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Fishing boats and associated port facilities

A lot of fishing has always been done using small boats operating from a beach, however this type of fishing is of little interest in the present context other than as scenic detail for a beach scene on a layout. The boats used were often rowed (well into the 1940s) or sailing boats, with motors becoming more common in the 1940s. The discussion below relates mainly to larger boats which might be seen at a fish quay with a railway connection.

Until the middle of the 18th century most fishermen had operated in small boats close to shore. The market for their catch was mainly local, but opportunities arose for the British fleets as Dutch control over the North Sea waned throughout the 18th century. The herring fisheries were encouraged by the British government, although throughout the eighteenth century many fishermen joined summer whaling expeditions for additional income.

Herring became a major industry in Peterhead and Fraserborough in Scotland and Yarmouth and Lowestoft in East Anglia as well as being the principal industry in many smaller fishing ports. Herring could be fished all year round but there was a 'season' from about June to about September when vast numbers were caught. Most of the herring catch was processed locally and as much of the produce was exported there was less involvement with the railways but even so entire trains of herring were sent through the system.

Fried fish (sold with bread) had formed a staple part of the British diet from the 1830s. It was during the 1870's that 'fish and chips' was born when the French idea of fried chipped potatoes was added to the dish. The development of the deep sea steam trawler in the late 19th century saw the growth of a British deep sea fleet, mainly fishing for cod and haddock in the shallow waters around Iceland. The trawlers were based at east coast ports such as Grimsby and Hull, they called at Wick in Scotland then headed out deep sea to the distant fishing banks, notably the cod from the Newfoundland's Grand Banks. Ashore the railways were distributing the fish to the towns and cities inland and fish had became one of the cheapest foods available to the people living in the cities.

In 1973 the UK joined the European Economic Community (or EEC, forerunner of the EU, initially set up by Germany and France after the Second World War). Part of the deal was that the shallow British coastal waters, rich in fish such as cod, were thrown open to foreign fishing fleets.

In 1976 Iceland declared a unilateral 200 mile fishing exclusion zone around its coasts and the British sent warships to enforce their trawlers right to fish in the waters beyond Iceland's internationally agreed twelve mile fishing limits. There were a number of expensive incidents involving collisions between British and Icelandic vessels and eventually the British backed down. The loss of access to Icelandic waters saw a sudden and dramatic cut in the British deep sea fishing fleets.

Fishing tackle

Smaller boats operating from the many smaller ports favoured a long line fitted with hooks at intervals (called long line fishing) for the 'white fish' such as cod, the long line is actually particularly suited to fish such as Mackerel.

Fishing nets can be well represented in N or OO scales using ladies 'hair nets' obtained from the chemists, although do take a good look at them as designs vary and some are more suited than others. They were seen hanging on posts in smaller ports being dried out and repaired and were seen laid along the side of the deck on fishing boats entering port (not sure if that applies to the deep sea boats who may well have the nets stowed below).

Nets were used in various ways, on a 'drifter' the nets are hung in a long curtain supported at intervals by buoys, fish become trapped in the mesh of the net which is then hauled in. The drifter, as its name suggests, does not tow the net through the water, once the net is out the engines are stopped and the boat drifts with the tide. The size of the mesh in the netting determines the size of fish caught as the smaller fish can swim through and bigger fish seldom get entangled. Seine netting uses a similar net but this is then drawn into a circle around a shoal and gradually tightened, 'purse seining' is similar but the bottom of the net is drawn closed before it is hauled inboard, so non of the fish can escape, as a result it is very controversial.

The trawler (generally) hunts for fish living near the bottom, the net is formed into a bag and is towed along behind the boat. The net has large square 'otter boards' at each side that keep it open and often has a chain is slung across the mouth of the net so it will run along the sea bed and stir up the bottom dwellers such as flat fish. The otter boards, typically five feet long by four feet wide, were quite visible on the deck, usually toward one end of the nets. In the 1970s there was a move toward ever larger boats, notably by the Russians, which favoured a vacuum system to 'hoover up' everything. It mattered little if the fish were damages, or what was caught, as the catch was mainly to be ground up and used as a fertiliser.

