Blasphemous Saints and Splendid Drunken Heroes: The World of Under the Whaleback

by Walter Bilderback

Under the Whaleback takes place in a now-lost world: the sidewinder trawlers that sailed out of Hull and nearby ports between the 1880s and 1980s, providing generations of Britons with cod and haddock for their beloved fish and chips. The industry created a class of blue-collar aristocrats along Hessle Road - "blasphemous saints and splendid drunken heroes," as a Hull song put it. Then, the industry disappeared - a victim both of its own success and international competition.

The first sidewinder was launched in Hull in 1881. Powered first by steam and then diesel engines, these ships could pull much larger nets, increasing their hauls. They were called "sidewinders" because they hauled their nets off the starboard side of the ship. The fish were gutted on the open fishdeck, often in sub-freezing weather and Force 8 winds (60-65 mph). In order to provide some protection for the fishdeck,  the trawlers developed "whalebacks" - raised bows. Sometimes, as in this play, the crews' quarters were located under the whaleback.

The sidewinders, with their crews of 15 to 20, were so effective at catching fish that they decimated the nearby North Sea banks within 20 years, and began making three week voyages, north of Scandinavia and west to Iceland and Greenland, where the fishing was better.

Fishing has always been very dangerous work. In 1816, Walter Scott reported hearing a fishmonger say, "It's no fish ye're buying: it's men's lives." Between 1946 and 1975, 32 Hull trawlers were sank or ran aground, with a loss of nearly 200 lives. The worst year was 1968, which saw the famous Triple Trawler Tragedy, when three ships sank between January 11 and February 4, with only one survivor among the 60 crewmen: everyone in Hull knew at least one man who’d died. These figures don't count the numerous deaths and injuries that occur in the regular course of operations. Fishing remains the deadliest occupation: in Great Britain, the fatality rate remains seven times that of mining; in the U.S., 200 in every 100,000 commercial fishermen died in 2010, far worse than forestry, the next highest contender.

But, as anyone along Hessle Road, the neighborhood where most of the trawlermen and their families lived, knew, the danger could be matched by the pay. If you had a good catch on the three week voyage, a "deckie's" pay made him a "three day millionaire" for his short time ashore, with most of the money often going for ale at Rayner's and ordering a fancy new suit at Waistell's or Len Pearson's to wear when the next trip was over.

But other nations began buying and building sidewinders as well, and the Icelandic banks might have been stripped bare by mid-century, if it hadn't been for the near cessation of North Atlantic fishing during the two World Wars. Then Iceland began expanding its territorial waters to 12, 50, 100, and finally 200 miles offshore, making the remaining stocks Icelandic property. This led Iceland and Great Britain to three Cod Wars between 1958 and 1976. By the end of the third Cod War, Hull's good years were passed. Two-thirds of wholesale merchants closed shop between 1973 and 1976. The last sidewinder to sail from Hull was the Arctic Corsair in 1988. By 2002, there were 10,000 vacant homes in a city of about a quarter-million. The Corsair is now preserved as a museum in Hull, which director Blanka Zizka visited in April, 2012 for research.

Picture: St. Andrew's Dock, Hull in the 1960s

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