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

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As a nation it is not to be denied that the flesh-pot has for us Englishmen attractions superior to those of the fish-kettle. Indeed, if we make item of the number of shops in London devoted to the sale of the finny tribe, and compare the result with the figures that go to show the number of establishments given over to the retailing of beeves and rnuttons, it will be found that our relative liking for fish and flesh is as nearly as possible on a par with that of Jack Falstaff for sack and bread. It would be a long way from fair, however, to measure the matter by this standard, and declare it settled. It is not the upper nor the middle classes who are the chief fish eaters amongst us. So to speak, it is not one fish in twenty that, as an article of diet, is promoted above the bottom round of the social ladder. Of course there are exceptions. The lofty salmon or the aristocratic turbot may disdain as their agent a person less respectable than a West-end Groves or a City Sweeting; but the honest plaice and the generous mackerel have no such absurd scruples. They are the fish of the poor - their meat, their bread and as such are blest in their mighty increase. Nobody out of their own circle (except diligent inquirers, whose business it is) can form anything like an adequate idea of the tremendous importance of a plentiful supply of Billingsgate produce amongst the wretchedly poor. Let any person feeling an interest in the matter station himself as early [-327-] as five o'clock in the morning in the neighbourhood of the Monument in Thames Street, and note who are the Billingsgate-bound traders that come that way. For one tradesman's cart he will be able to count ten hand-barrows, piled with empty fish baskets and spangled with glittering fish-scales, propelled by lusty costermongers eager to secure good marketing. If there are fifty tons of fish in the market, not more than a fifth of that quantity wil1 find purchasers amongst fishmongers of the shop-keeping class, the great bulk will be bought by the fish- hawkers and street stall-keepers. It has always seemed to me that the subject of fish in plenty does not meet with the consideration it demands, there always appearing an inclination to regard the produce of the sea rather as supplementary on our estimated food supply than as one of its prime pillars. The newspapers furnish us daily with the market price of butter, and bacon, and corn, and bread, and pork, and butchers' meat. We are enlightened as to how wool and tallow sells, and should jute or indigo grow dull, we are promptly apprized of the melancholy fact; but beyond some rare and brief notification to the effect that salmon is plentiful and lobsters scarce, the town is kept in utter ignorance of the doings of its busiest market of all.
    Fish abounding at Billingsgate means for that day food, cheap, wholesome, and plentiful, for tens of thousands, who otherwise would go hungry or sparsely fed on what for their health's sake were better left untouched. The worst of it is that the market supply of fish is so very uncertain - as uncertain as the wind, in fact. No thrifty housekeeper of Poverty's regions dare say, " To-morrow we will have soles or plaice at dinner." With the scores of industrious hawkers of the commodity who wheel their barrows Billingsgate-ward, " Will there be fish to buy" is a riddle that may not be solved until the market is reached. There may be a "glut" as it is termed, or there may be a "clean market," leaving the disappointed [-328-] barrow-man no alternative but to fag home again with his unladen vehicle. We who have a choice of  flesh or fish can have but an inadequate idea of what this return of empty barrows portends. Over Cow Cross, and Bethnal Green, and St. Luke's, and Lower Lambeth, is spread a gloom that the brightest sun is impotent to dissipate, nor can it be wondered at when it is known that empty barrows is a term synonymous with "empty bellies." With sixpence in her hand, the mother of half-a dozen growing boys and girls - some of them out at work, and with a steadfast eye to that pivot of their round of labour, dinner-time - may purchase three or four, and not unfrequently five pounds of thoroughly fresh and wholesome fish, albeit a little coarse, and which with a few vegetables furnishes a nutritious meal, hot and comforting; but of how much use is poor mother's sixpence when dearth of fish compels her steps towards the butchers' or the "cag-mag" shops (i.e., shops where heads, tripes, and such-like shamble offal is retailed) of Poverty Market? Not that she will be affrighted by the tremendously high prices that the butchers will demand for his goods. It is a fact, seemingly curious, but not at all so when the matter is fairly considered, that the causes which operate to double the price of butchers' meat in decent neighbourhoods have no effect on the dealings of the men of flesh whose odious shops crowd Brick Lane or Whitecross Street, except perhaps that it enables them to ticket their limp and bloodless joints and finders of meat at a somewhat lower figure than in ordinary. They can afford so to do. Murrain among sheep flocks and plague amongst cattle mean fat fields for the harvesting of this class of butcher; but, alas lit means no better than death in the pot to poor mother above mentioned and her famished brood. Truly it would be a most excellent thing if something could be done to promote the catch of fish Perhaps if the fish consumer and the fisherman were brought to have a more intimate knowledge of each other the matter would have a better chance of being considered.
