Trawl Fishing - The Beam Trawl

Although there has been fishing of some description ( mainly for herring ) for many centuries from British ports, and it is known that British long boats visited Iceland as early as the 12th centuary, fishing for demersal fish (bottom feeders ) Turbot, Cod, and Plaice, upto the 19th centuary had been fished by the use of long lines, which were lines of strong fishing line with many hooks spaced at intervals for the length of the line. The origins of the beam trawl and the use of a beam trawl net to catch demersal fish (bottom feeders ) as we have known it over the past 160 years is not definately known, both Barking and Brixham laying claim to been the mother of the birth of beam trawling, but although not specifically mentioned there have been articles that have pointed to the use of some kind of trawl net been used off the English coast as early as the 13th centuary, it is also possible that Danish visitors to Brixham in the 16th centuary could have used a trawl to catch fish, as at this time Danish fishermen paid King Charles to fish in UK waters, their methods may have been adopted by a small number of Brixham men and passed on to future family members. Oyster fishermen including the Romans have used a similar smaller device for hundreds of years.

A Partition Presented to parliment 1376 - 1377

( Pet 51, Edward III, A.D 1376 - 1377 . _ Petition No.50 )

" That whereas in several places within your said realm, in creeks and havens of the sea, where was accustomed before these times to be a good and plenteous fishery to the great profit of the realm, which is in part destroyed and rendered valueless for a long time to come, by some fishermen who have for times during seven years past by a subtlety contrived a new instrument, which is amongst themselves called a `Wondy Choun,`made after the fashion of a ` Dag,` for oysters, which is usually long, to which instrument is attached a net ( ree ) of so small a mesh, no manner of fish however small, entering within it can pass out, and is compelled to remain there and be taken. And besides this, the hard and long iron of the said Wondy Choun that it destroys the spawn and brood of the fish, beneath the said water, and also destroys the spat of oysters, muscels, and other fish by which large fish are accustomed to live and be supported. By means of which instrument Called Wondy Choun in many places aforesaid, the fishermen aforesaid take so great abundance of small fish aforesaid, that they know not what to do with them, to the great damage of the commons of the Kingdom , and the destruction of the fisheries in like places. For which they prey remity.


" Let Commission be made by qualified persons to inquire and certify on the truth of this allegation, thereon let right be done in the Court of Chancery."

The above petition refering to the Wondy Choun, is clearly some form of net used to entrap fish of all sizes, it is not made clear wether the Wondy Choun or the net is actually a beam trawl, although the following description does in some way indicate so. The Wondy Choun was a net 18 ft long and 10 ft wide, its head rope was nailed to a beam which had a frame at each end, to raise it above the seabed. ( A dag ( Dredge ) was a small baglet with its mouth held open and used to dredge for oysters which were then brought up in the net). the WondyChoun seems to be an adaptation of the drag, after the benefits of such a instrument were realised by the fishermen. Another interesting matter is the referal to the fisheries in the said areas been depleted and destroyed by overfishing, an argument which would continue for several centuries to come, and eventually see the demise and end of the Hull fishing industry.

Again during the reign of King James I in 1622 Trawl nets were mentioned again, when the Mayor of Hythe wrote to Lord Zouche on the 7th March 1622 making the complaint that the fishermen of Rochester and Stroud were trawling off the port of Hythe with illegal nets. In subsequent years there were many petitions from fishermen regarding the use of trawl nets with small mesh sizes by some fishermen.

Act , George I. Sta. 2 Cap. XVIII

"From and after the twenty - fifth day of September one thousand seven hundred and sixteen, if any person or persons shall use at sea upon the coast of that part of Great Britain called England, any traul-net, drag-net or set-net whatsoever for the catching of any kind of fish ( except herrings, pilchards, sprats, lavidnian ) which hath any mesh or moke of less size than three inches and half at least from knot to knot, or which hath any false bottom, cod or pouch, or shall put any net or nets, though of legal size and mesh, upon or behind others, in order to catch and destroy the small fish which would have passed through any single net of three inches and half mesh, all and every such person and persons so offending shall forfeit all and singular such net or nets so used contrary to the true intent and meaning thereof, and also for every such offence the sum of twenty pounds of lawful money of Great Britain to be recovered and levied in such a manner and form as the penalty above inflicted upon the master of any vessel, wherein fish shall be imported contrary to this Act, is above directed to be recovered and levied, and in default of payment of the said twenty pounds , or of sufficient distress, the offender to be imprisoned in like manner, during the space of twelve months."

