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									The Women They
  Left Behind
An exploration of the role of women in Grimsby‟s fishing

 All content copyright CPO Media and must not be reproduced without prior permission.

This information pack is intended to be an educational aid to those wishing to study and learn more
about the role of women within the fishing industry and contains excerpts from The Women They
Left Behind book and project research.

Used in conjunction with examples of primary sources and accompanying documents, as well as the
more extensive research contained within The Women They Left Behind book, students will gain a
real insight into the work and home life of women in Grimsby‟s fishing industry and understand
more about Grimsby‟s fishing heritage.
                                           Money Matters

Unless a woman was lucky enough for her husband to be a top-earning skipper or on a top-earning
ship, money was usually tight for a fishing family. It could fluctuate from one trip to the next as
fishermen earned a percentage of whatever they caught, the amount dependant on their position
within the crew. To increase their percentage, fishermen could go to nautical school to study for a
skipper‟s or mate‟s ticket.

       „My husband was a chief engineer. He was a fireman at first but I used to say to him well
       you‟re doing the chief‟s job, why don‟t you sit for your ticket? Well we was ever so poor
       like, sometimes he‟d bring in about thirty shillings or two pounds up in t‟North Sea. But we
       saved up and then he took six weeks off. In them days they didn‟t give you money to sit the
       tickets. We lived with me mother then and we had no money or anything.‟
                                                                                   Josephine Gibney

While their husbands were at sea, the wives collected a wage every Friday from the offices on the

       „It was pandemonium going down the docks from 12 o‟clock when the offices all opened.
       You all had to go queue in there to draw the money on the card. I drew it for me sister cos
       she was working then. It was one mad rush and the policemen used to be on Fish Dock Road
       there near the gates and he‟d look at your card to let you through. They christened it “Fish
       Dock Races”.‟
                                                                               Mary Jane Waumsley

The wages would then be taken out of the fishermen‟s „settling‟ money after landing day – this was
their share of the catch.

       „My dad didn‟t always make a good trip, sometimes he would finish up owing the company.
       Just cos they‟d gone out fishing and got a load of fish it didn‟t necessarily mean to say that it
       was going to sell well on the market and they often used to make a loss.‟
                                                                                        Doreen Tyson

Women had little choice but to make do, and did everything they could to make ends meet:
stretched meals, used „tickets‟ to buy clothing and household items, and even earned money looking
after friend‟s children or braiding at home.

       „We had a good friend in the pawn shop. Before the war the ships want earning much them
       days and the wages want as much. His suit was in the pawn shop before he got out the lock
       pits, and his boots. We had good neighbours... “My old man‟s coming in on this tide and his
       suits in.” Off would come the wedding ring. “Go get ten bob on the ring, go and get his suit
       out.” As soon as he‟d gone out the lock pit we‟d pawn something to get her ring out for her
       old man coming in, oh it was good... everybody helped everybody.‟
                                                                                        Annie Bell

Until trawlers were fitted with two-way radios, there were very few methods of communication
once they set sail. As fishermen spent so long away at sea, maintaining relationships was never

       „Births, deaths, marriages, hospital, anything – they‟d just miss it all. In those days there
       was no communication. If you sent a message they might get it within a week. He didn‟t
       find out when I had me son till he was about a week old I think.‟
                                                                                              Janet Cox

       „George always sent me a bouquet when he was coming in the river. They used to say, “Eh
       up Madge‟s got George coming home, she‟s having a good clean up!” And you did, you
       know everything has got to be spick and span – your husband‟s coming home! If I didn‟t get
       a bouquet of flowers I got a telegram. Everybody down the street knew George was coming
       in „cos they knew how I worked.‟
                                                                                  Marjorie Louis

„I think we all got married when my dad was at sea. I‟ve got a nice telegram here from the day I got
married as he was at sea. You didn‟t have telephones or whatever in those days, and that was just
one of the ways of keeping in touch – they‟d send a telegram.

       „We used to have a special radio where you could tune into the fishing wave band that the
       fisherman used to communicate with each other. You could get a special radio with the
       seaman‟s band on and we were able to tune into this. Every night round about the same
       time, if he wasn‟t busy, he would come on and talk to us on this radio we could listen to
       him. He had his own personal call sign so that we knew he was calling to us. You could hear
       them talking to each other, the fishermen, and he used to come on and go, “Piccolo piccolo
       piccolo Pete. Piccolo piccolo piccolo…” and he‟d do that for a few minutes and then we
       knew that what he was going to say was for us. We couldn‟t reply to him or anything so I
       mean it was just one way of communication.‟
                                                                                     Doreen Tyson
                                        Gifts from the Sea

A fisherman coming home after weeks at sea was cause for great excitement among the family.
Although the chance to spend precious time with your father or husband was sometimes eclipsed by
the excitement about gifts they might bring back with them.

