Sailing trawlers, like Pilgrim typically carried a crew of four or five. There was a skipper, a mate, an apprentice and a boy or ‘fisher lad’. Sometimes there was a third hand as well. In the mid-Victorian period the boy could be as young as ten but towards the end of the nineteenth century he was more likely to be twelve or thirteen. Going to sea at that age meant “Growing Up Fast!”
Pilgrim’s skipper, Silas Pine, although brought up in Brixham, is reported as having gone to sea on the East Coast at the age of nine! Boys often came from workhouses up country or from the local orphanage, Grenville House. Others came from Brixham fishing families, although it was more common for them to start as apprentices at about the age of fourteen as had been the case with Silas Pine’s younger brother Bertie.
The boy had to cook for the whole crew and keep the cabin and kettle and utensils clean. He was expected to keep hot tea on the stove in winter and water in the summer months. That was only the start of it though….boys had to keep the tools, fenders and other boat gear tidied away. They had to help make and mend nets and were responsible for taking the helm when the trawl was being shot. Later, as the warp was winched in, the boy had to be below decks to coil, or flake, the warp as it came in. It was six or seven inches in diameter and up to nine hundred feet long. In rough weather it could take two or three hours to haul it in and all that time the boy had to coil the wet, heavy warp below decks in a pitching boat often on a rough sea. Together with the deck hand or apprentice the boy would also see to the trimming and placement of lamps and also deal with flares and the foghorn. Finally, the boy was responsible for clearing the deck of all fish scales and the fish ‘brash’ brought up in the trawl.
Boys and apprentices were not paid as such and just got their keep. Some were given ‘stocker money’ where they were allowed to keep the proceeds of the sale of the female crabs, oysters and squids caught in the trawl up to a maximum of two shillings and sixpence. The boy was often limited to one shilling and sixpence.
In this day and age, it’s difficult to conceive of boys starting at such a young age. We recently had a group of school children aged ten and eleven on board and they were stunned to imagine they might have been going to sea on Pilgrim as cook!
Grenville House, Brixham built in 1863 and founded by the ‘British Seaman’s Boys’ Home’ charity as an orphanage
Sailing Trawlers – Edgar J March M.S. N.R. 1953
BM45 Pilgrim – Bridget Cusack 2013