin by the master which he realised was Russian; he immediately sailed for Plymouth. A troopship was sent out with Salisbury on board as pilot and the Russian vessel was seized. For this event, and others, he was known as "Admiral Salisbury and Port Admiral".

1860. "We regret to say that during the past week, the fishermen of Brixham have thought fit to follow the example set for them in much more important towns - viz - to strike, though doubtless they consider for very sufficient reasons. It concerned dismissal without notice and was quickly resolved.

1879. Mr Hamling put up a fish-curing house in Berry Head Road near the Breakwater, the first in the district.

1870. "The fisherwomen of Brixham have won a great victory. They have always enjoyed the privilege of standing in the Fish Market and selling the fish brought in by the trawlers and other fishermen. Some men, of an enterprising spirit, unwilling that the business should be monopolised by the women, embarked in it themselves - conducting the sales, like the women, without an auctioneer's licence. The men were forced to take out licences and they wanted the women to do likewise or give up. Lord Churston took it up with the Treasury and won the day. As a result, a grand tea was held in the Fish Market. Over 200 attended and toasts were drunk - in tea- to Lord Churston. After tea, dancing commenced which was kept up for some hours with great animation and spirit: some of the elder fisherwomen going through the old country dances with marvellous grace and elasticity".

1878. A strike in Brixham about stock-a-bait. This was the "unwanted catch", like oysters crabs, etc. which were taken and sold by the crew as a "perk". The events were chronicled: "The strike which commenced on Monday and which seriously threatened to disturb the peace of the town was settled on Wednesday. It occurred because the owners were attempting to curtail the 'stock-a-bait' privileges the men had enjoyed for many years. It allowed men and boys to sell for themselves a certain proportion of the unwanted catch including oysters, crabs, etc. Owing to the rise in the value of fish in recent years, it had grown to be worth £1 or £1.5s a week. The 700-odd hands stayed on shore and spent their time parading the streets. On Friday evening one or two smacks came in with fish but their cargoes were seized by some of the men and boys on strike and thrown into the water, or otherwise destroyed. [Later, when the trouble seemed to be flaring up again after the arrival of more smacks in the roads], the police force which had hitherto be held in reserve in another part of the town was marched down to the landing stage under the command of Mr. Braid and Mr. Superintendent Cornwell. The strike lasted only three days but it was estimated that nearly £1,000 had been lost by it".

1882 There were proposals for a "Brixham fleet for the North Sea". It would comprise at least 25 vessels which would leave for the fishing grounds in April 1883, not returning to Brixham until the middle of July. Three admirals would be chosen to take duties in turn.

1883-6. Mission ships were fitted out in Brixham and went to the North Sea for the spiritual welfare of the Fleet. The idea originated among a group of devout Christian fishermen who attended the Church of St. Peter the Fisherman. Philip Partridge's journal of his life between the years 1894 and 1914 tells how he, and other men, contributed to the setting up of a "little floating church" on the Jeffrey Drew.

Partridge also tells how "a good many of our smacks would fit out and go to the North Sea and remain for 12 to 15 weeks and boarding the steam cutters every morning with their catches which took the fish to the London market for sale". There were about six of the latter for the 300 sailing trawlers which, "as they returned to the fishing ground they would bring us our letters from home or bring us anything we wanted... We never put our trawl down on Sundays [but] always lay-to and tried to make the best of our day of rest". In 1888 the North Sea grounds were abandoned and the fleet went to fish off the Irish coast, (although Milford Haven was the port-of-call at weekends). A new vessel, the Ichthus was fitted out as a floating church. It was used for some years until a decline in fish stocks made the fishing off Ireland uneconomic.

1889. 15 trawlers, all fitted with steam capstans, formed the Torbay Fishing Fleet which sailed to the Irish coast in May. Henry Bedford chosen as "admiral". [Steam capstans were as far as the fishermen went]. In July the Torquay Directory reported: "The Brixham fishing fleet has been augmented by the return of many of their number from the North Sea, Brighton, Tenby and Milford where they have been fishing for the dull part of the year. The commoner kinds of fish, such as plaice, whiting, hake, etc. are being landed in such abundance that a price can hardly be got from them and day by day in the Brixham fish-market lovely lots of good, fresh fish are to be seen, for which the most ridiculously low prices have to be taken. Railway rates seem to be the one barrier keeping this good and wholesome food from the population of our larger towns. Red mullet, in which our fishermen held the monopoly... are now being put in the market earlier... by the French and Guernsey trammel fishermen. This, with the better opposition of steam trawlers, which are now to be found in many ports, where only a few months since such a thing was entirely unknown, take the markets from our toilers of the deep and cause a competition where it was previously unknown". It concluded "the present outlook for the sailing trawler owners is rather gloomy".

1903. "Barking sheds, as they are known from the oak bark which plays such an important part in the 'barking' or tanning of sails. There is a smooth cemented floor; there are huge coppers and the tall masts and tackle which are a barking yards distinctive feature. It is designed to make the canvas more durable, prevent mildew, etc. The smacks require them done yearly. The work is carried out by the crew themselves, the proprietor arranging to hire the 'yard and the appurtenances', coppers, barking mops, lee tubs, etc. and the owner perhaps purchases the ingredients from the yard owner also. Oak bark goes in and the fires stoked overnight. The other ingredients are Stockholm tar, tallow, red and yellow ochre. The tar is omitted when new sails are barked. Each skipper had his own proportions for the mix. Some trawlermen take new nets in for barking, as they consider they subsequently take the tar better".