Fishermen could purchase items from „the bond‟ - these were items available at duty-free prices
once the boats were out of British territorial waters.

       „It was sweets and chocolates that you couldn‟t buy in the shops because it was for export.
       My sister, rather than say hello to my dad would say, “What‟s he brought?” We looked
       forward to whatever he brought in from sea for us. It was always different: Huntley and
       Palmers biscuits – they were very nice, white heather chocolates (a bit like Quality Street
       but with different centres) and Gerrards soap, everybody had Gerrards soap.‟
                                                                                   Angela Mcmullen

It was almost a prerequisite of a fishermen‟s wife that they knew how to cook seafood, as the men
would also bring home parcels of fish which were given as part of their wage.

       „When he came in from sea he always had two or three big basses of fish and fresh lobster
       still alive. Unfortunately we didn‟t have freezers in those days so we had to give a lot away.
       We‟d often open the pantry and there‟d be a couple of lobsters on the pantry floor. But my
       mother used to gut and scale fish, clean and dress crabs, lobsters and everything.‟
                                                                                        Doreen Tyson

However there was one element of the men coming home that nobody looked forward to…

       „Me dad come in with a great big black bag, stinking of fish and she had to do all that
       washing – apart from having a day out with him. When I used to go to school at half past
       eight me mother and Auntie Anne was getting it ready and when I came home from school
       at half past four they were still doing it. Me Auntie used to come to help „cos she couldn‟t
       have done it all on her own. Not like when you just put the washing in now. It took all day.
       You had to get a copper and you boiled the water, then they had to hand wash it, push it
       through a wringer – there was no washing machines. It was all done by hand. If it‟s raining
       well it went into Tuesday cos you couldn‟t dry it. So sometimes it could take as long as
       three days just to do that. She had to have his sea gear cleaned and ready for when he went
       off, you see. It was pressure, pressure all the time but she just accepted it my mother. She
       just took it in her stride. She was so tough.‟
                                                                                         Mike Connor
                              “...if the sea wants yer, it’ll take yer.”

Women were constantly reminded of the dangers their husbands and family members faced while at
sea. They had to endure the uncertainty of their men returning home if a trawler ran into trouble or
bad weather. The arrival of the Port Missioner on the doorstep often heralded bad news and reports
of a loss at sea would send ripples of unease through the fishing community.

       „My mother used to take us down Freeman Street, six of us in tow, and on the placard you‟d
       read, “Grimsby Trawler Lost.” Her face would turn pure white and she‟d be shaking. She‟d
       buy a newspaper and then she‟d feel relief that it was some poor other bugger‟s husband
       they‟d lost. I remember that happening on two or three occasions.‟
                                                                                      Mike Connor

Allison Josefsen‟s friend tragically lost her husband and was lucky not to have suffered the same

       „They went to Tiburon, where he was from, to see his family. She went over on his fishing
       boat with him but he sailed and she came back separately on one of the butter boats. His
       boat went under and I think all they found was the lifebelt. To this day they‟ve never found
       it. No bodies were ever found. I mean, if she hadn‟t stayed there a couple more days she
       wouldn‟t be here today. What do they say? God moves in mysterious ways and if the sea
       wants yer, it‟ll take yer.‟
                                                                                     Allison Josefsen

Losses amongst Grimsby‟s trawlermen were heavy in both World Wars. Some trawlers continued to
fish as others were requisitioned for service with the Royal Navy as minesweepers or patrol vessels.
Ships on their way to fishing grounds still faced the dangers of rough seas and appalling weather
conditions, but this was made worse by the constant threat of enemy attack.

       „…my old man he was on a minesweeper - two or three used to go out everyday to clear
       from the dock gates right through the channel, right through the Humber. Anyway, my
       father goes on this trip and when my old man come in dock, he come and found me in the
       old Kent Arms where I was working as a barmaid. He said, “Your father isn‟t coming home
       Anne.” I said, “What d‟you mean?” He said, “We‟ve been and fetched the ships in but three
       of em‟s gone over, torpedoed.”‟
                                                                                      Annie Bell

       „My dad was a fisherman and in the war he was in the Merchant Navy. He told us stories
       and course being my dad I thought it was a load of rubbish. One time, he said he was in the
       life raft and as they died round him they put „em over the side. He was such an ordinary
       person sat there, I mean he died at 58, thin and wizened and me thinking, no, this can‟t have
       been you.

