The Eyemouth Disaster


23 October 2019
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The Eyemouth fishing disaster of 1881 took place as a result of a story of epic proportions, but the weather was not entirely to blame; economic forces were also at work.

David Wibberley takes up the story, building upon years of research by historian Peter Aitchison. Peter's 3 x great-grandfather James Lough died in the tragedy, and Peter grew up hearing family stories of the Eyemouth Disaster and its impact on the local community. He has spent the past 15-20 years exploring the link between the disaster and kirk tithes.

On 14 October 1881 Scotland witnessed Britain’s worst ever fishing disaster. A disaster which could have been avoided and a tragic event that was decades in the making.

 

On that bright, sunny, almost windless morning, most of the fishing boats on Scotland's North Sea coast had tied up at port. A storm was brewing - not just any storm, but a European cyclone with hurricane-force winds. The Eyemouth skippers, however, along with a number of fishermen from nearby ports, ignored the weather warnings and set out at the crack of dawn. By midday they were in the teeth of a severe storm for which their wooden boats were no match.

 

By the time the storm abated, 26 of Eyemouth’s46 fishing boats were lost along with 189 fishermen, 129 of them the town’s menfolk.

 

The Eyemouth fishing disaster, or ‘Black Friday,’ as it became known locally, was reported in The Edinburgh Evening News on Saturday 15 October: 

‘A storm of extraordinary violence set in on Thursday night and raged for the greater part of yesterday all over the country, causing great destruction to property and loss of life. All telegraphic communication between Scotland and the Metropolis was broken down by the wreckage of the wires and in several parts of the country similar isolation has occurred.’

 

Many of the fishing boats capsized; others were wrecked on the rocky coastline, and on the run back to harbour many failed to make it into Eyemouth’s antiquated and poorly-maintained harbour. Despite the state of the harbour, fishing was an essential part of the local economy in Eyemouth: the men went fishing and the women supported them by baiting the lines and repairing nets. 

To find the real cause of the disaster we must go back to 1618, when, because of its historic association with nearby Coldingham Abbey, Eyemouth was elevated to parochial status, one of the smallest parishes in Scotland.  At some time after this point the church began to exert a fish tithe on the local fishing fleet. What once had been a free gift, periodically offered by fishermen for religious solace had become a recognised obligation as the church established its right to a proportion of the catch, which became part of the vicarage tithe.

In the 18thcentury, the fish tithe dwindled to a negligible level and was changed to a fixed annual payment (referred-to as a modus) of £20. Eyemouth’s economy was transformed by the herring boom of the post-Napoleonic era. The town became wholly dependent on the success or failure of the summer herring and winter haddock seasons. The fishing fleet expanded from eight relatively small boats in 1818 to 26 much larger boats by 1854. 

Each vessel paid the modus, boosting the church’s income. In the summer months the number of vessels increased with the arrival of vessels from as far afield as Caithness and Cornwall, all wanting a share of the rich herring catch.

The Reverend  John Turnbull, incumbent from 1825, never exacted large amounts of fish tithe and he found extreme difficulty in collecting even modest sums. Being a native of Eyemouth, Turnbull knew all too well how the locals hated the tithe and the negative effect it had on religious observance.

This problem was exacerbated by the arrival of the Primitive Methodists in 1834 and the warm reception given to the United Secessionist in 1841, distancing further the Established church.

A change to the industry

In the 1840s the fishing industry in Scotland had changed; bigger boats were fishing deeper waters and markets were developing both at home and abroad. Fishing communities like Eyemouth, that were situated on tidal creeks, either moved towards better facilities to share in this prosperity, or else faced regression and stagnation. Development depended on the number of boats paying harbour revenues, the level of which set the levels of loans for expansion. Only a clear demonstration of success could persuade prospective investors or government agencies, such as the Board of Fisheries, to finance essential harbour developments.

The parish of Eyemouth was too small to provide even a minimal loan security of the kind that was needed, and, paradoxically while the fishing industry had expanded, harbour revenue had fallen. Bad management had saddled the harbour trust with a debt of £2,000, and the service payments on this left little money for even routine maintenance.

