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I can think of a few where crew are respected and they stay with them for a long time, and they tend to be surprisingly, the successful boats, through the thick and thin, they’re the ones that make the money, that keep the crew, and look after their crew, respect the crew. So yeah, but I think certainly there’s been a... all the money and assets have come in the hands of a few. And I think it’s probably happening more and more as well. Because your deckies never gonna raise the money to buy a boat, or buy a licence for goodness sake.
Thompson, Wailey, and Lummis (1983) also found that amongst the capitalist distant water trawling fleets of the east coast ports in the early twentieth century there was social distance between the skippers and the deckies. They became members of different unions and when strikes over wages failed, some of the deckhand unions blamed the skippers for not backing them. Onboard the skippers kept themselves isolated from their crews in their cabins and in some incidents took violent action against crew members who were undisciplined in any way, in one case a man was tied to the mast. However Thompson et al were describing a context of wage labour, in some cases brutally indentured. In the context of the share-system in Cornwall, a different ethos predominates. Similar to Thompson, Wailey and Lummis’s description of Marshside in Lancashire, as ‘an inshore village within a trawler port’ (ibid: 90), in Newlyn there are overlapping moral registers and forms of work consciousness. Each fisherman is technically a self-employed share fisherman and even on the company-owned boats, each vessel has a large degree of autonomy.
The name of the vessel is associated strongly with the personality of the skipper, but also with the crew as a whole. Even though company-owned boats can allegedly come back from a bad trip in debt to the owners, like Rule’s notion of ‘quietism’ (2006), this dominant ethos mitigates against political action.
I established earlier on in this chapter that borrowing by fishermen in the era of the sailing luggers was largely a matter of face-to-face loans granted between merchants and fishermen. In later periods it has been more common for loans to be secured from banks; however the merchant loans have persisted as have the obligations of such arrangements, with merchants using them to their advantage to increase their commercial power. They maybe personal relationships, but they were then as they are now, also business relationships. Tony Pawlyn described how ‘pure money lending’ in drift fishing does not occur until just before the First World War following the government loans scheme originating in 1910 to assist Cornish fishers with installing engines in their boats. By ‘pure money lending’ Tony is referring to formal contractual loans via banks and is making a contrast with earlier forms of
In the past there were loans but they tended to be, loans from fish salesmen on the market who were handling, selling their fish for them. Because invariably, you hired someone to do your auctioneering or whatever, you paid a fee for them to sell your fish. And those people, the merchants if you like, acquired more money than anybody else. They’re the people that tended to lend to fishermen to do work or repair or whatever. And usually it was on the understanding that all your fish was sold through their office and so they got their percentage, they got their money back gradually and they also got a percentage of all your earnings because they got a share of the fish sales, you know.
Here we have continuities with a more recent period, as Keith Dickson describes:
If you talk to any of the guys, they’ll tell you about ‘going up the stairs to Billy’ [William Stevenson], for money. And there’s two ways you look at it. Well, it always was a business transaction, right? Billy never did it out of the goodness of his heart.
So there was always interest involved. And that’s probably the best you can say of it.
The other thing is that Billy owns a lot, gained a lot of influence, through lending to other people. Draw your own conclusions from that.... You know... Competitors have never done well in Newlyn... ever. They always tend to, well they have always struggled. But I don’t think...the lending certainly was a business arrangement in that they paid interest on the loan, which is fair enough. But I’ve always had my personal feeling that Stevenson’s used it to gain a position in power over people. You know, if you’ve got a fifty thousand pound debt, you’re not really going to gain say them, you’re not going to go against them are you? Well, most of them wouldn’t. So I think there was more than a little of that in it. But you’ll get people who’ll argue that Stevenson’s saved Newlyn time after time, after time. And it’s only Stevenson’s that kept them going, because Stevenson’s lent money to people, or loaned money to people, when they needed the money to keep going. And then you get the other half of people who say that Stevenson’s only did it to get the power of position. I don’t know where the truth is, in that at all...
One difference however is that borrowing in the earlier period was between fishermen and mainly non-boat-owning merchants. In the later period of the Stevensons, the merchants are also fishing boat owners, and not just of one or two boats, but a whole fleet, with consequences both for relationships with independent boat owners, relationships within crews and relationships between owners/management and crews. As Keith said, there are a variety of views on the firm’s commercial role. This was the view of a fisherman from Cadgwith on the
I don’t care who knows this but the Stevenson’s, yeah okay, they made money out of fishermen, but on the other hand, they’ve helped a lot of fishermen as well, and I had a boat that broke down a long, long time ago. I met Tony Stevenson and just started chatting to him and he saw the bloody boat's broke down; the engine's gone wrong.
He said, "It's alright; there's a boat here if you want to borrow it." It’s was a big boat; I'm not used to big boats! "If you want to borrow that you then you can have her." And also Harvey Shellfish people, another big firm, and people moan and groan about them but they financed the new engine. And we pay back so much a week in cash. So they aren't all bad. It’s very quick and very easy to stick the knife in but it isn't quite like that. And in those days, we didn’t have bank accounts and things years ago. It’s slightly different now. But any of these fishing boats here now on the beach, if they had a major engine breakdown, W. Harvey & Sons would put new engine in one of their boats.
One fisherman working from Hayle harbour on the other hand, was more inclined to a view of the Stevensons firm that was similar to Keith’s, distinguishing the way
they did business from Harvey’s firm:
The other side of it is fish merchants have always looked for a reason to pay little.
