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THE GREAT WAR FISHING FLEET

At the outbreak of WW I all trawlers where ordered to return to their home ports, in Hull owners of the fleet, suffered much anguish as many feared they faced ruin as their vessels where requisitioned for war service. And whilst many Hull trawlers battled honourably as admiralty trawlers in the defence of our country some remained fishing. There was some recompense as payments where made to the owners of the trawlers which where hired by the admiralty. And whilst many vessels and men from the Hull fleet would be lost on active service it was also a necessity to maintain a fishing fleet to bring home this vital staple food scource . Due to losses of trawlers and limited regulated vessel movements during the war period the demand for fish outstripped the available supply as did most food items during the war. For these reasons we would latterly see the introduction to the Fishery Reserve which was set up in 1917 to maintain a constant supply of fish produce , but the fishery reserve did little to alleviate the high prices attained for this food scorce.

FISHERY RESERVE FLEET LIST 1917 - 1919

With almost all the modern fishing vessels having been requisitioned or purchased by the Royal Navy those that were left would be aged or had already been released from service, it was upto these vessels, and the men that where either too old or too young to serve their country, to continue bringing home the vital food scource that fish provided. These men and boys took their unarmed vessels into a mine infested sea, knowing that at any time a U Boat could sink them, they were prime targets for the German Airforce, or Zeppelins that headed to the North Sea fishing Grounds for easy pray. The hunters of the sea became the hunted. As the losses of the fleet of vessels that remained fishing became higher and further restrictions on vessel movements made fish became scarcer and demand could not be met. The rising price of fish was due to this shortage in supply and had risen so dramatically that vessels which averaged a profit of between £6,000 and £7,000 a year pre 1914 were by 1917 averaging profits between £30,000 and £40,000. With over 1,900 fishing vessels registered in British ports pre war by the end of 1916 less than 500 had remained fishing. by May 1917 the Admiralty had released a war order placing all remaining British fishing vessels into the Fishery Reserve, the reserve would consist of the many aged and returned unsuitable vessels that had previously carried out mineseeping or auxilliary patrol duties for the admiralty but where now transfered to the reserve to maintain the size of the ever decreasing fishing fleet. The vessels would now fish in groups to afford some protection, in some cases upto 20 would sail and fish together, some of the vessels had been armed with whatever was available or the vessels which had been decomissioned by the navy had retained their armament.. The vessels of the fishery reserve remained with their owners who were paid 1 shilling a month by the admiralty for hire, the vessels carried out their normal fishing routines but by strict control of the admiralty, crewmen were also paid 1 shilling a month while the trawler was in the reserve they also received, a share of the profit their catches made.

Due to limited number of trawlers and landings and the regulations and rationing in place for fish, high prices where achieved for many of the catches of the trawlers that remained fishing, in most cases vessels which had been too old or unsuitable for admiralty service where allowed to fish in designated area`s and whilst these wartime fishermen faced far more dangers, often on a parr with their admiralty adversaries they could reap profits which had never been realized before.

Typical Wholesale fish Price Difference

Per
Apr 09 1914
Apr 20 1916
   
S
D
S
D
 
S
D
S
D
Soles Llb
1
0
-
2
6
1
8
-
3
3
Turbot Stone
9
0
-
14
0
14
0
-
22
0
Halibut Stone
9
0
-
12
0
12
0
-
20
0
Plaice Stone
6
0
-
10
0
8
0
-
14
0
Cod - Dead Stone
1
6
-
4
0
4
0
-
6
0
Haddocks Stone
3
0
-
6
6
6
0
-
8
0
Kippers Box
1
6
-
3
6
5
6
-
10
0

As the price of fish rose during the war period and there where many reports of skippers obtaining great wealth, we must also realise that at this time due to the adversities of war the dangers faced by the fishermen where extreme. Mines, Bombing, Collision, and Submarine activety contributed to many losses in the fishing fleet. In the latter months of 1917 and into early 1918 there had been a marked increase in the storms at sea which kept many vessels in port, there had also been a high presence of enemy submarine activety near the fishing grounds, all of which contributed to a shortage of fish supplies and enforced prices higher for that which was landed. As the prices rose, and in some instances much higher than those listed above it was deemed necessary for the food controller to fix the price of fish which was done and came into effect on 23rd January 1918.

A selection of Fixed Fish Prices as of 23 01 1918

The listed price been the most that a retailer could charge for his fish, it was a different matter for the wholesale price which often commanded higher price`s at times but these did fluctuate immensly.

 
Per
S
D
Cod
Llb
1
3
Haddock
Llb
1
3
Turbot
Llb
2
6
Soles
Llb
3
6
Plaice
Llb
1
10
Halibut
Llb
2
6

Whilst there was some jostling with the fixed prices over the next year and similar rates where also set for the wholesale sale of fish. The government due to the difficulty in implementing any kind of control over fish sales wished to do little, as they also realized that any permanent fixed drop in the prices of fish would be reflected in the amount of fishermen not wanting to risk the dangers brought about by war time fishing and would refuse to leave port. By October 1918 there was some decrease and as much as a 15 / 20% deduction had been made on the prices of white fish such as Cod, Halibut and Plaice. By Late February 1919 there was a partial removal of many species of fish from the controlled fixed price list. But in the first instance it was seen that in some ports rather than lower fish prices instantly, there would be a increase above and beyond those that had been previously fixed. The port of Grimsby was one such place where because of inadequate supplies in the first week of march saw the prices of fish above those that had been previously fixed. By May 1919 there was again the possibility that fixed prices could be implemented on fish due to the high price and as most vessels where now back at sea and able to meet demand there was little reason for such inflated prices been charged to the consumer. Below is a list of typical fish prices in shops around the country from London, Manchester and Aberdeen, but in the same week cod was been sold on the east coast markets for as much as 1s 4d per Llb and as remarked by one customer this was seen as sheer profiteering and wicked robbery.