    [-329-] "What does the fish-eater know of the fish-catcher?" As I ask myself the question I am indulging in a pipe of Bristol birdseye, and reclining on the deck of the fishing-smack "Happy Return," William Fludyer master. I am a privileged person. I have known William through calm and storm now approaching three weeks. I have put off to sea with him as the sun went down, and through the night watched the outcasting and indrawing of his nets; with him at midnight far out on the ocean I have drank tea out of a pint basin of yellow delf and eaten of fish that may be said to have leapt from their briny home into Mr. Fludyer's frying-pan. I am quite at home on board the "Happy Return," and my host so little regards my presence, that he does not allow it in the least to interfere with his afternoon's employment of reseating a pair of heavy blanket trousers, his needle being a sail-needle, and his thread tarred twine.
    "What does the fish-eater know of the fish-catcher?" I repeat to myself, regarding honest William Fludyer, with his brown-tanned suit and his brown-tanned face and hands, and his weather-worn sou'-wester slouched at an easy incline on the back of his gray head. "Here's better luck to-morrow," exclaims Joe Sprouts, condoling over a pot of beer with a brother barrow-man on a dearth of fish ; but neither has a thought beyond Billingsgate. Just so with the poor fish consumer. With the bakehouse drudge he is quite familiar. He has drank with him, talked with him of the hardships of the trade to which he is bound. It is no news to him that the baker is toiling in his dusty den when other folks are abed and asleep. In all probability his circle of acquaintance embraces butchers' men, and brewers' and grocers' men; but concerning the man on whose energy and perseverance he is dependent for the very next comforting meal he shall eat, he is as ignorant as of the manners and customs of the Fans and Ashebas of savage Africa. And this despite that grand essential of modern civilization and [-330-] advancement the railway, which makes of the hundred miles that parts our fishing town from Whitecross-street but a matter of three hours' journey. The consumer and the fish are brought closer together, but the consumer and the fisherman are as strange as they were a hundred years ago, which shows, if there were need to show it, that human skill and ingenuity are matters totally distinct from human kindliness and sympathy, and that it is possible to attain high perfection as locomotive engineers, and yet remain but indifferent Christians - to transport from this port to that our precious carcasses and our worldly goods at the rate of fifty miles an hour, without advancing so much as a step towards that goal which, as no right-minded man for a moment doubts, should be the sole aim and desire of our existence.
