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Worth a wait to put this right

PUBLISHED: 18:26 22 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:31 30 June 2010

Drifters return to Yarmouth to land their catches

Drifters return to Yarmouth to land their catches

ALMOST three-quarters of a century is an extraordinarily long time to have to wait to put a record straight. It represents a lifetime spent hoping that some day, an error would be corrected.

ALMOST three-quarters of a century is an extraordinarily long time to have to wait to put a record straight. It represents a lifetime spent hoping that some day, an error would be corrected.

That day has come, I trust, for members of a Scottish family which achieved fame throughout the huge herring fishery and even nationally 74 years ago when the steam drifter Boy Andrew won the newly-inaugurated Prunier Trophy by landing the biggest single overnight catch of all the hundreds of boats fishing from Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft in the autumn of 1936.

The Boy Andrew (BF592) was sailing out of Yarmouth when she made her memorable haul of 231 cran of fresh herring, returning to port to land them on Guy Fawkes' Night, November 5; at auction on the Fishwharf, they sold for £1 9s 3p a cran (£1.46 pence in today's decimal coinage), fetching a total of £337 16s 9d.

No other drifter bettered that catch before the competition ended on November 30, although the Lowestoft boat Quiet Waters delivered 260 cran to that port's market but it was ineligible as a challenger because only 180 cran were of fresh herring, the remainder being overnights,

So, what is this wrong that I intend to right today? The Mercury never made the original mistake as far as I can ascertain, but newspaper reports - including, I believe, one in the long-defunct national Daily Sketch - named the successful skipper as J Mair. I must assume that Scottish newspapers covering the exploits of their drifters engaged in the 1936 East Anglian voyage also erred.

Author L W Hawkins, who penned carefully researched and detailed books about various aspects of the fishing industry, made a rare slip by perpetuating the J Mair myth into his work on the history of the Prunier Trophy.

It was all done in good faith, probably because nobody took it upon himself at the time to point out the major mistake. Presumably when the Boy Andrew led the Prunier contenders, somebody announced that Joseph Mair was her skipper. It was never corrected, and the damage was done. The passage of seven decades means that we will never discover who made that original false claim, albeit innocently.

That Joseph Mair was one of the three family members who jointly owned the Boy Andrew is not in dispute, but he was not her skipper on the night of that award-winning herring haul.

His granddaughter, Mrs Simone Prunier Walker (named after the famous French-born London restaurateur who launched the trophy), contacted the Mercury recently seeking information about the Boy Andrew's achievement, and I replied, sending her a copy of the brief account in Herring Heydays, a 1992 book by the late Kenneth Kent, of Gorleston, about the fishery that included all the trophy winners. It too stated that J Mair was her skipper that memorable night.

To my surprise, she wrote to inform me that far from being at the wheel of the Boy Andrew, grandfather Joseph was in fact back at his home, 500 miles away in Scotland! And her husband, Gordon, explained: “The fact is different from the printed fiction which my wife and I had first-hand from the last surviving crew member, now deceased, and her direct family knowledge. We would be delighted to get all this factual information to you for publication.”

Writes Simone Walker (nee Mair): “The boat was owned by my grandfather, Joseph Mair, my father, William Mair, and my uncle - my father's younger brother, Andrew, whom the boat was named after. He was only ten when my grandfather and father bought the boat in 1922, and they each had a one-third share.

“As far as I know, the following has never been in print but is the true story of the Boy Andrew's winning catch. Contrary to everything that has ever been in print, my grandfather Joseph was not on board that trip.

“He was 62 years old and was at home in bed with flu! However, when he heard about the catch he caught the train to Yarmouth.”

Excited he must have been about the big catch putting his drifter in the lead for the trophy, but it was surely a long and exhausting journey for an elderly sick man however efficient the steam trains and private railway system were before the war. Also, by the time he reached Yarmouth, the Boy Andrew had probably returned to sea, for after cranning out her huge shot, she sailed again immediately in search of the herring shoals…but came back into port on the Saturday morning with a measly 18 cran!

Then, following tradition, she stayed in Yarmouth with the rest of the Scottish fleet, observing the Sabbath while the local boats set sail, having no competition for a night.

“He would have been the registered skipper for the boat but was not skipper on that trip. My father, William, was skipper on that trip and my Uncle Andrew was mate,” continues Mrs Walker.

While 231 cran was a big catch, certainly better than any other boat landed in 1936, it was to be bettered several times during the duration of the trophy, the record being a massive 323 cran by the Peterhead drifter Fruitful Bough in 1953. But that 231 might well have been exceeded had the Boy Andrew's crew not found there were too many herring-heavy nets to haul, so Skipper William Mair passed the remainder to a Yarmouth drifter fishing nearby.

Those gift nets yielded another100 cran, kept by the Yarmouth boat and landed and sold as part of her own catch. I do not know her name, but her skipper returned the empty nets to the Boy Andrew as was the practice. “Of course, the Boy Andrew could not claim this 100 cran as they had not hauled them,” explains Mrs Walker, who was born in the March of the following year.

“The crew were entertained, wined and dined in London by Madame Prunier, and were also showed round the Daily Sketch and Billingsgate fish market.”

The Boy Andrew was built in 1918 at Aberdeen as HMS Sunburst, changing her name when she turned to civilian use after the first world war. Under Mair family ownership, she always fished from Yarmouth rather than Lowestoft during the autumn herring seasons. In the 1939-45 war she was requisitioned, but was sunk in the Firth of Forth while minesweeping.


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