The Free British Fishery

In 1750 Southwold was chosen as the headquarters of the Free British Fishery, established by Act of Parliament. The object was to revive the nation’s fishing industry and compete with the Dutch, our long-standing rivals for dominance of the European herring markets. £500,000 was voted for the endeavour, equivalent to almost £100million in modern money.

Wharves and warehouses, a net house, tan office, cooper’s workshop and a row of cottages in Church Street were built for this new venture, and the entrance to Southwold’s harbour was improved by the completion of two piers. Fifty large busses (broad-beamed herring boats) were constructed and fitted out, and the Southwold Salt Works vastly increased its production (the Fishery was exempted from the salt tax) - making a fortune for its owner, John May.

When Thomas Gardner, the Salt Tax officer, published his masterpiece of local history in 1754, it was dedicated to the Harbour Commissioners and financed by a long list of subscribers, headed by the ‘His late Highness, Frederick Prince of Wales’ - the first Governor of the Free British Fishery.

There was a short-lived boom (several of Southwold’s pubs were first licensed at this time) – but the combination of the treacherous harbour, a succession of bad fishing seasons and general incompetence brought the enterprise to grief. At two o’clock in the afternoon of Tuesday 17 March 1772, the remnants of the Fishery’s assets were put up for auction at the Old Swan Inn, fetching £6,391 - all that remained of the original investment. Unemployed fishermen turned to smuggling and battles with the excise-men dramatically increased.

Click on the six main landmarks to enlarge them.

This panorama is interesting today as it gives the most detailed record we have of the impressive range of facilities that existed during the brief heyday of the Free British Fishery.
The engraving dates from the 1750s. It was published by Thomas Gardner, Southwold's most famous historian who worked as the town's Salt Tax Offier at the time when Southwold was the headquarters of the Free British Fishery. It is dedicated to 'The Honorable Edward Vernon' who was MP for Ipswich and owned the Nacton Estate. Vernon had had an illustrious naval career. He had led the fleet against the Spanish in the War of Jenkins' Ear during which he was appointed 'Admiral of the Blue'. He was known popularly as 'Old Grog' after his habit of wearing 'grogram' (silk/wool mix) coats. His abiding claim to fame was his insistence on reducing the potency of the sailors' rum ration by diluting it with water and lemon, which became known as 'Grog'. An unintended consequence of the lemon content was that Vernon's men suffered from scurvy far less than those in the rest of the Fleet. Edward Vernon was often vociferously critical of the Admiralty and, in later life published some inflammatory pamphlets which caused his name to be removed from the Navy Flag List by King George II.



1. Fine for counterfeiting the company mark, £500
2. Decked vessels built for the Fisheries will receive a thirty-shilling-a-ton bounty from the Customs Officer for a period of fourteen years.
3. Busses (or vessels) must have been built in Great Britain
4. Each vessel must have:-

    - Twelve Winchester bushels of salt for every last of fish.
    - New barrels
    - Two sheets of tanned nets
    - Every buss of more than seventy tons to have not less than fifty nets.
    - Three ropes not less than seventy fathoms deep

5. Boats must go to Brasseys Sand in the Shetlands and meet the fishery there on or before the eleventh of June.
6. Nets must not be shot before the thirteenth of June.
7. Boats must follow the shoals of fish to Southwold in time for the first of October.
8. Skippers must keep a journal of proceedings and quantities of fish being sent to foreign markets.

This silver medal, recently donated to Southwold Museum, was struck in 1750 by the Free British Fishery to honour its founding Governor, Frederick, Prince of Wales. Frederick died in March the following year and a new medal was struck in honour of his successor, George William Frederick, Prince of Wales, later to become King George III. The reverse of the 1750 medal depicts a fishing buss and the legend 'For the advantage of Great Britain'.