Fishing boats

Fishing boats come in a range of sizes, from small rowing boats to large deep sea vessels powered over the years by sail, steam and motor. Each part of the coast had its preferred design and for accuracy you would need to do some research, for the present purposes the examples shown are essentially generic.

For inshore and coastal work the most common fishing vessel up to the 1940s was the small sailing fishing boat operating for a day in inshore waters off the coast and often seen beached in numbers on the shore between trips. As a large crew was required to handle the nets fishing boats were often 'luggers', that is the square sail was suspended from a yard arm (the timber beam used along the top of a sail) and set fore-and-aft along the boat. This arrangement produced a better handling craft than the square rig (square sails set across the boat from side to side) and it gained in popularity in the 17 and 18th centuries for coastal work (mainly fishing). To tack, changing course, the sail had to be lowered and 'lugged' round to the other side of the mast. The example shown below is a typical fishing lugger which would serve for any British port from the arrival of the railways up to about 1930.

Fig ___ Typical small sailing fishing boat
Sketch of a small sailing fishing boat

When alongside at the quay the sails would be furled as shown in the slightly larger example below. Note also the sturdy winch mounted just in front of the mast and the chimney toward the rear, this boat may have had a small steam engine to power the winch hauling in the nets. Small winch engines of this type appeared on sail fishing boats (mainly trawlers) in the later 19th century but did not catch on until the early 20th century.

Fig ___ Small sailing fishing boat discharging
Sketch of a small sailing fishing boat with furled sails

The growth of herring fishing continued alongside that of line fishing for 'white fish' such as haddock and ling although the latter, and cod, tended to be found further out to sea. There were sailing trawlers employed for these trades, notably the Brixham trawlers, roughly 70 feet long, with a displacement of about 80 or 90 tons.

Fig ___ Brixham sailing trawler
Sketch of a Brixham sailing trawler

The sailing ships depended upon the wind, lack of wind or unfavourable wind directions were a major problem and by the mid 19th century the development of steam power for ships brought the emergence of a fleet of steam paddle tugs. These could tow ships and boats out to sea, some even ventured as far as the Dutch coast to tow back sailing fishing boats trapped there by the winds. In the 1870s a North Shields tug master by the name of William Purdy towed a sailing trawler into port whilst its nets were still down. The boat landed a substantial catch and Purdy fitted out his tug with a second hand trawl net, winch and derrick and tried his hand at steam trawling. The experiment was a success and many more paddle tugs were converted, proving themselves in the inshore and near sea waters. For deep sea fishing the paddle ships were less well suited, by the 1890s the screw propeller was the norm for new builds and these trawlers ranged as far out as the dogger bank and beyond. These ships retained the masts and had sails on both, when trawling the rear sail was sometimes used to steady the ship.

Fig ___ Steam trawler built in 1910 (operating from North Shields)
Sketch of a steam trawler built in 1910 (operating from Noth Shields as indicated by the SN code)

Drifters, which do not tow their nets through the water, were less interested in steam power but by the turn of the century the steam drifter was increasingly seen in the East Coast ports.

Fig ___ Steam drifter
Sketch of a steam 'drifter'

These again retained the masts and sails and on drifters the after (rear) sail was normally used when fishing to keep the ships head to wind (safer and a lot more conformable than ending up side-on to the waves). The example below is a model by D. Case of the Ethrow Model Boat Club, photographed at the annual Urmston Model Engineer Club event and shows typical deck detail for such a vessel. She is about to start fishing as the after sail is raised and she has the two lanterns, one above the other, on her foremast (used to warn other ships to steer clear of her fishing nets at night). Note the port and starboard (red and green) side lights are mounted on the after deck house not on top of the wheelhouse (where they might be damaged by the long boom).

Fig ___ Model of a Steam drifter
Sketch of a steam 'drifter'

The late application of steam power to fishing is surprising, by the time the first experiments were under way the country had virtually completed the railway network. The railways brought in the cheap coal that powered these ships, keeping the cost of fish down, and transported the fish to the towns. The coming of the railway allowed Grimsby to become the worlds largest fishing port, besides which its docks handled a lot of imported timber (mainly from the Baltic) and exports of coal.

