[From A Short History of Irish Sea Herring Fisheries, 1923]


The period ending 1835.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century Manx fishing boats were mainly small craft of 12 tons burthen, though larger vessels of 16 and 22 tons were building in the insular shipyards. Smacks employed in buying from the fishing boats and in carrying the herrings to the markets were large vessels of 20 to 50 tons burthen. Their crews numbered five on an average, while the fishing boats carried 7 or 8 men. During the next 25 years the size of craft employed in fishing increased considerably.

Smack-rigged vessels of 18-20 tons, with a single high fixed mast, were the general type in 1835, although larger boats up to 30 tons were engaged. They were clinker-built, half-decked, with rounded sterns, and carried 8 or 9 of a crew, each man working 60 yards of netting, 208 meshes deep, without either corks or leads, stones being used to sink the foot-rope, and buoys to keep the top rope in position. The cost of a man’s share of the net was about £4 including ropes, buoys and barking, while the value of such a boat of 19 tons fully fitted out was about £100.

A superior class of boat of 22 tons burthen was then being introduced, and this cost about £200 fitted out complete but exclusive of netting. It was carvel-built, half-decked and copper-fastened, with an out-rigger sail abaft, and narrowed in aft like the wherries. Equipped with 19 nets, each 60 yards long, it was operated by a crew of six men who worked on shares, of which 2½ were apportioned to the boat, 6 to the net and 6 to the crew. The owner found everything, and each man was allowed 2s. 8d. per week for food, which was taken out of the common stock. The boats were also provided with mackerel nets which paid extremely well.

At Ramsey in 1834 four boats were built, of 25-30 tons measurement, which cost £130 each, and the train of nets for nine men was valued at £54.

Barking the nets.

The total length of the Cornish nets worked by five men was 900 yards, and they were barked every other Saturday. Tar was not used, and the fish taken by these nets was preferred to the catch of the Arklow men who still used tar very much, thereby tainting the herring with its flavour and bringing their fish into great disrepute. The practice of tarring the nets or of using a little tar in the bark was not wholly discontinued by the Manx fishermen, though going very much out of favour. The nets of the best type of Manx boat were barked three times before the commencement of the season, and afterwards every second Saturday, while accommodation for keeping the nets for a week, saturated with water, was provided in the boats, and the nets were only dried on Saturdays.

The Cornish boats.

Penzance and St. Ives luggers that worked this fishery from Manx or Irish ports were owned entirely by the fishermen and their families, and they cost £100 —£200 to fit out, exclusive of nets which would probably bring the total to nearly £300. The crew numbered five men and a boy, and the dimensions of the boats are given as 28 feet keel, which is 8 inches deep outside ; 10—11 feet beam; 6 feet deep ; 36 feet aloft drawing 5 feet of water aft and 3 ft forward; and 15—25 tons burthen. A train of nets numbered 14 pieces, each 64 yards long and 16 yards deep, sustained in the water by cork buoys; they were in use from five to ten years.

Irish craft.

The Irish craft were mostly small inshore boats in poor condition, though larger boats from Carlingford, Skerries and Arklow were in the habit of proceeding to the Isle of Man for the fishery. Some of the large boats were fitted with herring nets, and others were engaged in buying and carrying; they were generally secondhand Manx boats, and the fishing craft usually carried eight men. A number of the small inshore boats were smack-rigged, of 8-15 tons, and these cost from £30 to £60.

Herring fishing off Howth and the neighbouring coast was carried on by large craft of from 35 to 40 tons, which carried small six-ton yawls to fish the nets from the big boats. Crews of nine men were carried, and each large boat had a yawl. There were about 80 of these vessels from Dublin, Howth, Skerries and Balbriggan, and they were used for lining when the herring season was over.

Arklow also possessed 100 small open herring boats of 6-8 tons. The Arklow nets for the Manx fishery consisted of 20-24 pieces, 36 yards long and 11 yards deep, made of hemp, and with inflated skins for buoys.

Irish boats and gear in the middle of the nineteenth century.

About 1850 a harbour was constructed at Arklow, and this enabled boats of deeper draft to get into the port. Larger boats were secured for the herring fishing, and the size increased up to 20 tons measurement and 36—38 feet keel. Most of the boats were smack-rigged, and some were luggers, half-decked and whole-decked. In 1864 it was stated that there were 150 boats at Arklow, and 700 regular fishermen who followed the herring to Howth, Ardglass, the Isle of Man and Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland.

