Documentary

Fish Town 1990-2020. The EU Years.

Steve Thornton photographed Grimsby Fish Dock in 1990 capturing a dying way of life; he went back 30 years later to photograph a startling transformation.

The FISH TOWN project was only a year-long documentation of a fishing industry about to enter the new European Union (EU) regulations in 1990, which would change the social and economic future of a historic fishing town called Grimsby on the East coast of England. The project ended up spanning 30 years!

The fish docks, where all the fish landings, auctions, filleting, and global distribution, were in a relatively small area called ‘The Kazbah’ (Where did that name come from?). A village if you like, on private land owned by British Associated Ports (ABP). Drivers needed no license, no MoT’s, jobs were on a family basis, or an interview was as simple as, ‘let’s see how fast you can fillet Boy’. Health and safety rules were still in the Victorian era and everyone knew everybody either by a nickname or some other namely wording. The ‘Kazbah’ pub opened at 6 am and the smoke-filled cafe’s bustled with all-day breakfasts, steaming tea urns, and banter that should have been scripted for ‘Live at The Apollo’ (a famous London comedy theatre).

An auctioneer calls in a new landing – the prosperous few could afford the new cellphones
A Grimsby fishing boat chugs away after unloading a fresh catch
A buyer checks his outgoings days before the new European union laws come into force
A fishmonger contemplates his future as the new European union’s deadline draws near
Loading ice down a chute into containers
The Ice House control room - up to 100 tons of ice are produced every day
The Ice House - Ice men grapple with quarter ton ice blocks

I became aware of these new EU rules in 1988/9 and decided to document the life of Grimsby fishing town. Armed with ABP accreditation, 2 Nikon F3’s, 60 rolls of film kindly donated by Kodak, I ventured into another world. Shooting the very first frames freaked everyone out! Most hid behind fish boxes and others simply ran off. It took a whole week before word got out that I was not DHSS. Once accepted, I became a member with nicknames like: ‘smudge box’, ‘snapper’, and ‘twat with the lens’.

A queue of fishing boats await a new lick of tar and paint

Grimsby Fish Docks.
The Dry Docks where all the fishing boats are given a new lick of paint and tar

For 3 or 4 days a week, every week for a year, I’d be there from 6ish to lunch- time when the last filleting was done. Often getting a ‘heads up’ if there was a spectacular landing or something unusual happening the next day. I’d go back to the studio after an all-day breakfast in one of the café’s, and develop the films, print contact sheets and file them. Marking out initial images I liked. Ilford later donated about 40 rolls of film and a large batch of Ilford Gallerie printing paper.

A fish filleters alcove on a pontoon
A fish filleter at work
Fish buyers during an auction
A busy morning at the fish auction
Fish buyers assessing the catch

When the day eventually came for everyone to have to operate under the new EU rules, the fish docks died. The heart and soul of a fishing community disappeared. Never to return. In 1990 I put together an exhibition of the images in Grimsby Town Hall. Out of nearly 100 rolls of film, (3600 images) I selected and printed 120 exhibition prints onto Ilford Gallery fibre-based paper. I held a VIP and press evening to ‘spread the word’ (the internet and social media weren’t even invented) and finally opened to the public for a 4-day show. By the 3rd day, it was sold out.

What happened next? Well, I went back to shooting commercial work for 30 years. Disappeared from the limelight! ‘Never shooting anything personal again’. How boring! However, mouths and mortgage to feed and all that…

Fish buyers wait for the next auction to start

ZOOM forward 30 years to 2020 and BREXIT. What a perfect opportunity to revive FISH TOWN ..

Fortunately, I did archive all the black and white negatives and created a filing system, so looking back through the contact sheets stirred my imagination to resume the project. I did a few visits to the ‘Kasbah’ and it was absolutely as it was 30 years ago. Only deserted and decaying. Everywhere was fenced off due to dangerous structural damage. Although a new and very efficient fish market was built. No businesses were trading nearby. All had left the docks forever to new premises on sterile business parks, or to a new heroic seafood village modelled on the old pontoons.

After a few phone calls to ‘get the bigger picture’ I returned, armed again with my cameras, digital Nikon D5’s this time. I documented up to 10 seafood processing companies, photographing the workers and facilities. A far cry from the 1990 images. It’s now a seafood laboratory. Robotic, high-tech, global digital production and distribution operation. I photographed the ‘Kasbah’s’ empty premises, closed cafe’s, ghostly streets and found a smokehouse still operating in the same traditional way. Smokehouses didn’t have to change at all!

The Ice House and pontoon number two, now derelict
The Kasbah, now derelict, where once a thriving fishing town worked
The Kasbah, now derelict where once a thriving fishing town worked
The Kasbah, now derelict, where once a thriving fishing town worked
The new replica of the old fish pontoons
Buyers drag fresh fish from the auction to their filleting factories
Overland deliveries of fresh fish
A high-tech 2020 Grimsby fish factory where supermarkets place their orders

Over 6 months, I captured the new way the FISH TOWN worked and am sponsored by Epson Printers, using the latest printers, scanners, pigment inks, and fine art papers. X-Rite sponsors me with the latest i3 Pro Plus calibration tools and I’m supported by Nikon Professional. These sponsors helped me produce this whole collection of FISH TOWN images, as an important cultural, social, and economic documentation, covering 30 years of change to a fishing town’s community, way of life, and economic structure. Without them, I doubt I’d be writing this..

Modern filleting in action – fillets of fish can now be tracked back to their origin
Modern high-tech, temperature controlled, hygienic, fish filleting
Temperature control – frozen fillets are constantly checked
A fish monger checking the quality of fish he’s just had delivered
Fresh fillets of haddock are being placed in one of the smoke chimneys
Freshly landed halibut ready to be auctioned at the new Grimsby Fish Market
Speed filleting as a buyer collects fish for his local fish and chip shop
A busy morning auction as haddock is sold in the new fish market
Fish auction sales in the new fish market
Fish buyers in the new fish market
Fresh oak smoked haddock coming out of the chimneys
Fresh oak smoked haddock coming out of the chimneys
Filleting cod in a modern fish filleting room
Modern temperature controlled storage of freshly filleted haddock

This is a unique collection of images that are now displayed here for the first time. These unpublished images have been digitally remastered using today’s technology. The FISH TOWN collection of images documents the fortunes of Grimsby over 30 years. It records the working life of filleters and dock workers, the ice house at work, buying and selling, early morning auctions, and more. The capture of these unique moments in time is made even more impactful by the use of monochrome to convey industrial starkness and an emotive, raw honesty.

The inaugural exhibition of this project is to be shown in Grimsby this year (2022) for the local populous and a book is to be published to coincide with the exhibition. Hopefully, thereafter the exhibition will go on tour to other galleries in the UK.

The new temperature controlled fish market

Visit www.stevethornton.co.uk to see more of the project images, Listen here for Steve on BBC Radio.

Words by Steve Thornton

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The photographer

Steve Thornton

Steve is a documentary photographer and photojournalist who has undertaken a vast array of global commissions and editorials for clients as diverse as Waitrose, Beretta and the Ethiopian Tourist Board.

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