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.