    The spectacle of William Fludyer (who by this time has set the finishing stitch in the stern of his unmentionables) leisurely busying himself about his little ship as she lies high and dry on the beach, is wonderfully refreshing to a London-worried, work-jaded mind. Not pungently refreshing, but soothingly so, as healthful sleep is. Marvellously alike are the individuals of the tribe of which William is a type. Similarity in breeding, feeding, and occupation may account for this peculiar family likeness in a considerable degree, but not entirely. Lying at rest in the shadow of the great cliffs, and at anchor off the shore, may be counted at least a hundred sail of fishing craft, little and big, and men of the Fludyer mould man them all. In height, in bulk, in the roundness and enormous breadth of shoulders, are the fishermen alike ; in slow and solemn gait - even in the practice of walking, when ashore, with their hands closely locked behind them. Deliberate in speech and cautious in answering a question, one is a counterpart of the other, as well as in the childishly reliant expression of their eyes - oh so very different from the painfully shrewd, suspicious eyes of poor men who battle for their bread in great cities. As a shore animal the fisherman is awkward, not to say clumsy. He is [-331-] quite behind the times, and his distaste for modern fashion and social usage is unmistakable. He sticks to his own end of the town, which is known as the fishing end, and rarely ventures towards the quarters of the genteel inhabitants. When he does it is in company of a friend invariably (the voluminous nether garments of gray blanketing, and the berry-brown smocks of the slow pair, contrasting oddly with the spruce and dapper genteel ones), and they appear to wear a bewildered aspect, and to advance with hesitation and uncertainty, and with nervous glances to the right and left, as though but recently stranded on that foreign shore, and, being as yet not well assured of the pacific disposition of the inhabitants, prepared to take to their heels at the first alarming symptoms. lie no more fits the town than the town fits him, but he is not a dolt for all that. In his own sphere he is a most excellent and worthy fellow, and with an amount of real virtue and manliness in him that we keen and polished blades of the town would do not amiss to emulate. One must know these fishermen to discover their many inestimable qualities - most commendable of all is their utter unselfishness. As they are alike in shape and build and feature, so might they be brothers of one family from the cheerful help they afford each other. It is good to see them at the getting off of a vessel in a rough sea such as prevailed just lately. For a week and more a sou'-west wind had blown, and such a surf beat the beach as made it perilous to attempt the launch of any one of the long line of craft that lay in shelter. At last, starved out, the crew of a mackerel smack resolved to run the risk, relying on the co-operation of their friends to set the smack afloat. Nor did their friends fail them. Turning out of their huts, they swarmed down on to the strand in the heavy pelting rain, and tackling the craft with a will, opposed their united strength against the fiercely-breaking waves that over and over again carried her back. The men conquered at last, but not until half their number at least were drenched through and [-332-] through, nor could they be otherwise when without hesitation they walked into the sea high as their waist and shoulders. I am glad to be able to mention that success crowned the efforts of the bold mackerel fishers. By dawn of next morning their smack was seen off the shore, and row-boats putting off to her (the sea was raging still, and she dare not approach the beach), mackerel to the number of three thousand were brought into the market as her catch. This astonishing instance of luck at once fired several other smack masters previously "of half a mind," and with the same amount of hazard and labour, and neighbourly help, they too were launched as their fortunate sister of the previous day had been; but, alas for the uncertainty of ventures by sea All night the mackerel getters toiled, but come the morning the best news they had for the boatmen who put off eager to relieve them of their freight was that two of the boats had taken each but three score ten of fish, and the others none at all the result of which was that the luckiest of the venturers received about ninepence a head for their pains.
    My present purpose, however, is not to gossip of individual acts of daring and enterprise engaged in by my berry-brown friends, but to endeavour to give the reader some idea of the habits, ways, and means of the little-known fisherman, the faraway individual on whose pluck and perseverance Billingsgate Market depends for its daily replenishing, and tens of thousands of our London poor for their only meal of wholesome food.
    Passing a cheap print-shop the other day, I there saw, amongst other pictorial fictions, one apropos of our present subject - to wit, a representation of "The Fisherman's Return." Therein was depicted a neat little cottage on the brow of a sloping beach, with roses and honeysuckle twining and climbing to the chimney pots, and a trim little garden in front containing every known and several unknown flowers, in full bloom; and at the end of the garden a bower. Standing on the beautifully hearthstoned steps of the cottage was the hand-[-333-]somest of damsels, with her black hair in ringlets and a rose at her bosom; with winning smiles and outstretched arms she was welcoming her approaching fisherman husband, who, with curly whiskers and rosy cheeks, was seen gaily entering at the garden gate with a crimson net over his shoulder containing several very fine gold-fish - doubtless the catch of the preceding night, and intended for immediate cooking, that they might serve as a morning repast for the fisherman and his bride in the cosy bower before mentioned.
