The Fish Hawker Women of Brixham

In 2019 we opened our new museum exhibit telling the hidden story of the Fish Hawkers: the women who sold fish and seafood in Brixham.

These women played a vital role in the development of the trawler fishing industry. As 19th-century Brixham became known as the ‘Mother of Deep-Sea Fisheries’, you could say the women of the town were the mothers of deep-sea fisheries.

The ‘hidden’ history of the fish hawkers was researched by a museum team led by Hilary Emms and Cherry Willis, who scoured the census records, the museum’s newspaper collection and library and records from other ports in Britain and Newfoundland to piece together their story.

In the 1820s fishing in Brixham boomed. The large trawling vessels, often jointly owned by members of the same extended family, spent up to 6 months as far away as the North Sea. Brixham’s trawler designs and methods were copied around Britain. By 1850 Brixham was the home port of 270 vessels employing 1,600 fishermen. While the men were at sea, women managed the family business on shore, alongside their children. Rather than conforming to the stereotype of Victorian femininity, like many working-class women of their time they had busy lives beyond the home, doing whatever work necessary to contribute to the family business and keep food on the table.

portrait of a fish hawker from an illustrated panel at BHM
portrait of a fish hawker from an illustrated panel at BHM

In the market, women processed the catch; gutting, salting and packing the fish. Their expertise determined the final value of the product. The women created and maintained much of the equipment used on board the fishing vessels, repairing and making the nets, baskets, and other equipment vital to the family enterprise.

They sold the catch door to door, holding creels (woven baskets) or hawking barrels on streets that became known as ‘Fish Hawkers’ Way’ (The area is now the site of a car park and a turning place for local buses, known as Churchill Gardens.)

Women also purchased fish to resell, competing with male traders to buy stock at the fish market, in a dutch auction – requiring them to raise their voices and stand their ground.

Documents, such as the 1834 rules of the Brixham Friendly Society of Fishermen, demonstrate the active partnership of women in the fishing industry:

“Any member entering a meeting in a state of intoxication or interrupting business or using profane language will be fined the sum of 1 shilling and, if he or she continued to do so, or take God’s most Holy Name in vain, a sum of 5 shillings was forfeit.”

The women’s work was in addition to family commitments, and without the help of modern gadgets washing, drying and ironing clothes could take days. They grew vegetables at allotments (that continue to be held in trust by the Charity ‘The Allotments for the Labouring Poor’ at Furzeham today.) Most of the clothing worn by the family was also made at home, including knitting the traditional Brixham ‘ganseys’, a warm jumper worn by men at sea.

fish hawkers at the Old Fish Market, Brixham
fish hawkers at the Old Fish Market, Brixham

The fish hawkers’ behaviour was not always approved of – they were outspoken (by necessity, when bargaining in auction!), and worked in the streets. There are cases of brawling and child neglect, but we suspect many cases arose out of prejudice. Reports show that the women appeared at the Petty Sessions, sometimes before Lord Churston, for various misdemeanours. Often unable to pay their fine, they were imprisoned. The museum’s current prison cell display features a fish hawker.

However, as independent working women, they did have the support of the local gentry. In 1864 Lord Churston decreed (prompted, it’s believed, by the intervention of his wife Lady Churston, a suffragette):

the ancient custom to allow the wives and daughters of smack owners to sell their fish at auction without license be continued without let or hindrance

Churston’s decree was celebrated, as reported in the local press:

The Fisherwomen of Brixham have won a great victory.  As a result, a grand tea was held in the Fish Market.  Over 200 attended and toasts were drunk – in tea – to Lord Churston.  After tea, dancing commenced which was kept up for some hours with great animation and spirit; Some of the elder fisherwomen going through the old country dances with marvellous grace and elasticity

At the time of the tragedy of the Great Gale of January 1866, the fish hawkers appeared in the national press as heroes. The Illustrated London News reported:

“The ‘wives of Brixham’ brought everything they could carry, including furniture and bedding, to make a big bonfire on the quayside to guide their men home. Fifty vessels were wrecked and more than one hundred lives were lost in the storm; when dawn broke, the wreckage stretched for nearly three miles up the coast.”

By 1880, the fish hawkers had lost their monopoly as a result of the industry’s decline, and many of the town’s fishing families descended into poverty. Our exhibition helps us remember the women who once played a vital role in Brixham’s fishing industry, and were such an active presence in town through the 1800s.

distraught fish hawker detained in a Brixham police cell - posed by models
distraught fish hawker detained in a Brixham police cell – posed by models

Before our Fish Hawkers exhibition, women were almost invisible in the museum, apart from one photograph included in the maritime gallery of Mrs Vidgen – a descendant of fish hawkers – who ran a seafood stall on the harbour until the 1980s. Our exhibit aims to make these women visible again.

During the Fish Hawkers project of 2018/19, craft sessions were held at the museum and The Edge: embroidery and fabric sessions were led by Angela Richardson; basket making sessions led by Linda Lemieux from Chagford. Together these sessions resulted in replica fish hawkers’ creels (now on display in the museum) and aprons embroidered to tell the story of Brixham’s fish stocks through time.

At the project finale, Michaele Beuge led a group that made banners for a procession through town to Fishstock, where Maggie Duffy sang a song she wrote for the project, backed by the Fish Hawkers choir.

aprons made for the BHM Fish Hawkers project of 2018/19 - image by Shelley Castle
aprons made for the BHM Fish Hawkers project of 2018/19 – image by Shelley Castle

Jo Slater of Teignmouth designed the art work for the beautiful panel now on display in the museum, and for a children’s leaflet.

Janet Pettit coordinated the project for the museum, alongside Michael Martin, and the whole project was instigated and overseen by Shelley Castle of Encounters Arts as part of their Museum of Now programme.
Please visit the museum to view our Fish Hawkers exhibit in full.

If you know about other women who support the town’s fishing, please contact Janet at the museum, we’d love to hear your stories.

BHM Fish Hawkers display, panel images by Jo Slater
BHM Fish Hawkers display, panel images by Jo Slater