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The story of W.S. Stevenson and Sons The growth of differentiations is illustrated by the story of the firm that would eventually become W.S. Stevenson and Sons. That story, as summarised by Perry (2001), begins with a John Stevenson, born in Hull in 1789, who for reasons unknown was living in Newlyn by 1810 when he married a local girl, Anne Sampson, at Paul Church. He became a fisherman and he and Anne had eight children together, three of whom died at a very young age. Their son William married a Jane Warren in 1852 and had ten children, four of whom died in infancy.
Of the two surviving sons, one left to pursue a life in mining in Michigan, USA, becoming superintendent of the Atlantic Copper Mines. The elder son, William followed his father into the fishing industry and the family had two luggers and a bakery business 45, run by his mother. He married a Miss Sara Anne Harvey in 1889, whose father James Harvey was a fish merchant from Great Yarmouth (once again a migrant from an East coast port who had come to Newlyn in 1850s where his wife Elizabeth Johns ran her own pilchard curing business). James Harvey died young in 1874 aged thirty-nine, but his wife continued to run the business arranging the pilchard exports to Italy directly with the foreign merchants. William sold his boat and he and his mother-in-law went into business together. He and Sara had eight children together (five surviving into adulthood), and by the 1900s they owned and acted as agents for fishing boats, cured and exported fish, bought and sold fish on the market and ran the family bakery and shops (Perry ibid).
Until Elizabeth Harvey (nee Johns) appeared, the fishing community had always depended on wealthy outside merchants such as the Bolitho’s to arrange the export trade on their behalf. Elizabeth was the first fish producer to make these arrangements, who was not of the landed merchant-gentry class. The significance of the Stevenson and Harvey partnership that would later become W.S. Stevenson and Sons, is that it marks both the beginning of the liberation of the Cornish fishers from their paternal ties within the old merchant capitalist order, but also the beginning of Many households lacked ovens and therefore bake houses were an integral part of communal life.
marked social stratification within the fishing community itself, as a sub-class of wealthy boat-owners and merchants began to emerge. The fact that the origins of this family firm lay to a large degree on the East coast is not insignificant; but I am hesitant to describe this development as derived from purely external interests and capital. The Stevensons and Harveys’ family ties in Newlyn were stronger and more embedded than that.
With the greater integration into the national economy afforded by the railway and the decline of the pilchard export industry, much of Cornwall’s great fishing fleets eventually declined. Its surviving industry would for the next half a century be overshadowed by the industrial trawler fleets of the north and east coasts. However by the Second World War these new fisheries had already reached their peak, and by the 1970s and the Icelandic ‘Cod Wars’, the glory days of the great distant-water ports of Grimsby and Hull were all but over. Meanwhile the trawling fleet of W.
Stevenson and Sons was expanding. During my fieldwork it was not uncommon to meet skippers who had worked ‘on Stevenson’s beamers’ for a number of years before getting their own boats. Some spoke of starting out with an ‘apprenticeship’ in the company stores as ‘net loft boys’ in the days before nets were manufactured.
William Stevenson or ‘Billy’ as he’s known locally, the great, great grandson of John Stevenson, built up the firm’s fleet by buying ex-admiralty vessels that had been used for minesweeping during the war and converted them for beam-trawling and later, he bought second-hand steel beam trawlers from Europe. Now elderly and retired, he retains a strong influence on the family firm but his daughter Elizabeth Stevenson now manages all the day to day running of the firm and I interviewed her at the company offices (Fig.60). As she recalled, at the firm’s height they had thirtyfive registered fishing vessels in various sizes, some beam trawlers, some netters, and side trawlers, and four under 10-metre vessels. Now they have thirteen beam trawlers capable of working, one small side trawler and four under tens, a total of 18 licensed vessels. Their boats provide work for sixty to seventy fishermen and the company employs forty to fifty shore staff landing, processing, distributing and retailing the fish. The firm are only involved in primary processing and most of the shore side staff are men. Female employees are more common in firms involved in secondary processing (where more is done to prepare the fish for consumption).
