Tugs and Trawlers

It’s fairly well-known that the first steam trawler was a converted tug – and that North Shields can claim to be her home. The tug, Messenger, was owned by William Purdy, and in 1877 he decided to fit his tug out as a trawler – with resounding success. Messenger cost £19.10s to outfit as a beam trawler  and on her first fishing trip made £7.10s on her catch, with a further £5 for towing another ship back into to harbour. In today’s money thats about £1000 to outfit her and around £600 takings on her first day. Not too shabby… Needless to say, it didn’t take too long for everybody else to catch on, with 53 trawler-tugs registered by 1878. The value of tugs peaked in the decade following Purdy’s actions, becoming quite valuable for their fishing potential. They had a limited reach due to their coal consumption, making them near-shore trawlers.

But tugs as trawlers were the gateway to the first purpose built steam trawlers. in 1880 the first steam-assisted sailing smack was built, followed in 1881 by the aptly named Pioneer in 1881. Pioneer was built in Hull at was has then a ground+breaking 28.6meters. Pioneer was not alone for long, as within months the Aries and the Zodiac were launched from Grimsby, built for the newly formed North Sea Steam Trawling Company. It was less than a decade later that otter trawls became the next technological leap to drastically alter the fishing fleet once again – but that’s a subject for another  bog entry.

The last of the trawler-tugs was the Constance, who ran aground and was wrecked in 1910 near Hartlepool. Built in 1882 by Jos. T. Eltringham & Co., South Shields, her last owner was George A. Smith of Scarborough. The first, Messenger, was the tip of the iceberg for William Purdy, who built up a fleet of steam trawlers which operated until the 1960’s.

On a cherrful note, the port of Hamburg conducts a tugboat ballet every year, to celebrate the anniversary of the port. It lasts for around an hour, while several tugboats perform a choreographed routine to some waltzes.


Amsterdam ISBSA

Since last monday I have been in Amsterdam, the city built on herring bones and reclaimed land. I was attending the week-long ISBSA conference – The International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology. One of the great things about maritime archaeology is the sheer variety and scope of this field, with topics varying from an in-depth study of a single Roman barge from 60AD, found in France, to an annual project scanning to seabed of the Zuiderzee to understand the dangerous and swiftly changing tidal channels.

Although I didn’t get much work done PhD wise, succeeding only in catching a cold, I did get a few ideas for future projects and presentations of my own. One interesting project – a student’s master thesis – was about the Dutch watership, a wooden vessel that was in use from around 1600 to about 1800. It was a trawler of sorts then, with a well inside to keep a live catch. It was a popular vessel and got bigger as Amsterdam expanded and the population needed a larger food supply. Later on it was also used as a tug, before being abandoned in favour of other vessel types. Later on in the week I saw a lecture on the seabed survey that was/is being conducted in the Baltic, along where the new pipe line will run. It was interesting to note the number of shipwrecks that were discovered, as well as the suspected shipwrecks and the dis-articulated timbers that litter the seabed.

It got me to thinking less about ships and more about ship gear, as I now wonder how much gear is lying on the bottom, not just the ships themselves. Trawling is almost invisible in archaeology because the gear does not survive – or at least, that is the assumption. But how many of the random, loose timbers that are picked up, dismissed and disposed of are actually a key part of our maritime heritage? I’m sure the maritime historians – and archaeologists – would be very happy to find a 17th century beam from a beam trawl, or a pair of wooden doors from the 1880’s. The net might not survive, but it’s not impossible – rope and organic matter like fabric, leather, hemp and plant material can be found on shipwrecks of all ages, it’s just a matter of their environment and recognising what has been found…

Fish, Chips & Railways

Fish and chips are now a immovable fixture of British cuisine – but how many people know that the origins of this national dish lie with the establishment of the railways?

Back in the 1830’s, when the railways first sprang up over the UK, fish was not a commodity available to the everyday person on the street – and if it was available, it was far from cheap. But it took over a decade for the connection between fishermen and inland cities to be made – at first fish was seen as a luxury item and was charged high carriage rates. It wasn’t until 1841, when Captain James Law RN decided it was time to bring fresh fish into Manchester. his shop was an instant success, with stock selling out within hours of arriving – the local population had never had a steady, affordable supply of fresh fish.

Railways were still less than helpful with carriage rates and liability insurances, the matter was eventually settled legally in 1855, a battle started by Captain Law. Suddenly fish was plentiful and cheap in inland cities, which had an unsurprisingly large poor consumer base  – including the large influx of Irish immigrants who came to Britain in the wake of the 1845 Potato Famine. Fish was central to the diet of the Catholic Irish immigrants, as Catholicism forbids eating meat on fridays.

