Fishing was, and still is, a perilous occupation. Squalls can pick up with little or no warning and until the middle of the 19th century, the boats were open yawls with a single mast, easily swamped with a high wave. The crews were exposed to the elements. Their oilskins, heavy woollen clothes and long boots protected them, yet placed them in grave danger should they go overboard.
It has always been so. The Newhaven fishermen’s traditional working attire consisted of leather sea boots that reached up above the knee. These boots were an essential part of their wardrobe and had to be protected from the action of salt water which would dry out and crack them by rubbing in melted lard or cod liver oil. But they were also the fishermen’s biggest hazard for, once overboard, they would surely drag their wearer to the bottom. The trousers had flap over bottoms for buttons could catch onto the nets. These were tucked into their sea boots. Two or three pairs of long knitted socks and multiple layers of woollen jerseys accompanied by a loose-fitting brown linen jacket called a slop completed their protection although oilskins were close at hand should they experience heavy weather. Their headgear was mainly caps or sou’westers.
Until about 1850, their boats were undecked and the crews were unprotected from the elements and the sea. However, they were all accomplished sailors with a hereditary instinct to weather storms — they had to be — and, against the odds, were able to survive storms that seem impossible to modern experiences without the advantages of modern technology. However, inevitably, disaster overtook the fishing fleets from time to time; the community accepted the hazards with stoicism and, indeed, contributed to their self-reliance and insularity.
Work was hard, often gruelling. During the eight week herring season, it was not uncommon for the crews to grab a couple of hours sleep in the middle of the day and work throughout the day for five days on end. Bed was a luxury reserved for the weekends when they had to come ashore to land the catch and dry and mend the nets.a
You will learn more about the brave fishermen and their vessels here > > >
The skills of Newhaven Fishermen were renowned and because of this, they were in high demand whether for whaling or teaching their profession to other communities in the world, as illustrated here > > >
As with all fishing communities, tragedy lived on the doorsteps of those that go down to the sea in ships. Find out more here > > >