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The History of the Essex-Smack

The Essex Smack

map of the Thames Estuary from 1900  

The sailing smacks of the county of Essex evolved through many centuries and their exact origins are now almost impossible to discover. They were built, owned and fished from small ports on the rivers Colne, Blackwater, Crouch and Roach, with others from Harwich and Leigh.

Basically the Essex-smack was a cutter-rigged fishing vessel having various forms and di-mensions for different fisheries. There were three principal types in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Small smacks, up to about 35 feet and about 12 tons register, were mainly used for estuary dredging and trawling. Some 12 to 18 tonners, up to about 50 feet, were used for this work at times, but were mainly fishing coastwise and at sea, spratting and oystering, dredging five-fingers (starfish) and mussels at times, and fish trawling.

map of the Thames Estuary from 1900

Largest of all were the seagoing smacks up to about 65 feet in length and 20 tons register or more, which were principally owned in the River Colne and at Burnham, the Colne boats fishing far afield. All were noted for windward ability, seaworthiness and speed.

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Two Classes of Small Smacks > Construction

The smaller Essex-smacks may be divided into two classes, those of twelve tons and over, which were used for stowboating and shrimping as well as oyster dredging, and the little cutters of five to ten tons, which were employed on local oyster layings, some of them leading a long and busy life without ever sailing ten miles from their moorings.

  fishing smacks on the hard of Maldon Hythe in the 1930s  
They were in the main small-scale replicas of the big rakish deep-sea cutters, even the five-tonners retaining channels for their shrouds, a feature dispensed with only in a few stowboaters which found them in the way when boarding the baulks alongside. The style of their eighteenth century predecessors is shown by die remarkable survivor, Boadicea, clinkerbuilt at Maldon in 1808, a much chubbier form, which the nineteenth century builders refined into yacht-like counter-sterned cutters, though the locally built Maldon smacks were as a rule originally, transomsterned.
fishing smacks on the hard of Maldon Hythe in the 1930s

The great majority were built at Brightlingsea by Root and Diaper, John James and most of all Aldous, who turned out a ten-tonner for £ 100, often trusting the buyer to pay him out of the first few years’ work. Others came from Rowhedge, Wivenhoe, Tollesbury, Paglesham and West Mersea, and even one or two from Peldon, where there is no trace of an established yard. Many of the later boats, at Mersea in particular, were of shoal draft, putting the ability to dredge in shallow water, or lie comfortably in the outfalls on „the Main“ when winkling, above smart performance in sailing to windward. Indeed when dredging under sail, making leeway was a positive advantage, for some of the deeper, smarter smacks lay hove-to like pilot cutters and covered less ground.

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The Fishing Gear > The Smacksmen

All were fitted with a wooden barrel windlass across the fore-deck, worked by hand-spikes. It was a surprisingly efficient piece of equipment and capable of breaking out an anchor under most conditions. Internal ballast consisted of iron scrap: iron fire bars were popular, although iron cannon shot, dredged up, was used and at least one smack carried a muzzle loading cannon, found in the trawl when dredging in The Wallet.

Trawl and halyard winches were seldom fitted in the smaller smacks, and most had forward cabins. The twelve-tonners rigged topsails, but few of the little oyster smacks found a need for them. Some were pole-masted; others had caps on the masthead in which a topmast might occasionally be rigged for such special conditions as a summer’s dredging under the trees below Pin Mill on the Orwell. Before the decline of the big oyster companies, a hundred smacks might be seen dredging in the Blackwater and nearly as many in the Colne. Dredging continued until the Second World War, and thanks to the survival of so many smacks in this trade, their handy size and their fine sailing qualities, they have proved the most popular of all working craft for preservation as yachts.

