Oral history recording of Hugh Patterson of Blyth, Northumberland, and his daughter, Ann Kirkpatrick, recalling the fishing industry in Blyth in the 1930s.
Hugh Patterson and his daughter Ann Kirkpatrick
1st tape –
Hugh – I was born at Blyth in October 1915. I’m 98 now.
Beth – You were a fisherman all your life? – Hugh – Yes, from being 16. I retired at 65. Except for the war years.
Beth – And Ann, you’re Hugh’s daughter? Ann – Yes, I was born at Blyth while dad was in the navy, in 1944, and I’ve lived in Blyth all my life.
Beth – I believe your family didn’t always live in Blyth – How did they come to be here?
Hugh – My father came from Beadnell in 1912 to go fishing. There were fishermen at Beadnell and a lot of them went to different places – some went to Amble and some came to Blyth.
Beth – Why Blyth? Hugh – There was some fishermen from Craster came here to start with and my father got a job with them at first, I think, for a short while. There was 3 men in the boat. They were working lines and trap pots. And they got onto the salmon fishing in the summer. They fished for crabs and lobster with the pots. But with the lines, haddock and whiting. The lines were baited with mussels.
Ann – Dad, can you tell Beth about the women baiting the lines?
Hugh – It was left to the women to open the mussels in the morning. When the boats came ashore the lines had to be baited – that was a job for the women and the fishermen themselves.
Ann – how many did they do? Hugh – We used to be working 3 lines each. They normally had 700 hooks on. Ann – How long would that be? Hugh – 60 fathoms – that’s 120 yards. Ann – It was a very hard job for me grandma. Hugh – It would be at least about 3 or 4 hours just to bait the lines. About 600 (hooks) were actually baited.
At the time I was there, there were 5 boats working. 2 hands in each boat – in the 1930s.
Before that, when father started in the other boat – they used to try to work 2 lines for each man. Each man baited one long line.
Beth – can we go back a bit …
Ann – Dad, your parents came from Beadnell and you were born after they came to Blyth?
Hugh – My father came down in 1912 and I was born in 1915. Ann- And you lived next door and then they bought this house? Hugh – They bought this house later. Ann – You were about 9 when they came in here? Hugh – That’ll be 1926. I was 10 I think.
Ann – There were quite a few fishermen who lived in this block and the next one who came down the same time as granddad? Hugh – Yes, Abe Johnson lived in SeafieldTerrace there and Jack Liddle lived at the end of Wensleydale Terrace.
Ann – When did Jack Liddle come? Hugh – he came later. Ann – He was granddad’s cousin. Hugh – I think I’d left school by then. That’ll be roughly, er – it’d be 1929.
Beth – I think you told me that before the 1st World War, the harbour here was trying to encourage the fishing trade?
Hugh – When the market started – I don’t know … Beth – You said it was a good rail connection?
Hugh- In the fishmarket at Blyth – I cannot remember what year it started – but it was very handy
for the railway to get the fish away from the fishmarket onto the train – the railway line came alongside the fishmarket. At North Shields it had to be taken way on horse and cart to the railway station up Tanners Bank – it was a steep climb for the horses. It was much handier at Blyth. Why they changed back to Shields from Blyth I don’t know. Ann- You thought there was a bit of skullduggery there, didn’t you, dad? Hugh – Ay, we never found out for sure why. There was a lot of Grimsby men came up and worked out of Blyth, with the Grimsby trawlers.
Ann – When did the Dutch fleet come to Blyth? Hugh – They were after herring – it was when they were close to Blyth that they came in, it wasn’t a regular port, they just came in to tie up. They put the herrings into barrels themselves and cured them – they salted them into barrels and kept them on board and took them back to their own country. To my knowledge they never landed any herring into here.
