Thursday, 18 September 2014

Fishing for the Navy

Left to right: Walter Mears, Harry Rogers, William Sedgemore, Tom Sedgemore, Charlie Pearcey, Frank Mears, Jack Pearcey and William Pearcey
Image credit: Fairlynch Museum

‘The Salterton lads off to lend a helping hand’ is the handwritten caption to this image of confident-looking recruits for the Royal Navy. Taken on 4 August 1914 by a G. Blackburn according to Fairlynch Museum records, it shows various members of well-known Budleigh Salterton fishing families about to depart from Budleigh Salterton railway station.  

The picture, of course, does not tell the whole story of Budleigh’s fishermen and the Great War.

 Recent research has shown that in Cornwall in 1914, farmers were hesitant to join the Army  but were more willing to join the Navy. The Cornish newspaper The West Briton reported that there were places in Cornwall in which the calls for the army were “unheeded by youths and young men who are really anxious to join the Navy.”  It could be argued that the strength of the naval tradition in Cornwall was also true of Devon, writes Richard Batten in his 2013 study of Devon and the First World War. “In many instances, Devon’s military patriotism was defined through its naval past with figures such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh to epitomise the heroism of Devon’s menfolk.”

This inclination for Devon fishermen to join the Navy rather than the Army was shown on 19 November 1914 when The Western Times carried the story that the recruiting drive for the Royal Naval Reserve in Brixham had been very brisk to the extent that the young fishermen of the town had responded with “exceptional fervour.”

However, Dr Batten points out, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of recruits into the Navy for the period from 4 August until 30 December 1914. In the majority of the newspaper reporting for recruiting in Devon, it is clear that the recruitment figures are combined for the Army, the Navy and Territorials. An example of this was when the Lord Lieutenant for Devon, Lord Fortescue, spoke on 23 November 1914 that Devon had recruited another “5000 for the regular army and navy.” He does not provide a distinction between how many were recruited for the Army or for the Navy.

It was clear, however, as the The Western Times went on to state in the above report of 19 November 1914, that the surge in enlistment for the Navy had led to a shortage of fishermen. This, the fishing industry claimed, would result in them suffering and  “many smacks being compulsorily kept on the moorings.”

A problem faced by the fishermen of Budleigh Salterton and others on the south coast of Devon was caused by the restrictions of the limited fishing zone established by the Admiralty. Strict regulations had also been issued to stop small rowing boats from fishing. The practice of fishing by night had also been banned, causing, so it was reported, “a great deal of destitution among fishermen.”

It seems that the Great War played a significant part in the decline of Budleigh Salterton’s fishing industry. Not only was there a loss of manpower through death and disability, but the increased intensity of naval activity on this part of the coast made it difficult for many to earn a living from the sea.  The difficulties continued even after the war had ended. This can be seen in a letter addressed to the local MP Major Morrison Bell and copied to the Editor of The Daily Gazette on 1 July 1921 by Budleigh resident Marmaduke Sheild. 

Writing from his home, Lark Barrow, on West Hill, this distinguished surgeon, a fisherman himself, stated the case for the men of Budleigh as follows:

Dear Sir,
I am writing on behalf of the fishermen here to implore your immediate aid and intervention in a matter which virtually affects them.

The naval manoeuvres, soon to take place, are to be held on a sea area where the men gain their living at this time of year -  the crab and lobster grounds.

It seems strange, with a Fishers and Admiralty Board, that such a locality should have been selected. I do not see why the exercise could not take place some three miles further out, and clear the area altogether.

These men have sunk much money in gear, pots, motor boats and so on, and their case is indeed a hard one. Many of them are ex-Service men to whose bravery and devotion in the horrors of the late war the whole country testifies.

On all grounds, therefore, this order should at once be reconsidered, and I trust that you and other Members of Parliament along this part of the coast of Devon, will at once raise the question in the House.

I am, your obedient servant,


In contrast to the scenes of confident young sailors departing for the war in 1914 it’s worth reading the thoughts of Stephen Reynolds.  ‘Fisherman’s Friend, Social Reformer and author’,  as he is described on the blue plaque erected by the Sid Vale Association on the wall of Sidmouth Museum.

Reynolds is famous among other things as the author of A Poor Man’s House (1908) about the fishing community that he lived in at Sidmouth. He was a member of the committee of inquiry into Devon and Cornwall fisheries in 1912 and following the outbreak of war was appointed  as resident fisheries inspector  for the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries.

In a letter quoted by Richard Batten he recorded the gloomy experience for him of watching the local Naval Reserves depart at Sidmouth Railway Station on 4 August. Amongst the crowd at the station, the Reservist families and he were, as he put it, “the saddest – Lord, how sad we are.” At the back of his mind was the thought that his “fishery works of years” would be, in his words, “smashed, probably by this accursed international insanity.”   

There were of course those Sidmouth people in 1914 who greeted the news of the declaration of war with patriotic euphoria; who, as Reynolds writes, “get the war fever, see red, and are happy.” In his view their behaviour was due to the fact that they were fortunate not to have the “faculty of seeing too far in front.”    

Visit ‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews include: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!!!” 


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