A Short History of the Whelkers

The Smacks and their Men: In 1900, seventeen whelking smacks worked the waters north-west of King’s Lynn. Berthed together in a convenient corner of the Alexandra Dock, they remained afloat and at the ready. On Sunday evenings, or Monday mornings – whichever offered the kindlier combination of wind and tide – they’d set out, towing their boats, towards the soft-bottomed whelking grounds, forty miles from home.

Fishing Smacks Becalmed near a Shore Charles Brooking c.1723-1759 Bequeathed by Rev. Richard G. Maul 1896 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01475

If conditions were calm, the smacks would row the Cut. Two men, each wielding the end of an enormous oar, trudged up and down the deck, driving their ship to sea with ponderous, monotonous strokes. The four man crews that plyed these ships were each an inseparable and impenetrable enclave. Working, drinking and fighting alongside one another, they certainly looked the part – leather-booted to the thigh, clad in Guernseys and oilskins, capped and ear-ringed; neckerchiefs knotted at the neck and ‘tied off’ to their braces. Stunted clay pipes, upside-down to ward off the spray, smoked plugs of Dutch tobacco. Dutch rum kept out the cold and Dutch drops eased their aches and pains.

Nibbs, Richard Henry; A Fishing Smack Running into Newhaven; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-fishing-smack-running-into-newhaven-175211

Their vessels – the smacks – were cutter-rigged, setting vast gaff mains’ls, jack tops’ls, and three jibs riding the longs sprits. They fished off the Dudgeon, the Pull, the Race and Dowsing banks. Baiting, shooting and clearing pots went on as long as weather and time allowed. They worked to a deadline: docking in Lynn by Thursday noon in order to have the catch off-loaded, carted, boiled, cooled, bagged and dispatched by rail on Friday in time for the weekend markets.

Lynn’s Last Whelker: This was the life that Britannia was built for. Launched in King’s Lynn in 1915, she was the largest (and the last) class one whelking smack ever to come out of Friar’s Yard, at 58 feet on deck and 13 in the beam. Built by the Worfolk brothers and commissioned by their eccentric brother-in-law, Alfred Rake, her hull cost an outrageous £290 and her mains’l £99.

Britannia in the early 1900s - vintage photograph of East Coast Smack with dogcocked sail and square rigger in the background.
Old photograph of Britannia during her working days, gaff scandalized.

Shortly after launching, she ran aground. Her slender figure – far finer than her sister smacks – made her very fast but came at a cost: without support, she’d fall over when the tide went out!

The Whelk Itself: The whelk is a large, carnivorous sea snail of the family Buccinidae. It can grow to 10cm long and 6cm wide. They are something of a bygone delicacy. As a nation we seem to have lost our taste for marine molluscs. Most caught in British waters today are destined for export or used as bait for more popular fare. In Britannia’s day, however, they were in great demand – often sold as a theatre snack or sold to feed the crowds on public holidays, such as the coronation of Edward the VII.

Catching the Whelk: In the early 1900’s, Whelk were caught in tarred wicker baskets of various shapes, (the Lynn baskets were ‘depressed beehives’, 9 inches high and 12 inches wide), weighted with scrap iron so as to remain upright on the seabed. The small opening was curtained with netting, which hung down inside the pot to retain the catch. They were baited with trimmings of cod, skate or whiting – brought by rail from Grimsby by the barrel-load. The pots were sunk in five to thirty fathom depths (nine to fifty-four metres) over sandy bottoms.

Tise late 1900s whelk pot, though made of metal and tarred rope, is perhaps similar to the traditional ‘depressed beehive’ shape of the King’s Lynn baskets.

The pots were bridled at 15 fathom (27 metre) intervals to ‘shanks’ of rope which measured half a mile long on the bottom. The anchored ends were marked with a danbuoy for retrieval purposes. The danbuoys – a circle of tarred canvas through which passed a staff, tipped with a small pennant – were as inconspicuous as possible so as to safeguard against ‘poachers’, who were not above hauling up another smack’s gear if the opportunity arose.

Fishing Smack and Other Vessels in a Strong Breeze by Joseph Stannard

Each smack would lay about six of these half-mile shanks, totalling 180 pots. Hauling the shanks into the ship’s boat – their lines, pots and anchors often inextricably tangled by the heavy swell – was a monumental task and a testament to the whelkers’ strength and know-how. The success of each venture depended on their lifting the pots vertically, so as not to spill the catch onto the seabed. Unable to see the pots and seabed obstructions under the waves, the men developed a sixth sense, knowing precisely when to haul and when to slack.

Since the whelks were highly perishable, they were loaded into ‘hangers’ – large nets which hung over the sides of the smack so as to keep the water flowing through the catch. The catch at Lynn was measured in ‘washes’ – an obscure and now defunct unit equivalent to perhaps five and a quarter gallons (23l). An average catch for a Lynn smack was 250 – 300 wash (5,750l – 6,900l), weighing around six tons!

Once back alongside in Alexandra Dock, the heavily laden hangers were were lifted to the quay and loaded onto contracted horse carts. These delivered the live whelks to the whelk-houses, where they were unloaded into wire baskets and immersed into copper urns of simmering water, soon brought to the boil. The boiled whelks were then set to stand and cool for several hours before bagging, lest they should spoil (a condition detectable within 100 yards). Finally, the cold whelks were brought by cart to the station and dispatched by rail for various destinations, but particularly the east and north midlands and the north-east.

A Whelk in the flesh. Delicious!


Details drawn from information personally collected by Steven Worfolk (grandson of Bill Worfolk, one of Britannia’s builders).

March, Edgar J., Sailing Trawlers (1953), Percival Marshall & Co. Ltd.