    Truth compels me to declare, although with regret, that the said picture slightly exaggerates the domestic felicity of the common fisherman, who has no more idea of neatness and comfort as a house-dweller than a merman might have. Such as they are, the cottages and the huts are crowded higgledy-piggledy amongst the tall black wooden edifices that serve as store-houses for sails and cordage, and the various craft that are there drawn up high and dry for repair. They are by no means sightly specimens of architecture. Some are shabby little hovels, as much under as above ground, and with three steps down into them ; others are more imposing in their hideousness, being three stories high-one story piled above the other in the most reckless and tumble-down fashion, with a street door for the basement lodgers, and a ladder with a rope rail for the convenience of those who live above. All the huts and hovels are of wood, which, as a rule, is pitched over, but occasionally painted red or blue, while as much as may be seen of the interior of the fisherman's home is scarcely calculated favourably to impress the observer as regards the thrift and tidiness of fishermen's wives. The prevailing odour of fish is rank and abominable, and is in some degree accounted for by the fact that, decorating almost every window and doorway, are suspended from threads, as London children at play may be seen to suspend pea-shells, various tiny fish of the "dab" and flounder breed. So dried they serve as a cheap relish with [-334-] bread or potatoes, or are sold in the streets by the children at the rate of a penny a score. Ill-drained, ill-ventilated, and smoky, the fisher's village is not a pretty place, and it is a relief to thread one's way through the alleys the stranded craft make and return to the clear broad beach, and the pleasant spectacle of the fishermen overhauling their seemingly endless nets, piling them in great brown heaps, or spreading them to dry, or busy as bees squatting in a ring mending rents and tears, and "taking up " dropped meshes.
    The fishing craft affecting this coast mainly consists of two kinds-mackerel boats and trawlers, the latter being much more numerous than the former. The mackerel smacks are neater-looking vessels than the trawlers, amid larger, their tonnage varying from fourteen to twenty tons, while the carrying powers of the trawler average about ten tons. The difference between a mackerel smack and a trawler is that the one plies only for the particular fish from which it derives its name, and the other accepts all fish that approaches its nets, which, in their capacity, are vastly inferior to those of the mackerel getters. Plaice and soles form the staple of the trawler's catch ; but not unfrequently in the mixed collection that is shot down on to the beach before the "auctioneer" may be seen gurnet, amid whiting, and sea bream, and all manner of flat fish, from dabs to mighty turbot. The mackerel boats seldom commence operations until they are ten or twelve miles from the shore, deep water making no difference with them, since their nets, "paid out" over the vessel's side, are held suspended at a proper depth by a sufficient number of cork floats about the size of a breakfast saucer; the trawler is compelled to fish in shallower water, since he drags the floor of the ocean for his game. Forming a sort of collar, at the mouth of the net is a heavy cable called the ground cable, and this drags the oozy bottom and rouses the flat fish there reposing and drives them into the meshes of the great bag-like net. Moon-[-335-]light nights are unfavourable for fishing; a clear, dark night, with a moderate breeze blowing, is the best time.
    A trawler carries usually three men and a boy, and a mackerel smack from four to six men, according to her tonnage amid the season of the year. The magnitude of the nets of the latter, however, and the serious pecuniary loss involved in their miscarriage, forbid a mackerel boat putting to sea short-handed. Considering the constant peril that attaches to fishing and the moderate gains of its not invariably successful pursuit, it is astonishing how much is hazarded in the tools of the craft. An ordinary mackerel boat carries net measuring twelve hundred fathoms, or over a mile and a quarter in length, and about sixteen feet in width - sufficient to shroud the shop windows on one side of the way from Charing Cross to Temple Bar. Such a net would be worth at least a hundred pounds, and besides this the rope and cordage necessary to its proper management cannot be bought for less than fifty pounds more.
