Shipbuilding and Brewing – Life changes….

In this second part of the life and work of the men of Rowhedge, we pick up their story around 1870; times were changing, and alternative sources of income were opening up. There had been a small shipbuilding enterprise in the village for centuries, but in the 1860s this became a far larger concern and the ‘industrialisation’ of the ship building industry on the quayside was to bring for many in the village far reaching changes and an opportunity to break away from a way of life that had, until then, been considered the only option.


The growth of the Shipyards

Peter Harris

Peter Harris

Arguably the most famous of the Rowhedge shipyards was Harris’s, run by Peter Harris and his sons Enos and John.  Harris’s was founded in 1865, and there was a significant expansion of Puxley’s (later Houston’s) yard c 1878, and from that point onwards life changed here, subtly at first, but with increasing speed as more and more of the young men of the village chose, or were ‘encouraged’, to seek apprenticeships to learn a trade at the yards rather than go into the fishing industry.  As the yards grew so did the number of boys turning away from the sea and towards long term trades.


With the move from fishing the dynamics within the village changed also. Rather than, as had previously been the case, most of the men being away at sea throughout the year, fishing in the winter and crewing on yachts in the summer, more and more were now at home full time as they had regular working hours: 7.30-5pm Monday – Friday and 7.30 – 12 midday on a Saturday.  Rather than the tides dictating when work should begin, now it was a bell that rang out over the village every morning. Gone the leisurely walk to the boat; now, if the workers were not in the yard by the time the bell stopped ringing they were locked out. Houston’s yard at the other end of the High Street started even earlier: ‘at 6.30 am each morning we heard the shipyard bell, the time when men then started their daily work. A hurried shuffle of many feet was often heard up the street before the bell stopped ringing, for if by then they had not got in the shipyard gate, they had to “lose a quarter”, which meant a quarter of an hour’s pay.’[1]   It seems quite incredible that these men, whose fathers and grandfathers had lived according to the tides and the seasons were now happy and eager to live by a bell, and to be subservient not to a captain who had lived and worked his whole life on the water or to their own fathers but to what was, in effect, a factory owner who decided their hours and their rate of pay according to their status and time worked in the yard.  A similar growth was seen in the Brewery, which grew from just one maltster in 1851 to a thriving business employing not just maltsters but several clerks in 1901.


This change in the focus of the village is evident in the census of 1901: if we take as an example the Parker family of Church Street, the head of the family Henry Parker was a forty six year old mariner, his wife and eldest daughter both tailoresses.[2] His son Harry at fifteen years old was an ironworker, his younger son Phillip at fourteen a stove keeper.  This would have been unheard of fifty years earlier. The same is seen in the Cook family, also of Church Street. In this case the head is a Master Mariner (a captain), yet the son at seventeen is a ship’s carpenter.  This is repeated again and again with many different types of trade seen in single families, such as the Radford family of High Street, where the father was a maltster and the son a shipwright. Suddenly, rather than single family occupations as had been seen in earlier censuses, and without exception in the 1851 record, a large majority of the families in the village were seeing their income generated from different sources, not just different variations on the same theme, but from completely different crafts.


It was not just the young boys who took advantage of the onshore work. Although this was largely a generational response, one can find evidence in the records of older men who switched from working as fishermen and mariners to working in the yards. For example John Simons was recorded in 1901 as being a shipyard labourer, but in the census return of 1891 he was a mariner. Likewise William Cheek (deceased 1901) is recorded in 1871 as being a fisherman but by 1881 he has changed career and become a ship’s carpenter. The choices open to the young men of the village in their search for work had never been more varied than they were in 1901 (and never would be again within the village itself), and through the industrialisation and the expansion of the various employment options, more change was experienced in thirty years than had been seen in four hundred years before. For some, this was not entirely welcome. As Margaret Leather, herself a daughter of a mariner and captain, and related to the Barnards and the Cranfields (two of the biggest fishing families) remembers, her own brother was made to take up an apprenticeship in the yard rather than take to sea as the rest of his family had done for generations:


My brother George Barnard was an apprentice shipwright there [Harris’s]. Evidently at first he didn’t like it very much, so he ran away, no one knew where, until my father, who was searching for him, went down to Brightlingsea and found him. He had got himself a berth in a yacht there and when my father saw him, he was up the yacht’s mast, scraping it. Of course he was brought home right away and continued with his apprenticeship at Harris’s, and that was that![3]

Harris's Shipyard - one of the shipbuilding centres of Rowhedge

Harris’s Shipyard

By the turn of the twentieth century the shipyards were bustling places, Harris’s having gone from employing two men in 1851[4] to employing some 60-70 men in 1898[5] with Houston’s employing a similar amount.  Like the fishermen before them, the shipyards were not exempt from bending the law and were certainly not averse to employing boys under age.  The Chronicle of the Principle Events at Rowhedge[6] documents one such case on February 15th 1908 where yet again charges were brought under the Factory Act when it was found out that three boys, two aged sixteen and one aged fourteen, were working from 6am – 5pm, hours considered illegal at the time for children of that age.[7]  This was not a one-off, but appears rather to have been a regular occurrence.


What caused the shift from fishing to shipbuilding?