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Smacksmen were Also Yachtsmen

The villages of Rowhedge and Wivenhoe, tucked away up the tidal estuary of the Colne, developed a remarkable spirit of pioneering enterprise throughout the nineteenth century. The shipyards of Sainty, Harris and Harvey succeeded in producing some of the finest smacks and yachts in the country. The smacksmen ranged far afield, chiefly in search of oysters, and as their skill and daring gained recognition they were in demand as skippers and crews of some of the grandest craft in the age of the big yachts. This earned them the money which in turn went into even finer and faster smacks. Brightlingsea, with the advantage of deep water at the mouth of the estuary, soon joined in and throughout the latter half of the century Aldous’s yard there was the biggest of all the Essex smack builders, turning out thirty-six big cutters of over twenty tons between 1857 and 1867.

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The Large Smacks > Construction

Fifty-footers with a beam of fifteen feet, were in demand as early as the beginning of the century, including Adventure, built at Rowhedge in 1814 (fifty-two feet by fifteen feet by eight feet), and Indefatigable (Wivenhoe, fifty-one feet by fourteen feet by six feet). For registration, either the waterline length or the length „between perpendiculars“ was measured; these smacks probably had counter sterns extending their overall length by some six feet.

The trend after the Napoleonic Wars was towards smaller-craft, but some were an exception, the cutters reaching their zenith in Aquiline, built at Rowhedge in 18.65. She was sixty-five feet long with a beam of fifteen feet, drawing eight feet six inches when loaded to her full capacity of twenty-one tons. Her main boom was fifty-five feet long and the bowsprit twenty-five feet outward. This was the limit for a cutter’s gear, and some were converted to ketches, occasionally being lengthened at the same time. A few were also built with ketch rig, including New Unity and New Blossom, both bigger than Aquiline.

In addition to a hand-spike anchor windlass, they carried a hand winch forward of the mast with four barrels for working halyards and running out the bowsprit, and another winch or capstan amidships, also hand-operated, for the dredge or trawl warps.

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Voyaging to Distant Coasts

As well as voyaging anywhere between Friesland and Scotland for oysters, these big smacks fitted out for sprat stowboating in winter, and also continued mixing cargo and fishing voyages, using their speed for fish carrying, bringing spring potatoes from St. Malo and the Channel Islands, or even a load of coal from the Tyne or Humber. They were also salvagers, cruising among the Thames Estuary sandbanks to earn rich rewards from the many wrecks there. One of the most noted of the Rowhedge salvagers, John Glover, in 1857 built his Increase (sixty-nine feet by fourteen feet by six feet) with a transom stem, perhaps because the long counter was too vulnerable to damage in this rough work, or perhaps because he had moved to Harwich, where this style of stem was the fashion.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, there were a number of these deep-sea smacks at Burnham and a few at West Mersea, but by 1874, when the fleet reached a total of 132, most belonged to Brightlingsea, with twenty-nine at Rowhedge, twelve at Wivenhoe and eight at Tollesbury. There was still a fleet of fifty two at Brightlingsea in 1890, but soon after this the deep-sea oyster trade was killed off by poisoning scares.

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Final Days of the Big Smacks

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. 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.

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.

Scallops became another shellfish sought by the Essex-smacks and others from-south coast ports. 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 French waters 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.

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Fishing Boats are Converted to Yachts

Since 1900 Essex-smacks have occasionally been converted to yachts by admirers of the type and this increased after the decline of sail in the nineteen thirties. They often needed considerable and costly rebuilding; naturally only the smaller smacks have survived in this way. But even a small cutter smack is heavy work for amateurs, and most of the smack yachts do not carry topmast, which is a pity, as a topsail is ideal for light weather and generally restores their traditional appearance. The surviving estuary dredgers may lack the tall sparred grace of the larger smacks, but all east coasters are indebted to enthusiasts who preserve and rebuild the old smacks to keep them sailing, for the final passing of their canvas from the estuary and the passing of the regattas will sever a tradition of fishing and racing under sail reaching deep into the past of the Colne and Blackwater seamen.

in parts from “Smacks and Bawleys” by John Leather

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BETTY smacks cruising the Estuary janholthusen