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The Smacksmen

Mersea Oystermen at the packing shed around 1900

  William Francis of Brightlingsea on 'Native', 1928    
Dorothy CK159 dredging near Mersea, 2003
  William Francis of Brightlingsea on 'Native', 1928  
Dredging Oysters
  Dorothy CK159 dredging near Mersea 2003

One of the principal occupations of the fishermen of Essex was dredging oysters. The iron-framed dredges were shaped like a capital A, with a three foot hoeing bar across its feet. A short net of twine spread from the hoe, crosspiece and sides between and had a chain-mesh bottom and a stick to square its after end. The apex of the iron frame was swelled and had an iron ring forged in it, to which a bass warp was made fast to tow the dredge. A sailing smack might tow from four to eight such dredges across an oyster ground, gathering, besides oysters, much rubbish and pests such as limpets, from which the marketable oysters had to be culled, the rubbish being thrown overboard. Pests such as slipper limpets were kept on deck to be dumped ashore when the day’s work was done, an unceasing struggle to keep the grounds clear.

All hauling of dredges was done by hand; the work required sailing craft that handled well, sometimes under sail which was reduced to control speed to suit the conditions of wind and tide, often in confined waters and amongst numbers of other smacks similarly manoeuvering. Such work improved the smartness of the Essex seamen. Between 30 and 100 smacks of up to 15 tons dredged the Colne estuary fishery, administered by the Colchester Oyster Fishery Company, which had strong links with the Corporation of Colchester, the port at the navigable head of the river. The dredgermen in the Colne had to be Freemen of the river Colne, a privilege much prized in those days of scarce winter employment. The nearby Blackwater and Crouch rivers had extensive oyster layings worked by companies, but without the system of Freemen.

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Expansion as a Result of the Railways

The fishing trade expanded considerably in the mid-nineteenth century as a result of railways reaching north-east Essex. At Wivenhoe, a first effect of the arrival of the railway was to encourage the landing of sprats for distribution by rail as field manure, besides giving speedy access to Billingsgate and other markets for prime fish such as spring soles or boxed smoked sprats in winter. Meanwhile the deep-sea dredging of oysters by smacks from the Colne and elsewhere continued. In the eighteensixties oysters were in demand and were being discovered in large quantities by the smacks. Dredging went on off Orfordness, off Ostend in Belgium, in parts of the English Channel and around Jersey, which became a busy centre. Colne yards were building smacks as fast as possible to reap this harvest, and on one occasion at Brightlingsea four smacks were launched in one day.

Emboldened by optimism, many smacksmen who had money to venture placed orders for new craft, of a size which had not before been owned locally nor in such numbers. No companies were created, for the thought of skippering smacks owned by others, common in other ports, was horrifying to the vigorously independent Essexmen, who especially wished to develop their long established dredging of sea-oysters. The result was a fleet of powerful cutters, with a glorious sheer and rakish rig. Almost all were designed and built in local yards, with the exception of a few constructed at the Channel Islands port of Gorey, Jersey, then a noted centre of the shellfish industry and much frequented by Essexmen.

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The Men of the Big Smacks

Aldous of Brightlingsea built thirty-six of these big smacks between 1857 and 1867. Harris at Rowhedge and Harvey at Wivenhoe built a good number and some were launched on the Blackwater. These smacks of between 20 and 40 registered tons dwarfed the little estuary oyster dredgers, and there was as great a difference between them in purpose and voyaging as that between a deep-sea trawler and an inshore fisherman of today.

These craft formed the most adventurous fleet of fishing vessels ever to sail from Essex. However, there is no sense in attempting to glamourize the fisheries in which they took part, which were always hard, often dangerous and usually miserably rewarding financially, but they bred men of strong and independent character. Theirs was not the comparatively idyllic life of the estuary dredgers, but a thrusting existence, where they had to be alive to any and every opportunity that came their way. Most skippers began as apprentices, serving on board their master’s smack and living in his house when in port. These boys were sometimes at sea at the age of twelve, being bound for from five to seven years to the smack owner, who might have two apprentices serving on board his smack. This system existed in the seventeenth century but died out by the end of the nineteenth. The owner found them food, but the apprentice supplied their own favourite rig of cheesecutter cap, white canvas jumper and smock over a thick guernsey. Stout duffle trousers were tucked into leather sea-boots, which had cobbled soles, often studded with wooden pegs for a better grip on deck.

