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Darwin’s Bulldog ignores Filey fishermen

by RB


TH Huxley by Carlo Pelligrini - sourced in public domain wikipedia

On 1st October 1863 a royal commission on fishing visited Filey to take evidence from the local fishermen.  Chaired by MP James Caird, the scientific adviser for the commission was Thomas Henry Huxley, Victorian Society’s most prominent biologist after Charles Darwin. Huxley was a fierce advocate of evolutionary biology.

Huxley was one of England’s first career scientists, often short of money. As the questioning of our fishermen unfolded, Huxley and Caird were increasingly surprised by some the answers they were receiving about how the enterprise was financed. The fact was that Filey fishermen were very wealthy indeed. In total they owned 27 yawls, each yawl costing up to £1,000 to build and equip. How could these working  class men could afford such huge sums without being in debt.

Following the death of his four-year-old son Noel in 1860 , The extent of Huxley’s Darwinian beliefs on the overproduction of species, underlying bitterness and cynicism is revealed by Huxley’s statement about fisheries:

“The idee fixe of the British public, fishermen, M.P.’s and ignorant persons generally is that all small fish, if you do not catch them, grow up into big fish. They cannot be got to understand that the wholesale destruction of the immature is the necessary part of the general order of things, from codfish to men ..”

The results of the 1863 enquiry were that Huxley and Caird declared open season on fisheries in this country and removed all restrictions against trawling. They ignored good advice from Filey Fishermen and large parts of the living crust, which once covered the bottom of the North Sea were destroyed.

Slow Death at Sea – only one survives

by RB

In June 1858 three local fishermen were at sea five miles of Flamborough Head when their coble capsized and they were swept into the water. The subsequent account of the single survivor, transcribed by the Rev George Shaw is a harrowing tale of how simple faith sustained them as they clung to fishing floats (known as bowls), becoming ever weaker and near death as the hours passed.

The story is transcribed in full. It is deeply moving and needs to be read in full in this pdf file  :  A harrowing tale of death at sea

Methodist Minister the Rev. Shaw later produced a ‘service of song’ published pamphlet, describing the tragedy in the context of a number of hymns:

Etching of Storm - Rev. G. Shaw

Etching of Storm – Rev. G. Shaw

Legend of the Filey Flither Girls

by RB


The artists impression above by local artist G Briggs  shows a Filey ‘Flither’ Girl with two baskets of bait. On the right of the picture is a fishermen baiting up hooks on a ‘longline‘ which was used to catch cod and other fish. Longlines were laid across the best fishing spots from the local ‘cobles‘ and were buoyed at one end. Usually several lines were laid amounting to thousands of hooks from each boat.

The need to provide massive amounts of bait for the hooks was relentless, common mussels (Mytilus edulis) could be used and another excellent bait was limpets (Patella vulgata) found in abundance on the rocky seashore around Filey Bay and on the more extensive rocky scars north of Scarborough up to Robin Hood’s Bay near Whitby.The female members of our fishing community who collected this bait came to be known as ‘flither girls’, a word used to describe the limpets they collected but possible being derived from a Norwegian word, used to describe someone who looks from pool to pool on the seashore.

Bait would probably have been brought in from Norfolk and in the age of railways from Scotland but during the winter and in times of poverty, the female members of the local fishing community made heroic efforts to gather the bait from the seashore. The local supplies would have been quickly exhausted and witnesses of the Victorian Period stated that sometimes they set off in the Winter in the  middle of the night to walk North as far as Robin Hoods Bay to gather bait , lodging just North of Scarborough, a distance to Robin Hoods Bay and back of over 35 miles.

Angels guard the Spot

by RB

Coble at Sunrise Coble Landing

Death was ever present in the lives of Filey Fishing Families, In October  1880 alone, eight men died in a storm:

Drowned from yawl Sarah  was Thomas Cowling aged 30yrs

with William Mason aged aged 32yrs

Richard Richardson snr  aged 55yrs and his son Richard aged 24yrs

plus James  Wyville 33yrs;

John Cammish Crompton aged 29yrs;

 Ross Jenkinson aged 38yrs

 Francis Haxby aged 23yrs  all drowned from the yawls Eliza, and  the Sarah,

Thomas Cowling, William Mason, both left wives and 2 young children each

Richard Richardson jnr left a grieving wife and 6wks old baby

Richard Richardson snr left a bereaved wife and mother plus 2 sons and a daughter

James Wyvill left a bereaved wife and 2 young sons

Francis Haxby aged 23rd drowned as had his father some 20 yrs  previously

Ross Jenkinson left a widow Eliza and who went on to live with a niece for very many years.

John Cammish Crompton left a widow and 3 surviving children

Jane Cowling’s bereavement Card is in Filey Museum and reads thus:

“I cannot stand beside his grave – For he sleeps in the open sea

And not one single whispering wave will tell the place to me.

But though unseen by mortal eyes – Tho’ humans know it not.

His Father knoweth where he lies   – And Angels guard the spot!”

From information provided by Kath Wilkie