Sea-change: Wivenhoe Remembered - Fishing
Changes in the lives of local fishermen
Page created by Peter Hill, copied from the earlier Wivenhoe Encyclopedia website
Catches of sole, brill and herrings go back in the records to 1481 and these are fish still to be had in the Thames Estuary. The transformation of local fishing is less due to changing fish stocks than to increases in catching power and most recently to quotas. The extracts below suggest the abundance of fish stocks in the past. We then begin with the now extinct but once important oyster fishery. We have already seen some of the experiences of Ernie Vince as a fisherman from the 1920s to the 1970s. Of the other fishermen below, Ken Green and Brian Green both started in the late 1940s, and Barry Green and Rodney Bowes in the 1970s.
You could go down on the Quay, the poor, and they’d give you a ‘bend’ – a wire, a ring, with these little dabs and small plaice strung on them – and just throw them on the Quay for people to pick up, and it was really fresh. And lovely shrimps too.
The oyster fishery – Hilda Barrell
My grandfather was captain of a yacht, like so many Wivenhoe people. And he had a coal yard and a farm, and his principal thing was he was an oyster merchant. I liked the oysters! There was an oyster pit near to where I lived and we kept oysters there but we had to go down the river, and out to sea, and up to Tollesbury, that’s where the beds were. Two uncles worked it, and other people sometimes, and they had a watchman, they had a boat for a watchman on the layings. Everybody had a watchman to take care of the oysters. It’s like a farm, you have to keep it clean. In those days, there wasn’t much pollution or anything, going over Tollesbury, because it was out of the way. And they were lovely oysters.
We didn’t sell natives in the summer, but my granddad did buy some Dutch ones that you could use in the off season. And he had some ‘blue boys’ once, from America. And he laid them. But they brought trouble with them. They brought things that bored into the oysters, and limpets that killed the oysters. So no more of those. And sometimes they used to gather the oysters, when they had a lot, and sell some Whitstable, and Whitstable was supposed to be better than our oysters – better than Colchester. Our oysters were like Colchester oysters. He sent them to Ireland. And every week we used to send some to the Golf Club at Sheringham. And before that Waldegraves, they used to have oysters from here.
My uncle had one son and his mother wouldn’t let him go on the layings, she said it was hard work and dirty work. There was a good time for oysters when my mother was a girl, there was plenty of money then, plenty of oysters and trade was good. And when Leslie, my cousin, was a baby things weren’t so good and my aunt didn’t think it was a good business, so she wouldn’t let him go in for it. And because we were to do with the oysters, you were ‘free of the river.’ For 900 years, this Freedom of the River Colne, and they had to go up to Colchester Town Hall every year, about that, and then my uncle got so he didn’t go and the other uncle got older, and then I can’t remember when it was, but I should think it’s 40 years ago. And then they sold the layings.
The Green family – Ken Green
The family originates from Harwich, and my grandfather was ‘Friday Green,’ as he was nicknamed, because he would never start his working week on a Friday. If he hadn’t been to sea all the week, then he certainly didn’t go on a Friday, because he would feel he was starting his working week on a Friday! [Note: For more about Friday Green, click here] We go back a long way in the days of sail and fishing in Harwich, which in those days was quite an important fishing port. They used to fish Iceland from Harwich, under sail. Quite an epic journey in itself, you know, just to get there, let alone actually fish and then come home with the catch. Quite incredible! For cod and haddock. Cod fishing, in those days, was very prolific.
But that’s where we originate from. And it’s strange, because one of my ancestors actually married an Icelandic woman. Because, if you were up off Iceland, and you were into bad weather, then it’s any port in a storm, and things happened from then on I suppose. So, yes, we’ve got an Icelandic connection as well, which is interesting.
But Grandfather actually was apprenticed to a Captain Carter, and he used to sail in the Americas Cup – yachts of years ago, as crew – and he sailed into Wivenhoe, as I understand, at a very early age, apprenticed to Captain Carter, and this is where he settled. They were yachtsmen in the summertime and fishermen in the winter, and I think a lot of the smacks that the fishermen used in Wivenhoe, at that time, were provided by the owners of the big yachts, the wealthy people. We originate from below decks, we don’t originate from on the grand deck! Very much the working crew.