It was a life which produced competent seamen and if the boy was lucky offered prospects of advancement within the harsh framework of the times. There was little of the by guess and by God style of navigation amongst these smacks’ confident skippers, most of whom were progressive enough to obtain a Fishing Master’s certificate when these were introduced in the eighteenseventies.

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Voyaging Far Afield for Oysters And Scallops

Rich oyster beds were discovered by the big smacks off Jersey in 1787 and the news travelled fast, for within a few months over 300 smacks from Essex, Shoreham, Enisworth and Faversham, manned by two thousand men, were working there. In a few months the quiet port of Gorey became a boom town. Later, a fleet of 60 Essex smacks sailed there each spring and carried on dredging the waters despite the hazards of the Napoleonic wars. The Jersey fishery declined during the eighteen-forties and became exhausted by 1871.

Hard as they were the fisheries flourished and by 1874 there were 132 first-class smacks of 15 to 30 tons registered at Colchester, in addition to 250 second-class of under 15 tons and 40 third-class vessels. By far the largest part of these were owned at Brightlingsea, with Rowhedge accounting for 29 first-class smacks, Wivenhoe 12 and Tollesbury 8. Few of these large smacks were owned by West Mersea fishermen, whose interests were chiefly centred in the Blackwater oyster fisheries, and although some had made ventures further afield in earlier times, there were none owned there in the later days.

Their quest for oysters and scallops led them at various times to work the Inner Dowsing and the Dudgeon banks, landing catches at Grimsby or Blakeney in north Norfolk, the Ness grounds, stretching from Orfordness to Cromer in Norfolk the Galloper and Kentish Knock areas of the North Sea, and the Terschelling and Hinder banks off the Dutch coast, landing catches at Brightlingsea. In the English Channel they dredged the Goodwin, Sandettie and the Varne grounds besides those on the French coast at Caen Bay, Dieppe, St Valéry-sur-Somme, Fécamp, Calais and Dunkirk, using Ramsgate, Dover, Shoreham or Newhaven to land catches. Down Channel, West Bay provided some work and occasionally the Cornish Fal and Helford rivers were visited by the Essexmen, while the Channel Island of jersey attracted large numbers of Essex and other smacks to its fishery for seventy years. Others sailed round Land’s End to work on the south Pembrokeshire coast, based at Swansea and Bangor, and southern Ireland, north west Ireland and the Solway Firth regularly saw the rakish Colne topmasts.

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Life Aboard the Smacks Was Hard

When dredging, work aboard these smacks was hard. On the grounds the topmast was often struck and a reef tucked in the mainsail, or the trysail would be set to ease speed and motion in a seaway and keep the boom clear of unwary heads. After this they worked almost continuously day and night, with only occasional spells for mugs of tea and a bite to eat. It was muscle-cracking work winding up the big sea dredges with six foot hoeing edges from 26 fathoms by hand. Often six were worked at a time on 65 fathom, 3 inch bass warps, leading in through multiple rollers on the rail or through a port in the bulwark. Each weary foot of it was cranked home, with one man keeping tension on the slack, which Jerked back on every sea to etch new scars into hands already torn by the tiny shell picked up by the warp. So it went on hour after hour, without even the respite of sorting between hauls which trawling gives. At about 3 am the gear would be laid in and the crew took half-hour watches before recommencing at six; this might go on for five or six days.