Ann – You know that photograph of the girls cleaning the herring? When would that be? Hugh- That was the local drifters – some of the Scotchmen came down here. They worked out of Blyth when the herring weren’t far away and they would land here. A lot of women came down with the fleet – followed them down the coast ‘cos the herring shifted south and they followed the fleet. They were landed, cleaned and put into barrels. Beth – was that more in your dad’s time? Hugh- I cannot remember when that fleet was working. But that was what happened when the drifters were working. They worked their way down south, all the way down, they followed the herring.
Beth- How did you come into the fishing business? Did you do anything else after leaving school?
Hugh – I had a little job selling sand – we were taking loads of sand off the beach. Then we decided when I was 16 I would join the fishing.
Beth – Were you not allowed before? Hugh – Oh, I could have done. I don’t know…. Ann – Would it be how many men were in the boat? Hugh – There were just the two of them at the time, in the Margaret and William.
Ann – You know when you taking sand off the beach … Hugh – We used a horse and cart and the wagons took the sand away. Ann – What did they use the sand for? Hugh – For builders and for the roads as well. Ann – There were very high dunes there at one time. Hugh – Not where I was, at the middle jetty. There was a wall across there and we would shovel it over the wall into wagons – you could take it off the beach with a horse and cart – they did that at Seaton Sluice. The Trinidad Asphalt Company had the contract down there. That went away in wagons taken off the beach with a crane and grab – the harbour crane – used to drag it and put it into wagons.
Beth – was it a better job being in the boat? Hugh – Well, I was only getting10s a week loading sand. Ann – How much did you get from granddad? Two and six? Hugh – About the same I think. Ann – I don’t think you got paid. Hugh – Not for quite a while, you got pocket money. It was the family business. That was the way it worked. The other boats was the same with the young lads.
Beth – Do you remember any of the other boats fishing out of Blyth during the 1930s?
Hugh – There was 5 boats – Ann – What were their names? Hugh – The Isabella I think it was called, and the Judges had a one. Ann – Would they be in that book you’ve got? The one with the boats’ numbers on? Hugh – No, they wouldn’t be in that one.
Beth – I wondered what kind of life it was during the Depression? As a fisherman, were you considered to be well off compared with other people?
Hugh – It was the Depression when I left school – with all the ships laid up in the harbour. The colliers were tied up. Ann – When you think, dad, you were living in this house and the standard of
living here was quite good compared with a lot of people.
Hugh – There were a lot of people on the dole. Ann – but the fishermen weren’t. You had an income. Hugh – The fishermen weren’t entitled to the dole to start with, because they didn’t pay stamps.
Ann – They always said, when I was at school, that we were well off. But I didn’t feel well-off. It was a different lifestyle here at grandma’s than it was in a lot of places. Beth – this is a nice house….
Ann – You can imagine – this had a bathroom – this had gas lights. When did the electricity come here Dad? Hugh – there was some electricity here and some gas.
Ann – There was a gas lamp in the kitchen and in the bathroom and also electricity. A bathroom and toilet upstairs as well as an outside toilet was quite… Hugh – Before, there was a dry toilet in the yard. Beth – For those days it was quite a high standard. Ann – Grandma was a wonderful housekeeper – everything was done very correct. Table manners, white table cloth. You couldn’t put a foot wrong in here. She was an excellent cook. She was lovely.
(Hugh says something about the fishing)
Ann – Beth wants to know about your life, not just about the fishing, but how it affected your life. Were you better off than people you went to school with? Hugh – Much the same as other people – after the depression eased a bit they got jobs, into a trade, apprenticeships – one or two, the joiners getting apprenticeships, plasterers – it picked up. At the beginning of the war there was more work around.
Ann – But you had long days at the fishing, did it depend on what you were fishing for?
Hugh – If you were at the lines, you were at sea by daybreak. In summer you started quite early. Ann – 3 o’clock ? Hugh – No, it’d be about 5 o’clock time.