1916. A large enemy submarine attacked the Brixham fishing fleet. The trawlers Provident and Amphitrite were sunk. 1916 was the worst year; six smacks were sunk in a week by U-boats, meaning a very heavy call on the owners, some of whom wanted the fleet laid up... in a fortnight every one had joined the War Risks Association. The smacks were organised in the fleet, Mr. Blackmore's Prevalent being admiral's ship with a naval lieutenant in charge. They were able to go to sea further than the line Portland to the Start, and were escorted by an armed steam trawler. Only one smack was lost subsequently and she had strayed from the others.

1929. "Brixham used to boast up to 300 apprentices in the old trawler days; there is no doubt the port was a fine "feeder" to the navy and mercantile marine, to which many of the boys eventually migrated. On the old red sails the work was considerably harder than it is today ... we might well copy the Belgians, who do not allow a trawler to make two consecutive trips unless she carries at least one boy".

1935. The "picturesque Brixham fishing smacks" were being blamed for the hard times upon which the Brixham fishermen had fallen. A Mr. Kendall of Cleethorpes, believed the future lay with steam, not sail. He proposed "twelve using the fleeting system, the catches being brought into port by two special steam carriers, which would be fitted with wireless to relay the way fishing was progressing". He further suggested selling the uncompetitive smacks to Newfoundland where they would still satisfy their requirements. There would be additional work for 150 men at sea, a hundred ashore and also for the women who would braid the nets. There was an immediate reply. The harbour could not accommodate many steam trawlers for landing catches; transport would be difficult, the railway did not come down to the quayside and there would problems with labour. "Immediately after the War many a fisherman decided his son should have a better chance than he did, so he went to secondary school. When he left school the shore was preferred to the sea with its obligations of hardships and dearly-gained meagre rewards. The parents themselves fostered the idea from the the skipper down to the merest "share-fisherman." Nowadays there were none to carry on the old life and the young men of yesterday were now in their 40s. In prewar days, a certain number of young men were sent down from orphanages to be drilled into seamanship but these no longer reach the skippers of the smacks".

1936. In February the Owl (168 tons), first of six steam trawlers arrived from Hull. Built in 1903, she had been considerably modified for her work in Brixham at a cost of £400. Her skipper was Mr. V. R. Smith, who had been working on steam trawlers for past seven years in Plymouth. The town was reminded: "Steam trawlers are no innovation in Brixham, indeed they operated from the port 70 years ago. Bertha and Edith made history in the town in 1869. They made their appearance in mid-summer when the Fleet was lying idle in harbour for lack of wind. The strange new vessels went to the "grounds" and made two catches a day. Their large catches soon saturated the market". In December 1937 there was consternation when the Brixham Trawler Company's eight steam trawlers were reported to be leaving Brixham for Fleetwood. This was mainly because Brixham had not "kept its promise" to provide facilities (the promised patent slip had been under consideration for some time but had not been constructed). There was a public meeting on the future of the industry when the provision of a "gridiron" was also discussed. It was said that, eight years earlier, the Torbay Fishermen's Co-operative Society had been formed but it had just gone into voluntary liquidation after paying out over £8,000 in dividends.

1939. The last of the "mules", the Kathleen Winnie left Brixham after being sold off to Norway to continue fishing. The mules had a long history, doing particularly well in the trawler races in bygone days.

1971. The new fish quay, market building, ice-plant, repair slipway and offices were completed. Twenty years later, in February 1991 improvements, costing £456,000, were officially opened. Over a 20 year period the total spending had been about £4.6 million. The fishing industry of Brixham were worth about £30 million per annum at that time.

1992. In November, Europe's largest crabber Amadeus was launched in Macduff, Scotland for Reg Matthews and Trevor Bartlett of Brixham. Eighty feet long, it would carry 1,500 pots and be capable of undertaking 1,800 mile round-trips.

Ice for the fishing fleet.

When the railway arrived in South Devon, one of the problems was to get the fish to the markets in Bath, London and elsewhere in prime condition. This was done by importing ice from the Arctic. From about 1860, though possibly earlier, the import began. (Ice had been first brought into London in 1822; in New England, the trade had started even earlier). It was cut out of the frozen lakes in Norway, packed in straw, loaded into fast brigs and brought back to Brixham as quickly as possible. In 1869 the Antelope arrived with a cargo of good Norwegian ice. Three years later, there were regular shipments to the Brixham & Torbay Ice Company. In the 1880s the Brixham Ice Company was on the Quay; the proprietor being James Bigwood. The arrival of "good ice from Norway" for Mr. Bigwood in 1883 is also recorded. He later built the ice-factory near Kings Quay in 1900. It had its own reservoir in Cudhill Road which provided the large quantities of water required. Steam engines provided the power at first and, for years, black smoke poured from its high chimney; later, diesel oil replaced coal. The manager was Mr Clyburn, who had come down from Gloucestershire (from Lister's of Dursley) to run the diesel engines. They were of 110 hp. and the flywheel weighed 2 tons.

Changes in dealing with catches by the 1970s had made the large old plant redundant. It was demolished and the site, after lying idle for some years, became part of the King William Quay development. A new modern ice-making plant was completed at the end of the new fish quay in 1989.

© copyright John Pike

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