In the later 19th and early 20th century the sail powered fishing fleets remained competitive as they were faster through the water (assuming favourable winds) and hence first to land their catch, securing the best prices. The key to their success was the introduction of the steam winch, allowing heavy sails to be managed by a smaller crew as well as handling larger nets. For inshore fishing the development of the slow revving small petrol engines, followed by semi-diesel and diesel engines, displaced the sailing craft, by the outbreak of the Second Word War sailing fishing vessels were the exception rather then the norm. The motor fishing boat shown below, actually I believe it was a drifter, dates from the 1930s (the radar on the top of the cabin dates from about 1975), she is about 60 feet long and has a displacement of about 30 tons.

Fig ___ Typical 1930s small motor fishing boat
Sketch of a small motor fishing boat

Even quite large vessels such as the drifter shown below used the new motors, this example is sketched from a photo taken in about 1950 but would serve from the late 1930s on.

Fig ___ Typical motor drifter
Sketch of a  motor drifter

Steam power remained in use into the 1950s, but by the 1960s marine diesel engines were increasingly the norm on larger vessels such as deep sea trawlers.

Fig ___ Typical 1960s deep sea motor trawler
Sketch of a deep sea motor fishing trawler

Not all trawlers are so big, there has always been a large inshore fleet of smaller fishing boats, including trawlers. The example shown below is typical, note it only has the curved metal supports for the trawl wires on one side, this is normal for these smaller craft. This craft would serve on any layout set from the mid 1930s to the present day.

Fig ___ Typical 1960s coastal motor trawler
Coastal motor fishing trawler

Trawlers have several distinctive features that immediately identify their purpose. The single most obvious bit of kit is the large heavy winch set just in front of the wheelhouse, used to lower and to haul in the trawl nets. As well as the winch trawlers have a heavy derrick set forward and feature large metal frames in the form of an inverted U shape mounted on the sides from which the blocks carrying the trawl towing wires are suspended. On smaller boats there will be two of these, one forward and one aft, on the same side of the boat, larger vessels have a pair on each side. The photos of a deep sea trawler below were taken on a flying visit to a steam show in 2002, the excellent model of the steam trawler was built by a member of the South Manchester Model Boat club, but the stand did not give his name.

Fig ___ Typical steam trawler showing deck fittings
Photo of a model steam trawler showing deck fittingsr

Drifters differed from trawlers in several respects, for one thing the fore mast was hinged at the base and was often lowered back to rest on the top of the wheelhouse when under way. The sketch below is based on a tracing from a photo and shows a vessel in the 1950s, note the radio antennas slung between the masts (A) and the radio direction finder loop (B), these were generally circular but rectangular types as here were occasionally seen.

Fig ___ Steam drifter under way with lowered foremast
Sketch of a steam 'drifter'under way

Drift nets are supported in the water by spherical buoys, for which small beads from a sewing or 'trimmings' shop serve well. Up to the 1960s these tended to be about a foot in diameter and dark (possibly black), after which 'blown polythene' buoys, often orange or yellow, became the norm. The buoys are stored on the deck toward the after end, usually piled up beside the wheelhouse (on the photos I have seen they have all been on the port or left hand side of the boat but I do not know if there was a reason for this). To represent the fishing nets you can use ladies 'hair nets' obtainable from chemists, these seem to have ended up laid along the side of the deck when entering port.

The wheelhouse on smaller vessels (under about 100 tons) moved to the forward end of the boat from the later 1960s, giving a large working area at the after end of the boat. This is after the railways involvement with the fish trade but may serve for set dressing on a modern image layout. The example shown below is a stern trawler, these operate over the back end of the boat and do not have the inverted U shaped supports for the trawl wires.

Fig ___ Small coastal fishing boat (32ft long) in 1980s
Sketch of a small coastal fishing boat

There is a shortage of water craft in 1:148 scale however the Revel 'modern trawler Kandahar' is close to 2mm scale and serves well for a vessel from the later 1930s to the present day. I made a couple of 'motor drifters' using the Ertl Thomas the Tank barge Bulstrode, for which they are well suited. These are currently unavailable but it is well worth looking for cheap toys as the basis for ship conversions as this gives you the complex shape of the hull and only the superstructure and occasionally the deck itself needs to be modelled, mostly from flat plastic card.

