Fishwives!

October 2022

Fishwives were a remarkable group of women who were involved with the British fishing trade and made a name or themselves for being particularly loud and outspoken, and became a byword for hardiness and industry. Dr Sam Willis spoke to the historian and journalist Rose George who is currently working on a big research project looking at fishing communities around the world and has become fascinated by the fishwives, in particular on their profound impact on British politics. It’s a story of technology, economics, shipwreck, survival, frustration, wealth, poverty and, of course, fishing.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today I’m finding out about fishwives, these remarkable women who, one way or another were involved with the British fishing trade, and made a name for themselves for being particularly loud and outspoken. And they became a byword for hardiness and industry. It’s a fascinating story. And to tell me more, I spoke with the historian and journalist Rose George, who is currently working on a big research project, looking at fishing communities around the world, and in her work has become fascinated by these fish wives, and in particular, on their impact on British politics. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoyed talking with her, here is the excellent Rose.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Rose, thank you very much indeed for joining me today.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I was delighted to have been put in touch with you. And when we first chatted, we were talking about what we were going to discuss for the podcast and you said please let us do fishwives. Oh, yeah. And it’s a topic which I’ve come across once or twice. But I’ve not met anyone yet, who’d be able to talk about it. So I’m delighted we are going to be able to do this today. What is a fishwife? Let’s start at the beginning.

     

    Rose George 

    It’s a pleasure.

     

    Rose George 

    OK so I’ve handily prepared some dictionary definitions for you, which I think are pretty instructive. We’ll start with the Merriam Webster, which is standard American usage. So the noun fishwife definition one, is a woman who sells fish. Definition two, is a vulgar, abusive woman. First known use of fishwife, 15th century and the meaning defined as sense one, so a woman who sells fish. Okay, I started with the good stuff. In the Cambridge English dictionary, the only definition of fish wife is a loud, unpleasant woman. Oh, and I think they’re the Oxford American English dictionary is a woman with a loud voice and bad manners. So there you go.

     

    Sam Willis 

    How much am I allowed to bet on the fact those definitions were written by men?

     

    Rose George 

    Well, so if we go back to etymology, so fish wife, the word wife in this instance is probably from the Old English wife, which just means a woman. So when I, in my fish wives folder, which is enormous, because I find them so fascinating. I have fish sellers, fish wives, fish processes, all women, have herring girls who travelled up and down the coast, gutting herring, and I think they all count as fish wives. But I think it’s pretty instructive that the modern definition of a fish wife has become almost entirely negative. And in fact, there was a case in a few years ago where the Mayor of Liverpool appeared to refer to a Liberal Democrat member as a fish wife. He was called out on it and reported for using inappropriate sexist language. And he said, Oh, I just thought it meant someone who shouts a lot. And Adele, you find Adele being referred to as someone who cackles like a fish wife. It’s just a peculiar thing, because if you go if, if we talk about fishwives in their heyday, which was kind of up to the early 20th century, they were astonishing women, so strong and independent, and they controlled the purse strings, and they ran their own businesses, and then yet somehow, amazingly, we have fishwives now, is this slur?

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, well, I think we should, we should get rid of the slur. We should go back to the true history of what’s going on here. So we’ve got two things we’ve got. We have actual fishwives who, who lived or sort of operated in the fishing industry in various ways. And then we have the slur which is clearly linked to noise, being obstructive, being difficult

     

    Rose George 

    Or being independent.

     

    Sam Willis 

    How has that come about? Do you think?

     