Wherever there were oysters the far ranging Essexmen would find them, and flourishing local oyster fisheries at Swansea and Cardigan Bays in Wales, Largo Bay in Fife, Scotland, in the Solway Firth and off north Norfolk were rapidly worked out by fleets of Colne smacks, to the rage, and often despite the resistance, of local fishermen. Sea oysters were also dredged on the Terschelling bank off the Dutch coast, about 112 miles east from Orfordness, from which point the smacks made their departure. Trips averaged twelve days, during which a haul of ten thousand large oysters could be expected. This was a harsh fishery, a lee shore in prevailing winds, with no handy leeward refuge. Many Colne smacks and their crews were lost off Terschelling and elsewhere in those adventurous times. In a January gale in 1891 the Brightlingsea smack Glance, sailed by Captain Tom Tillett, and the Gemini, John Causton master, were lost with all hands, and in a period of about three years there were twelve hands lost overboard from Colne smacks when fishing.

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Other Employment for the Colne Smacks

Apart from these activities many Colne smacks were employed on contract for £12 per week as fish carriers for the lumbering Grimsby, Yarmouth, Hull and Lowestoft ketches that trawled the North Sea in fleets. The Colne boats were ideal for this work, being fast and capable of driving through foul weather. Blow high or low they usually got to London’s Billingsgate fish market before the iced cargo had turned.

Colne smacks were also employed in the seasonal carrying of fresh salmon from the western Irish ports of Sligo and Westport, around the northern tip of Ireland to the Liverpool market. This was a voyage which was exposed to the full sweep and fury of the north Atlantic and most smacks in this trade took the precaution of reeving chain reef-pendants to stand the hard driving of a fourday round voyage to Liverpool, no mean feat for such small ships.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century yachting rivalled and then eclipsed the Essex deep-sea fisheries as a living and the smaller 12 to 18 ton smacks became popular for working the Thames estuary and its approaches, as these could be more economically laid up all summer while their crews made more colourful sailing history.

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The Days of the Fishing Smack are Coming to a Close

The days of the big smacks were ending, although as late as 1890 Brightlingsea had a fleet of fifty-two. Twelve years later a series of poisoning scares killed the demand for sea oysters and the remaining fleet took to working down Channel from January to March, usually dredging from French ports, notably Boulogne, and sending the catch to London by night steamer and rail. Shoreham was also used when dredging grounds off Beachy Head, and in the mid-nineteenth century many Colne smacks gathered there to work. As late as 1903 Colne smacks were dredging oysters on the Ridge and the Varne shoals, using Newhaven in Sussex as a base, but little or no money was made from all this endeavour and hard work.

Scallops became another shellfish sought by the Essex smacks and others from-south coast ports. Only small scallops called queens, about 3 inches in diameter, were dredged on the Essex and Kent coasts, but there were larger ones averaging 41/2 to 5 inches in diameter to be found in the English Channel, from Dover westwards and particularly off Hastings and Worthing in Sussex. This attracted only 3 smacks in the early 1850s, rising to 20 five years later. In 1877 40 smacks from the Colne, Dover, Rye and Folkestone were dredging scallops and these were sent to London in large quantities and were also sold locally. The Colne smacks sought the scallop further afield on the French coast, the Channel Islands and off the Dutch coast. In 1899 there were ten first class smacks from Brightlingsea dredging scallops there from January to late March, and this continued with varying success until 1914. It was for a time briefly revived after 1919 by a few remaining large smacks and motor craft, and there were also occasional attempts to revive the oyster and scallop dredging in Caen Bay and elsewhere in the Channel, culminating in 1948 when a motor fishing vessel was fitted out at Brightlingsea under Frank Goodwin, one of the last of the Colne men to combine fishing with serving on yachts in the old tradition, but he found little to dredge.

The 1914-18 war dealt a great blow to the big smacks; although fish prices were high, several were sold away to Lowestoft and elsewhere, while others worked on government fishing contracts, mainly stowboating for sprats. After the war a remnant carried on in the traditional ways, supplemented by a few motor drifters bought from other ports. With the exception of these and half a dozen paddle steam dredgers owned by oyster companies at Burnharn and in the Colne, steam found no place in the Essex fishing fleet.

from “Smacks and Bawleys” by John Leather

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