My partner, Vinnie, has never really known much about her family history so I have been doing some digging and, going back to the mid 1800s, a fishy story begins to emerge.
Vinnie’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was a chap named John Brewer who was born in Hackney in East London and, coincidentally, was baptised in a church in 1812 just round the corner from where she is currently working.
John Brewer married Martha Rumer, a local woman, in August 1835 in East Ham who had a bit of a scary adventure the following year. Together with a certain Martha Martin, Martha Brewer was committed to trial at the Essex Assizes on 17th May 1836 for “Larceny from the person”, legal-speak for pick-pocketing. Luckily for her the judge threw out the case, the outcome logged in the court record as “No Bill” which was a specific order from the judge if he was satisfied that the depositions or committal statements did not justify putting the accused on trial.
With the brush with the law behind them, by the time of the first census in 1841 John and Martha Brewer are recorded as living on Barking High Street with John’s profession listed as fisherman.
Barking Dock in the early 1800s
It may seem difficult to believe now but in the mid 1800s Barking was home to the largest fishing fleet in the world. There had been a tradition of fishing there on a small scale since the 1300s but the dramatic escalation of the trade based out of Barking in the 1800s was down to one entrepreneurial family – the Hewetts – who established The Short Blue Fleet (named after the short blue emblem they flew at their mastheads).
By 1850 they had grown their business to become the largest fishing fleet in the world with over 220 boats.
Before the 1820s, fish caught off the boats were either killed and salted immediately or kept alive, in large, on-board tanks until they reached port.
Samuel Hewett felt this was not a cost-effective system because the boats, which would often sail as far as Iceland, would be forced to make frequent trips back to Barking to unload the catch. This, he believed, was wasting time that could have been spent fishing. So Samuel decided to introduce a system called fleeting.
The fish were now caught, killed, then preserved in ice, before being collected by fast boats, called cutters, and taken back to London. Every time the cutters returned to the fishing grounds they would bring more ice and provisions for the sailors, which meant the fishing vessels could stay at sea continuously for three to six months at a time.
The picture shows “trunking” when trunks full of fish were transported from the fishing trawlers to a cutter for delivery back to base.
The new fishing system was extremely successful and helped the Hewett fleet grow substantially.
The Short Blue Fleet at sea
But the industry was savagely dangerous. We think of 19th century mining as dangerous, and it was horribly so, but for every miner killed in Britain, seven seamen were lost in the fishing industry.
By the mid 1850s John Brewer had been made master of one of the boats in the Short Blue Fleet, the Tartar, purchased by the fleet in 1852 which was one of the fast cutters that used to race back and forth between Barking and the fishing grounds.
By the mid 1800s almost every family in Barking was involved in the fishing industry in some form or other. But as the town headed into the second half of the century Barking’s fishing fortunes were to change dramatically.
In 1862 Samuel relocated his fleet head-quarters to Gorleston, Suffolk, which was at least 120 miles closer to the fishing grounds. And three years later Barking effectively lost any advantage it once had when a cheap and fast rail link was built from London to Gorleston. Many families followed the Short Blue fleet to Suffolk, while others headed to Grimsby, attracted by a newly opened dock.
John Brewer was one of those who ended up in Grimsby after the Short Blue Fleet sold off the Tartar in 1863. (Another coincidence as Grimsby is where I grew up.)
In the census of 1871 he is still listed as a fisherman, now living at the charmingly named (but probably not very charming to live in) 8 Foot Road.
John Brewer died in 1874 and was buried at St Andrew’s Church on Freeman Street which sadly was lost many years ago. The picture below is from about 1911 and shows the church as it was.
The year before John’s boat, the Tartar, was sold off, his daughter Esther who had been born in 1844 married an Essex man called Edward Cornell, another fisherman.
Grimsby Docks in the late 1800s
When her parents moved north to Grimsby, Esther and Edward elected to stay in London and were recorded as living in Bermondsey in the 1871 census. But either later that year or early in 1872 they too moved up to Grimsby like many of the London-based fishermen, a port that was fast becoming the busiest fishing port in the world.
Indeed, the Cornell’s ordered their own boat in 1872, a Dandy-rigged ketch of 60 tons which they named the “Edward and Esther”, the shipping order listing their address as 28 Orwell Street, Grimsby.
There are no images of the Edward and Esther but she would have looked almost the same as this Dandy-rigged ketch, photographed in the 1890s. We know that she had a crew of 5 including Edward as skipper; an experienced first mate and three younger men working as deck hands. I’m guessing they would have looked a little like this crew from another Grimsby trawler, taken in the 1890s.
It shows the thoroughness of the exercise of conducting a national census that boat crews were included if they were in port near enough to the census date. In the case of the Edward and Esther for the census of 1881, Edward completed the forms for his boat when docked in Grimsby Fish Dock on the 30th March. For the actual date of the census (3 April) he listed his location listed as the “Dogger Bank, No Sea“… not the most common address for a census.
Sadly Esther died young in 1888.
Edward did not re-marry but sailed on, spending his whole working life as a mariner until he retired and spent the last years of his life living with his daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law, George Bevers.
Edward died in April 1919.