Ann – How long were you out? Hugh – It all depends – if you were at the lines, but that was in the wintertime – that was October to March – after that you worked the crab pots and lobster pots for a while and then you started salmon fishing in the summer. The season started in February to September. You were restricted and you had to have a licence to go salmon fishing. For the salmon, you could go at night time. Or you fished during the day off the beach. Ann – but you were still in the boat, not literally off the beach. Hugh – No, you were in the boat all the time.
Ann – I can remember being taken in the small boat from the pier to granddad in the bay. I must have been about 4 or 5. One day dad came to pick me up and brought me back to the pier and he had to carry me up the ladder – and the harbour policeman put his arms out to get me and I wouldn’t leave – so he had to get himself and me up the ladder with one hand and he never let me forget that day!
Beth – Can you describe your father’s boat? Hugh – It was just open – it was a mule, it wasn’t a coble. Only about 31ft long. A mule is a double ended boat – pointed at the stern as well as the stem – that’s a coble there (pointing to picture) – that has a square stern, the mule came to a point at the stern. It had an engine in. Ann – Was that the Margaret and William? Hugh – Ay, the Margaret and William – a 31, 32 footer it was. It had a beam of 6ft or 7ft I think. Ann – What kind of boat was the Peggy? Hugh – that was just a rowing boat. Ann – You had the Fiona… Hugh – that was a rowing boat; that was for the salmon, from the beach.
Hugh – But for driving at night time, we had carbide lamps. Ann – Did they attract the fish? Hugh – No, just to see what you were doing. We didn’t have navigation lights, not for a small boat – just had a white light, all round white light – that was the regulation. If you had nets shot you had to have two lights. You had a low light for’ard and a high light aft, to show the nets you had lying in
Carbide was like stones – hard – there was water dripped onto it, and it made gas and you had a
rubber pipe from the cylinder to the lamps. One we had, it was a double one, it had two connections; you got enough gas for an after light and a for’ard light. But every night you had to put your carbide in. They used to have carbide lamps on the motorbikes too.
Beth- If you were out at night and the weather was bad, those lights don’t sound very safe!
Hugh – But you could only stand so much weather; if there was too much rain you came ashore. But it didn’t affect the lights, the rubber pipe had a proper jet at the end and that was in an all-round glass lamp – it was protected from the weather – it had to be or it would’ve been blown out. It was a proper lamp that had the jet in.
Ann – What are those lamps upstairs? Were they navigation lamps?- Hugh – No, that was from the Golden Days, later on. Later on you had electric – you had a generator then – but this was before the war.
Beth – If the weather was too bad you didn’t go out? Hugh – You had to make your own mind up. You didn’t get the forecast you get now. You had to make your own mind up by the barometer. If the reading was 29 you didn’t bother, you didn’t go out to sea – that’s what we reckoned was a bad blast. When it started to rise, that’s when you went. You had to use your own discretion.
Ann – What was the glass that you said you’d never seen before, was it last year? Hugh – That was on the news, that – it was as low as I’ve ever seen – 28.2 or something. I wish I’d taken a photograph of the barometer. That was on the radio. I think it was the beginning of this year.
Ann- When they had the storms down south. Dad would usually check the barometer each day – can you read them? Beth – No. Ann – It’s something we’ve always done. We lived by the weather – if it was windy and dad wasn’t home, it was quite worrying. When we got married, mum used to ring and say “He’s not home” and we’d go down to the quay to see what he was doing.
Beth – But before the war – if you were out late, your mother wouldn’t know what was happening – there were no communications then? Hugh – No, no radio then. That was later on, after the war, when we had the Golden Days and we had the radio on board – in 1949. Most of the boats had radio then.
Beth – Before the war – what were the best conditions for fishing – how did you know how to find the fish? Hugh – You just went by the other boats; if they were in a different place, and if they had a better shot than you, you went where they were. When you had the crab pots shot, the same applied – if somebody was getting more than you – but as a rule they just – I don’t know – sometimes you were close together and sometimes you were apart. Ann – Could you see each other? Hugh – Sometimes, yes. You were within steaming distance of each other.
