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26th November 2020

Maritime Media Volunteer, David Todd visited the Hull Maritime Museum and the St Andrews Dock oil painting by Jack Merriott caught his attention.

Whilst walking around the Maritime Museum this picture in particular caught my eye, it was an oil painting of St Andrews Dock with the fish landings in full swing. It was by the renowned artist Jack Merriott and it really is a brilliant, vibrant representation of how the dock really was.

Service to the Fishing Industry poster by Jack Merriott

However what was displayed just underneath the picture seemed rather odd and inappropriate, it was the British Rail logo you can see below:

Text accompanying the poster

It wasn’t until I had a closer look and read the detailed information on either side of the logo, that I realised that it was in fact most appropriate. Following some research I discovered that the painting had been used as part of a major promotional campaign for British Rail Goods Service.

A number of Jack Merriott’s pictures had been used on other BR campaigns but they were for promoting Sunny Days out in Scarborough or a Healthy Weekend at Harrogate Spa so I think it’s fair to say this was some departure from his usual work.

So why did this picture make such an impression on me and why did it intrigue me so? Well it was because it brought back so many memories of my time at Birds Eye when I had my introduction to what was then the real beating heart of our great city. I had my first direct experience relatively late in life, I was in my mid 30’s and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity I had, however brief, to play my small part in that great industry. I was born on Anlaby Common and my family were all involved in the construction industry. I broke the mould when I gained an engineering apprenticeship with the Metal Box Co in Dairycoates in 1958 and this was my first encounter with ‘Hessle Road’. Although the factory was on Gipsyville on the west side of the railway line, there were numerous fish processing factories in the area. Our factory entrance was next door to Moody’s Smokehouse and there were smells emanating from there with which I would soon become very familiar.

The lasses at Metal Box were mainly from Hessle Road and boy did they give a 16 year old lad a hard time. The opportunity to write this blog has brought many wonderful memories flooding back, only some of which I could actually commit to paper, but enough of that for now!

From Metal Box I moved around various engineering factories in and around Hull and finished up joining the Birds Eye factory on Hessle High Road in the mid 70’s, sadly the factory is no longer there (no more is Metal Box for that matter!).

This was my first real encounter with the fishing industry but sadly it was in decline at this time. My first job for Birds Eye was to run down the wet fish processing plant. What a task! But first I’d better learn something about fish and was there a lot to learn.

I find that one of the best ways to learn is, if possible, to shadow someone who really knows what they are talking about. I was fortunate with the opportunity to shadow Birds Eyes Senior Buyer. He really dropped me in at a deep end.

My first experience was to visit the landing quay not to have a look around when it was quiet, oh no. As I recall it was about 6 o’clock in the morning when the landings were still going and the selling was just beginning. I was met with a cacophony of noise and smells, the like of which I had never encountered. I won’t go so far as to say it was exactly frightening but it was certainly intimidating and I wouldn’t have liked to have been there on my own.

View of Hull’s Fish Market
Hull's Fish Market

It really was like the photograph above with men (yes only men) rushing about seemingly in all directions.

Each group of kits were identified by the bay numbers, you can see an example of here, 158 and you may just be able to make out 159 the next bay along.

The buyer would identify the kits he would like to buy. The freshest fish was offloaded from the vessel first because that was the last to be caught. The size had to be right to suit our processing equipment and the freshness would have to be spot on.

During the 1960’s Birds Eye developed new ranges to appeal to consumers including these frozen fillets produced at the Grimsby site

Once he identified what we wanted we waited for the salesman. The fish was sold by ‘Dutch Auction’ where the price starts high and then comes down until a buyer shouts YES. All the buyers were known to the salesman and the tallyman and so pre-printed paper tally (ours read Birds Eye) was thrown on top of the kit and all the next kits until the buyer made the appropriate noise and the tallyman stopped, he had bought all those kits at the same price. I never did understand what the buyer shouted to stop the biding but everyone else seemed to understand it! Our purchases stopped and someone else would shout YES. We would then move to another area of the dockside to start the process again with a catch from a different vessel and so on until we had the fish we needed for that day.

As soon as the salesman moved on a ‘barra’ lad’ would come with a sack barrow and move the kits to the waiting Birds Eye transport and off to the factory.

Thank you Mr Merriott for leaving us this wonderful reminder.