Bustling Barking was world's fishing capital

IF YOU wandered down a Barking street a little more than 150 years ago, there may well have been a rather distinctive whiff of fish in the air. For Barking, as many of the borough s residents will know, could once lay claim to having the largest fishing

IF YOU wandered down a Barking street a little more than 150 years ago, there may well have been a rather distinctive whiff of fish in the air.

For Barking, as many of the borough's residents will know, could once lay claim to having the largest fishing fleet in the world.

In 1850 the town would have been bustling with fisherman, mast makers, sail makers, net makers, waterproof clothing makers and even ships biscuit makers.

The earliest mention of salt-water fishing from Barking can be traced back to 1320, when some of the town's men were prosecuted for using fishing nets with too small a mesh (something which could affect the long term viability of the fishery.)

For the next 500 years the fishing industry in Barking, ideally located near London, grew steadily. But it would remain on a fairly modest scale until the early 1800s, when the industry really took off.

In 1811 records show the town had 70 boats. By 1832 this had grown to 140 large vessels and by 1850 Barking boasted a 220-strong commercial fleet - the biggest in the world.

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The phenomenal growth of the industry during this time can largely be put down to just one family, the Hewetts. In the mid 1790s Scrymgeour Hewett (1795-1850), a Scotsman from Fifeshire, came down to Barking to look after a property owned by an aunt of his. In 1795 he married Sarah Whennel, the daughter of local fisherman James Whennel, and offered to help his father-in-law manage his two smacks (a type of fishing boat.)

Scrymgeour soon set about enlarging the fleet, called the Short Blue, and in 1812 enlisted the help of his 14-year-old son Samuel (1797-1871). Samuel, who eventually took over the running of the business, was to prove a rather innovative young man and it was one of his clever ideas that would help make Barking the enormous fishing port it later became.

Before the 1820s, fish caught off the boats were either killed and salted immediately or kept alive, in a large, on-board, wooden swimming pool until they reached port.

Samuel felt this was not a cost-effective system because the boats, which would often sail as far as Iceland, would be forced to make frequent trips back to Barking to unload the catch. This, he believed, was wasting time that could have been spent fishing. So Samuel decided to introduce a system called fleeting.

The fish were now caught, killed, then preserved in ice, before being collected by fast boats, called cutters, and taken back to London. Every time the cutters returned to the fishing grounds they would bring more ice and provisions for the sailors, which meant the fishing vessels could stay at sea continuously for three to six months at a time.

The ice used to pack the fish was made by flooding the marshes around Barking every winter and on a big annual social occasion, called the Ice Harvest, it would be collected and put into one of Samuel's purpose built store houses. The walls of the houses were so thick, the thousands of tons of ice would remain frozen right through the summer.

Samuel's new fishing system was extremely successful and helped the Hewett fleet grow substantially. Others even followed Samuel's idea, either setting up their own fleets or paying the Hewetts to collect and deliver the fish.

By the mid 1800s almost every family in Barking was involved in the fishing industry in some form or other. But as the town headed into the second half of the century the Barking's fishing fortunes were to change dramatically.

In 1862 Samuel relocated his fleet head-quarters to Gorleston, Suffolk, which was at least 120 miles closer to the fishing grounds. And three years later Barking effectively lost any advantage it once had when a cheap and fast rail link was built from London to Gorleston. Many families followed the Short Blue fleet to Suffolk, while others headed to Grimsby, attracted by a newly opened dock.

In 1870 only three smack owners were listed in Barking. By 1903 the last of the Barking fleet had been sold off.

Today there are few visible reminders of the town's important fishing past, apart from the odd pub and street name. But next time you tuck into your cod and chips its worth sparing a thought for those Barking men, who spent many treacherous months at sea, hauling in catch after catch, so Nineteenth Century folks could enjoy a plate of tasty, fresh fish for dinner.

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