    Rose George 

    I think it’s because fishwives we’re pretty unique. And, in fact, they were they were kind of romanticised in, in some ways in the 17th 18th centuries, because they were these strong, powerful women and they had an independence that other women just really didn’t have. So if you go to some of the Scottish fishing villages or up upon the North Coast, you’ll find these women. They would collect the bait for their husband they would, as soon as the husbands landed the catch, they would be responsible for putting it in a Creel walking astonishing distances with like 200 pounds of fish on their backs up to like they’re in their 80s. One woman apparently gave birth on Wednesday and was carrying her Creel on Saturday, Just really strong, amazing women. And I think one of the kings, one of the Georges, thought they were the most the handsomest women he’d ever seen. So they became kind of romanticised even though they had a very, very difficult job. I mean, it was just backbreaking relentless, but they had an independence that women rarely had at that point. And there’s the nice quote, I can’t remember where it came from, but it was a farmer’s wife who said to a fish wife that she had it better than the fish wife. And the fish wife said, well, would your husband let you take the cattle to auction because the fish wife controlled all the family finances and ran the business so they were business women and I think if you were being cynical about this, you might think that the reason that they it became a slur was that they were seen as a threat. Perhaps their power and their independence were seen as something that needed to be stamped down. And there’s no doubt that probably they were loud.  I mean, they had to work in markets some of them so in Billingsgate, I mean Billingsgate became a word for fish wife actually a kind of noisy loud woman. And, but they were also equated with because they sold fish apparently, maybe they sold sex. So there’s all these kinds of things swirling around fishwives. And, and, because they had a particular costume as well, they often had, like nice striped petticoats. And they looked, they looked interesting. They became this really complex figure of like a kind of stroke businesswoman, stroke, possibly prostitute stroke, really strong, powerful Amazon, walking, you know, 27 miles from Dunbar to Edinburgh with a Creel on her back. And really, there’s, I mean, there are some there are some historians of the day, particularly in like 1795 There was a something called the statistical account of Scotland, which was a record of Scotland parish by parish. And often it was the Reverend, local Reverend who acted as a historian and the one for Inveresk was a fella called Reverend Alexander Carlisle. I think he was basically in love with the fish women, he loves them. He says, they’re so strong and amazing, and they look wonderful. It’s really nice to read that there is  absolutely no undertone in his account of what these women did. He’s just absolutely admires them.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I like two things about this one is that pride in a in a difficult or dangerous job, you know, comparing the farmer’s wife to the fish wife, because that’s something I think we’ll talk about later and the dangers of fishing in general. And the other question before we come to that, I suppose is I know, you’ve been working on fishing communities all over the world, and it’s a project you’re working on at the moment, do you think this strong female persona in a fishing community back in the 18th and 19th century, is unique, or whether that was something that happened elsewhere in the world?

     

    Rose George 

    I don’t think it’s unique. I think it’s just because of, particularly the pandemic, I’ve been kind of stuck in a lot of archive research. So I’ve obviously focused more on the UK and what I can access in the UK. But I definitely don’t think it’s unique. And I think even in the modern day fishing industry, the role of women is they have a huge role to play, but because they now tend to do fish processing, rather than the kind of colourful fish wives, you know, waiting on the beach for their men to come home kind of thing. They’re kind of silent. And, and there are all sorts of figures and statistics for how many women work in fishing, but they’re still fundamental, they just don’t have the major public profile that they did. And obviously I hope we’re going to talk about big Lil who was probably the last most famous fish, modern fish wife, but and also I mean in the UK, the fishwives as soon as health and safety came in and you had to have washing facilities to sell fish, obviously. They were pretty much pushed out of business. I And suddenly fish got sold in white vans by men, which was not necessarily a bad thing because most fish wives apparently worked so that their sons didn’t have to go to sea because they were sick of losing their husbands and sons at sea.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s a perfect segue. Let’s talk about that because this character Big Lil’s fascinating, and I’m really interested in the awareness of the women about the dangers of fishing, and that seems to be where she really started to make a difference.

     

    Rose George 

    Yeah, I’ll just I’ll step back a little bit because much as I love Big Lil think there’s a lot of art that actually focuses on that the danger and the women waiting on beaches and waiting for their husbands to come home or not come home.  I was in Newlyn last week, which is a very still pretty vibrant fishing village. And there was obviously the Newlyn art school and a lot of the work the artwork done there is women, it’s women waiting on the beaches or women leaving the post office where you can see that a sign has just been put up because a boat has been lost at sea. So you often see this kind of women waiting. It is a really popular theme with male artists. And that’s how that’s how they were mostly often perceived. Big Lil was very different. And for a start, you probably wouldn’t call her a fish wife, although she was called the fish wife. She was a cod skinner. So she was a fish processor. She worked in a factory. She didn’t like stand on the docks, you know, gazing wistfully out to sea, she was from Hull born and bred in Hull, born in 1929. She was from a fishing family her dad was a trawler man her sons were at sea. Her husband was a fisherman as well. And what sparked Big Lil and her real name was Lillian Bilocca. But anyway, she was called Big Lil because she was a large and imposing woman, magnificent woman. In 1968 Hull had this huge, distant water, cod fishery. It supplied I think, a quarter of the UK fish and that they would be going further and further to get the fish,  fishing off Iceland and Newfoundland and it was very dangerous and they would also fish throughout the winter. Also extremely dangerous. And in fact, the Hull still celebrates the lost trawler man’s day in January because that was the worst time of the year where you would lose most boats. In 1968, there was something called the triple trawler tragedy or the triple trawler incident when three trawlers were lost you in very short succession within about six weeks, the St. Romanus, the Kingston Peridot, and the Ross Cleveland. And that was a total of 58 men who were lost. One survivor, a man called Harry Edom, who managed to make his way to Iceland in a raft with two other people, a young boy and another survivor, but they both died in the awful weather. And when the second trawler went down, this is the apocryphal tale of what Big Lil did apparently she heard on the radio, or she was in the factory, and she slammed her knife down on the table and said right Enough is enough. And to understand her anger, and the anger of the other women that she galvanised, you have to appreciate what these trawler men were putting up with not just the elemental danger of fishing. But the fact that even in 1968, they were not required to have a radio operator, they were not required to have alarms in their cabins. And there had been in the late 1950s, some safety proposal which had been discarded as being optional. So that was the kind of thinking about it. And as one author wrote, he said the fishing industry kind of delighted in its abysmal safety record. At the time, it was kind of macho, and I still think there’s an element of that today, actually,

