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‘The want of sufficient men’: labour recruitment and training in the British North Sea fisheries, 1850–1950

Wilcox, Martin



Sarah Bosmans

Joost Schokkenbroek


Between 1815 and 1950 the British fishing industry underwent fundamental and far-reaching changes. The industry expanded rapidly in the half-century prior to the First World War, before entering a period of stagnation thereafter. The technology of fishing was transformed by the spread of trawling, and the application of steam, and later motor power to the catching sector. All of this was driven by an expansion of demand for fish, consequent upon improvements in overland transport, which saw distribution and marketing arrangements transformed. This had major implications for labour in the industry. Fishermen became more numerous, and in many cases more specialised, as technological development introduced specialists such as the engineer and wireless operator into fishing vessels’ crews. The period also saw the rise of tied labour in the industry, in the form of thousands of teenaged apprentices brought in to man the North Sea trawling fleets, before apprenticeship declined in favour of more informal training arrangements. The impact of all of this was highly uneven. Some sectors of the industry were rapidly transformed, whereas others developed more slowly. The rapid growth and evolution of trawling promoted the widespread use of apprenticeship, for example, whereas concomitant developments in the herring fisheries had no such ramifications. This article seeks to provide an overview of labour recruitment and training in the British fisheries between 1815 and 1950, highlighting the scale and scope of the most important developments, and setting the best known facet of the subject, the apprenticeship system, in context.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date 2015-11
Journal International Journal of Maritime History
Print ISSN 0843-8714
Electronic ISSN 2052-7756
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 27
Issue 4
Pages 723-742
APA6 Citation Wilcox, M. (2015). ‘The want of sufficient men’: labour recruitment and training in the British North Sea fisheries, 1850–1950. International Journal of Maritime History, 27(4), 723-742.
Keywords Apprenticeship; Fishermen; Fishing industry; Labour supply; North Sea; Training
Publisher URL
Additional Information This is the accepted manuscript of an article published in International Journal of Maritime History, 2015. The version of record is available at the DOI link in this record.


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