Health and Safety in the British Deep-Sea Trawl Fisheries in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

By Susan Capes and Robb Robinson, published August 2008


The paper makes comparisons between the working conditions for those working in deep sea trawlers especially apprentices in the late nineteenth century and the second half of the twentieth century. In the earlier period sailing smacks made up the majority of the fleet especially at Hull and Grimsby. Apprentices were used as crewmen and many were completely untrained. Conditions at sea were very poor with a high rate of fatalities. Ashore no attention was paid to these young men who drank heavily and faced moral dangers.  The fleeting system put great pressure on the crews to fish for long hours with little chance of any rest.  By 1905 most smacks had been replaced by large steam trawlers owned by companies. The rate of accidents declined on the most modern freezer ships but there was a fatalistic acceptance of the long hours and dangers of fishing. Attempts to organise the workforce had little success. Individual skippers faced great pressures to bring in big catches.  Some changes in attitudes only began to emerge in the late twentieth century when the industry was in decline.  The article reviews two periods of deep-sea fishing, 1860s-1880s & 1950s-1970s, which were the growth and the decline periods of this inherently dangerous industry. It reflects the general changes in societies view and understanding of health and safety and how little this affected the trawler men. The article explains why the welfare of the operatives was little changed and why accidents continued to occur at a high rate.

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Filed under: English Channel | North Sea | Other (Twentieth C) | Other (Nineteenth C) | Arctic
Subjects include: Manpower & Life at Sea | Shipbuilding & Design | Whaling & Fishing

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