Howth had 20 herring boats, of 25-40 tons, principally Manx-built, decked, and costing £240-£270 without nets, which added another £180-£200 to the cost. These boats were not acquired till about 1860, for hitherto the local fishermen had been devoting all their energies to the line-fishing, preferring that method to drift-netting. They had entirely forsaken the herring fishing after 1850 because of the good fishing with long-lines for haddock and cod, but about 1857 the haddock completely left the coast, and for some years the line-fishing was poor in consequence. The men then turned to the herring again, refitted with new boats and gear, and joined the Cornishmen and Scotchmen who were then beginning to work oat of Howth — and so this fishery developed.

A train, as worked by the local Howth boats in 1864, consisted of 20 nets, each 60 yards long and 18-25 score meshes deep, with a mesh of 32-33 to the yard, the material being principally cotton though some inferior nets of flax were in use. Cornish nets were described as somewhat shorter, and there were fewer of them. The Arklow nets were made of cotton or flax, 33-34 meshes to the yard, and the train contained 18 pieces, 36 yards long and 7-8 fathoms deep, while the Scottish boats carried a much greater spread of net, which comprised 60 pieces, each 36 yards long and 12 fathoms deep.

Greatly improved Manx equipment in the ‘60s.

Great progress had been made by the Manx fleet in 1864, and a much superior class of boat and nets acquired. Capital invested in equipment was double the amount of twenty years before, and the cost of a boat was now £240-£250, with nets another £150. The outfit was almost entirely owned by the men, and the boats were all half-decked, measured 16-30 tons, and carried seven men and a boy. Shares were divided into 20, of which the boat took 2½, the crew 7½, and the nets 10, stores being taken out of gross earnings. A train of nets numbered eighteen, each 80 yards long and 300-400 meshes deep, the mesh being 32 to the yard when new but gradually shrinking to 33, 34 and 35 with use.

Manx boats in the ‘70s.

In 1874 the dimensions, of the boats were: 38-47 feet keel ; 12-14 feet beam ; 7-8 feet deep ; half-decked but could be completely decked when necessary. They had rounded sterns, were dandy-rigged, and the mainmast was lowered when shooting. Crews numbered 7, and shares were divided into 21, of which 10 were set aside for the nets, 1 each for the crew, 2½ for the boat, and 1½ for food and transport of the nets from the boat.

Capital invested.

The average length of boat in 1879 was 47 feet on the keel, and the cost of such a boat completely fitted out with herring and mackerel nets was £750. There were 170 boats so equipped, and also 24 without mackerel nets, the latter vessels costing £550 ready for sea. These were all 1st class boats, carrying eight men, and in addition the fleet included 35 second-class boats which cost £200 each complete with nets. The total tonnage of the first-class boats amounted to 3,973 tons, and that of the second-class boats was 311 tons, an average of 20 tons and 9 tons respectively, and the whole fleet with equipment, manned by 1,800 men, was valued at £147,700. Capital invested in the industry had been steadily increasing for some years, and the boats were in some cases owned by speculators, in others by the fishermen themselves.

Cotton nets introduced.

Cotton nets had been introduced about 1850, and were now almost universally employed, the texture being much finer than when first adopted. Twenty-four nets, each 100 yards in length, made up the 2,400 yards train of the first-class boats, while 1,800 yards was worked by the second-class vessels. They were 400 meshes deep, and the mesh was 32-33 to the yard. Mackerel nets were 5,000 yards long and 100-150 meshes deep.

The pre-war fleet.

In 1914 the number of herring boats owned in the Isle of Man had dropped to 57, comprising 35 large boats called "Nickeys," which were about 48 feet long on the keel, and 22 smaller "Nobbies" with an average keel length of about 30—35 feet. Peel men owned 38 boats, the remainder belonging to Port St. Mary, and all were rigged as luggers. Auxiliary motor engines had been fitted in about 20 of the boats, but wind and sail were still solely depended on for propulsion by the greater part of the fleet.

The cost of a "Nickey" without nets was about £400, and the gear would he worth another £200; the "nobbies" could be fitted out complete for about £400. Nets were barked every five or six weeks, and were either 55 or 100 yards long and about 16 yards deep. A train consisted of 50—80 nets, according to size of boat, and would measure perhaps 2,500 to 3,000 yards in total length. The cost of a short net was £4, and of a long net £7 10s. Crews numbered seven on the "nickeys" and five on the "nobbies."

The post-war fleet.

The local fleet in 1922 totalled 25, consisting of 9 "nickeys" and 16 "nobbies," all fitted with motors. Peel claimed 19 of the boats, the remaining 6 operating from Port St. Mary with occasional landings at Port Erin. Their equipment was similar to that used in 1914 but the cost of a short net had risen to £7, and the long net to £13. It is difficult to estimate the value of the boats, for practically no buying and selling is going on, but it is improbable that the vessels would fetch more today than in 1914.