The development of a merchant class and of a capitalistic mode of fishing is evident in topographical change in Newlyn. Infrastructure changes began with the efforts of Rev. W.S. Lach-Szryma, the son of a Polish Professor who had fled Warsaw in 1830. Lach-Szryma successfully campaigned for a Newlyn Pier and Harbour Order granted by parliament in 1884. The South Pier was completed in 1886 and investment from the Bolitho family enabled the completion of the North Pier in 1894 and the new harbour road in 1908. With the eventual decline of the lugger building and pilchard export industries, the boatyards, coopers, rope-walks, basket-makers, sail-making lofts, timber yard and iron foundry disappeared and commercial activity became increasingly focused around Street an Nowan. As W.
Stevenson and Sons grew over the twentieth century, they invested substantially in the harbour facilities, including the ice works and the Mary Williams Pier opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1980, which enabled deep water and landing facilities for larger, modern vessels. These developments led to Newlyn harbour-side as it appears today, with the most prominent features being the fish market, the ice works, the Fishermen’s Mission and the offices of the harbour commissioners and W.S Stevenson and Sons at the head of the harbour, as well as the RNLI lifeboat and station and dockside pubs (Figs.51-56).
According to Julyan Drew, the role of religion has also changed. Whereas seventy years ago seventy percent or more of the fishing community attended chapel or church, this section of the community is now a minority in the congregation. The Methodist minister has retained a strong presence on the quay however, particularly at ceremonial and festive functions such as the annual ‘Blessing of the Fleet’ and of new lifeboats. However just as religious attitudes and practices were marked by subtle shades of class division in nineteenth century fishing communities, so they are today. Julyan Drew noted that fishermen themselves rarely attend the Blessing of the Fleet. The minister’s involvement with them is more often in the context of a funeral following loss of friends, fellow crew members and/or family at sea. Julyan explained that amongst fishermen and lifeboat crews it is more a case of them having a strong ‘faith’ rather than ‘religion’ as such: ‘When you’re coming back [to harbour] in a force ten people do a lot of praying’. The lifeboat, so often an enduring symbol of solidarity and community also reveals subtle social differences.
The Penlee Lifeboat Station has a history going back some two hundred years and its crews have been presented with forty-four medals for gallantry. Fourteen of its twenty-two current and recent sea-going crew members are active or former fishermen. On 19 December 1981 the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne was lost with all hands. Then too, many of its crew were fishermen, volunteers drawn from the village of Mousehole. In hurricane conditions it went to the aid of the stricken coaster Union Star. It was on its maiden voyage from the Netherlands to Ireland with a cargo of fertiliser. Onboard were a crew of five in addition to the captain’s wife and two daughters. Suffering engine failure and in waves of up to sixty feet, the vessel was driven towards the rocky shore close to the Penlee lifeboat station.
Coxswain Trevelyan Richards handpicked seven lifeboat crew. Father and son, Nigel and Neil Brockman, had both arrived at the station, but the son was turned away, Trevelyan saying it was too much to lose more than one man in a family. The last radio contact was heard from the Solomon Browne with the report that they had rescued four people from the Union Star. Wreckage from the lifeboat was later found along the shore. Some but not all of the sixteen bodies were eventually recovered.
Two nights before the disaster, crew member Charlie Greenhalgh had switched on the Mousehole Christmas lights. Every year since there has been a remembrance event, which Julyan Drew leads and the Mousehole lights are switched off for an hour as an act of remembrance. The occasion has become a significant event in the annual calendars of Newlyn and Mousehole, but is underlain by a tension regarding whom the event is really for. Julyan Drew said that amongst some of the families of the lifeboat men lost, there had been an element of resentment about the intrusion of the public and the feeling that ‘it’s not your grief, it’s our grief’.