May 1919
Present Average Shop Prices
Proposed Prices
   
S
D
S
D
Plaice Llb
1
6
-
9
Cod Llb
1
0
-
6
Haddocks Llb
1
0
-
6
Whiting Llb
1
0
-
6
Skate Llb
1
4
-
8
Hake Llb
1
4
-
1

Whilst the discernment of high fish prices was felt by the consumer they where not alone and in the summer of 1918 several Hull trawler owners applied for a retail licence to enable them to sell their own fish at a reduced price. They advertised Cod at 6d a Llb which would be equivalent to 56 s per Cwt Dockside price a drop of 36% below that of the 90 s per Cwt fixed price, however this plan was thwarted in its final moments when the food ministry refused to grant and withdrew the retail licence.

1917 Mean Price
Dec 1917
Jan 1918 fixed dockside price
   
S
D
S
D
S
D
Plaice Cwt
93
9
113
8
113
2
Cod Cwt
53
3
89
6
90
0
Haddocks Cwt
53
4
77
2
77
2
Whiting Cwt
44
0
63
3
63
3
Hake Cwt
73
9
100
9
100
9

A new fixed price fish order was implemented on 31 Nov 1919 and saw an average 25% reduction in fish prices Cod been fixed at 9d Llb, Haddocks 6d to 1s dependant on size, Plaice 8d to 1s 3d, the implementation of this order did not bring to an end the fish price problem and it would be debated for some months to come. On examination it was noticable during the war period that the species of fish least affected by price rise`s was that bought by the well off such as Turbot and Soles, which saw an average increase of only 300% to that of 609% for cod.

SKIPPERS GET MORE THAN ADMIRALS.

It was claimed in the newspapers of the time in mid 1918, that it was a poor skipper who earn`t less than a naval admiral. There was much critisism at the prices charged for fish by trawler owners and the wholesale merchants handling and delivery costs. Prices where deemed far greater than necessary,a fact that people involved in the fisheries openly admitted. Many skippers had reported weekly earnings in the region of £800 - £900 pounds. This been the skippers 10% share of the total trip profit, one Hull skipper alleging that he had made £1,000 for a 10 day trip. There where requests to have the fixed prices set by the food controller reduced but these where not met instantly.

As this high enforced price of fish which was implemented by the food controller brought greater profits to the owners and crew of the trawlers, there was also a marked interest to be a shareholder in a trawler company. In a sale of a Hull Trawler companies shares which would normally sell in the region of £6 a share - £4 paid, Thirty £6 shares where recently sold in lots of 10, the first 10 going for £16 a share, the second lot for £16 3s and the third lot for £16 12s.

Whilst there was a marked increase in the profit made from all species of fish since the outbreak of the war, we must also take into account the rising costs of such commodoties as Insurance, wages, gear, ice, transportation, and stores needed by each vessel, which over the war period had seen an increase in the region of 300% as per a pre war costing. This would still be offset by the increase in fish prices which for cod had risen by 609%, Haddock 430% Plaice 421%.

As the war came to an end trawlers where held by the admiralty and the restrictions on port and shipping movements remained in place post war, the task of refitting, unarming and returning vessels to their owners had begun and eventually as minefields and shipping lanes where cleared and restrictions lifted the vessels would return to the fishing grounds, but meanwhile the high prices remained for fish and where still been commanded. Once vessels did return to the fishing grounds they found a plentiful supply of fish in the areas that had seen restricted access during the war period, these areas been practically unfished and allowing the fish stocks to be naturally improved.

Whilst ledgers and profit margines during this period where secretly kept there was without a doubt some owners and some of the older skippers that had made great profits during this period. The majority of our trawlermen saw little or non of these reaped rewards. Many had enlisted or volunteered to man the armed trawlers of our naval fleet,and many made the ultimate sacrifice and would never return. There would be a period post war where skippers and crews made a comfortable living but this would be short lived. With the payments of insurance for trawlers lost on war service and the high profit margins which had been made by some owners, it would take only a few years for Hull Owners to totally rebuild their fishing fleet, which would now consist of newer bigger faster vessels, these vessels could travel further, fish longer and bring home a larger catch. But with these new vessels also came the ever rising building costs, larger running and maintenance costs all which had to be taken from the trips earnings. As the demand for fish was easily met by these new vessels which ventured further and for longer, they fished the areas which had benefitted from the improved fish stocks, market prices started to fall, coal prices started to increase the boxing fleets where sold and in just over a decade the Hull fishing industry would face a dismal future, as it`s many vessels where laid up and it`s fishermen men laid off. The Hull Fishing industry at this time needed a means of recovery and this came with the declaration of world war II.