A passion for the sea

With the passing of HRH Prince Philip, a witty character who loved his naval career, it seemed fitting to write about three generations of Haigh ancestors who also shared a passion for the sea.

My 2nd great grandfather, Samuel Haigh was born c.1848 in Wakefield, Yorkshire and although records reflect he had various jobs such as Gardener and Butcher, once he relocated to Hull c.1870 where his wife Mary Jane was born, his life at sea seem predestined. For the first part of Samuel’s career he was listed as a Marine Fireman, followed by 1st Engineer, Chief Engineer and Trawler Engineer. In this age we know that working as an Engineer would only come after a four year Bachelor’s Degree but this was far from the case in nineteenth century Britain.

Samuel Haigh

During the early years of steam engines on vessels, Engineers, Firemen and Trimmers, were hired from wherever the ship owner could find them and unlike today, there was no system for evaluating the appropriateness of those hired for the various positions. Being a fireman on a vessel was an arduous job involving judgement, physical vigour and agility. Each fireman supervised several fires at once, working four hours on and eight hours off. They needed to judge the state of the fire from its colour in order to anticipate the fall in boiler pressure and throw on the right amount of fresh coal which involved judgment and dexterity.  Finally, they had to remove and dispose of the ash and embers using shovels and buckets, hoisting them above deck and throwing them overboard.[1]

An interview with a former Donkey Man, thus named as they were responsible for the Donkey engine, gave an account of what the role of a fireman would be:

The firemen stuck close to their work position at the boilers,  moving in turn between the usual three or four furnaces in their charge. The routine for firemen, as for trimmers, probably varied somewhat from ship to ship, but might have been as follows:

When you relieve the watch you’re on what they call a “burn down.” You’ve got two fires already banked up for you and another on a “burn down,” that means it’s ready to be cleaned. The first thing you do is clean your fire. When you clean your fire you get your clinkers out. You’ve got a long bar and you’re pricking between the bars in the fire and then you rake it all out. You put the clinker in a pile on one side and the good stuff in a pile on the other. Then you fill up the fire with some good  stuff, some of it perhaps from another fire as well and then fill it up with good hot stuff. When you go off watch you leave things in the same way for the fellow coming down’.[2]

As years went by and Samuel moved into the roles such as 1st Engineer and Chief Engineer he would have had responsibilities such as tending the machinery to ensure it was operating satisfactorily, undertaking repairs, starting, stopping and reversing the engines when arriving or leaving port, and supervising the firing of boilers.  A Chief or 1st Engineer would also be responsible for reporting to the owners on the state of the machinery under his control, ensuring they had sufficient coal for a passage, as well as the hiring and dismissing of other personnel. 

Samuel’s son, my great grandfather Alfred Fenwick Haigh was born on the 8 December 1882 in Scarborough, Yorkshire. The family were residing in Hull but appeared to be visiting Scarborough at the time of his birth. Alfred started his career as a Fisherman in Hull and it was a prosperous time in the history of fishing to do so with the rapid rise of the industry in places like Hull and Grimsby. This development of trawler fishing was prolific in the late 19th century encouraged by the expansion of shipbuilding and the construction of bigger and more powerful trawlers that could travel longer distances than before. By the 1890s trawlers began to fish in Icelandic seas and by the early 1900s the Arctic seas were being examined for fishing, and Hull’s distant water fleet was established.[3]

Alfred Fenwick Haigh I

On 17 Jul 1900, at age 18, Alfred joined the East Yorkshire Regiment of the British Army. Unfortunately it seems Army life wasn’t for this particular Fisherman and he deserted just 75 days later on 1 October 1900 and went back to life on the seas. In 1914 he enrolled in the Royal Navy, a much better fit, and did his part for the war effort and for his service was awarded the Star Medal, the Victory Medal and British War Medal. Whilst on active service, Alfred sadly lost two family families. In March 1916, his first daughter Florence, aged 8, died of an abscess on her neck and Pneumonia and in August 1917 he lost his wife also named Florence, who was just 37. After the war he relocated from Hull to Fleetwood in Lancashire, where he had siblings, and met and married his second wife Alice and started another family all whilst maintaining a career as a Trawler Fisherman.

My grandfather Alfred Fenwick Haigh was born in Hull on the 13 January 1910 but with the death of his mother at age 7 and the families subsequent move to Fleetwood, Alfred gained a stepmother at age 16, a half-brother at 23 and a wife at 27.   Alfred followed his father into a life at sea and was a Skipper of trawling vessels before becoming a Naval Officer having joined the Royal Navy on 18 May 1939. My grandfather served on several ships and bases during WWII including as First Lieutenant on HMS Southern Spray, an anti-submarine warfare whaler and was Commanding Officer of HM HDML 1013, a harbour defence motor launch. He served with distinction and was awarded several medals including one for service at Narvik in Norway.

Alfred Fenwick Haigh II

After the war, Alfred returned to sea trawler fishing as a Skipper but there was tension starting to be felt in the fishing industry.  The Icelandic fisheries grew in importance for the British fishing industry around the end of the 19th century and while data is incomplete for the pre-war period, one historian argues that the Icelandic fishing grounds were very important to the British fishing industry as a whole. Data from 1919 to 1938 showed a significant increase in the British total catches in Icelandic waters which were more than twice the combined catches of all other grounds of the British distant water fleet. This in turn meant Icelanders grew increasingly dismayed at the British presence.[4] Alfred could see the writing on the wall that ultimately led to disputes between the United Kingdom and Iceland over fishery limits and saw no future for him and his three sons in the United Kingdom, so in 1949 the family emigrated to Australia.

It was no surprise that my father, also an Alfred Fenwick, had a great love of the sea and joined the Navy for a short time as an Apprentice Shipwright. Unfortunately after 18 months he decided Navy life was not for him but he retained his love of the sea during his life.

Alfred Fenwick Haigh III (aka Ralph)

Reflecting on my ancestors I wonder if this pull that I have to the sea is one that I have genetically inherited from the Haigh side of the family. I did grow up by the coast in Melbourne and even when I moved to the UK and was very much a Londoner, I purchased a flat on the Kent Coast in Margate. Having a place by the sea gave me the opportunity to wander along Margate’s long promenade, feel the embrace of the wind and smell that enticing scent of sand and sea that my ancestors clearly loved so much. I’m proud of that inheritence.


[1] Kennerley, A, Stoking the Boilers: Firemen and Trimmers in British Merchant Ships, 1850–1950. International Journal of Maritime History, 20(1), p198, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1177/084387140802000110.

[2] Kennerley, A, Stoking the Boilers, p211.

[3] Shipyard – East Riding Museums, https://www.eastridingmuseums.co.uk,April, accessed 10 April 2021.

[4] Thór, Jón Th, British trawlers and Iceland: 1919–1976, pp. 48–107, 1995, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cod_Wars#cite_note-26, accessed 10 April 2021.

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