Grimsby’s fishing heritage

Words by:
Alan Middleton
Featured in:
January 2013

Grimsby’s fishing heritage stretches back over 1,000 years to the time when its founder, a fisherman by the name of Grim, was dispatched from Denmark with orders to murder, by drowning, the young Prince Havelock.

Grim could not bring himself to kill the child, but unable to return to Denmark, he landed and settled on the Humber estuary. His new home became known as Grimsby (the suffix ‘by’ meaning town in the old Norse language) and by plying his trade in the town, he established the roots of an industry that would one day make Grimsby famous the world over, and by the 1950s, the world’s largest fishing port.

Fish are one of the earliest forms of life on earth, emerging some 450 million years ago. There are more than 25,000 different kinds of fish, but the fishing industry is only interested in catching about fifty varieties to sell for food. There are over 200 species of fish in the North Sea, the most sought after by far being cod and haddock. The cod sold in Grimsby is caught in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, from the Bay of Biscay north to the Arctic. Haddock, a member of the cod family, is found on both sides of the North Atlantic. Grimsby’s long and honourable fishing history is based on the trawler, which involves the dragging of a net along the seabed. For much of the nineteenth century, wooden sailing ships, reliant entirely on the wind and tides, ventured only as far as the Faroe Islands and the Norwegian coast. Two inventions dramatically changed the fishing industry: steam power, enabling the ship to sail faster and reach the fishing grounds of Iceland, and man made ice, preserving the fish on board and therefore allowing ships to stay at sea for weeks on end. After the Second World War, oil burners and diesel electric engines replaced coal; navigational equipment was revolutionised by technological advances; and stern trawlers replaced the traditional sidewinder vessels.

There are hazardous duties associated with many jobs, but few compare with a three-week trawling trip to the waters of the Arctic. The conditions were appalling and the crew were on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Much of the hard manual work was done by deckhands, initially shooting the trawl and hauling in the gear, but after the net was hauled over the side, their real work began. Day and night they gutted the fish, sometimes for more than 48 hours without sleep. Many fingers were lost and many men were swept overboard; it was a perilous task. It is said that for every miner killed underground, eight trawlermen were lost at sea. If it was a rough life at sea for the men, it was not much better for the women who were left behind, bringing up families almost single handed, not knowing whether their men would return. For those who did return, a few pints in the Freeman’s Arms was often called for and some wives had to relieve their men of the housekeeping money before it went on drink and gambling.

The Cod Wars of the 1970s saw a dramatic decline in Grimsby’s fishing industry and massive unemployment, but it retains its historic relationship with fish through the major food companies and fish smokehouses which still exist in the area.

The Fishing Heritage Centre, at Alexandra Dock (Tel: 01472 323345) provides a fascinating insight into Grimsby’s maritime history.

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