Barking fishing boat owner, James Whennel, owned two fishing boats. They were part of a small fleet called ‘ The Short Blue’ because of the small, blue square on their flags.
Mr Whennell’s daughter, Sarah, married Scotsman, Scrymgeour Hewett in 1795. When James died he left his fishing boats to his son-in-law. Scrymgeour worked hard and greatly increased the number of smacks to the fleet. Eventually, in 1815, he handed over the reins to his son, Samuel. Under Samuel’s guidance the Short Blue was to become the biggest fishing fleet in the world and Barking was regarded as one of the biggest fishing ports in England.
One of the reasons the fleet became so successful was Samuel’s idea of packing the fish in ice, therefore allowing the boats to sail to fishing grounds further away from home as the fish they caught was kept fresher, for longer, in the ice.
Ice, sourced from Norway, was expensive and Samuel devised a plan to flood the marshes along the River Roding, in Barking, during wintertime. As the marshland froze solid, men were employed to harvest it and store it in the large ice-house at the Town Quay, ready for its use in the warmer, summer months. This idea transformed the fishing industry. Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth, built their first ice-house in 1846. Samuel Hewett realised that, instead of sailing his fishing fleet up the east coast to the rich fishing groundsin the North Sea, and then bringing the catch back to Barking, it made more sense to completely relocate the Short Blue fleet to Gorleston. His son, Robert, began to improvise the move in 1860 and the demise of Barking’s fishing fleet quickly followed.
The end of the fishing fleet in Barking had serious consequences for the local workforce. Many of whom worked as sailmakers, ropemakers, chandlers, slop sellers and shipwrights. At this time new industries began moving into the area and factories, spewing out noxious smells, were springing up along the banks of the River Thames. These days the ice house and nearby buildings are used as art and cultural centres.