Beth – Did fishermen cooperate or compete? Hugh – Oh they … Ann – I think they were competing, dad.
Ann – How long did they leave the pots out? Hugh – they were out all the time unless you had them close in for lobsters. If there was bad weather you would move them off, otherwise, the further they were in, the sea broke on the rocks and your pots were to likely get damaged. But if you had an idea of what the weather was going to be, you kept them close in. If you thought it was going to be bad, you shifted them off. But for crabs, they were further off to start with. They were more or less in deeper water than the other ones.
Ann – you made your own pots, dad?
Hugh – They were generally the old ones you had for lobsters. But the better, newer pots were for crabs and they were for deeper water.
Beth – Who bought your fish? By the 1930s I think there was no rail in the harbour?
Ann – You know when you sold fish when you were with granddad, you used to take your crabs up to the station? Hugh – Sometimes they went to Shields. Harper was the fish merchant. He used to drive to market every day at Shields. Geoff Harper had been going for quite a while when I was at the sea. You know I mentioned before about the market shifting? When I was fishing, the market was Shields, it wasn’t at Blyth. I don’t know what year it closed.
Ann – You used to take the crabs up on a push……
Hugh – Sometimes you sent lobsters away – it was Billingsgate, they went to by railway. Ann – You used to send a postcard, didn’t you? Hugh – they were there the next morning and they got the postcard to say they were in. If you caught the train at Blyth at 4 oclock – but they had to be weighed first. If you sent a barrel of lobsters they were at market by 6 in the morning.
We used to keep the lobsters alive. We used to leave them in the harbour, tie a rope around them. I had a big pot with lobsters – you kept them alive until you had enough for a consignment – just a small barrel we used to send away. Otherwise they used to just send them up to Shields. Got a better price in London for them, even after you paid the tariffs.
The crabs generally went to Shields. They were packed in empty apple barrels. Harper used to take them away every morning. Sometimes you sent salmon away. Ann – In ice? Hugh – We never used ice, they were only – we didn’t send a lot away but we sent a few away but most went to Shields – that was sea trout and salmon. The same applied if you sent them to Shields, Harper used to pick them up and take them through in the wagon in the morning.
Ann – did you sell cod? Hugh – When I first started there was another chap; he had a horse and cart and he used to come down to the harbour to buy fish. Sometimes Harper got them and sometimes he got them. Harper used to supply the fish and chip shops. That was where we got rid of quite a few.
Ann – There was a fish and chip shop in the next street. My mam’s mum and dad had it before they knew each other. It was weird that one set of grandparents were here and the other grandparents had that.
Beth – When WW2 started you didn’t go into the Navy straight away?
Hugh – The war started on 1st Sept, the day we got engaged. We got married in May 1940 and I was away in June. Ann – I think they got married because they knew he was going away.
Beth – how did the war affect the fishing? Hugh – The only way it affected us, you weren’t allowed to go out in the dark, it had to be daylight before you went out.
Ann – How did the mines affect the fishing fleet? Hugh – Most of the trawlers were adapted as minesweepers. There weren’t many boats fishing, only the small ones. Beth – Your father just kept on as normal? Hugh – Normal, aye.
Ann – Dad had a different ration book from us, because he was a food producer. Hugh – You got more than the others because some fishermen had to carry meals with them. There was one or two seine nets boats working during the war – Jack Liddle was still working – he bought a seine net boat during the war, second hand. Ann – Was that the Sceptre? Hugh – Aye. He was working daylight.
Beth – And you went into the Navy? Hugh – Aye – I went into the minesweepers – the patrol service. A lot of fishermen were in the patrol service. Ann – Because they knew the coast. Hugh – Being on trawlers was just the same, they’d been in them all their lives. But there were others in
them as well.
Ann – They still have a reunion at Lowestoft.