Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The South Coast Fisherman

[back to menu for this book]



IT was not at all a pleasant evening that on which I set out, according to previous arrangement, to join my friend William Fludyer, and embark with him on the trawler Happy Return on a night's fishing venture. The fine dry weather that had prevailed through several days had given way before a shifting of the wind, the clouds were gloomy and threatening, and a penetrating fine misty ram was descending. Our craft was already launched, and stood about a quarter of a mile from the shore, and so spying her I must confess to indulging the cowardly hope that Mr. Fludyer considered the weather too unpromising to make my companionship desirable, and had, therefore, gone off without me. In this, however, I was disappointed. All unexpectedly I was hailed by a nautical friend of Mr. Fludyer, who lay in wait for me in his row boat, and in ten minutes I was welcomed aboard the trawler.
    I thought that I had, by means of a stout overcoat and a cap with ear lappets attached, made tolerably good provision against rough weather ; but, as a glance convinced me, my rig was almost tropical in its scantiness compared with that which enveloped the captain and his crew of two. The way in which these fellows take care of themselves in the matter of clothing quite unsets one's preconceived notions of the "hardy fisherman." It may he necessary to their health - nay, the fact of so many hale and hearty men amongst them of three score years [-256-] and ten sufficiently proves that they are not over-careful ; but truly no rheumatic old landswoman that ever lived pinned her faith to flannel more confidently than do these brawny ocean harvesters. Here was an autumn night - not a favourable night to be sure, but still the time of year was August; nevertheless Mr. Fludyer was encased as follows according to his own confession. Next his skin he wore a substantial shirt of gray flannel; over that a shirt of striped cotton ; over that a woollen guernsey; over that a cloth jacket over that a tanned smock that reached to his knees ; over that an oilskin "coverall" reaching high as his ears and low as his ankles. So much for his body comfort, but of his legs he was even more careful. First he wore socks of wool, then "pants" of wool that descended just below the knee and were there secured ; then a pair of blanket breeches ; then an enormous pair of woollen hose high as his thighs; and over all these various wrappings a pair of sea-boots that left nothing of the last-mentioned hose visible. On his head Mr. Fludyer wore a tarpaulin sou'-wester quilted within with some fleecy material, and on his hands knitted mittens. "And do all fishermen on this coast wrap themselves up in the same manner?" I inquired. "All except chaps that coddle themselves; they wear a waistcoat as well, and sometimes a neck-wrap," Mr. Fludyer replied "but for my part I think that sweltering is bad for a man."
    From stem to stern our trawler measured perhaps five-and-twenty feet, the centre of the vessel being put to no better account than to serve as a receptacle for her ballast, which was the shingle of the shore loosely shovelled in. The mackerel smacks adopt the more convenient and certainly tidier method of confining the ballast they carry in little sacks holding each about half a hundredweight. Divided from what may be called the hold, where the ballast is, and situate between that and the cabin at the head of the ship, is a square well or tank, into which, as it is caught, the fish is thrown ; but decidedly the [-257-] most marvellous feature of a trawler's economy is the cabin before mentioned.
    It is no exaggeration to say that before the secret was disclosed to me I never so much as suspected its existence. To be sure I saw adjacent to the fish-well a square dark hole that might have been covered by an ordinary domestic copper-lid, and half concealed by a coil of ropes, but this I supposed to be merely a receptacle for fishing gear and odds and ends; that, however, was at a time when the Happy Return was stranded and off duty. The "hole" in question, as I now saw it, was no longer a black one. Jutting out by the side of it was a stumpy tin spout, from which smoke was issuing, and down below was a lively glow that bespoke a fire. "You had better come down and dry yourself a bit, and put on a ile-skin," kindly suggested Mr. Fludyer, and with that he laid hands on the edges of the square hole in the floor, and lowered himself, as it seemed to me, atop of the stove where the fire was glowing. "Put in your legs, and I'll guide 'em," he presently called up, perceiving that I hesitated in my descent. "That's it - steady; there you are."