Uncle Ernie had the family fishing boat, a big motorised Bawley, the Volunteer, Uncle Edwin had the fish and chip shop in Wivenhoe, and Father sold fish and shrimps in Colchester.
This was a very important pink shrimp area, centred really on Harwich, but it stretched all the way in these local waters, and pink shrimps, it was shrimps in the summer and spratting in the winter. That was about what used to happen after the yachting was coming to an end. So Uncle Ernie, and ‘Boxer Pike,’ his crew, they would go to sea on a daily basis. They would start fishing about one or two o’clock in the morning, and land about one or two o’clock midday. Then my father would pick the shrimps up, and he would go and sell them in Colchester in the afternoon, as did Uncle Edwin down here, at the fish shop there. So, it was very much a family affair.
Lowest form of life – Ken Green
So when I left school, I left school in 1949, I’d got on all right, but I was itching to get to sea, and so at 15 I went to sea with Uncle Ernie and Boxer Pike, and I was very much the lowest form of animal life on board, I can tell you! They spoke to me when they had to, and told me what to do. And, of course, being 15 years old, and very green, wet behind the ears, you make a lot of mistakes.
One thing that stands out in my mind is the first week that we fished. As I say, I was shrimping, and we’d pulled down on the first haul, and the net had got badly torn, so it had to be mended, or laced together, a bit of a bodge-up to get it ready to shoot away the next haul. So, of course, I was given the job of steering the boat back to where we wanted to shoot the net again, and at 15, and not very big either – I think I was only 5′ 4″ when I left school! – and I’d got this huge tiller to see to, and the wind was just off the bow, and a lot of swell, which made the boat not only pitch, but roll as well, so it was just like wriggling, you see, which made the tiller swing side to side, quite violently, and as I stood up to get hold of the tiller, so it knocked me down again! After about three or four times of that, I decided the only thing I could do was to lay on top of it and just get my arms round it, and just hold on and do my best, what I could, with it! But that was my first experience of going to sea. The weather conditions were quite bad, but just good enough to fish. And I thought, ‘I don’t know whatever I’m doing here!’ But that attitude very quickly changed, it becomes part of life.
At the age of 16, I was the ship’s cook, and, oh my goodness me, how I didn’t poison people I don’t know, because I think I was probably the world’s worst cook! When you were in summertime, they were day trips, so you didn’t do much cooking, you’d take enough food with you to last the time. But wintertime, you were liable to be away one day, two days, who knows? You might be away for a week or a fortnight, if you were over the other side of the Estuary and got stormbound, as we did on one or two occasions. So I was the cook, and I well remember, on one occasion, we used to make what’s called a ‘duff’ – flour and water, and put it in a bag and boil it up – but if you didn’t put a plate in the bottom of the saucepan, then, of course, it stuck to the bottom, you see. So you had gravy with it for the first course, and jam with it for the second course! I remember on one occasion, Uncle Ernest saying, ‘Oh, I like it burnt,’ he said, ‘I’ll have that.’ I said, ‘Jolly good, you can have the cloth with it, because that’s stuck to it!’
Family partnership – Ken Green
Father had been selling from the van, around the streets. Because he sold fish in the mornings, and shrimps in the afternoon: there’s a distinction – wet fish and smoked fish and that sort of thing in the morning, and shrimps in the afternoon – so he’d come back to Wivenhoe and pick up shrimps and off he’d go again. So when we opened the shop in Eld Lane, that was another adventure which really did us all very well. It eventually became a family partnership, and eventually we built a new shop in Colchester, purpose-built shop. By this time, we’d got a smoking kiln, and we were buying first-hand at Lowestoft most days, and turning over a lot of fish. You can never rely on any one source for fish, because fish is seasonal in certain areas.