The financial situation was made worse by the fact that because of their ancient and traditional vicarage tithes, fishing boats paid no dues at Eyemouth Harbour. Clearly if fish tithes either ceased to be demanded or were abolished altogether, then through some form of fiscal restructuring the harbour could be put on a sounder financial footing.

By 1843 the Established church was in a distinct minority and there seemed to be no moral reason for the tithe to continue. Additionally, Eyemouth’s merchants were concerned that if the tithe was not removed then boats would alternative quays to land their lucrative catches.

In June 1845 a new vicar, the Reverend Stephen Bell took charge of the Established church at Eyemouth and set about transforming the town through the promotion of social institutions such as a savings bank, library, lectures, and prayer meetings. 

Bell petitioned the Fishery Board for an annual grant in the order of £75 to replace the hated fish tithe. In turn the Fisheries Board put a powerful appeal to the Treasury on the merits of the case. Drawing on observations of the local fishery officer that: ‘This fish tithe has been one cause of irreligion, drunkenness and imprudence which seems unfortunately to be prevalent among the fishermen of Eyemouth and prevents many boats from entering the port’.

The Treasury were unmoved. In June 1854 the presbytery instructed Bell to demand full tithes from all Eyemouth boats pursuing herring, whether crew members had paid the modus or not. By flying in the face of tradition, this order disregarded age-old exemptions guaranteed by modus payment, and moreover Bell was also ordered to collect a half tithe from visiting boats, threatening the entire trade at the port.

An unpopular order

In the summer of 1855, when Bell attempted to levy the herring tithe as instructed by the presbytery, he was prevented from doing so by the physical obstruction of the fishermen. The dispute escalated with the emergence of the charismatic fishermen's leader William Spears, known locally as ‘The Kingfisher’. He took on the Kirk with a vengeance, there were near riots in the streets of Eyemouth, debt collectors were beaten up, the church was broken into and eventually a ‘Fishermans’ Covenant’ was drawn up. Cavalry troops and naval gunships were sent to the Scottish Borders in case things got out of hand. In 1864 it was agreed that the tithes would be dropped in favour of a lump sum to the Church.

In the meantime, Eyemouth Harbour continued to be in a state of serious disrepair. Harbour dues had not been paid and the Church continued taking tithes from the fishermen. The port did not qualify for much-needed government repair grants and was effectively bankrupt. It was against this background that the cash-strapped Eyemouth fleet felt the need to take risks and sailed into disaster.

Much work had been done to promote the interests of the port and by 1881 an extensive plan for the development of the harbour had been produced and a loan of £80,000 had been requested from the government. It seemed, at last, that Eyemouth, so long diverted by the fish tithe issue was going to be able to provide facilities to rival the great northern ports and south-east Scotland, would share in an economic boom. Successive government reports noted that the town was the very key to the coast, ideal for fishery and trade expansion.

It was against this backdrop the fishing fleet set out on that ill-fated October morning.

Over 100 years after the disaster, in 1997, Eyemouth was given EU funding from a scheme to regenerate declining fishing villages and raised matching funds itself to construct a deep-water extension to the harbour. Had there been a decent harbour in 1881, then the carnage would certainly have been far less; in fact it may well never have happened at all. 

The generations robbed of life by the consequences of Black Friday would have been born to enrich the town and its unique community. Eyemouth today would have been a different place.

Bibliography

Peter Aitchison, M., 1988. The Eyemouth Fish Tithe Dispute. In: s.l.:Scottish Church History Society, pp. 197 - 216.

Peter Aitchison, M. Black Friday: The Eyemouth Fishing Disaster of 1881 (Birlinn, 2006)

Black Friday, The Scotsman, 2002 

Scotland's Greatest Fishing DisasterThe Herald, 2005

Full research text by Peter Aitchison at Archive.Org

(image shows Eyemouth Harbour and is copyright Gail Hampshire)