       „One day he was reading the Sunday People and he went barmy because in this Man of the
       People article there was a young man who‟d gone in the army and he couldn‟t get on, so he
       got out and he got a pension. My dad went ballistic, all the things he‟d been through in the
       war an‟ all. So he wrote off for a Man of the People award. And bugger me – it was all true.
       He could give them all the dates, all the ships he was on, everything that happened. He got a
       full war pension - he‟d been years without anything. And it was all true.‟
                                                                                         Ann Graves
                                   Women and Families at Sea

While the crew on board a trawler was usually entirely male, skippers often took their wives and
children on „pleasure trips‟. These were typically near-water trips where they could enjoy the
experience of being at sea without having to work.

       „I once went out in the river (Humber) with my brother-in-law Colin who was a skipper. The
       lads on the ship hauled me and the mate‟s wife on the ship at the lock gates. We got dropped
       off in Scarborough because Colin had had enough of us and he knew a chappie who‟d got a
       boat and he come out and picked us up, bearing in mind I‟d left two children with my
       mother-in-law and my sister-in-law had left four so there were six kids with her. I tell you
       we got into so much trouble. Our regular taxi driver Louie, who dropped us off at the docks,
       took all our handbags back home to my mother-in-law and she said, “Well, where are they?”
       Louie said, “Oh they‟ve gone out to sea with Colin.” Well she went beserk but we were only
       away overnight. One of the lads on the ship said that was the first time he‟d seen a decky
       with high-heeled shoes on.‟
                                                                                         Olga Drever

It was rare for women to go to sea but there were a handful of Grimsby women who made a living
fishing. They started on board their father‟s or partner‟s boat where they built up their skills and
experience. Mary-Rose Jessop and Allison Josefsen were both officially signed on seine netters
towards the end of the industry.

       „I used to listen to all the lads coming in from sea and I used to think Ooh I‟d love to be a
       boy – I wish I could go.

       „The first trip I did to sea I had no sea gear nothing, so I had to borrow my husband
       Charlie‟s. I looked like a little penguin, the sleeves was out here so I folded them all up. I
       couldn‟t wear the gloves cos they was massive and you can‟t gut like that. So I came in from
       sea and me hands was ripped to pieces cos I ant been wearing gloves.

       „At sea everybody was laughing at me cos my hair was right down my back, and before I
       went on the deck I used to put face cream on and do my hair. They used to say “where do
       you think you‟re going?” I said “I always do this every morning, shut up.” Two hours later
       I‟d got mud and guts in my hair.‟
                                                                                 Mary-Rose Jessop

„The biggest superstition is not having women on board yer boat. Well that was a lot of the stigma I
got. But I always turn round and say yeah but me dad made his biggest trip with me aboard the boat.
I was a decky-cook – I did all the cooking and then when they was busy I just took up the fish and
everything. It was the same as what they did basically.

       „Once I was away at sea fishing in Norwegian waters. You had to write down every time
       you lifted the net out of the water and how much fish you caught because the navy could
       come aboard at any time and check. And they come on. So I mean, they wouldn‟t notice it‟s
       a girl with a cap on cause me hair was short but if you‟d have seen their faces!‟
                                                                                     Allison Josefsen
                                          Women at Work

Fishing brought with it opportunities for shore-based worked linked to the industry. Traditionally,
many women were employed in fish houses. The work hardly changed until the latter half of the
20th century.

       „The „errings was running down - I mean we used to get the herring boats come…We had
       big tubs of brine and in the winter we had to break the ice off it. When we went to Ross
       Group it was all electric, steamed electric and it wasn‟t done like that you see. When we
       used to do „em, we used to put „em on the nails on a rod, and then there was a kiln and we
       used to walk each side of the kiln you know while they was still smoking and close the
       doors and then get on with the job. But at Ross Group it was electric and it wasn‟t the same
       as the brining we were used to. So I left. Well we all did, those that had worked for Greens.‟
                                                                                           Annie Bell

Women‟s work changed forever when the Ross food group was founded in Grimsby in 1920. Birds
Eye opened their first factory in Grimsby in 1929; W Young and Son began developing frozen fish
products in 1946. It was the era of processed food and through the fishing industry, and its
community of women prepared to work filleting fish or on production lines, Grimsby laid claim to
being at the forefront of a food revolution.

