The History of the Fishing Industry at Milford Haven

By Simon Hancock Mackerel Stage Boats

Long before the town of Milford Haven officially came into being with an Act of Parliament in 1790, fishing had always been an important source of employment for the local residents who lived at Pill, Hubberston and Hakin in scattered cottages where the town was later to grow up. After 1790 fishing and wider commerce were important to the town’s survival and the essential nature of the connection with the sea saw major efforts to build docks at Milford Haven. After many trials and tribulations the docks were eventually completed in 1888 after years of start stop endeavours, although the hoped-for transatlantic liners never really materialised other than a couple of token visits. It was indeed prophetic how the very first vessel to enter the new docks was in fact a steam trawler, the 127-ton Sybil. This really began Milford Haven’s association with the fishing industry and for which over many decades the town was synonymous. In fact it was the income and employment from fishing upon which so much of Milford Haven’s development was due. 

Fishing Boats Milford Docks
Certain advantages worked in the town’s favour. Milford Haven had a capacious, well-sheltered anchorage, good rail links to London and other English cities and excellent fishing grounds. The pace of growth in the quarter of a century before the First World War was truly incredible. In 1889 only 12 fishing vessels entered the docks in the whole year. By 1908 this had risen to 323 vessels. Equally impressive was the increase in the tonnage of fish landed, from 9,500 tons in 1890 to 44,283 tons in 1913. Many trawlers and smacks began to base themselves permanently at Milford Haven, 55 of the former and 200 of the latter. In order to buy fish and sell it on to merchants in the big towns and cities a number of fish buyers settled at Milford Haven. There was only one buyer in 1888 but this rose to 39 in 1904 and nearly 100 in the early 1920s. 

The docks at Milford were a forest of masts with hundreds of men and boys employed, noise, bustle and obviously smell. The ships varied enormously, all shapes and sizes propelled by screw, paddle and especially sail. A prosperous fishing industry required a lot of different facilities including a factory to provide ice. An ice factory was built in 1890 producing 50 tons of ice daily and also a huge fish market, 950 feet in length and the biggest building of its kind in Wales. The fishing industry created many jobs in the supply chain, including box makers, chandlers, sailmakers, shipwrights and the people to provision the ships including bakers, butchers and grocers. 

Milford Haven Fish Market

Milford Haven became the fifth biggest port in the United Kingdom by 1899 and the value of fish landed reached £283, 893. While the industry boomed Milford Haven witnessed a lot of house building as labour was attracted and there were numerous bustling shops in Charles Street especially. Almost every kind of trade, occupation and calling could be found in the town along with the growth of public services. As befitted its new status, Milford Haven got an urban council in 1894. 

The mackerel trade was established in the early twentieth century and 200 drifters were using the port facilities to unload immense quantities of mackerel from the Smalls and other fishing grounds. A 400-foot Mackerel stage allowed for the easier discharge of the valuable catches. The progress of the fishing industry was solid although there were occasional setbacks with some trawlers relocating to other ports. During both World Wars many Milford trawlers were taken by the Admiralty since they were part of the Royal Naval Reserve and they were engaged in the extremely hazardous business of keeping the shipping lanes free from mines. A number of ships were lost and many fishermen lost their lives as a result of storms, mines and torpedoes. 

After the end of the First World War many trawlers returned so that the home fleet stood at over 100 vessels. They kept numerous support industries in business not least the coal contractors, since the ships consumed about 25,000 tons of coal annually. Fishing also ensured thousands of pounds in wages went into the local economy. The early 1920s were a period of prosperity since there were bumper catches to be had from fishing grounds which had been left unfished during the war. Milford Haven became a famous national fishing port so that the Great Western Railway issued an advertising poster drawn by John Hasall stating how Milford Haven was ‘where fish comes from’. Catches remained healthy, at around 45,000 tons despite the depression of the 1930s. Matters were grim since the unemployment rate in the town was 15%. 

GWR Poster

By 1939 there were 109 trawlers fishing from Milford Haven although soon 51 were taken for national defence. Once again, record catches followed in the return of peace. In 1946 an all-time record of 59,000 tons of fish were landed although thereafter it was a strong of a slow but relentless decline. By 1950 this had dropped to 34,000 although the industry was starting to be hit by problems of rising costs, especially for fuel, over-fishing and occasional labour disputes. In 1956 the catch was 22,500 tons, less than half of what it had been ten years before. The decline of the fishing industry coincided with the rise of another industry for which Milford Haven would become famous for in turn, the rise of the oil refineries from the late 1950s. 

The decline of the fishing industry continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s. By 1970 the catch was only 4,000 tons and there were only 8 trawlers left by 1988. There were a lot of contributory factors including fierce competition, rising costs and political restrictions like fishing quotas to ensure sustainability of fishing stocks. 

Fishing is still a vitally important aspect of Milford Docks today and indeed of the identity of the town. Although there are only two beam trawlers operating other craft are devoted to catching crabs and shellfish. In addition several Spanish and Belgian registered trawlers operate locally. There are still five fish agents active in the town and until recently an annual Fish Week reminds locals and visitors alike of the importance of the harvest of the seas to the local food and catering industries. The history of fishing was indeed the history of Milford Haven for decades and the men and women who worked in the industry, often at significant risk to life and limb wrote a great chapter in the maritime history of this west Wales town. 

Captions

The mackerel fishery was highly important as seen here with many vessels tied up at the mackerel Stage in around 1910.

Fishing boat entering the Milford docks in around 1900.

A typically busy scene at the Milford Haven fish market in 1910 with bumper catches waiting buyers and transportation to help feed the growing cities.

Charles Hassall’s famous poster advertising Milford Haven for the GWR ‘where fish comes from.’

Categories:History

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