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.

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British Pathé Revisited

I am slowly falling in love with the British Pathé website – especially the ‘British Instructional Films’. These short films were intended to inform and educate, and mu favourite is this one:

Trawling 1940-1949. A little long at 10 minutes, it takes the viewer through a day at sea with a ship called ‘Jacqueline’. There is a good amount of technical stuff, while the voice-over is in that lovely authoritative BBC World Service accent, guaranteed to ensure tat you are indeed paying attention.

But the ones that caught my attention were these; Nets 1954 and Fishing Industry Exhibition – Grimsby 1956. Both show women (and girls) making nets by – so fast that the eye can barely keep up. Net making is another critical aspect of this PhD study, as the changing materials made stronger nets rather that just larger ones, making pelagic trawling a possibility. Not to mention making their maintenance easier and prolonging the life of the nets significantly. It was in the 1940’s that synthetic materials were first used for fishing nets, eventually replacing natural fibres by 1960.

This also lead me to some footage of a rope factory in the Netherlands, Rope Making Factory for Fishing Fleet 1961. It doesn’t have any sound but it does show the inner workings of the factory, for those as are interested in such things.

A Bygone Craft 1931 caught my attention most of all – but then I wouldn’t mind having a go at building my own coracle!

British Pathé

Here are a couple of rather lovely little videos I found on the British Pathé website:

“a Revolution in Fishing”

It was a certain Mr Clarence Birdseye, himself an American, who invented and revolutionised the concept of frozen food. Frozen food was a challenge then, not just because of the freezing process, but also because in order to sell frozen products, you also have to convince people to buy a freezer to put the product in. Luckily for Clarence his invention took off and he sold his patent for a ludicrously large sum of money.

Freezing had been around before – but at a relatively high temperature and quite slow. This meant when the product thawed, it was dry or mushy and of low quality. Birdseye created the technology to freeze things fast and at a much lower temperature – an idea he got from the Inuit! When he expanded his inventions to plate freezers, the application for using them on board ships became apparent. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Science in Fishing”

Echo sounder, fish finder, sonar, ASDIC – these are terms that have been common to us in the last 50 years – but sonar and ASDIC have a history that runs on to a century now. Developments were started in the 1910’s, but it was during WWI which really kick-started the whole thing with the sudden need to detect submarines. ASDIC was born and developed In 1916-17. Further developments came in WWII, and it after WWII that detection devices entered civilian usage. Strangely enough, there is no proven origin meaning for the initials ASDIC – the theory is that it was derived from the cover name for the project in WWI, it was kept so secret. Sonar came during the 1930’s, and was primarily an American development.


The one is my favourite though – and was something that had never occurred to me as a possibility in ration-stricken Britain:

“Bigger Fish Stil to Come”

Otter Boards & Little Wheels…

Well, let’s not kid around  – this PhD malarky consists of a lot of boring stuff and a decent amount of technical stuff, all interspersed with the very interesting and bloomin’ weird. and that’s just the application paperwork…

Well, I am still in patent limbo – and as a result have come to embrace it. As a result, i am going to post up some of the more interesting and bizarre of the applications I have come across. the three I am looking at right now are the earliest patents available for otter boards, picked not because of their date, but because of their specific peculiarity: wheels. Yes, they have wheels. Back in the day there are numerous and varied patents for otter boards, several of which predate these – but these are special. these have wheels.

And not just any wheels: Samuel Ling and William Robbens’ 1899 patent is wonderful in its simplicity. two small casters are attached to the bottom edge of the boards – “to facilitate the use of the boards”. these two, both smack owners from Lowestoft, also the the time to explain that the the current invention can be expanded – that four casters can be attached, “so as to support the board in an upright position”.

(Patent number GB189907260)

Another gem from this archive is also form 1899. Two residents from Hull – an engineer and a boilermaker – Henry Ramsden Mortell and Alexander Robb made their otter board that is more or less a wheel. this wheel can be fitted to the centre of an otter board, should one feel traditional, but the wheel is the story here. A lot of thought clearly went in to the design, as the primary concern is not just the spread of the trawl but also potential resistance and weight. the goal here, it states, is to prevent excess fuel consumption as well as wear and tear on engines and equipment. Their idea may have been verging on daft, but they had serious motivation and a clear goal.


(Patent number GB189915702)

The last in this series is not particularly spectacular or challenging; another 1899 patent with casters on the brain. This one, by Thomas Frederick Adamson and Edward Clarke, Ship’s Store Merchant and Engineer respectively, both of South Shields, made the simplest one I’ve seen yet. These little casters are fitted to the bottom edge of the otter board. they slot in aways and angled, so as not to impede the angle of the otter board to the boat. A simple idea, neatly expressed. Just a shame it would all never really work…


(Patent number GB189924174)

Before I scurry off to do some real work, I have a big thank you to announce to Victor and Linda Strange of TorNet, in Iceland. They have made a much appreciated contribution to my study and ongoing research!

http://www.tornet.is/