The Dandy ‘British Workman’

Written by S. Ablott
First Published


The British Workman was a dandy rigged fishing smack, built in 1867 for William Lawrence,1 sailmaker, of Grimsby. She was launched on the 11th of May that year at the Burton Stather shipyard.2 She was 56 tons and 66.4 feet long,3 registered in Grimsby, her original fishing number was GY231.4

On Saturday Messrs. John Wray and Son launched from their shipyard, Burton Stather, large fishing smack, called the British Workman, owned by Mr. Wm. Lawrence, sailmaker, Great Grimsby.2

Stamford Mercury
17th May 1867

The Rise of The Humber Ports

In March 1869, the British Workman got a new fishing number, GY11.4 The 1881 census shows the smack in Grimsby, with a crew of five men:5

Samuel James ArtheyM30Ardleigh, Essex, EnglandMaster
Alfred McGreggorU20London, Middlesex, EnglandMate
Henry EdmundsU22London, Middlesex, EnglandAB. Seaman, Fisherman
Ben W MillerU19Barking, Essex, EnglandAB. Seaman, Fisherman
William WallerU16Ardleigh, Essex, EnglandBoy Apprentice

You may notice that all the men originate from Essex or Middlesex. This was not at all unusual. The growth of the Humber fishing ports in the later nineteenth century was largely due to the migration of fishermen from the historically larger, London fishing ports, such as Barking, to Hull and Grimsby.6

This came as a result of the railways spreading across the country, creating for the first time a fast transport link between London and the North of England. The Humber ports had previously been relatively small, as they were only feeding their local markets of rural Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire. The railways meant they could now deliver fresh fish to the markets of London, or the whole country.6

Grimsby Docks in the late nineteenth century.

The smacks had a much shorter journey to the popular fishing grounds, such as Dogger Bank and The Silver Pits, from The Humber, than they did from The Thames. Landing the catch in The Humber, and sending south by train, got the fish to London faster and fresher than by sea, while taking less of the smacksmen's time travelling to and fro. As the fishing fleets moved up North, the London ports declined into obscurity. Barking had ceased to be a fishing port by the turn of the century, after fishing being the areas most important industry for about 500 years.6

The rapidly growing Humber fleet was a real boost to the local shipbuilding trade, and most likely what kept Wray's shipyard alive after the legal dispute with James Fisher over the Lizzy, which ruined the yard's good reputation in the large transport shipping trade.

Feeding The Berlin

On Thursday the 25th of January 1883 the iron screw schooner Berlin of Goole left Hamburg for Hull with a light cargo, under the command of T W Kitwood. On Friday the steamer was caught in a furious gale. Captain Kitwood described the sea as one vast boiling mass. He kept the ship on a full head of steam, to maintain his intended course, but against the gale, made little headway.

The SS Berlin of Goole

Carrying only enough coal in her bunkers for 80 hours steaming, the Berlin's supplies soon ran low. By Saturday night there was little coal left, but they were within sight of Spurn Point and the breeze had moderated. It looked as if they would soon make the shelter of The Humber. But the gale returned, even worse than before, blowing the ships' head around, and carrying her further from her destination.

By Sunday all the fuel had gone and the crew were ordered to gather all the wood from the ship that could be sacrificed for fuel. This included animal pens, the fore and aft bridges and one of the lifeboats. In spite of this effort, the steamer had been driven from 15 miles off Spurn, to 100 miles off.

With the ship being stocked with provisions for only two days, food was now getting scarce, with the exhausted crew becoming hungry. But hope arrived in the form of the Hull smack John Wesley, who offered to bring them some food. But as the smacks' crew were launching their boat, it was caught by a heavy sea and smashed.

Next on the scene to offer assistance was the Hull smack Elydia and the British Workman of Grimsby. Both smacks launched their boats and supplied food to the Berlin's crew. The smacks stood by the Berlin throughout the night. Having towed the vessel for 14 hours, they supplied more food and fish to the crew on Monday. Captain Kitwood spoke in very high terms of the courageous conduct of the fishermen. They then spotted the steam cutter America, which came alongside the disabled ship. The two smacks' boats were also alongside and the rolling ships smashed them both, with one fisherman having a very narrow escape. The America took the steamer in tow, back to Hull, arriving safely on the night of Tuesday the 30th.7

The Gales of 1889

Six years later in 1889, the British Workman left Grimsby for the fishing grounds for the last time on the 26th of January. She carried seven hands, all told, led by skipper, Edwin Green Smith, an experienced fisherman. This was his first trip on the British Workman.

