England Occupations, Fishing, Whaling (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Fishing and Whaling

Mariners in the Royal Navy and mercantile service as well as coastguards and lifeboatmen are considered in the National Institute for Genealogical Studies course English: Occupations - The Services. Those engaged in harvesting food and other useful materials from the sea are considered here.


The English fishing industry was already well established when William I arrived in 1066, boats going as far as the Arctic to harvest enough fish to satisfy the demand for fish on Wednesdays and Fridays, and during Lent and other Christian festivals. The Catholics subsequently reduced the fast to only Fridays, and at the Reformation Protestants opposed the weekly fish day as smacking of popery, with disastrous results for the fishing industry. To compensate, Elizabeth I declared many specific fish days to assist the fishermen.

Manors had their own fish ponds, and monasteries managed complex breeding tanks (Hey). The town freemen rolls mention freshwater fishermen who caught eels, bream, pike and pickerel in rivers and lakes and marine fish such as herring, haddock, cod and skate. Many small coastal places depended largely on fishing, perhaps with smuggling as a sideline especially in the south. In the 15th-16th centuries some fishermen were travelling as far as Iceland in search of herring, and later to Newfoundland for cod. The great development of deep-sea fishing took place during the 18th and 19th centuries with large fishing ports arising in the north east and Scotland (Hey).

The North Sea was particularly busy with cod, plaice and sole being the main catches from ports like Hull (with England’s largest trawler fleet), Grimsby (which had the world’s biggest fish market), Whitby and North Shields and a host of smaller ones (Bailey 1982). The main methods were drifting and trawling. Drifters work closely together dragging vertical nets to catch surface fish such as herring and mackerel. Trawlers drag wide-mouthed nets along the bottom to catch the ground fish like plaice, turbot, sole and cod. Sailing ships went far afield, but steam power, larger vessels and refrigeration allowed them to go farther and stay out longer.

Fishing vessel crew lists survive at the Public Record Office and elsewhere, for example there are 30,000 booklets of them for Grimsby which have recently been indexed (John Wilson). The examination system started for merchant seamen in 1845 was extended to the skippers and mates of fishing vessels in 1883. There are Registers of Competence in class BT 129 from as early as 1880, and Registers of Service (long experience) from 1883 in BT 130, both of which are indexed in BT 138 (Smith, Watts and Watts). The Trinity House Petitions and other charities for mariners are worth checking for fishermen, as are the civil registration records of deaths at sea. The mariner’s occupation is described by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) and Marcombe (The Victorian Sailor. Shire Publications, 1985), although neither are specific for fishermen. The standard reference from the Public Record Office is Smith, Watts and Watts (Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen. Public Record Office Publications, 1998) and there is a series of PRO leaflets on merchant seamen and ships, which include the fishing fleets. In addition Staples, of the Registry of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff, gives a shorter but thorough review of their older records now at the PRO, and those up to the present day which they retain.

Pauper boys as young as seven could be apprenticed to the sea service and this included fishermen. Indexes of pauper apprentices, usually on a county or parish basis and thus available through county archives or on film, often reveal surviving indentures. Since parishes were eager to rid themselves of those requiring relief one should look for evidence in the parishes surrounding the earliest known fishing port at which he worked.

Fishing apprentices began to be registered in 1835 and surviving records are at the Public Record Office in classes BT 151-152. There is an Index of Apprentices 1824-1953 in BT 150. Many local records also survive, for example for Grimsby , which bound more than half of the total British sea fishing apprentices from the second half of the 19th century (Wood 1991), the registers of Grimsby fishing apprentices 1879-1937 contain many personal, family and career details (John Wilson’s Go North Young Men: London Fishermen in Grimsby 1850-1914. Cockney Ancestor (East of London Family History Society) #69, page 35-36.). There are earlier apprenticeship records at the Public Record Office, for example for 1639-1664 in the south east in HCA 30/897, and 1704-1757, 1804-1833 for Colchester, Essex in BT 167/101 (Wood 1991).

Related occupations include harvesting of shellfish and processing of fish onshore. Oyster dredging was particularly important around the Thames estuary at Colchester, Brightlingsea and Whitstable from even Neolithic times until the mid-20th century (Frost). There was considerable movement of fishermen and fisher lassies between fishing ports and this should always be borne in mind when you lose a fishing family (John Wilson). Nearly all the herring girls who processed the North Sea catch were Scottish. They started their year in early spring in north east Scotland and as the herring shoals moved south so did they, working down the coast -Fraserburgh, Shields, and Scarborough, then on to Grimsby and Great Yarmouth and as far south as Ramsgate, Kent. They returned home in the autumn to mend nets, scrub drifters and bait hooks ready for the next season (Wood 1997). Filbee (Cottage Industries. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1982) has a description of netmaking carried out as a specialty around Bridport in Dorset.

Registration of fishing vessels was required from 1786, and details of surviving records can be found in Smith, Watts and Watts. This also has a list of the specific alphabetical port letters used by fishing boats, thus a boat registered at Dover had DR and a number, whilst one at Grimsby had GY and its number.

Whaling and Sealing

The principal species of whale of commercial interest were the Right Whale of the arctic and the Sperm Whale of the southern seas. The Right Whale produced blubber used for making soap and candles, and whalebone (baleen) valuable for manufacturing umbrellas and corsets. The Sperm Whale yielded blubber and oil, an extra-fine oil called spermaceti useful for lighting and lubrication, the wax-like ambergris important in perfumery, and ivory from the teeth. The British carried out whaling almost exclusively in the arctic and their quarry was the Greenland Right Whale, also known as the Bowhead Whale.

Owing to the severe depletion of stocks of Right Whales in the late 19th century the whalers started to hunt the Bottlenose Whale and other arctic mammals, especially seals. Their products, especially whale oil, were an important raw material of the Industrial Revolution during the whaling heyday from the late 18th through to the late 19th century. Peterhead, Aberdeenshire was the leading port and the furthest north, and other major ones were Aberdeen, Dundee and Leith in Scotland, together with Hull and Whitby in England. Good references include Buchan (The Peterhead Whaling Trade. Buchan Field Club, Peterhead, 1993), and Credland (Whales and Whaling. Shire Publications, 1982) with much detail and many photographs, and Abranson (Sailors of the Great Sailing Ships. Macdonald Educational, 1977), the latter designed for younger readers but with great illustrations.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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