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Life on Fleetwood trawlers was fraught with danger
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Barbara Robertson and Wyre Monitor – two tales of courage and heartbreak

As our trawlermen face another uncertain year – of de-commissioning, of ‘foreign’ vessels fishing our waters and of fish quotas, we should not forget our fishing heritage.

Fleetwood was built on fish – on the courage and determination of the fishermen.

Through war and peace the struggle went on – and now the fight has moved to Europe – to the powers that now govern the traditional fishing grounds.

Many believe the Government has failed our fishermen – and time will tell.

The trawler industry has seen some extraordinary tales of heroism; of the dangers faced by our trawlermen in their daily lives; of heartbreak; of lives and vessels lost in the never ending ending quest to bring the fish in, and the horrendous conditions in which the crews worked.

Here, we would like to record two events – which graphically depict the dangers at sea in war and peace.

First to the early dark days of the war when our trawlermen found themselves facing an additional danger – the enemy at sea!

It was on a cold winter’s day at the end of 1939 that Barbara Robertson, under the command of Skipper E Hall of Hull, left for the fishing grounds.

Within weeks the port was stunned to hear that yet another Fleetwood trawler had been sunk by a U-boat.

The Barbara Robertson became the latest casualty – following the fate of other local trawlers like Davara, Wellvale, Rudyard Kipling, Arlita, Lord Minto, Creswell, Sea Sweeper, Delphine, Thomas Hankins, Sulby, William Humphries and Caldew.

Many others were to go to a watery grave in the following 5 years of war. And in peace the toll on lives and vessels continues.

But back to the early days of 1940 when the news of Barbara Robertson got back to the port.

The attack on the 276-ton trawler was made in darkness off northern Scotland. One crew man was killed when the first shell smashed into the wheelhouse disabling the radio and steering gear.

As the crew took to their lifeboat and pulled away the U-boat ceased firing into her. She went down by the head in about 20 minutes.

Managed by the Boston Deep Sea Fishing and Ice Company the trawler (registered FD 50) carried a mixed crew – three Fleetwood men, two Polish fishermen living in the town with the skipper and other crewmen from Hull.

Second engineer Mr William Eynon, of Abbotts Walk said he was on watch in the engine-room when he heard two shots.

The Barbara Robertson “trembled” and the engine telegraph rang ‘stop’.

When Mr Eynon got on deck the lifeboat was over the side and he climbed in.

“I could dimly make out the submarine. Her crew did not hail us and kept firing all the time.”

The crew were pulling for over 12 hours until spotted by a seaplane who radioed for a warship to rescue the men.

Chief Engineer Harry Dawe of London Street suffered from exposure as he lost all his gear and was only scantily clad. Later, shoes, cardigan and balaclava helmet were supplied by the warship’s crew.

Also aboard the Barbara Robertson was Mr H Ellerby of Church Street, Fleetwood, who had been in the Rudyard Kipling when she was sunk the previous September. He had spent 8 hours on a submarine’s deck while being taken towards the Irish Coast.

Once the war ended the trawlermen continued their job of bringing home the fish.

There have been many peacetime disasters at sea with whole crews disappearing with their ships.

At the best the fishermen have to cope with the cruel sea and all type of weather.

In 1951 one trawler made a trip labelled “a voyage of one darned thing after another.”

But luckily all ended happily.

It was in February that the Wyre Monitor – with a crew of 19 – returned from the White Sea grounds.

Expected to last 3 weeks the trip actually took 45 days and was believed to be the longest ever recorded in the port at that time.

It appeared nothing could go right for Skipper Harold Huntingford and his men.

The catalogue of mishaps began when 2 deckhands were put ashore suffering from influenza. (They spent a week in hospital).

The ship put back to sea with Norwegian replacements – but developed engine trouble.

Repairs were carried out in Vardo, Norway and Wyre Monitor again put to sea.

Almost at the fishing grounds a mystery leak was found and so it was back to Vardo.

But repairs could not be carried out there and the Monitor-with all pumps manned – made a 36-hour dash to Trondheim Fiord.

Repairs there took 9 days.

The sick crewmen had recovered and rejoined their ship for a trial run following the repairs.

Determined not to return home without a catch, Skipper Huntingford again set off for the White Sea grounds.

By this time the crew were weary of the northern darkness and their long absence from home.

But their luck changed and shoals of plaice were found and their catch – including haddock, cod and mixed fish – realised £4,400 on the Fleetwood market.

It was certainly a trip to remember!

Aboard the Monitor were;

Skp Huntingford, Addison Road; Mate T W Redpenning, Hull; Bosun A Picess, Windsor Terrace; Chief Engineer G Provoost, Elm Street; Second Engineer T H Blowers, Birkenhead; Cook E C Kellick, Back Warren Street; Firemen D Williamson, Preston Street and C Birkenhead of Preston.

The deckhands were A H Riley, Byron Street; S Baldwin, Dock Street; J Beedle, Crowder Avenue, Thornton; F Connell, Harris Street, Hull; L Durrant, Lindel Road; R N Day, Heathfield Road; J H Scott, Lindel Road, W Rogerson, Southfleet Avenue and T Sillis, Lindel Road.

Just two trawler tales from our past – but two which highlight the difficulties faced at sea.

And, although the fishing industry has changed drastically over the last 80 years, problems still face the fishermen.

Different ships, different problems – but the same sea.

First published in Life in Fleetwood issue 40, spring 1996.

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