Further parts of the act say that all penalties and forfeitures in the Act were to be " disposed of in manner following, one moiety thereof to the informer, and the other moiety thereof to the poor of the parish where such offence shall be committed."

It was also an offence to sell or exchange for goods any fish deemed undersized as per the guidelines given, any offender was liable to a fine of twenty shillings and if unable was sent to a house of correction, gaol , or prison " there to be severely whipped, and kept to hard labour for a space of six days and not longer than fourteen days."

"turbet 16 in., brill or pearl 14 in., sole 8 in., plaice or dab8 in., whiting 6 in., the length been measured from the eyes to the furthest point of the tail

The above Act which was passed in 1716 and subsequent Acts that followed, would not be repealed untill the 1868 Sea Fisheries Act almost 152 years later. Again the 1716 Act portrays the concerns trawling was having on the fisheries of Great Britain, and had subsequent measures been implemented and enforced after 1868, we may still have had some kind of fishing industry in Hull today. Whoever and wherever the beam trawl was first introduced, it is without a doubt that it`s use would not significantly impact the fisheries of England untill other events took place in the 1840`s, Events that would give fishermen the ability to catch and distribute their fish, such as the discovery of the Great Silver pits and the arrival of the railways.

Well Smacks: Welled smacks were the innovation of Dutch fishermen and had been tried in Britain around 1712, the Barking fishermen had fished the length of the North Sea and had reached Iceland using well smacks for cod fishing, many years before the trawling smacks came to Hull. The Barking men used cod smacks and fished for cod by long line, they had definitely fished the Dogger Bank well before the discovery of the silver pits. Due to the distances sailed and the duration of voyages of upto 14 weeks to Iceland, they preserved the fish by the use of the well. Well smacks were constructed to keep the prime fish that had been caught by long lines and transfered to the well alive untill the vessel reached port. By keeping the fish alive in this way the vessel could spend longer at sea covering far greater distances while at the same time keeping the fish in prime condition, this capability would also enhance the price of the fish when landed. The well smacks were later adopted at other ports for use when trawl fishing, the live fish which were brought back to Barking by the cod smacks would be kept untill needed in cages in the river. The well was constructed by having two caulked bulkheads built across the hull of the vessel, which enclosed a large watertight compartment amidship, this been the well. There were then auger holes drilled in the bottom of the well at various depths below the waterline to allow a constant flow of sea water to pass through the well. Access to the well was via a hatch on the deck, various fish species had to be placed in the well by different methods, cod and haddock were just placed in the well and would swim freely around, however cod had to have their bladder pricked as they would swim on their sides in the shallow water of the well, pricking the bladder enabled them to swim upright. The flatfish like halibut and plaice would lie on the bottom and cause problems by blocking the holes. plaice would be placed in trunks that were lowered into the well. Any dead fish would be removed from the well daily. This was not the perfect way of transporting fish as the amount of water moving about in the well, as the vessel rolled could cause stability problems and create great stresses upon the vessel. A well smack would cost in excess of £300 more than a normal cod smack and over £800 for a trawling well smack in latter years. When used for trawling the well smacks would return to port and if the demand for the fish was not good the catch would be placed in a cod chest, a 7 x 4 x 2 ft box which was made of wood and had slatted sides, when placed in the dock water would run through the floating box. A gap in the lid enabled fish to be placed in or taken out of the box as needed, it was quite normal for fish to remain alive in the box for excess of two weeks and could live for upto eight or nine weeks without food. When needed the box would be hoisted and drained and the fish removed, they would be killed by a sharp blow to the nose with a wooden baton and then be taken to the market or to Billingsgate in London by train. Hull did not have any prevalent cod fishery and the largest number of welled smacks belonged and fished from Grimsby.