On August 19, 1848 a fierce gale on the north-east coast of England took the lives of 107 fishermen. A government inquiry was set up as a result, and its report!, written by Captain Washington of the Royal Navy, has an unexpected significance today. Washington's report provides the first clear evidence of the existence at Hastings of a class of decked fishing vessels, half as big again as the largest boats on the beach today, that roamed the North Sea and western English Channel in search of herring and mackerel.
were the 'large fishing craft', the vessels the Hastings fishermen
called 'luggers'. Up to 55 feet long overall (between the extreme
ends of the hull), with three masts and a crew of eight-ten,
the Hastings luggers were almost as big as the largest of the
middle-water fishing vessels then found on the British coast.
Little is' now known of them in Hastings, as they spent most
of the year away from the town and were therefore infrequently
seen in Hastings and rarely photographed.
The luggers sailed from Hastings in early January, working their
way west along the Channel in search of mackerel, ending up
off Lands End in the spring. They returned to Hastings in the
early summer and sometimes fished the local coast for a while,
again for mackerel. Then they heaved up the beach for a refit
and to change their mackerel gear for the herring nets. About
mid-August the luggers 'fleeted off (went afloat) again and
sailed north down the east coast (north was always 'down' to
fishermen; in the Channel, 'down' is towards Folkestone). The
boats might have to go as far as southern Scotland before meeting
the first herring shoals, when they turned round and gradually
worked their way south again, arriving back in Hastings just
before Christmas. The crews would then have a brief holiday
and change the fishing gear over again, ready for the start
of the next 'mackerel voyage' (the mackerel and herring seasons
were called 'voyages'; luggers going a long way from home were
on 'foreign voyages'; smaller boats catching fish off the local
coast were on 'home voyages'). On their foreign voyages the
luggers based themselves at ports such as Plymouth, Portsmouth,
Lowestoft and Scarborough, where they landed their catches.
Just when the big luggers developed is something of a mystery.
There were 23 of them in 1854, the first year for which there
are surviving Hastings Council records based on boat length2,
while the 1849 Washington report talks of them as though they
were already well-established. But reliable contemporary r€ports
of them before 1848 are very rare; the earliest I have found
date from 1839, when the Cinque Ports Chronicle described Hastings
vessels mackerel fishing near Plymouth3 and herring catching
off Scotland4. There is no mention of them in the 1833 Channel
fisheries inquiry. The luggers were expensive to build and equip,
and therefore required the investment of a substantial amount
of capital that seems unlikely to have been available until
the fishing depression ended in the mid-1830s. It is possible,
therefore, that the big, decked luggers may have first appeared
in the mid-1830s, having evolved from the old smaller three-masters.
But the Hastings fishermen's practice of voyaging the southern
and eastern coasts for drift fish was centuries old even then.
The best example of this was the medieval herring fishery at
Yarmouth, producing an annual migration of Hastings fishermen
to camp on the open Norfolk beach for the short season. It is
not clear how itinerant Hastings fishermen were - if at all
- in the 18th and early 19th centuries before the development
of the luggers, but there is no record of it before the 1830s.
The coming of the big luggers brought in to existence a large-scale
industry at Hastings quite distinct from the rest of the fishing
fleet. The owners of the luggers were relatively well-off people,
able to gamble all the expenses of fitting out a lugger for
a voyage of several months. The losses could be substantial,
but the potential profits were greater than could be gained
in the local, inshore fishing.
If outside capital were ever to be invested in the Hastings
fishing industry, this would have been the most likely time
of its introduction. Outside capital would probably have brought
with it an end to the share system, the introduction of the
payment of wages to crews and the appearance of the kind of
employer! employee conflict seen later in the distant water
ports of Hull, Grimsby and Aberdeen. This did not happen, however.
The luggers seem to have been owned largely by prosperous local
fishermen, fish merchants and boatbuilders, who maintained the
traditional share system that brought about such a unity of
interest between boat owners, skippers and crews. There was
a concentration of local ownership, however, with 11 of the
22 luggers in 1861 being owned by two different families.
A description and plan of a typical three-masted lugger was
published in the 1849 Washington report. The details came from
John D Thwaites, part of the well-known Hastings ship and boat-building
family. The vessel was said by Thwaites to be 48 feet long.