Weather chart 9th of February 18899

By late February, after terrific gales early in the month, the likes of which had not been seen since 1883, no less than seven Grimsby smacks were reported overdue. The worst was feared for as many as 60 Grimsby fishermen. 20 men had been lost from the smacks that had made it back to port. The British Workman had left Grimsby with provisions for only a short single boat trip, so there was little hope left for her safety.

Those fears were realised when the smack Content of Grimsby returned, having witnessed the British Workman being reduced to a wreck.

The skipper of the Content said that about 8am on Saturday the 9th he saw a vessel laid-to, apparently alright despite the heavy sea conditions. He had his own crew on deck, ready for an emergency. At about ten past, the mate brought his attention to the other smack. It had been hit by a huge wave, stripping away the sails, leaving the gaff swinging. The boat and bulwarks were smashed away, leaving the smack a wreck.

He took a look through his marine glasses and noted the number GY11, positively identifying the smack as the British Workman. He saw the crew raise a distress signal on the mizzen, but he had enough to deal with keeping his own ship safe in such conditions. That was the last that was seen of the British Workman of Grimsby.8

The 7 Lost Crew of The British Workman8

Edwin Green SmithMMasterKirby on Bain, Lincs. 1856
Randall NorrisUMate-
John RobertsMSeaman-
Charles W ThickettU--
Robert TolladayU--
Walter Groves NurseU-Wivenhoe, Essex. 13 Apr, 1860

The 7 Lost Grimsby Smacks from February 1889

Name11 Number4 Owner1 Crew11
British WorkmanGY11Thomas Campbell7
EtonGY161Henry Smethurst Jr8
HaroldGY417Charles Blakney5
John WinteringhamGY575Gutte Guttesen11
KittenGY178James Medows5
Sea SearcherGY693Joseph Ward5
Sir Frederick RobertsGY1113William Walker5
Memorial to Walter Nurse.
© Peter Moon. GPR 10

Three Score and Ten

The men lost in the gale were remembered in a folk song, written in 1889 by Grimsby fisherman William Delf, to raise funds for the bereaved families. This is just the first verse and chorus. You can read all the verses, sheet music and hear the song perfomed here.12

Methinks I see a host of craft spreading their sails alee,
As down the Humber they do glide all bound for the northern sea.
Methinks I see on each small craft a crew with hearts so brave,
Setting out to earn their daily bread upon the restless wave.

And it's three score and ten boys and men were lost from Grimsby Town.
From Yarmouth down to Scarborough many hundreds more were drowned.
Our herring craft, our trawlers, our fishing smacks as well.
They longed to fight that bitter night to battle with the swell.12

Three Score and Ten
William Delf, 1889

Vessel Details for British Workman

Official Number:56984
Fishing Number:GY11
Vessel Name:British Workman
  • William Lawrence 1869
  • William Thomas Goodfelow of Grimsby 1873 1885
  • Thomas Campbell of Grimsby 1887
  • J Butler 1873
  • William May 1884
  • Josiah Burton 1884
  • Samuel James Arthey 1881 1885
  • Edward George 1887
  • James Brady
  • William Dibdin 1888
  • Edwin Green Smith 1889
  • Grimsby
Notes:Originally GY231, until March 1869, then GY11.
Trade:North sea fishing, beam trawler.
Fate:Was wrecked in a gale 9th Feb 1889 with all seven hands. One of seven GY smacks to go missing in the gale.


  1. The Mercantile Navy Lists.
  2. Stamford Mercury 17th May 1867
  4. Deep Sea Trawlers.
  5. UK Census 1881
  6. The Rise of the Fishing Industry in Humberside by Ian Sutherland, 1987.
  7. Hull Packet 2nd February 1883
  8. Hull Daily Mail. 27th February 1889
  10. Gravestone Photographic Resource
  11. Hull Times 2nd March 1889
  12. The Yorkshire Garland Group

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© 2024 Burton upon Stather Heritage Group

© Background Photograph by Ian Bray.