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Cod Wars - 1893

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Typical Steam Trawler outline

With the introduction of the steam trawler in 1878 attention was soon focused by Hull and Grimsby owners on Iceland with a view to exploiting the fishing possibilities off that island. As vessels increased somewhat in size and power, so trips to Iceland became more regular. As a result the Danish Government controlling the Island claimed a fishing limit of 13 miles. British trawler owners disputed this claim and continued to send their ships to Icelandic waters. Consequently the area was patrolled by Danish gunboats and many of our fishing vessels were conducted to port, fined and generally had part or all of both catch and gear confiscated.

Newspaper reports give an indication of the bitterness which ensured both at Iceland and the Faroe Islands during the 1890's-

In April 1899, the steamer trawler "Caspian", under the command of skipper Charles Henry Johnson, was fishing off the Faroe Islands when a Danish gunboat tried to arrest her for illegally fishing inside the limits. The trawler refused to stop and as a result the gunboat opened fire first with blank shots followed by live shells. Twice the skipper tried to cut across the gunboat's bows, and as a result the chase nearly ended in disaster. Eventually the trawler was caught. Before going aboard the Danish vessel, Skipper Johnson ordered his brother Bill to make a dash for it. The "Caspian" set off at full speed. The gunboat fired several shots, but could not catch up with the trawler, which limped back to Grimsby riddled with holes. On board the Danish gunboat, at one time the crew thought skipper Johnson was going to hit their Captain, and as a safety measure lashed Johnson to the mast. A court held at Thorshavn convicted Johnson on several counts including illegal fishing and attempted assault. He was jailed for thirty days on a bread and water diet. A colleague visited him in jail and reported his condition as being reduced almost to a skeleton. George Doughty, the member of Parliament for Grimsby raised the matter at Westminster, but little could be done to obtain Johnson's release.

Just prior to the above incident, the steam trawler 'Sargon' reported, on return to Grimsby, being captured at Faroe by a Danish gunboat while sheltering in Fubleford harbour:

A gale was blowing and the vessel went in to harbour for safety. While there the gunboat arrived and ordered the skipper to pay anchorage. He went ashore to clear the vessel, paid 3/10 anchorage fee, and was then ordered by the Danish captain to leave port immediately, not withstanding the heavy gale. The s/t 'Angelsey' which returned which returned home on the 8th February 1899 was fined £3 at Faroe. The vessel was one of 23 Grimsby and Hull trawlers captured and fined around the same time. During May 1899 there were reports of the 'Cepheus', 'Svino' and 'Egyptian' of Grimsby and three Hull trawlers being fined and and gear confiscated while fishing off Iceland. Towards the end of May 1899, the case was recorded of the s/t 'Cephas', whose skipper tried to prove to the Danish gunboat captain that according to the British map he was 25 miles beyond the limit. He was refused permission to log the distance to the shore. The 'Caspian' along with another Grimsby trawler and 3 Hull trawlers being fined and trial took place the following day and the court consisted of the gunboat's captain and five lieutenants, all in uniform, the English vice-Consul and the judge, also in full dress. The latter, in ordinary life, was the postmaster. The skipper of the 'Cephas' was fined 200 kroners (£15.17s), one side of the gear, plus 2 warps; a quantity of fish was also confiscated. In August 1899 the Grimsby trawler 'Buzzard' was fined £80 for illegal fishing. The cargo of fish and the gear were also confiscated. "This placed the owner, Mr. Baskcomb, out-of-pocket to the extent of £500".

(The Sargon was filmed sinking in Arctic Waters
during 1948 as her crew was rescued
)

So many Grimsby and Hull trawlers were being charged by the captains of Danish gunboats as fishing illegally within a 13 mile limit, that the British press began to enquire why this Danish tyranny was allowed to continue. "Where are the gun boats?"...

Lord Heneage writing to the editor of the Times referred to the National Sea Fisheries Deputation studying the proposed Iceland, Faroe and Scottish requests to increase their territorial limits from 3 miles to 13 miles. This extension had not been agreed to, since if this was established it could lead to a similar ruling round the North Sea fishing area, which would be very much to the detriment of our fishermen. Reports stated that the Danes were taking 13 miles as the proper non-fishing area and consequently treating our fishermen, fishing both Faroe and Icelandic waters, with unnecessary harshness. He protested strongly about the Danish Gunboat captains overhauling our fishing vessels in the open sea as a distinct violation of the Law of Nations; also to the confiscation of gear, part of which acted as a second cable. As a result vessels were having to return home in a very dangerous and unseaworthy condition, to the risk of lives and property. These outrages would never have occurred if the British Admiralty had sent cruisers to protect British men and property. The Board of Trade were equally responsible. Lord Heneage claimed 30 years' experience of sea fisheries questions. He felt it was a positive shame that the Prime Minister's time had to be taken up by receiving delegates of fishing interests from all parts of the country to draw the attention of the government to the proper protection of our fishermen in the Northerly seas.

Alderman George Doughty also in a letter to the times referred to the 3 mile costal limit. This had not been increased and the Danish gunboat captains had no legal right to board our ships. He also referred to the many unsatisfactory courts formed in haste and held in the cabins of Gunboats and not in police courts. The skippers were given no proper opportunity to plead their innocence. Often they had to plead guilty to save their vessels being detained and increasing the costs. Doughty said the demand for fish had increased in the united Kingdom during the last three years by 25%, thus causing our fishing fleets to go further a field for supplies. Three years ago (1896) no British trawl fisherman had visited Iceland or Faroe for trawling purposes. Through their enterprise they had been successful in finding large fertile areas in these distant waters. The British Government should give these explorers every encouragement and protection. These discoveries have, of course, created jealously, irritation and annoyance to the islanders. Disastrous Storms occur regularly in these difficult waters and often our men have been refused harbour safety. We should station British warships with our fleets at both Iceland and the Faroes and appoint British consuls who can speak the language in order to assist our subjects.

It is interesting to look at the registration records of these small vessels. They not only risked the hazards of a 1,000 mile journey to Iceland to catch fish, but also that of being caught by the Danish naval patrol, fined and often gear and catch confiscated. The ships quoted were built between 1892 and 1898, the lengths varied between 100 feet and 109 feet. They were all 20 feet wide and had a depth of 11 feet. The owners were Allen Steam Fishing Co., Standard Steam Fishing Co., Meadows Steam Fishing Co., Grimsby and North Sea Steam Fishing Co., T. Baskcomd and Alliance Steam Fishing Co. The 'Anglesey' was lost in 1903. Three of these early steam trawlers were in service and not scrapped until around 1950. Compare these vessels with, say the Grimsby Town' built in 1953 for Consolidated Fisheries Ltd. for distant water fishing; length 178 feet; width or beam 31 feet; depth 16 feet; gross tonnage 700; engine 1,200 hp.

In 1896 Great Britain made an agreement with Iceland which allowed for British vessels to shelter and use any Icelandic port provided their gear and trawls were stowed. In return British vessels were not to fish east of a line from Illunypa to Thornodesker Islet.

Typical example of an early steam trawler.It is extremely difficult to compare these early steam trawlers, built just before and after the turn of the twentieth century. The bridge was aft of the funnel, which did not help navigation. On the other hand the position was useful for watching the warps when fishing, and to be able to gauge the depth. The early trawlers had none of the equipment available today which helps the skipper considerably towards a successful fishing trip; no wireless, radar, gyro, electricity. It was hand steering; a magnetic compass, paraffin lamps; candles for the fish room; cork-blocks fitted together for life jackets; no derricks; gear all handled by the crew.


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