In the early days they did not weigh the fish and you had to be able to judge the weight and quality before deciding a price.
One of my earliest memories of the North Shields Fish Quay was back in the days when I went to the Sir James Knott Nursery School. We would go to the bottom fence and climb on boxes overlooking the river and the Fish Quay. This was probably in 1938, just before Knotts Flats were completed.
When I returned from evacuation and my father returned from the war, he resumed his business as a fish wholesaler, trading under the name of E H Vyse in partnership with a lady called Lily Dawson. I used to spend as much time as possible, especially at weekends, doing odd jobs and running errands. I was always impressed by the hustle and bustle of the Fish Quay – the Seine boats coming in, landing the fish, and swinging the herring ashore, a great deal of activity made noisier by the steel wheels on the barrels trundling along on the wooden blocks and then on to the concrete.
My father’s store was at the entrance to the fish market. The herring boats used to land their fish at the quay during the summer months, from the third week in April until the second or third week in September, when the herring were off our part of the coast on their journey south to the Anglian fishing grounds.
The herring boats would fish during the night using their drift nets and land their catches as soon as they could next morning. They would bring a sample of 24 herring into the herring ring – and they had to be a fair sample of the catch made during the night. The sample would be put on a board, the merchants would examine them, and the auction would begin. The names of all the merchants who bid would be put on a paper docket, with the one with the highest bid first. This merchant would then go along to the ship to get the herring he had bought. The herring were landed loose and they had to be shovelled into baskets, four full baskets making up a cran. The top bidder could take as little as half a cran or up to the whole catch that the boat had shot. The last name on the docket would normally take the balance of the catch, usually at a knockdown price. As the herring got down in the hold the quality deteriorated because they had been crushed under the weight of the catch.
Merchants would be summoned to the herring sales by the ringing of a bell. The boats came in at erratic times and they could sell right up to two and three in the afternoon. When the fishing was heavy there could be a great surplus of herring, and the fish owners established the factories to cope with the excess. The company which became Tyne Brand used to take the surplus herring and can them. Tyne Brand herrings were famous and were sold all over the world. The guano works would also take the surplus to make fish meal for the farming industry. This factory was a bone of contention with the Shields people because of the smell. When the guano factory closed the surplus fish went to Hull. The Hull factory eventually closed and Aberdeen was used, but now we have to pay to have surplus fish removed.
The blind people in Howard Street made the baskets for the herring. The weights and measures people stamped them after carefully checking dimensions, since the baskets were used as units of four to a cran. Baskets were replaced with aluminium boxes (six to a cran) and eventually with plastic boxes.
As young lads we used to wait for the boats to unload and the baskets to be sent ashore, for one or two herring always dropped from the top of the basket and the fishermen would kick them to one side and allow the children to pick them up. You could thread about 24 herring on a string by passing the string through the gills and out through the mouth and either take them home or try and sell them.
I and one of the other lads from the Fish Quay would take a wheeled handcart to collect the baskets from the blind workshop. Going up was easy but after loading the baskets it was quite a weight. The roads were still cobbled and we used to ride the barrow down Union Street going hell for leather, the two shafts grinding on the ground. If we had trouble we just let the barrow go into the side and tip up. We would then re-stack the baskets and start off again.
The school would warn the children about the danger of being on the Fish Quay, but at one time thousands of North Shields people lived on the bank side above the Fish Quay. They did not move away until the slum clearance in the 20s when new estates such as the Ridges and Balkwell were built.
Fishermen would come from Norfolk to North Shields at the beginning of the season and return to the Anglian fishing area at the end. We also had a lot of Scottish fishermen who were a different sort of people. Many were Plymouth Brethren, very strict. They would not work on a Sunday nor have any form of entertainment on their boats. They named their boats with a religious theme – Children’s Friend, Kindly Light, Good Shepherd. Family names were popular for boats – Peter, Boy Andrew – and also castles – Tynemouth, St Abbs and Bamburgh. Boats would come in on a Sunday after fishing for a week and would tie up at the quayside. The superintendent of the Fishermen’s Mission would bring a portable organ and conduct an outdoor service in the summer. The Mission helped fishermen away from home and had a lady called Meggie who took letters for them.