    There I was. How shall I describe the place ? First as to its size. Front the floor to the ceiling it measured less than four feet. Standing upright was quite out of the question - there was nothing left for it but to crouch or sit down. Its length may have been eight feet, perhaps nine, certainly not more, and its breadth at the widest part seven feet, and at the narrowest, where the bows of the vessel rounded, not more than four feet. This, however, was the fisherman's kitchen, and parlour, and bedroom, and larder, and scullery. By a series of ingenious contrivances which I will not attempt to explain, within the narrow limits of this small apartment he contrives two sleeping bunks, and to plant a cooking stove, and to provide a coal-hole and a crockery cupboard. Stowage also is there for a tea-kettle (made square so as to accommodate it to the shape of the stove), [-258-] a frying-pan, a candle-box, and a bread-pan, and a water-keg and much combustible matter in shape of spare sail and tarred rope, and a can of turpentine, the use of which will presently appear. Considered in relation to the contiguous fireplace, the sight of these latter articles occasioned me some uneasiness, for there was enough sea to cause the boat to pitch fore and aft, and there was absolutely nothing to prevent the blazing coals front tumbling out about the floor. At the back of the stove the timbers were covered with lead, and the stove itself was well secured; but that was all the precaution considered necessary. Fishing boats had caught fire, Mr. Fludyer admitted, but not frequently. All cabin stoves were fixed so he had never been in a boat where there were different arrangements, or where more care was observed. If this is so, it is nothing less than miraculous how to large a number escape conflagration. With a rough sea pitching the vessel about, and a stiff breeze blowing, a firework factory would seem a safer asylum than the cabin of a fishing smack when the cooking fire is at full blast. I remarked to Mr. Fludyer that, in my opinion, the peril of keeping a fire going in such a crowded little place exceeded the advantages to be derived front it. "Indeed," said I, "if you will pardon me for saying as much, well wrapped as you are, I find it hard to believe that the entire abolition of your stove would cause you much inconvenience. To be sure, toiling all night, it is necessary that you should have refreshment; but would not a bit of cold meat and a draught of beer front a bottle meet all such requirements?"
    But Mr. Fludyer good-naturedly shook his head. "You don't understand matters," said he ; " how should you, when belike you never had on a wetter shirt than you caught in a shower of rain, nor were forced to fish for your supper? Part of our wages is our lot of victuals aboard. I don't speak for myself, but take the case of my chaps. More likely than not, since dinner-time they haven't eaten a bit. Well, we bring aboard food for the night, and enough of it, you may be sure, [-259-] since the price of it is taken out of the bag before the taking is shared. We aren't allowed meat, but we are allowed bread and butter and coffee and sugar. I dare say we might have the value of coffee in beer, but how far would that go ? Besides, the men like the hot coffee - and so will  you, I'll lay a farden cake, come about one in the morning. Well, as I said before, we aren't allowed meat, but of our fish we have the pick. Did you ever eat a sole cooked wet out of the sea? No Well, maybe we'll give you that treat too. Talk about doing away with our bit of fire, why, what should we do without it in the winter time, when we are far out fishing for herrings ? We aren't like sailors aboard big ships with their snug berths to turn into ; we might as well be on a raft as on that deck of ours, and we are right in the teeth of the weather constantly. Come to face it hour after hour, in a pelting snow perhaps, with a slippery floor and sails hard and brittle as glass to the touch, and ropes that cut your hands as you haul 'em in, that's when you love the bit of fire and the snug shelter it stands in!" And Mr. Fludyer, unconscious of the gratitude that was illuminating his countenance, affectionately stirred the glowing coals with the toe of one of his monstrous sea-boots.
    By eleven o'clock we were about eight miles from land, and coming on deck we found that the nets were put out. It was very dark now-, so that it was necessary for the men to work by lantern-light. By-the-way, it was curious to observe, as regards this same lantern, that modern improvement in candle-making is recognized and appreciated even amongst these slow folk; and, instead of the red-nosed, dim, old-fashioned "dip," a slender mould graced its socket. Such candles, Mr. Fludyer assured me, were now universally used on board the various craft, and were found to be cheaper in the long run.
    The recovery front the sea of the fishing net, and the hauling of it up on to the deck, is managed by means of a long iron shod pole, called a trawl, and a small windlass fixed at the [-260-] bows of the vessel, the net rope encircling the barrel as the handle is turned. In about an hour Mr. Fludyer gave the signal for " hauling in," and, all-expectant, I stood by with him as he held the lantern, eager to see what luck Neptune had sent us. The length of time occupied in winding in the ropes was significant of the depth of water beneath us. Clink, clink, clink. It seemed that the net would never be wound up, when, all unexpected, an end of it appeared in sight, and was promptly taken in hand, and lugged in by great armsful. But there was no sign of fish. Brown net, brown net, brown net, until quite a great heap of it was accumulated ; but not so much as a dab or a flounder. I thought it time, and only an act of friendliness, to condole with Mr. Fludyer. " No luck this time," I remarked. "That's more than you can tell," replied the fisherman blithely, "we won't holler before we're hurt, and just as he spoke in came the catch."
