New GMI Research Article: ‘Railways, Roads and the British White Fish Industry, 1920-1970.’

It has long been a truism of British fisheries history that the spread of the railways in the nineteenth century created the modern white fish industry.  Cheaper and faster transport opened up new markets for fresh fish, and thereby caused a boom in the catching sector, which by 1900 had largely assumed the form it was to keep until the post-war period.  What had previously not been researched was the way in which the relationship between land transport and the fisheries changed in the twentieth century, and how it came to be that no fish now moves by rail.

The idea for this particular piece of research first came about when several boxes of papers from the Hull Fish Merchants’ Protection Association were deposited at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, at the University of Hull.  Despite the fact that they actually do smell of stale fish, these records are a goldmine of information on the landward side of the fishing industry from the 1890s to the 1990s.  Transport is among the issues that feature most prominently, from acrimonious disputes over road access to the docks in the 1930s, to the increasingly stormy relationship between British Railways and the Association in the 1950s and 1960s, and culminating in the railways’ almost complete abandonment of fish traffic in the late 1960s.

Using the Association records, complemented by records of the London and North Eastern Railway, British Transport Commission, British Railways, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the White Fish Authority, this article charts the changing relationship between the fishing industry and the transport industries between 1920 and 1970.  It concludes that, although some diversion of traffic to cheaper and more flexible road haulage was inevitable – and that this became obvious as early as the 1920s – the final transition was a product of the fragmentation and disharmony of the fish trades, and intransigence and failures of negotiation on both sides.

This article written by Dre Martin Wilcox, has been published in the latest issue of Business History, a tier one academic journal.

Public Lecture on Marine Fishing, 28th March 2012

The importance of the marine fishing industry to English and French coastal communities is the subject of a free public lecture at the University of Greenwich’s Medway Campus on 28 March.

The lecture will examine the social and cultural importance of marine fishing to coastal communities along the English Channel. Audio recordings and photographs will be used to provide a colourful glimpse of the contribution that marine fishing makes to the identity of coastal places.

People, plaice and chips: Marine fishing and coastal communities along the English Channel will be presented by two academics from the university’s School of Science: Dr Tim Acott, Principal Lecturer in Environmental Geography, and Dr Julie Urquhart, Research Fellow. Both are involved in the English-French collaborative project CHARM (Channel Integrated Approach to Marine Resource Management), co-funded by the INTERREG 4a Channel Programme.

The pair are also leading a €4.6 million project, called the Geography of Inshore Fishing and Sustainability (co-funded by the INTERREG 4a 2 Seas Programme), exploring the social, cultural and economic importance of marine fishing for the development of sustainable coastal communities.

Dr Acott says: “Many coastal communities have strong links to fishing that span generations and fishing is a way of life that goes beyond the means to earning a living. Fishing’s influence is not confined to those activities that take place at sea, but spills over onto land to create a particular identity and sense of place in coastal towns inherently linked to fishing.

“Many people enjoy the spectacle of fishing while on holiday, the bright boats, the atmosphere of a real fishing place and the heritage taking us back to simpler times when villages and towns grew up on the back of the fishing industry.”

Last year the University of Greenwich hosted a major international conference about the cultural and social impacts of marine fishing on coastal communities, titled It’s Not Just About The Fish.

The lecture takes place in the Pembroke Building, Medway Campus, at 6.30pm and will be followed by light refreshments. If you would like to attend, please email and register your name.

For more details on the School of Science’s conferences and events, please visit


GMI Research Seminar – ‘The Secretive Billionaire: Sir John Reeves Ellerman’, 14th March 2012

Michaela Barnard of the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull will presenting the next GMI Research Seminar of the 2011/12 programme on Wednesday 14th March 2012. Her paper is ‘The ‘secretive billionaire’: Sir John Reeves Ellerman and the Ellerman Wilson Line, c.1916-1926.’.

A so-called secret rich list’ of Britain’s wealthiest private citizens produced in 1929 revealed that Sir John Reeves Ellerman (1862-1933) had accumulated assets well beyond those of his contemporaries. Indeed, with annual earnings totalling £389 million in 1929 and liquid assets of around £9 billion, Ellerman’s fortune, according to Rubenstein, ’was three times greater than the second largest British estate left prior to the 1970s’. It remains, however, that relatively little is known – either personally or professionally – about Ellerman who had an ‘almost morbid passion for secrecy’. Indeed, the extent to which he remained aloof from public life is encapsulated in one obituary describing him as ‘… the Silent Ford, the invisible Rockefeller’.

Ellerman’s business empire embraced a variety of industries including finance, newspapers and brewing. But shipping ranked as one of his earliest and leading concerns. In 1916, with a view to consolidating his position in north-west Europe, Ellerman bought the Hull-based shipping company of Thomas Wilson, Sons & Co., Ltd (TWSC) – reputedly the largest privately owned shipping company in the world at that time – for the sum of £4.1 million. This paper considers a number of sources relating to TWSC, re-styled Ellerman’s Wilson Line (EWL), during the period 1916-1926, including the extensive correspondence between Ellerman and the Managing Director of TWSC/EWL, Oswald Sanderson (1863-1926). This, it is anticipated, will serve to illuminate our understanding of both large-scale British business during this period and, more particularly, Ellerman – the ‘secretive billionaire’.

The seminar will take place in room 075, Queen Anne Court at 6pm. Tea & Coffee will be available from 5.30pm and a glass of wine afterwards. The seminar is free and there is no need to book, everyone is welcome.