The question remains; why a village that had known a set way of life for generations should change so radically over such a short time. Why would these captains and mariners place their sons in apprenticeships to shipbuilders and breweries rather than allowing them to follow in the seagoing tradition as their own fathers had before them?  The answer would appear to lie in the state of the fishing industry at the end of the nineteenth century.  By the late 1890’s Margaret Leather describes the large smacks of the middle of the nineteenth century laid up further along the river wall at Rook Bay as having, ‘become out of date for the fisheries, needing too many men to man them for the poor return their catches brought.[8] Countrywide, fishing communities had been experiencing increasing competition since the early 1870’s from the vast steam trawler fleets, operating from the large North Sea ports. This led to increasing pressure on the smaller ports and fishing villages to reduce prices. Coupled with decreasing yields, and unable to compete on a national scale, the future of small fishing villages like Rowhedge was in doubt. The seasonal nature of fishing and its inability to provide year round financial security, coupled with the dangers involved, made the year-round work and guaranteed income at the yards and the brewery too great an opportunity to miss. As the years progressed, and the market continued to reduce, it became harder and harder for the fishermen to compete. Leather describes how whole stocks and days of work had to be wasted:

When their luck was against them, the catch had to go for manure, and was sold at Pearson’s Quay to Tom Pitt for 6d, and sometimes as low as 4d a bushel – all fresh fish… So, precious little was the fishermen’s lot out of it all, after toiling to catch them, then filling the bushel basket and running them ashore.[9]


For these fishermen, situations like this were dire, with many only earning a few shillings if the catch was poor or it had to be sold for manure, as ‘fives shares in money had to come out of the catch; one share for the boat, one for the owner and one share each for the crew.’[10]  During the summer, whilst crewing on a yacht the mariners earned between 26/- and 29/- a week (without board) and sent home £1, however from September until early summer they could expect to earn only 5/- or 6/- a week.[11] When compared to the 18/- a week that labourers were paid (still very low) or the 30/- a week that a shipwright could command, week in week out without the seasons to take into account, it becomes clear why the choice was made to move to the growing yards and away from the sea.  The industrialisation of the shipbuilding process made growth a possibility to this extent and the drop in wages from fishing effectively sealed its fate.



Crewing for the wealthy

For those who did stay on the boats, the growing leisure economy in Edwardian Britain offered the option of seasonal work crewing on the yachts of the wealthy. ‘Thus several Essex coast villages … became centres for high-class luxury yachting.’[12] as from ‘c1870 … Rowhedge was a yachting centre, 33 yacht captains alone being recorded in 1898.[13] They were employed in sailing, for example to America and around the Mediterranean, all working for wealthy owners who wanted experienced crews to sail their boats. Even the captain of the King’s yacht Britannia, Captain John Carter came from Rowhedge. For the families of course this meant even more separation, now for many months, and at the end of the yachting and racing season the smacks would be prepared again for the winter fishing season.


A changing Society?

Although the fishing declined and the ratio of fishermen and mariners to onshore workers shifted radically in these years, the focus of the village and of the men was still firmly on the river. Although not now sailing as often, they were building the ships, some working boats, some for pleasure and repairing the smacks for the sailors.  To this end, although life had changed, in many ways it still remained the same, the men of Rowhedge relied on the river for their livelihood.


Fishing communities countrywide faced immense challenges during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the competition for dwindling fish stocks from large trawler fleets, having pushed most coastal village fleets to the point of extinction. This lead to immense hardship for many, but the men of Rowhedge, when faced with the prospect of unemployment, were able to branch out into new trades. Industrialisation in the village brought the chance of long-term, secure employment, and offered this opportunity, many young men chose to enter apprenticeships in the shipyards rather than following their fathers to sea. The remaining mariners were able to capitalise on the burgeoning leisure industry, selling their skills to wealthy yacht owners and crewing for them throughout the summer. During a time of uncertainty and collapse in the agricultural sector, Rowhedge entered a phase of growth and increasing prosperity as industrialisation and new working patterns altered forever the occupational opportunities for everyone living there.


* By 1901 although fishing is still the largest sector it now incorporates in total less than half of the workforce. In terms of percentage of the total village population it now accounts for only 14.15 %, and 46.35% of the total male population. However, it must be remembered that this is predominantly seasonal work with little or no income in the winter.

Enormous growth is seen in shipbuilding, the brewery, building trades and other miscellaneous professions.  Shipbuilding accounts for only 5% of the total male workforce in 1851; by 1901 it accounts for 23.3%. There were no workers employed in the building trade 1851, but by 1901, as a direct result of the growth of housing stock at this time, it accounted for a total of 10% of the entire male workforce.

[1]A History of the County of Essex: Volume 10 (21 September 2006)

[2] A History of the County of Essex: Volume 10 (21 September 2006)

[3] A collection of handwritten volumes chronicling in detail the principle events in Rowhedge between 1902 and 1912, including newspaper cuttings and photos.  Author anonymous.

[4] Essex Record Office, C599. Box 1

[5] M Leather, Saltwater Village (Lavenham, 1977), p.20

[18] Ibid, p.48

[6] Ibid, p.30 – The payment method for fishermen. The share system involved the revenue raised from the catch being split between the crew and the owner with 1/5 being reserved for the upkeep of the boat. The percentage of the ‘share’ was not always an equal five way split, the captain and the owner normally expecting a larger share than the crew.

[7] C Black, ed. Married Women’s Work, (London, 1983), p.240

[8] Thompson, Wailey and Lummis, Living the Fishing (London, 1983), p.26

[9] A History of the County of Essex: Volume 10 (21 September 2006)

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