Fish quays

Most of the UK fishing fleets docked on the Eastern coasts, about 70% of all fish eaten was landed at these ports but harbours such as Fleetwood on the west coast hosted substantial fleets and just about anywhere in the UK you can justify some fishing activity in a model port or harbour. Each port has its own identification code, WK is Wick, SN is North Shields, LT is Lowestoft, YH is Yarmouth, FR Newhaven, BM is Brixham, PZ is Penzance, M is Milford Haven

If you enjoy modelling larger fishing vessels (or have several Revel trawlers in hand) the principal fishing ports hosting deep sea ships were Grimsby, Hull, Aberdeen and Fleetwood whilst Lowestoft, Milford Haven and Leith also saw regular train loads of fish.

The fish quay was almost invariably a dedicated facility, always so where deep sea boats were berthed.

At the port the fish was landed using circular wickerwork baskets which could be pulled along the ground into covered transfer sheds on the quay where the buying and selling took place. There were often a number of light cranes mounted on the wall of the sheds on the quay but generally I believe the boats used their own gear to lift the baskets out of the hold and onto the planks running ashore. In the photo below the boats have used their own gear to land the baskets of fish.

Fig ___ Drifters landing their catch at Yarmouth c1936
Yarmouth drifters landing their catch c1936

Going onto the ships would be blocks of ice, again dragged along the ground using a long handled hook, these were about three feet by eighteen inches by about six inches thick (they could not be much bigger as they had to be man handled). These were manufactured at facilities located close by in the larger ports, basically a big building with 'sombodyorothers ice' written in big letters on the sides. Because of the way the ice was made it was not perfectly clear as it was moved onto the boats, if using Perspex a single wipe with sandpaper would produce about the right look.

The transfer shed was often large but equally often not terribly substantial. Large doors opened onto the quayside, and onto the platform on the railway side of the building. In N the Ratio 'corrugated iron roof' makes a good starting point, adding ends and walls from 1mm scribed plastic card with bracing of 40x40 thou plastic strip.

Fig ___ Fish shed, St Andrews Dock, Hull c1936
Scene inside the fish shed at St Andrews dock in Hull in about 1936.

Inside the shed the fish were quickly sold by auction and placed in barrels or (more commonly) rectangular wooden boxes and very occasionally in baskets to be shipped inland. The most common boxes were quite large, perhaps four feet long, two feet wide and nine inches deep (120cm x 60cm x 22cm) but there were smaller boxes used as well. They were usually unpainted light coloured wood with a couple of large letters to identify the owner stenciled on. The Roco Minitanks 'ammunition boxes' can serve for these in both N and OO scales (in a packet you get 28 long boxes 13mm x 2mm x 3mm and 28 rectangular boxes 8mm x 3mm x 5mm, the rectangular boxes being the ones to use).

The railways were, from the 1860s to the later 1930s, the prime channel for fish heading for inland towns, railway fish traffic carried on until the mid 1960s by which time road competition had reduced it to a fraction of is earlier scale. See also Freight Operations - Non Passenger Coaching Stock - Introduction, Fish & Newspapers. The fish boxes were carried directly from the transfer sheds to the waiting fish vans, often the fish sidings ran immediately behind the sheds. At larger fishing ports the railway vans were often on several sidings abreast and light wooden bridges were provided to allow the men to access the outer vans by passing through the ones closest to the loading bank.

At larger ports small petrol trucks such as the Lister shown below were in regular use from the mid 1930s, transporting the boxes of fish on the quay and (where deep sea vessels were handled) taking slabs of ice going to the boats (see also Lineside Industries - Industrial and agricultural vehicles and equipment).

Fig ___ Lister petrol runabout truck
Sketch of a Lister petrol runabout truck

Some types of fish were part processed at the docks, one example being Herring which were gutted by 'fish wives' on the quay prior to being sold and packed for shipping. In the picture below the 'guts' are dropped into the buckets on the table, the gutted fish being dropped into the barels behind the women. This work required a lot of skill as hands were numbed by the cold and the knives were very sharp, however unless you have an interest in accurate modelling such a scene requires additional space and adds no operational interest to a model railway.

Fig ___ Fish wives at a Scottish fishing port in the 1930s
Fish wives at a Scottish fishing port in the 1930s

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