       „I don‟t know how I got onto it, but I went to work fishcake packing. I worked down there
       until I was married, and I stayed part time until the children came along really. Tom‟s fairly
       strict; he wasn‟t here so I had to be for the kids, which was right.‟
                                                                                      Sally Wilbourne

As in most working class communities it was unusual for women to work once married. However,
as the income of fishermen was dependant on the catch, many women worked in home-based
industries, among them net-braiding With the industry at its peak, many women turned to net-
braiding as a source of income. It was customary for girls to start out as needle fillers, working for
more experienced braiders.

       „…I think we had six or eight braiders to fill for, ten minutes each and they wanted however
       many needles you could fill in that time. The more you could fill, the happier they were. I
       always remember starting and continually looking at the clock. It seemed like hours and
       hours and hours…there was like benches each side and there must have been about forty
       people in this place. They used to have sing-songs and that, and the radio on for Workers
       Playtime at ten o‟clock every morning.‟
                                                                                     Maureen Harvey
                          Dolly Hardie and the Fight for Compensation

With her roots in the fishing industry, Dolly had always been concerned about the welfare of
fishermen and their families. When the industry declined and distant-water fishermen were made
unemployed, Dolly was determined to secure financial support for men who found themselves
classed as casual labour with no rights to redundancy.

In 1978, Dolly wrote to request payments for her husband and son. The court rejected the request,
but writing the letter was an initial step and soon Dolly found herself fighting for thousands of other
fishermen in different ports. With the help of Austin Mitchell she started the British Fishermen‟s
Association (BFA).

In 1993, Employment Minister Ann Widdecombe finally agreed to ex gratia payments as a result of
the evidence provided by Dolly on behalf of the BFA. However, payments were only be made to
former trawlermen who could demonstrate two years continuous service with a single employer.

This failed to take account of the working practices of the industry where fishermen were required
to move between employers. These supposed breaks in employment meant that men with thirty-five
years service received only a few hundred pounds in compensation.

In 1994, Dolly was awarded the MBE. Finally, in 2000 The Department for Business, Enterprise
and Regulatory Reform (formerly the DTI) announced a scheme to compensate former UK-based
Icelandic water trawlermen who had lost their jobs as a consequence of the settlement of the final
cod war and the subsequent collapse of the fishing industry.

The Department still refused to accept that men were made to work in the North Sea if they could
not fish in Iceland. This excluded many fishermen from payment and led Austin Mitchell to take
evidence to the Ombudsman. In April 2008, the government began an investigation of the
Ombudsman‟s findings.

In November 2008, Dolly died at the age of 88 after a long illness. She had been a regular visitor to
Austin Mitchell‟s MP‟s surgeries for 26 years. He witnessed the resilience she brought to the

       „She could never relax and say it‟s all over, we‟ve won; she always pushed it further…at
       first she thought it was easy, all you‟ve got to do is be right and they‟ll give way, but it
       doesn‟t work like that.‟

A month after Dolly‟s death, in December 2008, the government‟s original compensation scheme
was finally deemed unfair. A new scheme was put in place making payments based on each
trawlerman‟s total service on vessels fishing in Icelandic waters. This will enable more than a
thousand trawlermen around the country to have their cases reviewed.

Considering everything you have discovered about the role of women in the industry, answer the
following questions:

       1. What do you think was the best thing about being a fisherman‟s wife?

       2. What do you think was the worst thing?

       3. What do you think it would have been like if your father was a fisherman? How would
       your life be different?

       4. What kind of jobs were women able to do in the industry?

       5. How do you think women‟s work benefited the industry?

       6. Was it common for women to work?

       7. How have things changed for women today?

       8. What effect do you think the loss of the industry had on Grimsby families?


Creative writing: Imagine you are the wife of a fisherman who has just set sail. Write about your
time at home while he is at sea. Are you worried? What household chores do you have? Is it
difficult coping with everything alone?

Newspaper analysis: Using excerpts from newspapers build up an understanding of the fishing
industry. Early newspapers will show big catches but big losses in terms of ships and men due to a
lack of health and safety. Later newspapers will show the cod wars and the decline of the industry.

Photo analysis: A selection of photographs from the industry. Identify the activities going on for
example: braiding, kippering, gutting, hauling in nets. Interesting to look at family photos and note
the lack of men featured within them, how families were larger back then.

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