Distant Waters: William Oliver and the World’s Greatest Fishing Port

For much of the twentieth century Hull and Grimsby were regarded as the world’s leading fishing ports. Each claimed to be the largest fishing port in the world. In reality, it all depends on how you interpret the statistics and when. During the inter-war years, for example, far more fish were landed at Hull but the catch at Grimsby was worth more. This was mainly because a greater proportion of Grimsby’s catch was of more valuable varieties of fish, many taken in the North Sea whilst Hull increasingly concentrated on the abundant distant water grounds within or closer to the Arctic Circle and specialised on species such as cod and haddock, staples of that great British institution, the fish and chip shop.

In 1905 William Oliver was bosun aboard the Merrie Islington, pictured above

Hull’s trawling industry had grown rapidly from the mid-nineteenth century. In 1840 there were probably no more than a dozen fishing vessels working out of the Humber and although some of these were sailing trawlers from the south of England, others were involved in shrimping in the Humber estuary. By 1880, however, a revolution had occurred. By then there were more than a thousand sailing trawlers registered at the Humber ports and Hull and Grimsby were already recognised as the largest fishing ports in the world.

The key to the rapid development of the trawling trade was the construction of the railway network, much of which was completed by the early 1850s. Before the railway age it had been difficult to transport fresh fish cheaply and quickly over any distance. The railways provided a fast and reliable means of conveying fish to inland towns. Trains made fish an article of cheap mass consumption in places well away from the coast. Fish became a valuable source of protein in the growing industrial towns and cities of Victorian Britain. Sometime between about 1850 and 1880 some genius put fried fish with chips and the fish and chip shop was born.

Demand for fish continued unabated and soon sailing trawlers, known as smacks, were fishing all over the North Sea. During the 1880s the steam trawler was perfected and these vessels, being far more efficient than sailing smacks, could range over far greater distances. During the 1890s Hull steam trawlers began visiting the Faroe Islands and Iceland. From 1905 they were also voyaging to the Barent’s Sea then other grounds close to the northern grounds. The great distant water fishery, the northern trawl, was born and Hull trawlers and trawlermen were in the vanguard of fishing vessels voyaging to such waters. Some Hull trawlers returned to seas around places such as Hopen Island and the rest of the Svalbard archipelago that had once been frequented by Hull whaling ships. They also fished off the same stretches of the Icelandic coasts that had been visited by medieval Hull fishermen and merchants from as early as 1408.

The new breed of distant water trawlermen that emerged in the late nineteenth century were soon working throughout the year, often in grim Arctic winters and sometimes the very worst of conditions. The new steam trawlers which voyaged to such inhospitable fishing grounds had to contend with almost everything the sea could through at them: gales, freezing fog, snow as well as ice which froze on a ship’s superstructure, threatening it with capsize. Almost everything about distant water trawling, be it the hours of work, the weather or the every present dangers were extreme. The ability of these trawlers to survive, never mind make a good living from such voyages owed much to the skill, courage and resources of the trawler crews; especially their skippers.

Many of Hull’s most successful sea-seasoned distant water skippers would figure highly on any list of the world’s finest twentieth century mariners. Top skippers were hunters at heart: but more than hunters, they were also resourceful leaders who combined an intimate knowledge of the sea and of the fishing grounds with an ability to get the best out of the ships and crews under their command. Such individuals not only pursued their fugitive prey across some of the most difficult seas in the world but they also needed to return to port with a catch that made money for owners and crew alike. Every trip was heavily dependent upon their expertise and leaderships skills. After all, trawlers only voyaged to the northern seas to make money. The rewards could be high but so were the risks. Distant water trawling was twentieth century Britain’s most dangerous job with a high attrition rate amongst men and ships and amidst all this, if a skipper could not consistently make money from his trips he would soon be out of a job.

