History: Sad tales of Barking fishing apprentices

Thinking of child labour in Victorian times, chimney sweeps, coal miners and factory workers spring to mind. Yet thousands of boys suffered on Barking fishing smacks in equally bad conditions.

For centuries Barking was a major fishing port.

Fred Brand, born in Barking in 1857, wrote that the Town Quay was “filled with fishing boats, whose red and brown sails lent a picturesque splash of colour to the place… on all sides were the sights, the sounds and the smells of a fishing port.

“Ship building, sail making, trunk making, mast and block making, were in active operation. The place also had about it that peculiar odour that one only finds in a fishing port: a combined smell of tar, boiling pitch, and fresh fish.

“You jostled along the footpath against fisher boys in blue jerseys or brownish-yellow blouses, or rubbed against sea boots or oilskins, hanks of yarn or barrels of pork, all of which you would find in the doorways of shops.”

In 1833 Barking had around 120 fishing vessels, with an average of four apprentices each. Boys were apprenticed for a fixed number of years, or until they reached 21.

They normally started aged 11 or 12, but in 1767 it was recorded that Thomas Moungall took on two eight-year-olds.

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Smack owners received money with each apprentice, and workhouses happily paid to get orphans off their hands.

Barking fisherman James Payen wrote: “It was the custom to receive lads from all the poorhouses round, the parishes giving good premiums with them to the ship-owners. Shadwell gave as much as �14 and Limehouse �10.”

These large sums tempted smack owners to take on more and more boys.

Fishing was usually in the North Sea, in freezing, treacherous and sometimes deadly conditions. The book The Hewetts of Barking contains this story.

“A boy was lost at sea, last seen when he brought the watch on deck their mugs of tea. He had probably put foot on a small fish, and the roll of the boat took him overboard.

“It was raining, the night was black as pitch, and the boy had on oilskins and heavy leather thigh-boots.

“He had no chance even if he could swim, but most fishermen cannot swim. They say it only prolongs the drowning.”

Other apprentices died not through accident but as a result of neglect and violence.

In March 1827, 12-year-old John Jones was on board the Rambler. The captain, William Bowers, punished him for a minor misdemeanour by tying him to a windlass, whipping him and leaving him there for six hours.

He died soon afterwards.

An inquest was held in Barking. A reporter wrote that his “back and loins were streaked with stripes of a livid gangrenous hue, as if occasioned by heavy flogging; and the breast, and other parts of the frame, exhibited several indications of serious external violence”.

Six of the inquest jury were smack-owners, and one was the father-in-law of the owner of the Rambler. Their verdict was John died “from exposure to the weather”.

In 1870 apprentice Robert Hennekey fell ill aboard the Gnat. Relief captain, Charles Pigrome, wanted to bring the boat back early to get Robert medical treatment.

The smack owner’s wife, a Mrs Bass, threatened to have him and the crew sent to prison if he did. A few days later Robert died.

At the inquest, a surgeon said the cause of death was “congestion of the lungs, from want of due circulation of blood in consequence of long exposure to cold”.

He reported that the boy’s hands, arms, ankles and other parts of the body had huge boils, in their last stage, which were not attended to.

Attitudes had moved on since the case of John Jones in 1827. The inquest jury were horrified at Mrs Bass’s attitude and were sorry they didn’t have the power to prosecute her for manslaughter.

They returned an open verdict to the effect that “death was accelerated by having insufficient clothing, and being exposed to the inclemency of the weather”.

Most employers, even the most hard-hearted, would surely want their employees to be in good health so that they could be productive.

However, with a constant supply of lads as fishing apprentices, bringing premiums of up to �14 each, they seem to have been treated as expendable.

Many were orphans, with nobody to complain on their behalf when they suffered far away at sea.

n Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Barking, Dagenham and Chadwell Heath by Linda Rhodes and Kathryn Abnett is on sale in bookshops, online and at Valence House in Dagenham.