We also, with A. Green and Sons, which is what the firm became, decided to buy a trawler of our own. I think it would be in the late Sixties/early Seventies, when Golden Dawn was – we got Ernie Vince, who was a local fishing and yachting skipper, lined up for that job. He was skippering a sand barge, the Bert Prior, which still comes up to Fingringhoe to this very day. And we’d seen this vessel advertised in Northern Ireland, so one weekend he and I went over there and viewed this vessel. So we did actually buy that boat, and Ernie actually took a crew out to Northern Ireland and brought the boat back to Wivenhoe. And that worked for us for a long time, the Golden Dawn. Probably about six, seven, eight years. She had a chequered career. What she did for us was [she] actually provided us with a lot of local fish, which we either sold at the shop, or we marketed ourself, wholesale. And, it gave us the impetus, because people – and try as we might to tell them different – they really wanted to believe that we caught all our own fish, you know! Which wasn’t possible because, of course, you don’t catch haddocks in these waters, for instance! You don’t catch large plaice and things like that, you see, so you have to have all those species as well. But that gave a very good impression of us, and, yes, we did very well. I don’t suppose, if we’d isolated Golden Dawn, she actually operated very profitably – in isolation – but in the fullness of the whole business she was very very good for us.
But she did come unstuck when she was moored in Brightlingsea, and she was hit by a sand barge when she was moored, and it was quite an event, because it was a hit-and-run job, and nobody would put their hand up to doing it. There was a wall of silence. We had got a lot of problems, we’d got a crew which was now out of work. Because the boat was hit, it was left sinking, and it had to be beached to stop it from sinking, and nobody had done it. It took three years to actually prove who’d done it. When I went around Brightlingsea to get evidence, talking to people, nobody knew anything, nobody saw anything, nobody heard anything, nobody knew anything. So Golden Dawn had to be hauled out, and she was repaired at Cooks, and she was very badly damaged. But she did get back to sea again, and worked for a little bit. I suppose she was eight to ten years, fishing, yes.
Mechanical curing kiln – Ken Green
In the new shop that we built in Colchester, the smoking kiln was what was called a ‘mechanical curing kiln.’ It has all the benefits of the traditional chimney style smokehouse, with added benefits of control of temperature, which is crucial in curing, and control of the density of the smoke, which also is crucial. And the prototype was built in Wivenhoe, by North Sea Canners, by Lewis Worsp, in conjunction with Torry Research. They built the very first mechanical curing kiln, as it was called then. I use that method today. But I have smoked in the traditional manner as well. In fact, I’ve even burnt two smokehouses down in my time! [With the new method] you do have control, you can guarantee a good product, while the old method was okay if it all went all right, there were some times you had disasters where they would overheat, and you’d lose all your herrings, or they would fall into the fire, when they started cook-cure. So the method used now, you get all the benefits of the old-fashioned way, together with control, I suppose that sums it up. I got two kilns down here in West Street, yes, in the late Seventies.
Sea-free Trawlers – Ken Green
I came away from the family business then, to go out on my own, because I wanted to get back to fishing boats again, and not all the family wanted to do that. And we did own what was the cold store here, at Wivenhoe, then, and part of my share in leaving the firm was to take that. And I think I had the Transit two-ton lorry. I came down here and started on my own. Charlie Taylor and I. Charlie drove the lorry, and he went to Lowestoft every day, and I started to accumulate trawlers again, in conjunction with two other fishing skippers. And brother Douglas was with me as well, but not working on a day-to-day basis with me, but he was in what we called ‘Sea-free Trawlers,’ and we had three ex-Dutch boats. We set up Sea-free Trawlers around from here, so we marketed their catches in Lowestoft, kept what we wanted here to sell, and I started wholesaling and retailing, and curing, in West Street here, yes, with two smaller kilns I had down here. And so that was the beginning of actually working down here in West Street. I think I was here working, about 27, 28 years, I suppose. Time slips away so quick, you know, when you’re enjoying yourself, doesn’t it!
The cold store had been part of A Green and Sons. We’d bought it when Wilkins and Son bought out the Ross Group’s holdings down here, in Wivenhoe. They were in frozen foods. Yes, they were a very diverse firm. They were in trawlers in Grimsby and Hull.
