My First Day at Work

I come down the King’s Head stairs, and there at the bottom of the stairs is Walter Offord’s – a fish merchant at the place I’m going to work.

Photograph of a catch of fish

The Catch

The six o’clock alarm goes off – my first day at work. It’s mid-December in 1970, it’s freezing and there’s no central heating.

I don’t know if I’m shivering because I’m cold or just excited at starting work for the first time. At fifteen years of age and going out into the big wide world for the first time as a worker. I run and catch the 6.45 number 6 bus for the Fish Quay. I come down the King’s Head stairs, and there at the bottom of the stairs is Walter Offord’s – a fish merchant at the place I’m going to work.

Well, I’ve been told what my job is and it’s 7.30 so off we go, me and another two lads, one driving a thing called a popper – a big green engine with a single wheel at the front and a flat metal plate at the rear on two wheels. Me and the other lads stand on the back of the popper as it speeds off onto the fish market. I tell you I was not prepared for what I was about to see and do. I stood there on the back of the popper mouth wide open – I have never ever seen so much fish in all my life! The boxes of fish ran from the start of the market all the way up to the top. I could hardly see the top it was that far away. There weren’t hundreds of boxes but thousands.

The first boat’s catch to be sold is the deep-sea trawler the Ben Glass. It landed 2,500 boxes of mixed fish. The owner of the trawler is Richard Irvin. They own about a dozen trawlers, half of them fish out of North Shields, the other half fish out of Aberdeen,  Scotland. Richard Irvin was a very big name in the fishing industry. He set up the big canning company: Tyne Brand, to export canned herring and later started to do canned meats. The name Tyne Band became a well-known brand all over the world.

The sales start, and after a few minutes of hard bargaining and banter I see Walter Offord fish tallies slapped down on what looks like a hundred boxes of haddocks. I can’t believe my eyes then a shout is heard “right you lot don’t just stand there looking at them get them loaded on the popper.” Then I’m thrown right into the deep end.

I tell you I have never worked so hard in my life, lifting eight stone boxes of fish. You had to lift them on to the back of the popper and then take them to the fish store and then offload them. It took about three hours to get the job done. I remember thinking to myself after the humping was over ‘I can’t see me sticking this job for long’ – it was back-breaking.

But then I saw something that day that would change my world forever. It was fish filleting – I became fascinated with it at how many types of fish there were and the different methods they used to fillet them. And I knew that hard day that I wanted to be a fish filleter. I had a lot of back-breaking days before I became a full-time filleter; in all it probably took me three hard years.

I had some very happy years doing the job but then disaster struck – the Icelandic Cod War happened. The government sold us out: the Tories. This was at the start of the eighties and a big decline in the trawlers kicked in because their fishing grounds were now closed to them. The knock-on effect throughout the fishing industry was catastrophic. Many jobs were lost, it just went into a decline. Before the Cod War you could walk from one job to another there was that much fish about.

In the winter it was probably the coldest job in the world, that’s the way it seemed. Sometimes when you finished work you could not feel your fingertips, the water was freezing. We always worked outside, so you were exposed to the elements. At times you could cut yourself, but because your hands were that cold but you never felt it. It was only when you saw the blood that you knew. But I loved working outside; to breathe in that sea air every day was just out of this world.

Now it’s like a barren desert, a ghost town. I’m just grateful that I had a chance to work in the fishing industry before its death.

Tommy Cottingham
2012

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