Wednesday, 15 July 2015

When Barking was a fishing port; the Hewett family, St Margaret's Churchyard and Rippleside Cemetery, Barking

This simple chest tomb covers the Hewett vault in St Margaret's churchyard

It is almost impossible to imagine today but for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Barking was the most important fishing port in England. On a High Street now dominated by McDonalds and Dixie Fried Chicken, Poundland and Paddy Power back in the 1860’s ‘there were six sail makers, five mast, pump and block makers, five shipwrights and boat builders and four rope and line makers…. four marine store dealers, four slopsellers and two ships chandlers, as well as makers of specialized products such as ship’s biscuit, sea boots, kegs, casks and nets. A former inhabitant reminisced “how fragrant Heath Street and Fisher Street smelt of tar and pitch, how well the stores were supplied with sou’westers, oilskins, big-boots, guernseys, red caps, hawsers, ropes and twine.”’ (Richard Tames “Barking Past.”)   The fishing industry has been around the area since the middle ages and by 1724 Daniel Defoe described Barking as a large market town but one now dominated by fishing and “chiefly inhabited by fishermen, whose smacks ride in the Thames at the mouth of the river Roding, from whence it (fish) is sent up to London to the market at Billingsgate, by smaller boats.” The industry reached its apogee under the Hewett family whose Short Blue fleet became the largest private fishing fleet in the world.

The Hewett tomb inscription
Scrymgeour Hewett
The fishing dynasty started when the Scot Scrymgeour Hewett came to Barking (which he said was the prettiest village he had ever seen) and married a local girl, Sarah Whennel, at West Ham in 1797. Scrymgeour’s father, a doctor, had died when he was 8 and his mother brought him and five of his siblings to London. Before showing up in Barking he had spent several years in the West Indies where presumably he learned to sail. His father in law owned two fishing boats and soon Scymgeour was buying his own vessels, the first of which was the Liberty’s Increase, shortly followed by the Fleming, Matchless and Fifeshire. At the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars Scrymgeour obtained himself letters of marque to sail as a privateer with crews of local bruisers who were more than happy to exchange hauling nets for licensed theft against the French. When Scrymgeour returned home from his spell of officially sanctioned piracy he found his second son Samuel had run away to sea. Scrymgeour brought him back and put him to work as an apprentice on the still growing Short Blue fleet. Within five years Samuel was mastering his own vessel and by the time he was 25 his father had effectively turned over the running of the fleet to him. Samuel turned out to be almost a genius in matters of business. By 1850 the fleet numbered 220 vessels directly employing 1370 men.  The transformation of the business was accomplished by the introduction of two simple
Samuel Hewett
innovations that with hindsight seem almost banally obvious. The first related to the wicker creels in which the catch was transported back to market. Traditionally these were round ended baskets called peds which were not calculated to make the best use of the storage capacity of the fishing boats. Samuel Hewett altered the shape to a simple box and at a stroke increased the carrying capacity of his smacks by up to 30%.
  His second innovation was to reduce the amount of time his smacks spent in sailing back to port to deliver the catches. He organised his fleet into two classes of smack. The fishing smacks stayed out on the open sea, sometimes for weeks at a time, hauling sole out of the newly discovered Great Silver Pits on the North Sea. Smaller faster vessels shuttled between the smacks out in the fishing grounds and Barking and Billingsgate taking 18 tons of ice, food and supplies out to the men on the boat and bringing back 40 ton catches of fish.


In 1862 Samuel took the decision to relocate his fleet to Gorleston in Norfolk. The arrival of the east coast railway gave the resourceful entrepreneur a cheaper and quicker method of getting his fish to market in London and he wasted no time taking advantage of the opportunity.  His employees and competitors were quick to follow him either to Gorleston or to Grimsby and Barking’s days as the premier fishing port of England were effectively over. The family connections with Barking however remained as strong as their links to fishing.


Samuel Hewett in old age
Samuel Hewett died at Great Yarmouth in 1871 but he was buried in his father’s vault in St Margaret’s Churchyard. The business was taken over by his son Robert who had inherited his father’s ambition but not his innovative flair. He certainly had ideas but these never quite came off and the business began to struggle. In 1882 he told a House of Commons Select Committee that the Short Blue Fleet totalled around 200 ships, including 82 trawlers, and that the average annual value of the catch was £180,000. 570 men were employed at sea and 107 ashore. In 1885 Samuel opened the Shadwell Fish Market on what is now the site of the King Edward Memorial Park. The market was not a financial success. Other business ventures of Robert’s included an ice plant at the Shadwell Market site and an engineering, boiler making and shipbuilding works at Fisher Street. On Friday 6 January 1899 at 3.00pm there was a massive explosion at the Fisher Street works which killed 11 people and wounded many more. A boiler in the works had been over pressurised according to a later Board of Trade enquiry and had exploded hurling iron plating and pipes for hundreds of yards, bringing down a tall chimney down onto the workshops and wrecking the whole factory. The injuries were horrendous; “Those of the dead whose bodies were taken to the Barking Town Hall Mortuary had been so frightfully maimed as to be in several instances scarcely recognisable. One poor fellow had lost an arm and a leg, another had both legs torn away, and a third was found with the upper part of the head blown off.” The enquiry into the cause of the accident blamed the factory owners and as a result their insurers refused to pay out leaving the Hewett’s responsible for the compensation claims of the dead and injured. The damages added to the losses at Shadwell left the family no option but to sell off almost everything including the ships that made up the Short Blue Fleet.

The devastation caused by the Barking Explosion of 1899
Robert Hewett
Robert Hewett is buried in Rippleside Cemetery on the outskirts of Barking. The pink granite monument has a still gleaming ships anchor and chain. Buried with Robert are his wife and his son Robert Muirhead who took over the helm of the much reduced family business from his father. He was a gold medallist ice skater and a passionate roller skater.  His eldest son, also buried in Rippleside, was Captain Roy Scott Hewett who took his first trawler trip to Iceland in 1897 when he was 11. He inherited his father’s love of skating and became British Amateur Figure Skating Champion in 1911, 1912 and 1914 and also Figure Skating Champion of Great Britain in the English style, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1926 and 1927.


For more information on the Hewetts and the Short Blue Fleet see the excellent Short Blue Fleet website 

The Hewett grave in Rippleside Cemetery