I think that Lewis Worsp actually started here, Eastern Frozen Foods, an offshoot of North Sea Canners, and he sold Eastern Frozen Foods to Ross Group and I think he sold the fish factory to Wilkins. But they eventually moved out again, and I think Wilkins and Sons, the Tiptree Jam people, bought their holding. And Wilkins did not want this [cold store]. So I had an agreement that we would have that.
North Sea Canners doing canned fish. Lewis Worsp actually, a little bit before my time, set that up to utilise the amount of sprats that were being [caught], because spratting, in the wintertime, was very big business here. A lot of sprats. And he set about canning them, I think, and utilising some of the sprats, because a lot of them were wasted and went for fertiliser and that sort of thing, and that was predominantly what the factory was set up for, to can sprats. Certainly, when we caught sprats in the Volunteer, I used to come along and see Lewis Worsp to negotiate a price with him, and I’d be about 16 then, so that would be what, 1950?
Even today, I still enjoy the job, I’ve been filleting fish today, and I enjoy it. I want to be actually processing and smoking and filleting, and, yes, actually hands on on the factory floor, as it were, yes. That’s what I want.
Fish stocks – Ken Green
[In the Estuary] change is the word. It’s not all gloom and doom. The cockle fishery is a success, it’s well policed, it’s well stocked, and it’s earning the fishing boats a good living. Last year, when you would have thought that the last cod was about to be caught in the North Sea, locally we had a very good cod fishery. Nothing much this year. But it’s more to do with nature than it is to do with anything else. And over-fishing, in the case of cod, is an important factor. But there are steps being taken to put that right, to close areas, and stop boats from over-fishing on cod, and it’s causing a lot of ill feeling, and a lot of hardship too, to bigger vessels. But the predominant fishery now, in the Thames Estuary – the cockle fishery aside, and shellfish aside – is sole fishing, and that’s what most of the boats are going for at this present moment, sole and skate. Sole and skate. ‘Roker’ as we call them, the local species which is caught here is roker, and sole. So that keeps the boats going.
Everybody has a different theory on the shrimps, but I think it’s a natural factor. It may well be that trawling for shrimps has destroyed the habitat of the shrimps, because they used to produce a very fragile, like honeycomb, that they used to live in – the feed for the shrimps. They were little red worms that lived in ‘raus’ or ‘ross,’ like a soft honey, like a lot of soft coral, and I think that fishing probably didn’t do any good to that habitat, and it may well have been changed. Yet it still, it still goes on in the Wash, which is not very far away. We get cod now, where we didn’t used to get them years ago – not too many people remember the fact that we didn’t have a cod fishery up here. There was a good sprat fishery off Lowestoft this year, and they came as close as Harwich. So, no, the sprats haven’t disappeared. And we do have a local herring fishery as well.
The smaller the fish the bigger the problems actually, because small fish are a shoaling fish, and they don’t always do the same thing year in and year out, because we know, now, better, that they’re affected, firstly by the availability of food, and in their case it would be density of plankton, but also water temperature is very important. And sometimes the sprat shoals would come into the Thames Estuary, which they’d always done years ago. But it got so that they were a bit spasmodic, and sometimes they hardly appeared at all in the wintertime. I think that, in a lot of cases, they were here, but we didn’t know it, because if they were too deep in the water, then there’s no way of detecting them, because we’re talking about before the days of echo sounders. And how we used to determine whether there were sprats or not, was birds hovering overhead, occasionally diving in, and if the sprats were quite high in the water, then, of course, the birds would line up in a dense shoal, in a long long line, and you knew, then, that there was a shoal of sprats there. And they were the indicators. Well, of course, if they were too deep, and on the bottom, for instance, then you wouldn’t know they were there.
But that’s how it was, it was very much hit and miss, you know. These days, this is why a lot of fish species are under threat, because, of course, they don’t stand much of a chance now. We know too much about their habits, we have too many methods of detecting where they are, and everybody, of course, still has the same attitude of ‘fill your boots while you’ve got the chance,’ and so that’s what happens, to a great degree, even to this very day, when people are supposed to be working to quotas and things like that. There’s a very great temptation to take more than you should be taking, and it’s a very difficult job to police and to sort out.
