15. Sep, 2017


In my Blog “South of the Dogger” I spelled out the dangers and harsh work practises of 19th century sail trawling. Yet in spite of that, by 1887 the Yarmouth and Gorleston owners felt themselves to be in a strong enough position to impose a pay cut on their workforce.
Up until then the men had been paid at a fixed rate irrespective of the size of their catches. The owners now proposed the opposite....the men should be paid "by the share", according to the size of their catches. They had their reasons.
There was their apparently reasonable and publicly stated aim of simply encouraging the men to take greater care of the trawling gear. Then there were the others. It would effectively cut the wage bill and at the same time encourage the men to work even harder irrespective of them being tempted into taking even greater risks at sea.
1. Governments were on their side. There was no working class representation in a Parliament dominated by the commercial and landowning classes.
2. Even the risk of a strike, let alone it's being successful was remote...
-They had the support of the police and if necessary, troops to put down any real or alleged civil disorder.
-They assumed public opinion (the national and local press, professional and commercial interests) would automatically be on their side and that the non-fishing working class would be unsympathetic.
-The work force was an un-unionised, disorganised, leaderless, rabble so lacking in spirit that threat of the sack and lack of a wage would quickly drive them back to sea.
-The men were permanently split...the interests of the crews were seen as distinct from that of the skippers who would surely side with the owners. With vessels coming and going from port all the time and many away on the fishing grounds it was impossible to achieve concerted action
- Striking at sea was impossible. It would be seen as the criminal act of Mutiny with serious legal penalties


In fact, apart from the first of the above, the owners had miscalculated on every count. In particular they underestimated Messrs Rix, Cox, Moseley, Yates, Patrick and Doram- all skippers who had come up the hard way from cabin boys. They did not forget and automatically sided with the men. What they lacked in formal education they clearly made up for in intelligence, Integrity, Influence and determination.
Aided and abetted by a Doctor Middleton, they hammered out a clear strategy.
Their aim was simply to bring Robert, son of Samuel Hewett to the negotiating table. They reasoned that once he was forced to rethink, the other smaller owners would quickly fall in line with their demands.
Their method was firstly to achieve solidarity among the men and secondly, to gain the support of the townspeople.
Taking full advantage of the seething anger among the crews, they made sure that once a trawler docked and tied up, it stayed tied up. The men could not strike at sea but there was nothing to stop them on land. There was no blacklegging out of Yarmouth and Gorleston!
They organised mass-meetings of as many mates and third hands as necessary, relying on them to pass the message on to the others who could not get into either the Corn Hall or St. Andrew’s Hall in Gorleston. The meetings were transparent and open to all.
The local press- “The Yarmouth Independent” were always invited, treated with the utmost courtesy, respect and given every assistance. Wives did their bit by simply pointing out to shopkeepers how much their businesses would suffer in a prolonged strike and by reduced spending power should the men lose. The “Independent” was in fact a misnomer as like every other newspaper it was in fact totally dependent on adverts place by local commerce whose interests lay in a speedy resolution and victory to the men. In consequence its reporting of the strike between 5-19 March, 1887 was curiously biased in favour of the smacksmen.
On March 12, the paper said …”The sympathy of the public is with the men and we cannot help sharing in their feelings”. {The 2016 Mail, Express and Sun it wasn’t!)
To further bind in the fishermen, in a March 5 public meeting, Mr. Doram proposed they found a Union- “The Fishermen’s Society”. 161 men joined on the spot.
The men’s greatest PR coup, however came on Sunday 12 March 1887 when 300-400 of them in perfect discipline marched to the Parish Church of Great Yarmouth. The “Independent” again, on March 12…
“The Market-place was occupied by hundreds of people, many of whom were heard to express sympathy with the men and in their opinion they were in the right and the owners were dealing unfairly with them.”
By then they had been joined by the newly docked, redoubtable Skipper Crawford under whose leadership they repeated the Church Parade the next Sunday.
By now public sympathy was in full flood and the day after, Mahomet was at last forced to go to the mountain. Robert Hewett, owner of the Short Blue condescended to attend a huge meeting of smacksmen at St. Andrew’s Hall in Gorleston and gave in to their demands. They would go back to work on the old terms but had learned some important lessons.
Firstly that “We are many, they are few“…the need of solidarity based on long term causes, a short term crisis, and an able leadership to take advantage of the situation and plan a winning strategy.
Secondly, there was the need of having support on their side via all available mass-media and public relations.
Thirdly use all expertise placed at their disposal (like that of Dr. Middleton).

So the fishermen won, or did they?
Only ten years later did they learn something even more important, that all working people have since had dinned into them…the Owning classes could only be beaten after a long and arduous fight well into the future.
As Hewett was giving way at that Gorleston meeting, he had already planned the end of the sail trawling industry out of Yarmouth and Gorleston. He could afford to be magnanimous to wring the last out of a dying enterprise.
Due to chronic over-fishing, fish stocks of the the North Sea, south of the Dogger were getting seriously depleted. His plans consisted of moving the business northwards to Hull and Grimsby, close to the great markets of northern industrial cities and the newer fishing grounds off Denmark and eventually Norway and Iceland.
Those grounds could only be exploited by the new and more efficient steam trawlers in which he was even then investing. The northern ports were also closer to coalfields and thus saving on the huge amounts of capital needed to transport coal to the east coast of Norfolk.
Within ten years the sail trawling fleets of Yarmouth and Gorleston were but a memory. The smacksmen had been forced to either leave the sea or like my grandfather, move to the northern ports where the pattern of what had happened in Yarmouth was in time to repeat itself, time and time again.
The real lesson? Any victory is only temporary and the fight must continue to the next time and the next time and the next et seque.

Of course this is only history and has no relevance to the present.