Like Father, like Son
In 1850, Rowhedge was, as it had been for generations, a fishing village. The tiny village, built on the waterfront, was a hive of activity with boats moored up being prepared for work and fisherman leaving for sea. The river was the lifeblood of a community built around one specific trade. In the 1851 census forty husbands were not registered, but as their wives were listed as ‘fisherman’s wife’ one can safely presume that that night they were out at sea as the census of this year fell during the fishing season.. Of the remaining men who were at home twenty seven were fishermen, six were fishermen’s apprentices, and four youths were fishermen’s boys. This resulted in fishing making up the largest sector of male employment by 80%. In a village of over 300 people only twenty one working men were anything other than fishermen and of these twenty one, six were directly involved in the fishing trade.
This life was not for the fainthearted: then, as now, fishing was an incredibly dangerous occupation as the list of young widows such as Maria Matthewman, widowed in her early thirties with six small children, will attest. The work was also seasonal, and with no guarantee of a good catch financial insecurity and poverty was a way of life for many. However, fishing was ‘in the blood’, and in all of the families studied at this time sons followed fathers onto the boats and into the life of a fisherman. Many of the central families of the village followed this tradition; for example the Everitts: Samuel, the father a fisherman like his eldest son John, James, at fifteen years, a fisherman’s apprentice, and Ambrose, only fourteen, a fisherman’s boy.
For many of the fishermen of the village their work involved many days, if not weeks away fishing offshore. Margaret Leather describes the work of the fishermen of her grandfather’s generation (1850’s-1860’s):
“[They] fished all over the North Sea, off the coasts of Holland and Belgium, frequently dredging the deep sea oysters and scallops. They also trawled for fish and sometimes went spratting … Sometimes they sailed down the English Channel to fish off the French coast and at other times round Land’s End to dredge oysters off the coasts of Wales and in the Solway Firth. They also dredged off the east coast of Scotland. Some fast smacks were in demand as fish carriers and grandfather sometimes carried fresh salmon from the west coast of Ireland to Liverpool and from the west coast of Scotland; also, lobsters from Norway to England”.
For the family unit, this way of life had a huge impact, their experience being completely different from that considered the norm in Victorian society. With the men of the village spending so much time away from home, it fell to the women effectively to run the village. This was not unique to Rowhedge, since the majority of fishing centred communities, and indeed other communities in which men had to spend large amounts of time away found the same. However, the large percentage of fishermen within the village would suggest that at any one time, less than thirty men would at home.
The fishing economy had a double impact on the character of the family … By taking men away from home regularly, often for weeks on end, in fishing communities the ‘ideal’ of the Victorian Domestic Ideology was turned on its head. On the one hand, the women were left with most of the responsibility for the children, the home and its finances. On the other, the men learned self-sufficiency, including often basic domestic skills which they then utilised in the home, whilst in the exclusively male society of the ship.
This had an overriding effect on many aspects of village life and on the dynamics of the community; other studies have shown that in societies like this, ‘the need for fishermen’s wives to take economic decisions while their men were at sea gave them more freedom of speech and action than wives in farming communities,’ and it is argued that here the women wore the trousers: ‘them that guide the purse rule the house.’ Although there is evidence that in bad conditions the women did suffer terrible anxiety, worrying for their husbands and sons, in the majority of instances the women were self-sufficient and content with their lifestyle: ‘For many months of the year the women are left without their men, but the fact does not appear to depress their spirits. They all said they do not miss their husbands, because absence is what they expect!’
Whilst the economy of the village officially relied on the fish catches, sources show that this was far from the only revenue, and arguably not the most profitable. Although generally considered to be a problem of the eighteenth century, smuggling was still an active part of Rowhedge life right up until 1900. Whilst it is impossible to say with any certainty how many of the inhabitants were involved in smuggling, and indeed how regularly this took place, the practice by its nature being one that is not admitted to on any official documentary sources; anecdotal evidence and oral histories seem to suggest that it was something that was pursued on a widespread basis and involved the large majority of those who lived here.
Tales abound of smugglers tunnels under the older properties in the village that date from the 1850s and before. One of the most famous, or perhaps infamous of the smugglers of the period covered was Jack (“Right-oh!”) Spitty who was in later years the landlord of the Royal Oak in Head Street.
Spitty had a tops’l of double thickness made in Lowestoft. He would slip into Ostend, stuff this sail with everything it would hold, and return to fishing. Back in Lowestoft he had his tops’l hoisted straight into the sailmaker’s loft by the crane. Other contraband was put aboard another smack which had not been near “the other side.” Spitty’s Royal Oak (unsurprisingly) was a regular haunt of the customs men, searching for contraband which they were certain he possessed. As Leather states, smuggling was not seen as a disgrace and for a village dependent on seasonal and declining fishing stocks this alternative revenue was an essential part of life, as it was for most coastal regions.
Another source of income which was more common in the earlier part of the period was salvaging, and there has been much debate as to the ethics of this practice. The waters around the estuary and the eastern coast are extremely dangerous and the Rowhedge smacks were heavily involved in salvaging operations. In storms many vessels found themselves in trouble, the men of the village would go out, rescue the crew (if possible) and salvage the valuables from the ship. Salvaging itself was extremely hazardous:
“Sometimes tragedy struck at the salvagers and many were drowned. One Rowhedge seafaring family had a big smack which was usually skippered by the father. One wild winter’s day when he was at home ill he ordered two of his sons to take her to sea to seek salvage, despite the pleadings of his distracted wife. The smack was lost and the sons drowned.”
The bravery of the men involved saved many lives. For example Thomas Barnard and his smacks are credited with saving over 900 lives. However the main attraction of the operation was the salvage of anything of worth on board the ship, which was then to be handed to the Receiver of Wrecks in return for a reward. This is where the fine detail of the law may have been overlooked by the seamen, who preferred, if possible, to run it ashore in secret. ‘When Captain Bartholomew’s wife went to church it was said the rustle of her silk petticoats could be very plainly heard and there was fine cutlery and glassware in many households.’ The most famous wreck salvaged in part by the men of the village was The Deutschland in 1875, ‘what is now Green’s Farm was crammed with booty taken off by the smacks, and half the fisherman in the place suddenly became the possessors of fine watches which had not been presented to them.’ As with smuggling, it has to be understood that for these people, especially the poorer fisherman, life afforded few privileges and the desire to be able to enjoy, through their own bravery, some luxuries at the expense of the authorities is entirely understandable although the practice was quite clearly illegal. [Note – Rowhedge fishermen were not known for evil practice of salvaging and leaving the crew to drown – the rescued far more than they salvaged]
Part Two – Shipbuilding and Brewing to follow…..
 Margaret Leather was born in the village in the mid 1890s, the daughter of a captain. She wrote her memoirs relating to her earliest memories of the village, the people and the places, at the turn of the twentieth century. Published posthumously in 1977.
 M Leather, Saltwater Village (Lavenham, 1977), p.18
 Thompson, Wailey and Lummis, Living the Fishing (London, 1983), p.175
 Ibid, p.177
 Ibid, p.177
 C Black ed, Married Women’s Work ( London, 1983), p.249, offset from first edition, (London, 1915)
 H Benham, Once Upon a Tide (London, 1955), p.191
 M Leather, Saltwater Village (Lavenham, 1977), p.20
 Ibid, pg20
 H Benham, Last Stronghold of Sail (London, 1981), p.67
 M Leather, Saltwater Village (Lavenham, 1977), p.36
 M Leather, Saltwater Village (Lavenham, 1977), p.22