Current Wivenhoe boats – Ken Green
There are, up until a week or two ago, there were three full-time boats in Wivenhoe, and two part-time boats, so the fleet is still active. Three full-time ones, and two part-timers. The Mariner has just been sold, and she is finishing fishing now. Cousin Barry in Elise, which is grandfather’s boat’s name, if you remember, he’s fishing full time. Rodney Bowes is fishing full time in the Phoenix. John Alleston works part-time, quite successfully, mainly weekends. And his brother, David, he’s also fishing part-time. It’s the Mariner that’s dropping out now.
I’m a supreme optimist, and there aren’t many like me in the fish trade. It’s always tended to be a gloom and doom trade, I think! And even when things are good, people prefer to say they’re not! I’m not, by that, saying they’re good at the present moment, because they’re difficult, very difficult. But I think it will always survive, yes. I think, while people have got the inkling to go to sea, then I think it will survive. I think it is more under control now than it ever, ever was. But getting fishermen under control is not a natural factor, because, of course, it still is a hunting in the wild process, and you can’t get away from the [fact that] you need to fill your boots while you’ve got the opportunity. That’s the driving force of fishing.
Shipyard to fisherman – Brian Green
I was born in number 9 Manor Road, which was what was known as the ‘24 Row.’ There’s 24 houses, and apparently, so I remember my mother saying, they were built for the shipyard workers in the 1914 War. People came in, to build ships, and they provided houses for them. They were all small terraced houses, but we had a nice garden with ours.
My father, after the World War, the latter part of the War, did go fishing. I always wanted to go near the water but really wasn’t allowed. It made it worse when my father, the latter part of the War, did go fishing. I used to crave to go with him – and this was while I was at school – and eventually he let me go one day, snitched a day from school, and although I felt sick I still wanted to go again! And I wanted to go to work with him when I left school, but he was one of them who said, ‘No, you go and learn a trade, boy. It’ll be better than all this dirt and late hours, and smelly job’ so when I left school, I went to Paxman’s when I was 14.
I was doing an apprenticeship. I was a ‘rivet boy’ – knocking in rivets. It was a dirty job. It was all black sandy stuff from the foundry and the noise was deafening – especially being inside of a tank while they were riveting it! I stayed there a year, and they had an Open Day – I’ll always remember this! And my father came up, and I can remember him saying, ‘God, I sent you up there,’ he said, ‘to learn a trade, because I didn’t think that was such a smelly dirty job,’ he said, ‘but fishing’s ten times better than this!’ he said. ‘Do you want to come?’ he said, ‘We’ve got a spare slot.’ This was a Thursday, when he came. I give my notice in that night, and I was fishing with him on the Friday! The very next day! I was really glad to get out of it, because I wasn’t happy there.
Fifteen when I started fishing, that was 1947. And that was as primitive as you could get. It was in the winter, it was the November, and we were spratting – no electrical device to find fish with then – you used to watch for a flock of seagulls, and they told you they was working over sprats. You had the old ‘stowboat gear,’ which you had to lay at anchor to, and you couldn’t get your nets back until the tide eased, because there was so much tide you couldn’t get them up. Stowboating gear. Well, that’s a big net, about 200 foot long, and that’s supported by two poles in the front – one drops below the other one, and there’s a chain from the top to the bottom. The top one is held on to the boat, and the bottom one drops on its own weight, with a railway sleeper stuck to it for weight. And then a square-fronted net streams out for about 200 feet behind the boat and underneath it, hoping that the shoal of sprats are going to go into it. And quite often they did. You’d get 12, 14 ton of sprats would go into that net if you were in the way of the shoal properly.
You hauled all [the gear] up on a windlass with spikes. There was a little winch aboard, but that wasn’t much more than pulling the anchor up. But there was no wheelhouse. My father used to put a rope round me and tie me to the tiller, so if I fell over he could pull me back on the bit of rope!