    Every fishing vessel, with few exceptions, is worked on the "share" system. Say it is a mackerel boat. The master or captain is seldom the proprietor, that person being generally some chandler or retired shipper, residing in the town. He provides the smack and fishing gear, minus the nets, and for that he charges one share. Say there are a thousand fathoms of net aboard, and the owner provides five hundred ; for these he claims five more shares - a contribution of each hundred fathoms of net entitling the lender to one share. As a rule the captain has nets of his own to lend the boat, and if the complement cannot so be made up, there are always outsiders willing to loan nets on the recognized terms. Let us say that the boat carries a thousand fathoms of net of somebody's; there go ten shares, and the owner's share makes eleven. Then the master and his crew are entitled each to a share for their services, which probably brings up the number of shares against the ship's earnings to sixteen. Let us suppose, then, [-336-] that after a night's fishing the smack returns to land with a catch of five hundred mackerel - which may be set down as rather over than under the average take - and that the auction price realized for the same when the fish are turned out on the beach is thirteen shillings per hundred. This shows three pounds five for the night's work; but this sum will be further reduced by fully fifteen shillings when the cost of the men's food, &c., and the boat's insurance is settled for, leaving fifty shillings to be divided into sixteen parts, which will give three and threepence per share; and every working fisherman having but one share allotted to him as an equivalent for his services in the venture, three and threepence is all his wages for a long night's labour out at sea. The master, with two hundred fathoms of net to lend, takes ten shillings for his night's work, and the owner gets the lion's share. Property in fishing vessels cannot be so bad a speculation in these hard times. Should the smack be lost, the "club" into which the insurance money is paid reimburses the owner to the extent of one-half his loss - the insurance money, as has already been shown, being paid, not out of the owner's individual profits, but out of the gross stock before a division takes place. Moreover, the crew get nothing for keeping the owner's nets in repair, and it is seldom that in overhauling a mile and a quarter of the tender meshes a few ugly rents are not discovered, providing ample afternoon employment for the crew after they have, in a few hours, slept off the fatigue of the previous night. It must be borne in mind, moreover, that about three and threepence per venture is the average earnings of the mackerel fisherman when he is at work, but sometimes he lies idle, owing to rough winds, or, what is to him equally disastrous, no winds at all for days together, and at these times he earns nothing. As an example of this, I may quote the case of my friend William Fludyer, a sea captain in a small way. "Now, what do you reckon your weekly earnings to be, take the year through?"  I inquired of him one 

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[-337-] day, Mrs. Fludyer being present. "Hey! all the year through? or'nary times and other? Well, I should say-mind ye, I don't know 'zactly - but I should say not much over a pound, hey, old lass?" Mrs. Fludyer deigned no verbal response, but looking up from her occupation of flaying whiting, she gave her William a look that plainly expressed her distrust of his arithmetic.
    "But that to me seems very little," I remarked.
    "It wouldn't be as much as he says if it wasn't for the bit o' net, sir, observed Mrs. Fludyer ; "there's lots of the chaps hereabout that don't earn much more'n half."
    "Ah, and with four or five youngsters," put in Mr. Flndyer, who had none.
    "But how do they contrive to live?"
    "Lor' a mussy knows, master," returned William Fludyer, radiant, and as though he derived immense satisfaction from his inability to explain away the seeming mystery. "Lor' a mussy knows; they do live, and grow up to strapping chaps and wenches. It's the sea air, I s'pose."
    "Don't be a heathen, William," remonstratively exclaimed Mrs. Fludyer, who possessed a pair of arms brawnier than though perhaps of not so stringy a texture as her husband s "he don't mean it, only he's sort o' shamed to say."
    "Well, it's summat as upholds 'em, or else they wouldn't be upheld; thou'st no 'casion to pick me up so sha-arp, old lass," returned William, looking an apology at his "missus."