Trawlers would go off from the quay as a group to fish in the same area. Steam trawlers would normally do a trip of eight or 14 days. It was always a problem to get the crew away before 10 am, before the pubs opened. The trawlers would be tied up along the west quay and a whistle was blown to tell the crew the boat was ready to leave. Sometimes if a crewman had signed the articles but did not turn up or refused to sail, he would be taken to court.
The half or full landing of fish would come into North Shields any time up to midnight on the day before the sale. This was the time when the buskers took over. They were the men who laid out the fish in the market ready for the sales to start at 8 am, though it was eventually changed to 7.30am. The first job after tying up at the quay was to unload the liver jars which held the livers of the cod taken from the fish. They were sent to Irvine’s factory where the cod liver oil was extracted and refined. If there were more than five or six barrels, each of them a 45-gallon drum, then you knew there was a good catch on board. An estimate of the catch was given to the Quay Master so that he could allocate the space to lay out the fish. Once the hatches were opened the buskers would shovel out the top ice into the river to make room to unload the fish.
Fish was normally shelved, which meant laying it on racks in the boat, a layer of cod between layers of ice. Shelved cod was by far the best and North Shields boats were famous for this rather than the bigger boats which went out for three or four weeks. Once the buskers got the ice clear, they would start to unload the fish, which was packed into baskets and swung ashore.
At the market it was tipped into bogies, a four-wheel barrow roughly five foot by six or seven foot. The fish was laid out in bays of 20 cod. In the early days they did not weigh the fish and you had to be able to judge the weight and look at the quality before deciding what price you would pay for it. Codling and haddock were put into heaps of about one hundred weight. This changed to wooden boxes put into rows of 20 to make a neat presentation. You would pay for one box but would end up with 20 at that price. In North Shields the bidding started at a low price and went up in two shilling steps. Some other markets, like Grimsby and Hull, had a Dutch auction where they suggested a price and worked down.
The species of fish landed at North Shields, were skate, coley, and dog fish. Prawns were also a good market at North Shields, because they live in a bed of clay which runs not far off the coast. The prawns were frozen and sold to hotels and the general public as scampi, and with the popularity of scampi prices rose dramatically. Codling, haddock and whiting were also caught. Fish had different names in different parts of the country. Dog fish was also sold as Sweet William, Huss and Woof, but the advent of the Trades Description Act meant that a single name had to be used.
You had two types of merchants – those that had established stores around the Fish Quay such as my father, and others who just packed fish for the inland markets – Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and London. Most of the merchants had a stall, scattered around the Fish Quay in nooks and crannies. They pulled the fish on a bogie or handcart to the stall, where it was processed, packed for the market, filleted for the shops on Tyneside or the fried fish shops in the area
After the war the merchants bought one or two little trucks that had been used on aerodromes to pull the bombs out to aircraft to use in the fish trade. I bought six brand new little trucks as ex-army material at Stockton. I kept one for myself and sold the other five. For the next three weeks I was inundated with telephone calls from people wanting to buy the trucks, but I could not get anymore.
A small Post Office was situated in the old Lifeboat House built by the Duke of Northumberland to house the first lifeboat for North Shields, which became obsolete when the new quay was built in the 20s. The quay Post Office sent telegrams by hydraulic tube to the General Post Office on Saville Street. Return telegrams came back the same way already typed out on a card and delivered by young lads. Merchants used to have a nom de plume. My father traded as Vyse but used “Required” as a postal address. Other people were Apple for Appleby and Walter for Walter Roberts. You picked a short name as you paid for each letter. We also had four banks –Martins, Barclays, Midlands and Lloyds. They all did good business but when the Fish Quay started to decline the banks expanded their business up in the main town and closed the Fish Quay branches.
Nowadays the Fish Quay is controlled by a manager who works for the North Shields Development Company, assisted by a quay master, and they are responsible for the allocation of the market space. If you visit the quay before the boats land you can see marked out in chalk on the quay the areas allocated to each boat. In the old days everything was handled several times by hand, but it is becoming more and more mechanised.
Fish merchants in North Shields have usually got on very well with each other and are noted for their friendliness. But this ends when buying fish and then it is every man for himself. Buying fish at market is something you get a feeling for.