Well, anyhow, our first episode, we had about three ton of sprats, but prior to that, we’d searched for the birds all day, and hadn’t seen any, and my father said, ‘We’ll go into Southend for the night,’ he said, ‘and have a safe anchorage for you.’ And as we were going into Southend there was this boat coming out, who my father knew the skipper, and this bloke said, ‘Oh, Sid,’ he said, ‘There’s fish at the Gilman.’ So we turn round and follow him down, don’t we, down the Thames Estuary, and this boat drops his anchor, and we drop ours just astern and aside to him, and woe betide it comes dark, and all you had, then, was a 12 volt battery with a little six watt bulb – like you have in a car sidelight – and that was the only light you had on the deck to see by. The navigation lights were oil, so there was no power for those. And we laid there, and all the ships, then, from the Thames, come sliding past so close, I could hit them with a piece of coal! That’s how close they were! And they nearly swamped you because we weren’t a big boat.
But I can remember we had three ton of sprats. Anyhow, we put them in the hold of the boat and my father said, ‘Well, they’re nice big fish,’ he said, ‘There’s no one else away, if we go steaming back to Brightlingsea we might get a good price,’ because the bidders, or the buyers, used to come and bid for them at Brightlingsea. And, anyhow, we got the sprats out and unloaded them, and I can remember saying to my father, ‘How much have I earnt?’ – thinking that I was earning a pound at week at Paxman’s, and he worked it out – because I was only on a half share – and he worked it out, and he said, ‘Well, I reckon you’ve earnt £9.’ And I thought, ‘£9!’ And I turned round and said, ‘Cor! £9! When are we going again!’ And my father said, ‘Well, we’re going out right away.’ So we turned round and went out, and that was 28 days before I saw my house any more! But I was a lot better off when I came back! I was hooked on fishing from then on. And I can remember my father letting me steer, he was telling me to ‘Steer for that buoy,’ and you felt king of the road! You know what it’s like being in charge of a boat! There’s nothing like it, is there!
Days of barter – Brian Green
This was quite a spell after the War, the Navy were still minesweeping, in our area, and we used to go alongside these minesweepers, and we’d hoist them up a bucket of fish, and they’d hoist us down a bucket of cigarettes! And the same with the barges. My father knew somebody who’d got a lot of chickens, so the barges didn’t have much valuable, and nothing like fags, but if we give them a bucket of fish, they’d give us two or three bags of corn, and you could sell the corn for more than you could get for a bucket of fish! Do you know what I mean! And this particular time, we were moored up in the Quay at Wivenhoe, and who should come chugging up and ask us to take a rope from us, to moor up behind us, is the Customs! And they come up looking for somebody who’d been taking stuff off the barges, but they went down towards the ferry, but they walked all the way along our deck, with the hatches off, and there, all exposed, was these three big bags of corn! Which, somehow, they didn’t see, you know! They went up the plank and along the Quay! But our hatches went on pretty quick, I can tell you that, after they’d gone ashore! We knew they’d got to come back and pick their boat up, which was on our stern! But that was in the days of barter, really!
Angling parties – Brian Green
When I packed up fishing and took the shop, I did buy myself a little boat, a small one, that I used to do a bit of chartering with, on the days when I wasn’t at work. Used to take them angling parties out. And that was good fun. Go wherever they liked. Used to take diving parties.
Selling shrimps – Barry Green
When I was at work at Cooks’s, and also we had shrimps, I’d take them across on the bike, and drop them off at the ferry, and then dad’d come along later, and they’d take them across for me, and sell them in Rowhedge. Where the old hut was there, just drop them on the hard there, and make sure the ferryman knew I’d been, and he’d take them across, and then when Dad come, they come and got him, and he’d sell them, yes. Shrimps mostly, in the summer. He used to occasionally, if that was getting bad here, he weren’t selling much here, he would go down to Rowhedge to try and sell some fish, to make a living. But basically that was for the shrimps. You know, that was when everybody was at home then, weren’t they, wives, in them days.
Full-time fishing – Barry Green
Yes, still got a boat, yes. I’ve still go the same old wooden one I had. I’ve had that 30 years. I’ve done painting and decorating for the last 20 years, off and on, since we finished down the Yard, and while I didn’t do painting and decorating, I did a bit of fishing, to make up the bit in between. Mostly weekends. But now, with my mate retired, just for the last couple or three years, I’ve taken up full-time fishing. I decided that I wouldn’t do the ladder work. It wasn’t simple ladder work, you were having to go up on to a house, and then go up on to a roof, you know, and I thought, I was getting in my late fifties, I thought that was time to keep my feet on the ground!