    And it may be here remarked that, untaught as they are the fishermen as a body, as regards abstinence from swearing and all improper language, as well as in observance of the Sabbath day, furnish an example that might be advantageously followed by dwellers in cities. Perfect is the repose that reigns at the fishing end of the town on the seventh day. It must be confessed that the last-mentioned excellent practice has superstition for one of its pillars. "We do no manner of work on [-338-] Sundays," said Mr. Fludyer, "if we can possibly help it. It ain't found to answer, besides not being right. It's just what the Bible says - everything wants a rest o' Sundays. We do, the sea do, the fishes do. You go a-stirring up the water Sundays and week-days alike, and you'll pretty soon find what it will come to. The nets want a rest, and they'll have it, else they'll go rotten." It may have been my duty to have pointed out to the benighted fisherman that his belief was altogether monstrous and absurd, and exerted myself to convince him that he had mistaken his Bible, or misconstrued somebody else's reading of it; but where would have been the profit? Already he was possessed of the grain, albeit in the husk, and all that I might have preached would not have enriched him, while it might have made him uncomfortable.
    I discovered to my satisfaction that the sea has more terrors for those who live a hundred miles away from it than for the men who pass the greater part of their lives on it and fish their daily bread out of it. "It's safer than the shore, that's my opinion," pronounced Mr. Fludyer, when questioned on the subject, "though, mind you, I never downright liked it, or, rather, as I may say, it don't like me. I was fourteen when I was prenticed to it, and you'd hardly believe, sir, that through eight years I never once put to sea without being sick; hey, ain't that true, missus?" "Ay, sir, that it is," responded Mrs. Fludyer; "many and many's the time I've seen him retch and shudder at smell of his great boots as he was pulling em on before he went down to boat." "Well, well, I'm not the only one, I'll go bail," said Mr. Fludyer, seemingly not best pleased by the fulness of his wife's revelation; "what I was going to say is this, that though I never took what one might call kind to the sea, I thought then, and now I'm downright sure, that it's safer being there than ashore." "I'd be glad to hear how you make that out," I remarked. " I'll tell you how I make it out, sir. I have been a fisherman now three-and-[-339-]thirty years, and never got a hurt; and how many landsmen of my age can say as much?" "Never got a scar, you mean, William," interposed Mrs. Fludyer; "bless the man, he's had hurts enough." "How?" Mr. Fludyer asked, innocently. "Why, how many times have you been washed overboard?" "Pooh! how many times have you washed up plates and dishes, old lass?" returned Mr. Fludyer, impatient that his good lady should think such trifles worth mentioning. "And twice you was run into and foundered!" pursued Mrs. Fludyer. "That hurt the owner a blarmed sight more'n it hurt me," chuckled he. "And once the lightning struck you, surely you don't forget that, William!" "And didn't it strike the markethouse ashore here same night?" retorted William; "didn't it rive the big pollard same night up here on old Wheeler's land? Didn't it kill the miller's horse same night as it stood in its stable? Don't tell me, old lass. It's three to one more dangerous ashore than at sea. I wonder you like to talk the other way after t'other night." "That was accident." "Accident! yes I one of your shore accidents that was. Never had such a fright, sir, all the years I've been at sea. Tell you how it was. I'd been out three nights, and was glad to get ashore and lay me down abed for an hour or so. Old lass she goes to market. 'Don't you touch they things a-drying round the fire,' says she; 'they won't hurt till I come back.' I just heerd her say it, and that was all, I was so dead set. Well, I falls off, and presently got a kind of dream into my head that I was being drowned, and had to fight for my life if I wanted to save it, and so I woke choking and throwing up my arms, and there was the room full of smoke, and a blarmed old flannel petticoat hanging before the fire, all a-glowing red, and the chair smouldering down to its stumps. Wasn't that a 'scape? Pooh! Don't talk to me about the perils o' the sea."