Flying Visit to the Netherlands



I found myself in the Netherlands for a two days, in a flying visit to IJmuiden and Katwijk. I went to chat to a few people about all kinds of interesting things, things mostly of the  fishing gear variety.

Both towns are of the small yet quite nice type, the kind of places you know have been around for a while and will be for some time. In IJmuiden I met with two great guys, Dirk van Beelen and Bob van Marlen. Dirk van Beelen met me at his offices, kindly talking me through the role of synthetics and mesh sizes form the late 50’s onwards, giving me some good background information and a launching point for research for the Netherlands. A quick tour of the pace ended with some useful information about Van Beelen Netten – a venerable company which started in 1900 as a trading company with Dirk’s grandfather, importing and selling material to the fishing industry. Dirk’s father took the company further by creating a factory floor and working with rope and twine, graduating to netting machines and selling product internationally. When Dirk himself started, aiming to expand further afield. Now Dirk’s daughter, Caroline, runs the business. Interestingly, Engel Netz in Bremerhaven bought netting form Van Beelen post-war, Engel Netz going on to be an integral part of the first successful single boat pelagic trawl.

Bob van Marlen supplied a wealth of contacts and some key data for the development of pelagic trawls form the 70’s, not to mention the fact that there is a peligac trawl in an Ancient Egyptian tomb somewhere…

In Katwijk I was met by Gijsbert van der bent of Visserij Nieuws, who translated for me (as well as taking some nice pictures) and Floor Kuijt. Floor came prepared, with a suitcase of material including diagrams and drawings and explanations. Several cups of tea and a lot of notes later, I have a pretty solid idea of the start and progression of pelagic trawling in the Netherlands – although I think it will take me a week to sort throughout the pile of notes I’ve made!


Herring Busses – The Dutch Pre-Industrial Fishing Fleet

The herring buss (haring buis, if you feel authentic) is an example of fishing a monumental scale before the invention of machinery. The busses, although somewhat small (probably about 20m) and well proportioned, being designed as both nippy and spacious. Unfortunately all there remains of the herring buss are drawings and descriptions – not a single example survives. At least, none that are known or have been identified – a shame, when history tells us that the Dutch herring fleet was several hundred vessels strong.

Herring busses utilised drift nets (gill nets) and moved with the herring – they started in Shetland and moved their way down to Yarmouth and Lowestoft over the course of the year. This was a pattern that continue largely uninterrupted for several centuries, from the 1600’s right up to the mid 19th century. This fleet developed and evolved over the centuries, with both ships and trade changing with the times. At its peak, this fleet was so large and well organised that no one else had a chance to operate on the same scale.

The buss itself became a kind of factory ship – herring caught, salted and packed on each vessel, with the final product then handed off to other, smaller ships which would journey to and from the mainland while the busses remained at sea for the season. The British tried to get in the herring action but never had the capital to make any impact on Dutch activities. Plenty of  diatribes and fist-shaking was to be had, right up until the issue of money and resources was mentioned. As a naval nation, Britain preferred warships to busses. Still, this leaves us with the wonderfully titled The Herring-Busses Trade: Expressed in Sundry Particulars, both for the building of Buses, making of deepe Sea-Nets, and other appurttenances, also the right curing of the Herring for Forreine Vent. Written by Simon Smith, ‘Agent for the Royall-Fishing’, and published in 1641, we can see how early on the Dutch dominated this fishery. there is one example of a English herring buss here: English Herring Buss c.1750 although it a century later and made according to the specifications laid down be a Swedish shipwright, Fredrick af Chapman.

But why Dutch herring? One word: quality. The salted herring provided by the Dutch was considered the best, and in early modern Europe this was an important consideration when purchasing your salted herring. and why was this? Another singe word: Christianity. Meat was an expensive resource at any times, but even the richest had to abstain on fridays, during Lent and feast days. In that time, that was a hefty chuck of the year that there was no meat. Fish, one the other had, was acceptable – but did not keep well on the long journey from the coast to inland towns, so had to be preserved. The sheer volume produced by the Dutch and its good quality led to the Dutch dominating and relying on the herring for a huge part of their economy for several centuries – so its true what they say – Amsterdam is built on herring bones!

Haring Buis - Wikipedia Commons

Haring Buis – Wikipedia Commons

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…

Euronete, Portugal – Thanks

A big thank you from me to Euronete, Portugal, who has been very kind in supporting this ongoing research with a handy donation. I’m lacking a corporate logo, so here are some balloons instead:

Unfortunately I have not been very well (I always seem to  get the summer-autumn lurgy) but I shall be back this week, after a flying visit to Langeland tomorrow. Posts shall resume sometime this week!

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!