Banned – Barry Green
[I’m not fishing at the moment (February 2005)] because we’re banned, to catch soles. The ban is crazy, because there’s nothing there to catch, really. It’s still on. You still can’t go for soles. This year, we’re going to the 14th March, when we’re allowed to go for soles. I think they could have made it even a bit later, rather than bring it earlier, because you’re catching mostly the bigger soles, and they’ve got the roes and spawn and all, which is not going to be laid, is it. You can’t keep taking it away, and taking it away, eventually there won’t be anything, will there. The ban is only on for boats under ten metres. We’re only a small fleet. They do what they like with the little boats, don’t they? The big people have got people to say why they shouldn’t go. They don’t take notice of little people. Eventually, they’ll get rid of everybody, because the big fleet has gone. There’s only the little fleet left.
Becoming a fisherman – Rodney Bowes
My grandfather had been at sea, on and off, all his life. Ernie [Vince]. I don’t know if that’s a little bit of him in me. And my cousin [John Bowes] had a fishing boat and worked out of Wivenhoe, and weekends and summer holidays, if we weren’t on the farm, we were out fishing with him, and that’s where I got the bug, if you like, and then never got over it – not yet, anyway!
I left Brightlingsea School at 16, and went to Lowestoft Maritime College until I got my Deckhand’s Ticket. But for you to be any use to them, you needed to know how a net basically was made, and how it was put together, but I had a little insight, because we’d messed about as kids here, so I felt at a bit of an advantage compared to some of the lads that I was at college with.
Kinds of fishing – Rodney Bowes
Most of the fish we fish for, with the exception of herrings, you don’t see on an echo sounder, so it’s just a case of knowing the seasons and knowing where the feed is, there’s worms, and ‘butterfish’ – which are a little shellfish about the size of your little fingernail, that come out the ground – they appear in about June and go through till September, and then they disappear again. But soles love them – which is what we fish for mostly. If you know where the little trails of those are, which are not much wider than the width of a road, over the years you get, hopefully, you get to find out these little things. If you find the feed, you find the fish, normally. A lot of them are, literally, half a mile long by the width of the road out here, and if there’s not too many boats about, you can farm your bits, do it today, leave it alone for a day or two, and there’ll be fish come back, the fish’ll keep coming back there if there’s feed there.
We caught soles through the summer, from March/April, through till September / October time. Then we did used to go after cod, either long-lining for them or trawling for them, sometimes drifting for herrings, dredging for oysters – anything to earn a few shillings. Trawling for shrimps, brown shrimps. I sometimes used to fish in the river here for brown shrimps, and the last two or three years I’ve gone down to Boston, Lincolnshire, work out of there for brown shrimps in the winter. But the winters, the last few years, have got so there’s very little to do here. Herring, there’s very little demand for herrings. I don’t know whether that’s the size of the ones we get here, or it’s only the older generation know how to eat them. Demand is not what it was for herrings, they’re hardly worth going after.
[The Quota system] sickens me. Now, 80 per cent of the British Dover sole quota [for over 10 metres boats], and 80 per cent of the British plaice quota is in the hands of Dutch fishing vessels, and we have to go, like we did a few weeks ago, cap in hand to some politician in London, begging for a few more hundredweights, tons hopefully, of Dover sole, to keep under ten metre boats, so we can carry on earning a living. And that just sickens me.
I think, once you’ve got the [fishing] bug – I don’t know whether that’s the freedom of it, you know, we work all silly hours because of the tides, and my wife will ask me what I’m doing tomorrow, the next day, I never know, I’ve had, like, 24 years of can’t give her a straight answer, because you don’t know, you don’t know whether the weather’s going to be all right or not. When you can go, you’ve got to go and earn money while you can. Every day is different. And I think that’s quite rare, to really enjoy what you do. Every day is a bit of a challenge. I’m at my happiest when I’m at work, to be honest!