|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|
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
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|
|The devastation caused by the Barking Explosion of 1899|
For more information on the Hewetts and the Short Blue Fleet see the excellent Short Blue Fleet website