This is at Newlyn. Newlyn has not been a good market to land to... If it wasn’t for the Stevenson’s there wouldn’t be any ice, there wouldn’t be any fishing. You got to say that... Ronnie Harvey was a shell-fish merchant. If you brought a boat, he would let you have the gear free and you would pay him back as you went. So they always helped. Stevenson would come along and if your boat was in debt he would pay it off but he now owned a percentage of the catch. And you’d go to pay the two thousand off and he wouldn’t have it. Newlyn harbour itself... to be a commissioner, you had to live within a certain circumference of the harbour. The Stevenson’s brought all that property up. They put their own boat skippers in the properties. So they were the boat owner, they lived within the property, and they were commissioners. But of course they did what they were told because it was their job and their house. That’s how Stevenson controlled it. If you... One or two men actually went to the government and said the prices on Newlyn market were rigged. And they went far enough into it being surveyed and that. After that, when they put fish on the market, nobody would buy it.
Fish merchants just walked past his fish. Cause he stepped out of... We’re serfs, that’s all we are. We are real serfs.
This fisherman’s statement ‘we are real serfs’ (beholden to merchants and landowners), resonates with the comparison that during my fieldwork people sometimes drew between the mine-owners of the past and the Stevensons in Newlyn.
Like some factory-towns in the north, mine-owners in Cornwall rented out cottages to the workers and they also issued them with tokens to spend in their shops.
Similarly, it was sometimes alleged that the Stevensons were employers, landlords and owned the pubs where fishing crews spent their ‘wages’. However in the context of any large capitalist firm and its workers, there will always be complicated patterns of loyalty, obligation and sentiment that can never be captured by a too simple narrative about exploitation or inequality.
I asked Elizabeth Stevenson if she felt the firm had good relationships with their
ES: On the whole I think so, and there’s always an element of, it’s a fine line that you can't cross when somebody is working for you. There’s an element of, there’s a line that you have to keep at a certain distance but I think we’ve got on the whole a very good relationship. I mean loads of them, when they’ve got something wrong, they’ve got my mobile phone number and they phone me, they know when I'm at home, that sort of thing. They stop me in the street, if they want to ask questions that sort of thing. They see me on the quay, they phone me up, they text me, fax me, call me, so I think, you know, we've got a sort of, as good a relationship as you can get between owners and workers.
TM: Do they have a certain autonomy in terms of where they choose to decide to go fish and how much of things is their own initiative?
ES: Yeah, it’s their own initiative so long as they are allowed to go there, that their licence allows them and the quota permits them to catch whatever it is they want to catch wherever they want to go, yeah. The minute, the boat leaves the Harbour that’s it, it’s their vessel.
Masters of ‘their own vessels’, more ‘ships’, then ‘boats’, it is skippers that have tended to become ‘men of renown’ rather than their crew-members. The skipper of the William Sampson Stevenson, for example, Roger Nowell (Figs.62, 63) who died in 2010, had starred in a BBC TV series and accompanying book. Even without this publicity he was a well-respected man in Newlyn and in the wider fishing community and known as a ‘proper character’. I commented to Elizabeth Stevenson on the strong identification that came across in the book between Roger and the
company vessel. She replied:
Roger was a complete sort of character, I mean, we would have huge rows where he would go storming out and shouting and then 10 minutes later he’d come in and I can't remember exactly what he used to call me, yeah he used to call me EC and would come in and put his arm around you and asked you a question. You know, it was a slightly sort of volatile relationship sometime because he was quite a sort of strong character as was his brother. But yeah, they were good fisherman as well. Complete pains in the backsides of times. Hated being told what to do, hated regulation, legislation, hated paperwork, but both very well read, both very clever chaps. And in fact, when he was diagnosed with cancer and had not very long to live, I saw him, I went to his house and visited him about, I don’t know, a week before he died so, you know, that shows you have got a relationship with them.
Whilst Stevenson’s crews are technically self-employed, share fishermen (‘adventurers’ before the law), they also have an ambiguous position as the responsibility of the firm drawing its profits from their labour, as captured by Keith Dickson’s views on the lack of concern Stevenson’s have shown for their ‘employees’. Keith’s exact words were that the Mission effectively ‘acts as the HR department for the Stevenson’s and has done for the last thirty or forty years of their existence’, supporting their crews and dealing with their problems. However Keith
felt that this service had not been reciprocated by charitable support from the firm:
I can quantify the Stevenson’s support to the Mission in totality in the last ten years – and that’s a fifty pound box of fish to our fundraiser in Truro. So now we’ve kept their crews going, we’ve kept their crews you know, out of jail, in accommodation, you know, there to go to sea to earn the Stevenson’s money. Yet their sole support is a fifty pound box of fish. And that’s not apocryphal, that’s not me forgetting things, that’s one hundred percent fact. They’ve not supported the mission...ever. To me, I don’t understand that... And there are lots of instances of people in other fishing communities supporting the local mission – big time. Strangely not a lot of fishing people, but other people in the communities have actually supported the mission.
Keith identified one exception to this generalisation, the fish processing firm FalFish, based in Cornwall.
...If you want to talk to people who have got their heads screwed on and who understand the industry, understand what they’re doing, and value their work force, FalFish are the people to see. And surprisingly, they’re the ones who most support the Mission! That’s not why I like them, but they are actually some of the most turned on, you know, they understand... and their flaming good businessmen, and they understand the fact that it’s not a totally benevolent philanthropic gesture, when they support the Mission. They’re actually looking after their own interests...Because if the boats ain’t landing the fish, they ain’t got no fish to process. Do you understand? It’s a bit of quid pro quo. We’re supporting you, ‘cause we know you support us. You know, and even that attitude isn’t amongst the fishing community.