extracts from...

The Codbangers

by Hervey Benham in 1979

This book was one of a series written by Hervey Benham associated with sailing and the East Coast. Hervey Benham lived at Colchester, was editor of the Essex County Standard, and brother of Goldhanger author Maura Benham. Although primary about Icelandic cod fishing in the middle ages, the book also refers to cod fishing on Dogger Bank, and has at least one reference to Maldon. Hence some of the information in the book contributes significantly to our knowledge of this activity based on the Blackwater during that period.

 

This lithographic drawing by G H Andrews was used as the Codbangers book jacket and is taken from the Illustrated Times of 1858

 

here are some short extracts from the book...

Encouraged perhaps by the results of his Danish Treaty, which had reopened the Iceland trade in 1490, and of the Newfoundland fishery to the west, and concerned still more by the threat of Dutch domination of the North Sea, in 1542 Henry VIII had made a new enactment which encouraged fishing. This statute forbade the buying of fresh fish at sea or abroad, except in Ireland, Iceland, Scotland, the Orkneys and Newfoundland. Such protection against the Dutch gave a fillip to English enterprise. A Trinity House return of 1581 shows that over the previous five years the fishing fleets at Harwich and Manningtree had increased by three boats of twenty-five tons, at Colchester by eleven boats of 20-30 tons, to a total of thirty, and at Maldon by two boats of twenty-five tons...

One of the factors which discouraged the old centres was the salt tax, This bore particularly hard on the fisheries, which needed large quantities. In the seventeenth century it was reckoned that every barrel of cod required a bushel of 'salt-upon-salt', that is salt dissolved in salt water and with it boiled to produce white salt. it was raised to no less than 1,200 per cent that is 12 tax on a cost of per ton for home-produced salt, with an even higher rate for foreign...

Duty had to be paid on unused salt unless it was destroyed, and though there was provision for remission for fishermen the procedure was too complicated to be workable. The old centres which were not deterred by the salt tax or more significantly did not find sufficiently attractive alternative occupations they established a cod fishery which was to maintain many of the traditions of its medieval and Tudor predecessors, but to introduce new features. Chief of these were the development of the Dogger Bank and the introduction of the 'live' cod which replaced stockfish...

[Dogger Bank is a shallow area of the North Sea about 60 miles off the east coast]

Once the fish were aboard they had to be gutted and salted, or else kept alive in the well. 'Clearing' fish for salting was a iob for all hands. Then the fish were stacked in salt and left for twenty-four hours, after which the whole stack would be pulled down and the On the shorter fourteen-day Dogger voyages ice was used in later days instead of salt for fish not kept alive in the well. Then the fish were killed by knocking them on the head and only the first day's catch was gutted' Iced fish were stowed on shelves in the fishroom, but the salted stack was not shelved...

If fish were damaged getting them off the hook or perished in the well, they would die with their mouths open and have to be sold at a knock-down price as dead cod. These would be put in a basket tied to the bowsprit end, and as the smack came into port a boat would put out and take them. The well was used at the end of the voyage when the smack was about to sail straight home. Fish were transferred to it with can, and would be got on deck with a net rather than the hawk. Fish would live in the smacks well almost indefinitely; if one was overlooked at the end of a season it would still be found swimming about months later. They were not fed for the first five days, after which a few whelks would be thrown in the well...

For a thousand years fishermen from the east coast sailed to the strange and inhospitable waters around Iceland in quest of cod. Their method of fishing, using two hooks on a line, changed little from the times when Viking invaders brought news of the riches to the north right through to the early years of the twentieth century when the steam trawler finally made the ancient technique obsolete. It was a romantic and adventurous calling, in which little interest was taken at the time and none when it ended. Yet for ten centuries simple East Anglian mariners, who otherwise probably never saw any county bar their own, or explored fifty miles from home, made the thousand-mile voyage each year to another world. Nearer home the North Sea fisheries in coastal waters and on the Dogger Bank made a less dramatic but even more important contribution to the national diet and the national economy...

Throughout the Middle Ages, when England depended on wool from its pastures and fish from its seas, and when that fish was the first necessity of life after bread, the North Sea fed its people from banks richer than any farmer's fields, The principal gifts of its bounty have been herring and cod, which for ten centuries have sustained the populations of Britain, France, Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia. Which of these has been the more important in terms of value and employment and its effects on the policies of nations it is difficult to determine. From the Dutch and Scottish viewpoints it would be the herring, Yet the less publicised cod fisheries have probably been no less important to England as a whole, from the Middle Ages, when the stockfish was a universal standby, to the eighteenth century when the fresh 'live' cod was in such demand for the tables of gentlemen...

In centuries not blessed with rating and taxation systems, public services were recognised and public revenues raised by gifts and levies of fish. In addition to the Royal perquisite of 'composition fish' Church and State were entitled to one share, divided equally between the parson and the maintenance of the port. The parson's portion, known as 'Christ's dole', was the cause of trouble in 1591, for it was the custom to 'bring home the same in fish or in money and pay it to the Parson'...

Whereas the hand line was usually the favourite tackle in the deep and richly stocked waters of Iceland, the inshore fisheries of the North Sea were also worked by long lines measured in miles and carrying thousands of baited books. The two methods, it is safe to assume, date back to pre-history, even if primitive man's set lines were no longer in yards than his nineteenth-century descendants' were in miles...

The introduction of wells in smacks at the beginning of the eighteenth century made possible the 'live' or fresh cod, which was such an improvement on salted fish and still more on the medieval stockfish. It also introduced the Codbangers, men whose task was to kill the cod by knocking them on the head. This term came to be used for cod fishermen in general and to some extent for the cod smacks. The development of long lining on the Dogger Bank half a century later, seventy years before the trawlers made their discovery of the Silver Pits, introduced a third fishery even more important than the long established Icelandic seasons. This enabled an all-the-year-round trade to be established...

[The Silver Pits are a deep depression lying close to Dogger Bank, so called because when they were discovered in 1843 with a bonanza of fish]

Much noise and commotion were caused by a few score of fine cod just out of the water, as one man grabbed a fish by the tail and another grasped it behind the head with his left hand and struck it on the nose with a bludgeon called a cod knocker, generally the end of an old oar. These men, the Codbangers, gave their name to cod fishermen in general, and to the smacks, - Sometimes the Codbangers despatched the fish outright, crushing the skull; sometimes they merely stunned them, Despite the emphatic nature of their despatch, cod freshly killed for market were rushed to London in vans labelled 'Live Cod', and this remained their trade name to distinguish them from salted or iced fish, trawl-caught cod, or indeed any which had met their end aboard the smacks...

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