Another side effect of the railway network transporting fish was the reduction of fishermen throwing previously unsaleable fish back before landing. Now there was a consumer base that would by this – and although easy transportation had lowered the cost of fish, the quantity of fish increased hugely.

And fish and chips? It’s known that fish-frying was established by 1861 and started in London, with the fryers buying leftover end-of-day stock from fishmongers. Fryers worked on the street, selling from painted trays lined with old newspapers and with salt on hand. The tray and a regular supply of fried fish was bought with a small sum, while sales would bring the seller an eventual return and profit. Fish and chip shops were established in 1876 – chips appeared in the 1860’s, although the exact circumstances that brought fried fish and chips is still a bit of a mystery and to some rather controversial. It’s believed that their popularity stems from working women relying on a quick ready-made meals for their families, as well as the Jewish population of the UK. Jewish families aren’t allowed to do anything that can be considered work between sundown on friday to saturday evening – including cooking. As a result, fried fish was bought and could be kept for the saturday meal without breaking any rules. Of course, this has never been proven. Either way, fish and chips has been and continues to be a Delicious and affordable source of fast food in the UK – after all, what little town doesn’t have a chippy?

Archaeology – Bagenkop, Continued

I am still in Bagenkop, a lovely little town in the south of Langeland, an island in Denmark. Although I am attached to the University of Southern Denmark’s archaeology fieldschool, I have had a chance to walk around the harbour and look at the local area. From Bagenkop harbour it is pretty clear that fishing may be small scale but is very much a long-standing tradition in this area.

Trawl doors in Bagenkop – one of many piled up

Bagenkop is a few kilometers from a village called Magleby. It is in Magleby that I am currently working with my trusty fellow students on what we hope will be a Viking Age settlement. What’s interesting is that up until about 150 years ago Magleby was connected to the sea by a nor (or inlet). They began to reclaim the land in 1853 – although the process never seemed quite successful, as demonstrated by numerous storms that flooded the new land, as well as the need for pumping stations to manage the water table.

A gent fixing his nets in Bagenkop harbour

After the land was reclaimed, the fishermen of the area filed a suit against the government for compensation. Their case was not simply practical; they stated that not only did they lose revenue and access to Magleby’s church (leading to a new one being built in Bagenkop), but also that the reclamation had made the area less attractive than before. they lost their case, a blow followed by another in the 20th century when a bridge was built to connect Langeland to the rest of Denmark with a efficient road system. As a result, Magleby, and then Bagenkop, lost most of it’s fishing trade. Currently the fishing fleet numbers in the few dozen.

A fishing vessel in Bagenkop harbour

In Bagenkop harbour the fishing boats are moored alongside yachts and other small vessels, while the areas directly around the harbour is full of fishing paraphernalia. Given Bagenkop’s tiny size, it is clear that the small fishing fleet one of the only industries here, along with farming and tourism.

The entrance to one of the many small work huts/houses that crowd around Bagenkop harbour

For those interested in archeology, a subject that ties in pretty well in this area, the underwater site is going well, while myself and the land team are still conducting resistivity test and land surveys. History tells us that this area is rich in farmers, fishing and fishermen-farmers, and as such we hope that we can find out where the Viking house that would have been among the earliest of that era in Magleby would have stood. Tomorrow we head to the priest’s garden, the gentleman himself having been kind in allowing a bunch of scruffy students to wander around and talk shop about all this old stuff.

Me, resistivity meter and the same bit of field I’ve been standing in all week

Well, I’ve been pacing up and down the same field for the last week, endured rain, wind, gravel, maths, sunburn and a distinct lack of cake. I’m heading out for a beer, and shall be posting again at the end of the week.

Archaeology – Bagenkop, Denmark

A week ago I said I would be posting again, which given the silence that has reigned since is a bit of a fib, I’m afraid. Well, I meant to post, but as soon as I returned to sunny Esbjerg I got immediately packing to go to Bagenkop. Bagenkop is a lovely little own in Langelend, Denamrk. Langeland is described as the Caribbean of Denmark, which I thought was a bit of a fib myself. After two days and some not too debilitating sunburn, I am prepared to admit that sunshine is not in short supply down here.

I am here not on fishy stuff, but on an archaeological fieldschool, looking firstly for a boat barely a 100 meters of Bagenkop and an area called Ågebet. The second focus is on the land immediately adjacent to this area, currently the village of Magleby. And the sunburn? Courtesy of two days standing on a lawn with a resistivity meter. And only three weeks to go!

We  – or rather, I and the Maritime Archaeology Programme of the University of Southern Denmark (and home to this PhD) are looking at the whole area for some good archaeology. What I can’t help but notice is all the small fishing boats, and of course some trawl doors in the harbour – all of five minutes walk from our accommodation.

More posting soon – that’s a promise this time!