In a historical ethnographic study of class and social change at Sennen Cove in Cornwall in the early twentieth century, Ireland (Ireland 2004) also found that the lifeboat institution was marked by social division and conflict. Whilst crew members were drawn from the local (and mostly poor) working community, the Ladies Lifeboat Guild included middle-class, recent in-migrants. Given that members of the guild were responsible for fundraising, the paradox embodied in the lifeboat was that it could not have survived without their contribution, even whilst social distance and tensions grew from these class differences. There is a parallel with contemporary Newlyn. The superintendent of the Newlyn Fishermen’s Mission branch, Keith Dickson, explained that the lifeboat is entirely funded by charitable contributions that come from outside the fishing industry. The difference however is that these social differences can no longer be understood through a simplistic rendering of (local) poverty versus (outsider) affluence.
The Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen The Fishermen’s Mission began as a service for the fleets of fishing boats working in the North Sea in the late nineteenth century. Operating from mobile mission ships, it distributed practical comforts such as warm woollen clothing, cheap tobacco and medical aid. As industrial fishing ports consolidated, a shore-side mission presence was established in some ports, including Newlyn from 1903. With financial aid from the Bolithos, a dedicated building ‘The Ship Institute’ was opened in 1911. Nora Bolitho spent time in the mission teaching fishermen to read, but her presence was an exception as women were not usually allowed in the building at that time. ‘The Mission’ today has two levels: the upper includes a meeting room and Chapel of Remembrance (Figs.57 and 58).
with a memorial listing the names of local fishermen lost at sea; there is also an accommodation wing and on the downstairs floor a cafe and snooker tables. The institute retains an important community function as both an informal meeting place and a site for political meetings, state visits and other events. However where once the mission cafe was heaving with fishermen, there is now just a quiet ebb and flow.
One hundred years after opening, its future has been called into question as one among a number of mission centres designated to close by 2015. The current superintendent Keith Dickson has a similar role to Julyan Drew at times of tragedy.
However his position is unique given that he is a non-ordained person to whom the fishing community (not just in Newlyn but across Cornwall) look in times of grief for spiritual and emotional support and his capacity in the institute reflects a deep familiarity and understanding of the working lives of fishermen.
The Newlyn Court case (which I treat in more detail in Chapter Five) highlighted some ambivalent images of community, fairness, and economic necessity. Following the first sentencing I went in February 2009 to talk to Keith Dickson about my interest in meeting the defendants. Keith is a Scotsman who has worked for the Fishermen’s Mission both in Newlyn and in Mallaig, Scotland. Prior to that, he had other jobs in social care roles. Keith was surprised about my interest in talking to the defendants and wasn’t sure that I’d get any response (and he was right). And he was sceptical about what I’d get out of it, emphasising ‘the bottom line’ (which in his view was that they had broken the rules for financial gain and refused to take responsibility or own up to what they did or why they did it)... ‘What else is there to say? They will only repeat their excuses’ (the constraints of the system which forced them to breach the rules). Keith suggested that I find out a bit more about the defendants’ assets before I did any interviews – get a different perspective. Several are multiple-house owners, he said. He recommended I see Tony Woodhams, project officer at the NFIF. In fact he offered to take me over and introduce me there and then. He seemed to find it all quite amusing. I was soon sitting opposite Tony at his desk, in his office just along the Strand. Tony told me that the history of the fishermen’s mission was illustrative of the changes in fishing; it used to be a case of ‘preach the word, heal the sick’ (geared towards looking after genuinely poor fishing communities)...
...Now ask Keith how many millionaires there are at one time in the mission house drinking subsidized tea. Some of the defendants settled up their fines immediately by cheque... There’s a romantic notion of fishermen as hunters – its hogwash, balls.
Fishing’s a commercial enterprise. Looking at a haul, where we would see fish, fishermen see pound-notes.