After the cost of oil and food has been deducted the "nickeys" earnings are divided into 15 shares, of which 7 go to the crew (1 each), 7 to the boat, and one is set aside for the engine. In a similar manner the "nobbies " earnings are divided evenly between the boat and the crew, with one share for the engine, but with the total shares reduced to 11 on account of the smaller number (5) of men carried.



In 1798 Manx fishermen were earning from £20 to £30 each during the season. They realised from 2s. to 3s. 6d. per long hundred (124) for the herrings. After 1823 competition appears to have greatly affected the profits, for complaints were general in 1835 that, for fifteen years, earnings had not reached £10 and seldom £5 per man.

The Cornishmen were selling their fish in 1835 for 4s. per long hundred, on an average, chiefly to boats from Skerries that ran with the purchase to Liverpool and Dublin, obtaining 6s. to 12s. per hundred for the cargo. If the Cornishmen took home over £50 per man for the period (June—Aug.) they considered the season a good one. While their boats were drifting they were in the habit of hook-fishing for hake, &c., and these fish were sold at one penny each; when dried they fetched to the dealer 2s. 6d. or 3s. the score.

The Skerries men, from their buying and selling operations, earned from £12 to £14 each, and were victualed part of the time It was declared that each Irish boat employed for purchasing and carrying must provide a large supply of whisky for the English and Manx boats engaged in taking the fish; the quantity distributed having amounted to as much as 16 gallons on one cargo of herrings. Such a stimulation of trade would scarcely be a business proposition at today’s values!

A few Carlingford boats fitted out for the Manx fishery, and the cost of outfit varied from £40 to £80. Crews numbered eight, each man contributing equally towards the outfit, and the produce of the fishing was divided into ten shares—two for the boat and one each for the men. It was stated that each man in 1834 earned about £8 clear of outfit.

Owing to inferior boats and gear at Ardglass, the earnings of the local herring fishermen in 1835 did not exceed £10 for the season, which was much less than they had been accustomed to make. They claimed to have earned £30 a man twenty years previously, before the Cornish boats came to the port. Two Irish boats fished with the English luggers for a week, but each man earned less than 6s. although during the same period £3 would probably be the share on the Cornish boats. The Irish boats were too big for the nets, and it seems evident that the inferior equipment of the Manx and Irish boats at this time accounts for the decreased earnings of the men.

Manx fishermen, in 1914, averaged about £30 for the herring season, and in 1922 a share would probably yield little more than £20, in the majority of cases.



Buying boats took the herrings fresh from the fishermen in 1798, and either ran the cargo fresh to market or lightly sprinkled it with salt. At Liverpool the fish were smoked for "red" or packed for "white " herrings according to the demand at the time. Cured herrings were more than a negligible item in the port’s connection with the West Indies slave traffic. A barrel of white herrings would contain 600-700 fish in the earlier part of the season, but 800=1,000 could be packed towards the close.

Liverpool and the Slave Trade.

Liverpool was actively engaged in the slave trade at the end of the 18th century, and controlled rather more than half of Great Britain’s trade with Africa. Until the traffic was abolished, in 1807, it employed a quarter of the Liverpool shipping ; vessels clearing from the port in 1806 for the West coast of Africa numbered 111, and their total tonnage amounted to 25,949. Manchester goods, &c., were carried as payment for the slaves, who were taken aboard on the African coast and transported to the West India Islands. After discharge, tobacco, sugar, rum, &c., was loaded for Liverpool, and the run home would complete a round voyage which sometimes occupied over a year. Although the traffic in slaves was abolished in 1807, the Emancipation Act was not passed until 1833. During this period the herring constituted an important item of diet in the West Indies, and so became a valuable export from Great Britain. After emancipation the consumption of herrings rapidly decreased, and the export trade fell away considerably, for the market had almost ceased to exist in 1840. The following tables, compiled from figures taken from Reports by Commissioners of the British Fisheries, show the exports of herrings from Liverpool and the United Kingdom to the West Indies and "places out of Europe" for the period 1810-1850, and serve to show the considerable falling-off after the slaves were emancipated in 1833. " Places out of Europe" to which herrings were exported were presumably confined to the West Indies, because the totals given under the latter heading are no less than the former. In fact the West Indies figures are higher in some years, but the discrepancy may be accounted for by the fact that the annual returns are made up to the 5th January in one case, and the 5th April in the other.

Herrings exported to places out of Europe, from the United Kingdom.

Year ending.


Year ending.


5th April, 1810


5th April, 1831


1811 ..




















1 816
























1822 ..
















1826 .














Herrings exported to the West Indies, from the United Kingdom.

Year ending.


Year ending.


5th Jan., 1815


5th Jan., 1820


















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