The Luggers


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.

These 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.