    It never occurred to me that the fish that were taken would naturally retreat to the extremity of the net - to the remotest corner of it - and the last to be drawn in. Such was the case, however. I was astonished at the quantity of what Mr. Fludyer called "muck" that was brought up with the haul of mixed fish, and amongst which they flapped and wriggled. All manner of strange coarse sea-weed, and slimy green vegetable growth from the ocean floor the "ground rope" had dragged, with stones, and mud, and the broken skeleton of some long fish picked bare by aqueous monsters that had not spared even the eyes in the pearly white skull - all these came up with the catch, which to a man, the fountain-head of whose piscine knowledge had been hitherto a fishmonger's shop, was a curious spectacle to contemplate. I never dreamt that fish - common fish, such as one is in the daily habit of seeing dished at table - were so splendid as regards brilliance and variety of colour. There were struggling in the net's meshes three great jolter-headed fish of the species known as salmon bream. They were [-261-] at their last gasp, poor fellows, and their wide-open, goggle eyes and enormous puckered mouths sufficiently expressed the horror and astonishment that filled them ; but what might suitably be called their plumage was gorgeous beyond description. Burnished gold was but as lead compared with the dazzling shades of chrome and orange that went towards the embellishment of the fishes' scaly armour, all spangled with glowing specks of emerald and ruby turquoise. These, however, were secrets of the ocean with which dull-eyed men may not grow familiar. Even as the bream drew their last breath, and waved a glittering farewell to life with their eloquent tails, their jewels paled in the lantern-light and became mere fish-scales. Even the plainest of fish look curiously handsome taken alive from the sea - all except the skate tribe. The gentle reader, although he may never have eaten of this poor man's fish, may have seen it exposed for sale - a grotesque creature, with the body of a huge plaice and several whip-like tails, and a face like - well, I scarcely know how to describe the face, and will only remark that rude fishermen have another name for the skate - "old maids." There arc a pair of eyes to the face of the skate, and the semblance of a human nose, and a sourly-curved lipped mouth set with spiky teeth and it is not a pretty sight to see the fish, which seems very tenacious of life, curl and wriggle its many tails, and gnash its spiky teeth, and wink its eyes.
    Thirteen soles, a small turbot, three salmon bream, two skate, and about a dozen and a half of "dabs," comprised Mr. Fludyer's first haul, and with it he appeared to be contented. The nets were clear of the rubbish with which they were fouled and cast in anew, and the fish thrown into the well. "Now we will have a bit of something to eat," suggested Mr. Fludyer, and selecting a couple of pairs of the fittest soles he disappeared below, telling me that he would call me when supper was ready. He did so, and sitting down on the cabin floor, with one of the bunks before mentioned for a table, with no table-cloth, with a [-262-] small yellow pie-dish in lieu of a plate, and a two-pronged iron fork to feed myself with, I sat down to the most delicious fish supper it was ever my good fortune to be present at. The fried fish lying in the yellow crockery looked not a bit like soles, being still enveloped in their tan-coloured skin, and rolled up as one may roll up a sheet of paper. They were, moreover, cooked in bacon-fat, which Mr. Fludyer declared was better than anything else for the purpose, and far superior to lard, or even fresh butter. I inquired how he had contrived to roll up the fish, and he replied that he had had no hand in that - that they had rolled themselves up, and that they always did so if put in the pan as soon as they were dead, but before they "grew cold". Anyhow, I never tasted such soles - indeed, I doubt if such are to be tasted, except in a fishing-boat at night, ten miles out at sea, with an appetising breeze blowing.
    Going on deck we made another haul in, but with no great amount of success, all the fish that came to land consisting of seven soles and a brill, and about half a peck of flounders. There was another fish, a splendid-looking fellow, larger than a salmon bream; but soon as Mr. Fludyer caught sight of it, he seized it dexterously beyond the gills, and with a most vengeful expression of countenance rammed its head against the side of the vessel, very effectually breaking its neck, after which he flung it back into the sea.
    "Why did you do that ?" I asked. "Isn't he good to eat ?"
    "He's good to eat other fish, blarm him, and to tear the net, too; that was a dog-fish," explained the fisherman.
    Once more the nets were cast in, all in the pitchy dark, and barely was this accomplished when startlingly close at hand came the sound of a human voice singing out "Ahoy?" and right in our path a bigger vessel than ours appeared distinctly visible. Quick as thought one of the men skipped clown into the cabin and re-appeared bearing in his hand the turpentine can before mentioned. There was a hung in the can, and a [-263-] stick running through it ; and when the hung was withdrawn, it appeared that some substance like tow was wound round the end of the stick that lay saturating in the fiery liquid. To the tow the matt applied a match, and in an instant there was a great white glare at the end of the stick, which was held over the side, plainly denoting our position to the approaching ship.
    Next haul we had better luck, and yet better still in our sixth and seventh, which was the last, and by 5 a.m. we were back to our starting point, Within half an hour of that time our catch was landed in bushels, and, partitioned into lots, was turned out on to the beach, where the fish-buyers were eagerly assembled. It was knocked down by the auctioneer to the various bidders, the whole realizing the not immense sum of one pound seventeen shillings.