The only way to become a Hull trawler skipper was to start on the bottom rung. There was no fast-track; no skipper entered the profession as a trainee officer. Most started as deckie learners, some as galley boys and they made their way through the ranks by way of bosun and mate to become skippers. In this respect they followed the practice of their sailing trawler forbearers who, in the words of one of the most successful nineteenth century Hull skippers and owners, John Sims, had came into the profession ‘by the hawse hole and went out by the taff rail.’

Hull has produced many fine skippers, not least, William Oliver, regarded as one of the most effective and influential masters during the inter-war period. Oliver’s career in many ways personifies the story of Hull’s rise to world dominance as a distant water trawling port. William, or Bill, as he was often known, was born in 1885, the son of George and Emily Oliver who were living down Herbert’s Terrace at the time of the 1881 census. Emily was born in Hull but George, who was a fisherman on sailing trawlers, had been born in Poplar, London and may well have come to Hull as a trawling apprentice.

William’s father was not keen on his son following him to sea but this did not stop the young lad. He made his first working trips right at the end of the nineteenth century on sailing smacks fishing amongst the North Sea boxing fleets which spent weeks at a time trawling in the North Sea whilst sending their catches to shore by steam cutters every day. He had the roughest of baptisms to his chosen vocation: at the age of sixteen he was at sea on the smack Butterfly in a storm which sank six smacks and the skipper and mate of his own vessel were washed overboard and lost. Waves continued to sweep the Butterfly and after the rudder head fell off the stricken smack lay broadside to the gale. Oliver later recalled he had no real idea how he and the other crew members survived but they did. And what’s more, he had learned early if very harsh lessons about the extreme hazards of his chosen occupation. Oliver went on to become a superb seaman and as far as can be ascertained, he never lost a crew member during the many years he spent as skipper, despite the trade’s high attrition rate of men and ships.

William seems to have originally signed up as a fisheries apprentice but with the end of sail such apprentices were very much on the wane in Hull and he soon signed up as a weekly paid hand on steam trawlers. He seems to have moved quickly from sail to steam but also became more interested in sailing to the new distant water grounds rather than those he first had fished on in the North Sea. He was soon learning his trade off the coasts of Iceland and sometimes, after 1905, on trips to the Barent’s Sea. During the Edwardian era he rose steadily through the ranks of the trawler crew. In 1900 we find him on one of the last of the sailing smacks, the City of Windsor, as Fourth Hand. By July 1904 he was third hand on the Viking and by January of the following year he had become bosun on the Merrie Islington. He had moved up to mate on the Shakespeare, owned by the National Steam Trawling Company by March 1906 and seems to have taken at least one trip as skipper, on the steam trawler Salisbury, in September 1907, possibly as stand- in. Over the next few years we find him sailing sometimes as skipper and on other occasions as second hand but by early 1913 he had established himself as a regular skipper and his main hunting grounds were off the south-west coast of Iceland in the vicinity of the Westmann Islands.

Sometime after the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, William Oliver joined the Royal Navy and spent much of the conflict in the Mediterranean. In February 1916 he took charge of the armed trawler Marion, moored in Valetta Dockyard in Malta but within less than a month he had transferred to the armed drifter Kymio by 1916. He spent much of his time deploying and repairing anti-submarine nets or on local patrol duties around the island. He remained at Malta until the end of the war and, like a number of other Hull fishermen on patrol duties in various war zones, he was joined by his wife and children. Oliver and his crew received news of the Armistice at precisely 11am on the 11th November 1918 and he laconically wrote on his log ‘No orders, gave leave at 2pm.’ He remained with the Kymic, picking up nets and carrying out patrol duties until early December when the little drifter was refitted for the voyage back to Britain.

A few days later, on the 1th December 1918, he left the Kymic for the last time to go as skipper of the Moravia for the voyage home. He had been at the Malta base for three years and four months. On 14th December left Malta for the last time as part of a fleet of ten ships, and as they got underway all ships still in the harbour sounded their horns in salute. The voyage home, including a stopover in Gibraltar, was slow with some of the drifters and smaller vessels being towed but all finally anchored in Portland Harbour on the 5th January 1919 after a voyage of just over three weeks. The following day all the gear all the Moravia’s hydrophone and remaining Admiralty stores were discharged. On the 7th the vessel left Portland for Grimsby where they berthed two days later. William Oliver’s war service was finally over.

