A History of Fishing in Brixham

A History of Fishing in Brixham

 History of Fishing in Brixham

The life of Brixham has always been inextricably linked with the sea. From the earliest times people huddled round the sheltered natural bay on the south coast of England to sustain themselves with what they could catch in the water. They were successful in their efforts and they began to build homes. Brixham exists because of fish.

Records show that there was a fishing community regulated by the Bailiff of the Water of the Dart in 1406. A hand-to-mouth existence had given way to the beginnings of commercialism, and by the 1500’s Brixham was the principal fishery for the Torbay area. The predominant catch was hake in the early days, though 200 years later, in 1724, the Brixham vessels were landing pilchards at Torbay as well as the home port. Within forty years the fisherman had devised the first trawl nets and were able to land high value fish such as turbot, sole and plaice. These nets, heavily regulated now because of the damage they cause, scrape the seabed for bottom feeding fish. By 1785 Brixham had 76 decked trawlers and the improved road conditions allowed the catches to be taken to the larger towns of Exeter, Bath and London.

By the 1820’s Brixham boasted 89 decked trawlers landing 120 tons of turbot and sole weekly. Improved boats meant that the fleets could now exploit the fishing stocks west of the Irish and Welsh coasts, and east of Hastings and Dover. Skilled trawlermen started to leave Brixham and relocate their families to Grimsby, Hull and Lowestoft, where they could make a good living. This movement lead Brixham to be called ‘The Mother of Britains deep sea fisheries’.

By 1850 Brixham was the largest fishery in England with 270 sail vessels employing 1600 seamen. The average weekly landing was 150 tons of turbot, sole, whiting, plaice, mullet, burnards, flounder and herring. The best of the fish was sent to Exeter, Bath, Bristol and London, though the London trip took three days and it was difficult to keep the fish cool. The situation improved in 1869 when the railways (built 1868) agreed to take freight and could transport the fish, now packed in imported Norwegian ice, to Billingsgate in eight hours. The railways played a major part in the expansion of the fisheries being able to deliver the perishable stock much more rapidly before it deteriorated.

The fate of the Brixham fleet began to take a downturn by the end of the nineteenth century when, despite improved mechanical innovations, they could not compete with the faster steam trawlers from the eastern coast ports. With the advent of World War 1 the situation became disastrous with fishing smacks being sunk by German U-boats and crews being called on for naval service. The legacy of the war was detrimental as well, with trawlers lost through collisions with sunken ships and nets damaged by snagging. By the time the next war started the Brixham fleet had been reduced to six boats.

Help was to appear from over the water in 1940 when Belgian refugee fishermen arrived in Brixham. They had different skills and methods of fishing and they taught the Brixham men about diesel engines to power the boats. They helped to revitalise the town and regenerate fishing. By 1960, with improved conditions on the larger Dutch vessels, the Brixham fleet had climbed back up to 45 boats. In 1966 the fisherman's co-operative was formed.

Within five years the value of the fish landed had jumped to £247,000 and there were 70 vessels registered. The success of what was to become one of the biggest fishing ports in the country had begun.

In 1971 the fish market moved from the Inner Harbour to New Fish Quay where there was more space for landing and processing, and a major regeneration plan began which was to take 20 years at complete at a cost of £4.6 million. On completion, the Brixham fishing industry, either directly or indirectly, was employing 836 of the towns people.

In 2000, a MAFF survey revealed Brixham to be the premier fishing port of England and Wales, with annual landings totalling £18.4 million from 10366 species of fish. Success indeed.

And Royal approval was confirmed when The Princess Royal opened the new fish market in 2001. If you wish to view the market, see the catches of the day, and watch the haggling of the dealers as they try to reserve the best fish, there are tours available by experienced fishermen. Get to bed early, sleep well.... because it's a 5am start to enter the world of the Brixham fishermen.


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