     

    Sam Willis 

    Also its 1968 not 1868.

     

    Rose George 

    No. It’s still optional to have a radio operator. So if a ship is in trouble, and the captain the master is involved, the skipper is involved in in trying to keep the ship upright, then, clearly it would be helpful to have someone who can send the Mayday signal it’s just basically common sense, but the trawler owners obviously thought of it you know it’s an extra/ an extra wage, an extra cost and they were really resistant. So big Lil, Lillian Bilocca fish wife, cod skinner, said right, that’s it. With three other women who became known as the headscarf revolutionaries, because it was 1968 and they wore headscarf’s. They started a campaign which was extraordinary. They gathered 10,000 signatures. Big Lil would go down to St. Andrews dock every day and very, in a very fish wife way shout loudly at the trawlers that we’re setting out to sea, saying don’t go don’t go without a radio operator. And there was one famous incident where the trawler did set off, but it got to the Gaps harbour exit, and it dramatically turned around and came back and the crew refused to set sail.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That was a mutiny on a trawler.

     

    Rose George 

    And that was an extraordinary thing because these trawler man Obviously a lot of them were probably waged crew, they didn’t have any power. And the obviously the commercial pressures were immense. I mean, this was the time of the three day millionaires in Hull when you could make an absolute fortune. But even so the commercial pressures were huge and these to turn around and come back was an extraordinary thing. So a Big Lie and her fellow headscarf revolutionaries got to Westminster. They got a meeting with the Minister of Fisheries. They apparently met Harold Wilson, Big Lil threatened to picket Harold Wilson’s house, which was quite typically Big Lil of her.  They got their legislation far quicker than anyone else, even though in the face of absolute fury from the trawler owners and one of the women was punched in the face. Big Lil lost her job. And she was blacklisted. So she never got another job in the fish industry. She had to do menial work. And it was only last year, or was it this year, this year, that Big Lil finally got a blue plaque in Hull celebrating the fact that these women had single headedly changed the trawler industry for the better. Because they were sick of seeing their husbands, their sons and their fathers die. And it was as far as they could see it was eminently fixable by pretty simple safety measures. So it’s kind of a testament. I think it’s kind of a stain on the industry; actually, at that point, the industry of 1968 that it took some fishwives to change what was very easily changeable.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s interesting, isn’t it? I think this theme of the maritime community; not sort of standing up for itself comes back time and again. It’s certainly not the first time that I’ve come across it, with a particularly with regards to safety. It takes someone that’s slightly removed from it, in this case, the fish wife to say, hang on, what you’re doing is actually insane. When you know, there are there are steps we can take for safety. Is that something you’ve come across as well?

     

    Rose George 

    Yeah, and I have to be careful here because I do I have been, I’ve been fishing I admire fishermen, but I do think there’s still an undercurrent of kind of, I’m gonna say macho,  let’s say a kind of bravado. I mean, I’ve seen it, you know, in in the use of life jackets. I’ve seen Yeah. Fishermen have said to me, yeah; don’t need that unless the weather’s bad. And they won’t wear it. I think there is that kind of, well, they know how dangerous their work is. I think there is this kind of almost, not romantic, but a kind of purity to how they confront this so maybe it’s just man in the sea. But obviously, if you can make fishing safer, then you should make fishing safer. It’s quite obvious. The fact that fishing vessels are still lost frequently, Is testament to the fact that there is more that can always be done, even though even since 1968. The industry has come on. Safety, Absolutely, Hugely.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah. Fascinating stuff. You were in Newlyn the other week. Where does your research take you in the coming months? Where are you planning to go?

