Washed up Ocean fleet once ruled the waves

OCEAN DAWN...on which Peggotty’s father was mate postwar.Picture: L W HAWKINS COLLECTION

OCEAN DAWN...on which Peggotty’s father was mate postwar.Picture: L W HAWKINS COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

THE history of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston is awash with so-called significant dates, marking ultra highs or lows. One that hit the headlines a half-century ago was met with a mixture of resignation and sadness for it signalled the inevitability of the world’s former leading herring port becoming extinct and nothing more than a colourful memory.

BUSY NIGHT: the Ocean Starlight uses lights as she lands her catch at Yarmouth in 1962. She won the

BUSY NIGHT: the Ocean Starlight uses lights as she lands her catch at Yarmouth in 1962. She won the Prunier Trophy for the biggest single-night haul that year.Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

Not even its most optimistic champions could envisage that the herring industry, a veteran mainstay of our economy, could ever recover from the news that the port’s last drifters had been sold. The sale of Bloomfields’ remaining drifter-trawlers to a Lowestoft firm in 1963 was “The end of an era”, in the words of the Yarmouth Mercury headline.

MAINTOP SKIPPERS: some of Bloomfields’ legends in the 1930s, with names like Peek, Haylett, Brown, S

MAINTOP SKIPPERS: some of Bloomfields’ legends in the 1930s, with names like Peek, Haylett, Brown, Smith, Knights, Blowers, Rump and George renowned in the herring fishery.Picture: L W HAWKINS COLLECTION - Credit: lw hawkins collection

The Mercury said Bloomfields’ six modern drifter-trawlers had been “the pride of the sadly-diminishing Yarmouth fleet for a decade.” Their sale to T Small and Co was “a matter of economics,” explained Bloomfields’ managing director, Mr J M C Cormack. “There is not enough fish. We cannot make a profit out of it.”

The last Yarmouth steam drifter had been broken up two years earlier, ending another chapter. The Mercury told readers that 50 years earlier there had been more than 300 Yarmouth-registered drifters owned by scores of firms and individuals. Now there was none.

Numerically, the Bloomfields’ fleet had been the port’s biggest user down the decades, and the company also managed drifters for other owners. Most Bloomfields’ boats had names prefixed with “Ocean” sometimes followed by the names of Lever Brothers products, like Ocean Lifebuoy (soap) and Ocean Vim (sink scourer). As many as five dozen sailed as Oceans, including some repeated as a new-build replaced an old vessel.

Exceptions were few – for example, the D’Arcy Cooper and Hilda Cooper, launched in 1928, were named as a tribute to the chairman of Lever Brothers (Unilever’s predecessor) and his wife.

The remaining half-dozen boats sold to Lowestoft were the Oceans Crest, Dawn, Starlight (which won the Prunier Trophy for the biggest single-night 1962 catch from Yarmouth and Lowestoft), Sunlight, Surf and Trust.

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According to the excellent detailed history of The Ocean Fleet of Yarmouth, painstakingly penned in 1983 by Norwich-based author L W Hawkins (who also wrote books on The Numerical Fleet of Yarmouth and The Prunier Herring Trophy), Bloomfields was founded by a Liverpudlian, Commander James Bloomfield, who came to Yarmouth in 1902 to work for the Smith’s Dock Trust Company, took over its management in 1904 and stayed until 1911, leaving to devote all his efforts into running his new company to which he attracted successful established skippers for his boats.

James Bloomfield died from influenza in 1922, about the time that his company was becoming part of the Lever Brothers empire. But the Bloomfields’ fleet continued, with its distinctive funnel markings introduced by James to help easy identification among the scores – hundreds, even – of English and Scottish drifters moored along Yarmouth’s quaysides during the autumn fishery.

Vessels in the Smith’s Dock Trust fleet he had managed had a red funnel with a traditional black cap, and he adopted that livery for his Bloomfield boats but with the addition of a pair of narrow silver rings just below the black top.

Although it was long ago, my own recollection of the Bloomfield colouring was that the funnels were not red but more a deep pink. On a personal note, my drifterman father – a mate subsequently promoted to skipper – was no stranger to being in the crew of a Bloomfields’ boat, the one that springs to mind being the Ocean Dawn (YH47) when Charlie Johnson, of Suffield Road, Gorleston, was her skipper postwar.

That Ocean Dawn, built in 1919, was sold to Belgium in 1955 for breaking up. Her best catch, says the Hawkins book, was 283 cran in 1928, a magnificent shot. Four years earlier, probably during one of her periods as a trawler, she landed a 12 stone sturgeon that fetched £7 4s at auction in Yarmouth – today that is the equivalent of more than £300.

In England, the caviar-producing sturgeon, along with whales and porpoises, is a royal fish, every sturgeon caught in England being the property of the Crown.

After the sale of the six Bloomfields’ drifter-trawlers, Yarmouth’s autumn herring fishery continued on a very small scale for a few years before petering out. Bloomfields stayed in Yarmouth as curers, shipbrokers, exporters and fish sellers.

Other harbour-related news in 1963 included the death at 78 of one of its best-loved characters, Sam Spilling, a seaman for 62 eventful years including latterly being master of the port tug, Richard Lee Barber. In the 1914-18 war, when he was in command of seven submarine-hunting drifters, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for duties including saving 120 lives when a steamer was torpedoed.

He first went to sea as an 11-year-old with his father in the lugger Ich Dien, and ten years later was skipper of the herring drifter The Queen (YH879), followed by Britain’s biggest drifter, the English Rose (YH80).

The landmark lighthouse at the end of Gorleston Pier was demolished - “it never resembled the traditional idea of a lighthouse but always had the name,” said the Mercury. “It was ‘home’ for Port and Haven watchmen whose affection for the building – more than a century old – may have diminished in recent years for, in the worst weather as the old pier weakened, it was said to have become somewhat shaky.”

An engaged couple who missed the last ferry and tried to cross the river in a small boat at night were rescued...at sea, opposite the power station! Peter Snape, 17, of Bells Marsh Road, Gorleston, and Jennifer Wilson, of Admiralty Road, Yarmouth, borrowed her brother-in-law’s boat Margaret to cross to Gorleston, could not start the engine so decided to row, but could not find the row-locks for the oars and drifted down-stream with the tide and out of the piers.

Her cries were heard and Gorleston lifeboat found them off the power station. The couple were due to marry the next month.