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The Fishing Fleet of North Shields

Ron Wright describes the fishing fleet of North Shields


Low Street was mainly fishing. North Shields had the largest trawler fleet; certainly privately owned in the whole country. It was a North Shields person who developed the application of steam to trawlers. Previously they had just been by sail. Paddle tugs had started appearing on the Tyne in the middle of the 1850s, 1860s. They used to search for ships to pull in because they were all sailing ships. If the wind was the wrong way the ships couldn't get in. So, these paddle tugs would go out and they would go searching for sailing ships and offer to tow them in at a cost.

The story was that there was a Yawl, a sailing trawler becalmed outside the mouth of the Tyne and this tug went out, put a line on it and dragged it back in. They hadn't had time to lift their nets and when they got back in they suddenly realised they had three times as much fishing as they normally would have had. A man called Fry converted his steam tug to a trawler and left North Shields Fish Quay to howls of derision. People through rotten fruit a him, specially the sailing trawler men. It was very much like the Luddite1 mentality. It would never work you would just were just wasting your money. I think it cost him something like five pounds and ten shillings to outfit his trawler and that was paid for in the first trip; he caught that much fish. Within five years there was twenty paddle tugs converted to trawlers and they started North Shields and then after that the screw propulsion came on.

A man called Richard Irvin, who must have been a phenomenal man, he created the biggest fishing fleet singularly owned out of North Shields and he had business interests in every east coast port from Great Yarmouth to Peterhead in Scotland. Which must have been quite a feat in the 1900s when there was no faxes and telephone, e-mail and Internet. But not only did he have that, he also had a sealing and whaling fleet in South Georgia in the Falklands. Then towards the late 1920s he sent a fleet ships down to South Africa and opened up with a man called Johnson, a Swedish guy. They opened up a fishing industry out of Cape Town and Fontaine, and some other places round on the Horn.

I was in South Africa two years ago and that fishing fleet is still there. I walked into Cape Town and I saw these trawlers with funnels with red and black stripes, and I thought, that’s Richard Irvin’s old colours, and of course the long of it is Irvin and Johnson. And they are still fishing and it is a very successful industry. This is a man who was North Shields born and bred from fairly humble beginnings. He was the Mayor twice as well. He stood for Parliament, but didn't get in because he was a Liberal and he ran this industry. He must have been a workaholic.

1.The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the early nineteenth century who protested against new technology by destroying the machines.

With gracious thanks to Ron Wright and Neil Reynolds for allowing Tyne Lives to use these recordings.

© Copyright Ron Wright 2007-8