It was whilst on Admiralty service that William Oliver began keeping copy of his signal logs and he later supplemented these by writing a diary. He continued this practice right down to 1939 and the information these contain provide an invaluable day to day record of a Hull trawler skipper’s life, afloat and ashore, during the inter-war years.

William seems to have settled swiftly into his old way of life and coped with its rigours. By late 1919 he was skipper of the T.R.Ferens and pursuing fish on his old hunting grounds off the south west coast of Iceland. Over the following years his daily diary entries tell much of the rigours of distant water trawling. Until well into the 1930s he spent most of his time on trips to the northern fishing grounds and after returning to Hull with his fish he was usually home for no more than a couple of days before setting sail once more. At sea he was either trawling on the grounds off Iceland or else voyaging too and from them. He did, however, take breaks, particularly during the summer when his ship was laid up for survey and refit. His story was far from unusual, it was normal for this unique industry where both men and ships were worked so very hard. An examination of his diary for 1922 shows that he spent 153 days actually trawling, a further 133 days voyaging to and from the distant water fishing grounds. Only seventy nine days were spent ashore that year. All in all, an analysis of seventeen years of diary entries shows that during that time he was at sea for just over 75% of the time. In the earlier years the average time spent at sea each year was somewhat harder. It is doubtful if anyone, even Icelanders, had a more intimate knowledge of the grounds of the Southwest coast of Iceland at this time.

It was by any standards a rigorous life but when ashore like many fishermen he lived life to the full, especially during his younger years. After long weeks at sea he made much of his forty eight or so hours at home between trips, taking his wife to the theatre and dining out, particularly at Polonowys in Hull’s city centre. Like many fishermen he still found time for the pub – often the Criterion on Hessle Road in the 1920s – and sometimes danced and partied far into the night with family and friends before returning to sea the next day.

True, the work was hard but as a successful skipper so were the rewards and he really was one of the port’s top men, regularly taking charge of the newest trawlers in the Hull fleet. In the 1920s and early 1930s he made a lot of money from fishing. He and his wife moved from Hessle Road to the Boulevard then out to Anlaby. He was one of the select band of people who owned a car in the 1920s and for his long summer breaks he took the family to good hotels in London, Blackpool, Scarborough and beyond.

The Hull distant water trawling trade was one of the only sectors of the fishing industry to remain profitable during the worst of the depression years in the early 1930s and by and large William Oliver continued to do well. By the middle of the decade, however, the rigours of the job and the long years at sea were taking their toll. He was increasingly beset by niggling health problems and usually taking it much more easily during his breaks ashore. By 1937 he had really had enough of the sea and was regularly considering retiring or finding alternative sources of work.

William Oliver had given up regular fishing trips by the outbreak of the Second World War but he remained an important force in the Hull trawling trade. In 1945 he became secretary of the Hull Trawler Officer’s Guild and held the post until 1954 when he was succeeded by his son Laurie. His experience and powerful personality made him in many ways ideal for the job and he was well respected not only by the other Hull skippers in the Guild but also by associates and friends in Iceland off whose shores he had spent so much of his working life.

William died on the 14th February 1959 in Anlaby but his unique diaries ensure that his own remarkable story as well as that of Hull’s rise to pre- eminence in the distant water trawling trade will live on.

Select Bibliography

Alec Gill, Lost Trawlers of Hull (UK: Beverley, 1989)

Jeremy Tunstall, The Fishermen (UK: MacGibbon & Key, 1962)

Robb Robinson, The Trawlermen (UK: University of Exeter Press, 1995)

World Fishing (1953-4)

Thanks also to Mike Burton and the rest of the family of William Oliver for access to the Oliver Diaries.

Thanks also to David J. Starkey for access to his presentation of distant waters