     

    Rose George 

    I am hoping to go to Alaska. I’m interested in the salmon fishing scene. I use that word deliberately because it does seem to be quite a scene. It’s kind of like young people flocked to Alaska to work on salmon boats, although they actually end up usually working in canneries. There’s this whole myth about how you can earn a fortune in Alaska. It’s kind of like a modern day gold rush, mentality. So I’m really interested to see that. I am also very interested in the fish meal industry. Because actually, even though I’m writing a book about fish and fishing, I don’t eat. I’ve never eaten fish. I’ve never liked it. So it’s all quite a mystery to me. So if you can find me on fishing boats, asking fishermen What does cod tastes like? What does Bass taste like? They say it tastes like fish? What’s the difference? So my only encounter with fish is my cat’s breakfast. So I feed her cat food that’s made with obviously, by-products from the from the fish industry. So I’m really interested in the fish meal and the cat or the pet food industry and where fish ends up. I mean, my other encounter with fishes is using fish blood and bone which is a standard fertiliser on my allotment. And I remember I used it the other day thinking oh, oh, yeah. I just kind of accepted it as just a fertiliser that’s sold and then I finally thought Yeah, that’s fish, blood and bone. How does that happen?

     

    Sam Willis 

    Where does that come from?

     

    Rose George 

    Where does that come from? Which fish whose blood what bone. So I’m hoping to go to to look at the Menhaden fishery, which is the Menhaden is a fish that I had never heard of till about 18 months ago when I came across it but it’s this little oily fish, oily bony fish, which is absolutely fundamental to the fish meal industry. And there is a massive industry particularly of Chesapeake Bay in the US where there’s a, there was a huge company there that was sending out spotter planes and using all the latest technology and just to harvest this stuff, which is, which isn’t eaten, it’s just used. So I think I think the use of fish for something other than food is also really fascinating.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I love that aspect of using every bit of the fish, blood and bone because that’s very ancient indeed, you know, we might sort of, you know, skin crawling that’s completely hideous. But you know, for centuries, all of the gross stuff that’s left over from animals or fish, you know, that was, in many respects, that really was the gold because they could use it in so many different ways.

     

    Rose George 

    Yeah, and I found in archives, people having herring guts, or whatever it was by-products of whatever was not useful, being sold to farmers. And yeah, it’s really an event. Yeah, even now you can, I mean, the fact that I’m feeding my cat fish. I mean, that’s weird. My cat would never encounter fish normally, would she? I’m also hoping to go to Japan, although it’s only just opened up. Just because Japan is the fishiest country in the world and the Japanese eat more sea fish than any other country. I think China eats more aquaculture fish. So I’m hoping to go there. I’m also planning to go up to Scotland and have a trip around in the Greenpeace ship, the Sea Beaver, which has been loaned to a Scottish NGO and they’re looking at marine protected areas and seeing whether they are actually protected and things like that. I want to find fishwives wherever I go. So I’m also going to Iceland because they were to go back to fishwives, the Icelandic fishwives went on strike, and it actually triggered a national strike, so I definitely want to find out about them.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I bet there were some pretty powerful Japanese fishwives as well. I bet there’s some stories there you can find. Well best of luck and thank you very much indeed for talking with us.

     

    Rose George 

    You’re welcome.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Many thanks for listening. Now, please make sure this is not the last thing you do to interact with our fabulous podcast. Please follow us on social media. Please make sure you check out the Mariners Mirror Podcasts, YouTube page, where you will find some truly amazing videos bringing the maritime world to life in ways you will have never seen before. There are fantastic 3d animations, hand drawn maps of battles, brought to life, figureheads animated, and the world’s best ship models filmed with the latest camera technology in incredible high definition. Please remember that the pod comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and Lloyd’s Register Foundation you can find them both online, the Society for Nautical Research at, snr.org.uk where you can join the society I would urge you all to do so for the amazing benefits that membership brings. And you can also find the history and education centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation at, lrfoundation.org.uk  You can find the Society for Nautical Research on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook and please tell your friends and please leave us a review and a rating on iTunes if you do so. I promise I will read this out

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