© Annabel Wright

The Dock Tower in Grimsby was built in 1852, to a design modelled on the 14th-century Torre del Mangia in Siena. At 94 metres, it is slightly shorter than its Italian counterpart, but you can still see it, straight as an arrow, from across the town and beyond. It is most clearly visible down Freeman Street, once Grimsby’s busiest thoroughfare, which today runs past austere concrete blocks, a handful of pubs where the fishermen once drank and the building where a cinema used to be.

If you didn’t know about the town, you might wonder what this peculiar monument was doing on the east coast of England, cast in the unmistakable red brick of the industrial revolution, finished with continental flair. It was built to provide hydraulic power to the docks of this Lincolnshire town, which, a century later, would grow into one of the greatest fishing ports in the world — a status it would then slowly lose over the subsequent 50 years.

My parents moved to Grimsby in 1992 when I was two years old. My dad was the headteacher of a nearby school; my mum worked in adult education. The town’s economic decline was already well under way, though it was not a topic that registered during my childhood, or on return visits once I’d left. After university, I lived in China for two years, and then moved to London. My accent is no longer as recognisably “of Grimsby”.

The EU referendum, in which 70 per cent of local residents voted to leave, reignited the town’s former industry as a topic of conversation. It also suddenly elevated places such as Grimsby to sites of journalistic importance, as politicians and commentators in London scrambled to unravel the mysteries of Brexit. It was in the middle of a conversation about the referendum with a taxi driver on a recent trip home (like a pastiche of a foreign correspondent), that I realised I knew almost nothing about my own town’s former industry, which the taxi driver believed could now be revived. It seemed like a reasonable time to commit an act of journalism on Grimsby.

The town is thought to take its name from Grim, a Danish fisherman who allegedly settled south of the river Humber in the ninth century. Unfortunately, the connotations surrounding the word have steadily deteriorated over the past millennium (in addition to “very serious or gloomy”, the Oxford English Dictionary has a separate definition, especially of a place, as “unattractive or foreboding”).

Illustration by Annabel Wright of the Dock Tower in Grimsby
© Annabel Wright

As such, “Grimsby” occasionally crops up as a byword for the bleak terrain of northern England. In Among the Thugs, an account of 1980s football hooliganism by the US author Bill Buford, the purest anthropological example of the hooligan is literally called “Grimsby”. If you are from Grimsby, you will encounter strange and inconsequential slights of this kind on, roughly, an annual basis, the most recent of which was Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2016 film, Grimsby.

In an age in which cities feel like the places where history must be happening, Grimsby embodies a certain conception of the British town: its dismembered industry set in opposition to distant powers (whether London or Brussels); its voters no longer clearly aligned with any ideological faction; its architectural relics quietly memorialised into the landscape.

In 1800, only about a thousand people lived in Grimsby but by the 1950s, its population was close to 100,000, and the town was the largest fishing port in the world (it also once boasted the world’s largest ice factory). It was served by hundreds of trawlers, which fished the North Sea, up towards the North Pole. In 1938, the docks brought in 500 tonnes of fish a day, which could be directly transported to London by rail.

Peter Chapman, a longstanding chronicler of the town, told me that Grimsby had to be understood as an island within an island, surrounded by the estuary and the sea on one side and the expansive fields of Lincolnshire on the other. “It was almost like a mission,” he said, a “spit-and-sawdust town” that had “turned its back on Victorianism”.

I asked what he thought of its culture. “It’s suburban, provincial,” he went on. “There’s no interest in a museum.” And whatever else was tried, in Chapman’s experience Grimsby came back to the same place. “There was a brewery, but not now. There was a paper mill but it closed. There was a jam factory . . . ” he recalled. “And so, it relied on fish.”

There is at least one museum in Grimsby — the National Fishing Heritage Centre, which was empty of visitors when I dropped in for the first time in roughly two decades, except for the still extremely ominous life-size mannequin fishermen. It was a pivotal stop on my impromptu tour, which, ahead of the Dock Tower, included a Victorian park, the remnants of a pool hall and the shopping centre.

I showed up too late to visit the Ross Tiger, the last surviving old-style trawler in Grimsby, which is now moored next to the museum with the tragically repressed air of a zoo animal. I tried to negotiate some kind of “reporter” entry, but this had no effect whatsoever (it was 5pm, and it closed at 5pm), which is a completely typical and admirable aspect of Grimsby.

For most people of my age from Grimsby, there is very little direct engagement with fishing, other than in peripheral ways. The football team’s chants include: the word “mariners” repeated indefinitely; a pattern of six claps followed by the word “fish”; and another chant involving fish that I suggest you google. The fishing industry has over recent decades been replaced with a food-packaging industry.

The only times I have actually talked about “Grimsby” and “fish” in the same sentence is when forced to describe it to people in the south, or in a foreign language (a similar phenomenon), at which point I’ve relied on some garbled version of “a famous fishing town”. When I lived in China after university, my colleagues, after this conversation, took me out to a Beijing restaurant and insisted, on my presumed expertise, that I name various types of fish in English. To our collective shame, I was able to name precisely none (there was no haddock on the menu).

This disengagement is, of course, evidence of the industry’s decline, but it also complicates the town’s identity, especially across generations. I struck up a conversation with John Roberts, who was closing the Ross Tiger as I arrived. He had worked as a fisherman until the early 1990s, and then for the EU as part of a fishing patrol. He had all kinds of insights into how the EU worked, why Brexit wouldn’t bring back the industry, and so on, but he had also voted for Brexit.

This was a common theme: I spoke to several people who spelt out precisely why the return of the industry was implausible, and then said they had voted to leave the EU. In fact, everyone I spoke to of middle age or older had an extremely powerful awareness that something of the town’s identity had been lost in recent decades. Maureen Oates, 68, a neighbour of my parents, told me “everyone was associated with the docks” when she was growing up in Cleethorpes, next to Grimsby. In contrast, just 0.7 per cent of employment in North East Lincolnshire was in agriculture and fishing in the 12 months to March this year — below the average of 1 per cent for all of England.

Maureen had worked in the 1990s as a nurse in the Middle East. When she returned home for visits, she said, it was like a “time warp” back to the 1970s, when EU policies, the Icelandic cod wars, the oil-price shock and the use of large “factory ships” from Russia were all contributing to the industry slump. My school French teacher, Val Marsden, is from Grimsby and, it turns out, wrote a thesis at university in 1970 on the collapse of local vocabulary at the hands of government legislation (the UK, not the EU), which standardised the names of fish. Dogfish, for example, used to be called rock salmon. She’d started to find Grimsby depressing, and had recently moved to Sussex. “Our nearest big town is Eastbourne,” she said. “Every time we go in it’s thronging with people.”

The local economy is difficult to gauge. The unemployment rate is not especially severe — in July, 3.4 per cent of the population of North East Lincolnshire, which is mostly made up of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, were claiming out-of-work benefits, compared with 1.9 per cent nationally. The average annual salary is £24,180, with the largest employment areas being public administration, education and health. Many of the units in the shopping centre are boarded up, but extrapolating the local economy from shop windows is akin to gauging the national mood from taxi drivers.

Nonetheless, the mood about Freshney Place shopping centre was very negative (I asked one of my friends, who still lives in Grimsby, how “town” was getting on and he replied “it’s KO”). Yet the People’s Park, which is surrounded by grand houses funded through the wealth of the fishing industry, had been rejuvenated thanks to National Lottery funding, and was in a better condition than any park I have seen in London. I didn’t have time for a frame at Cue World (and had misspent enough of my youth there anyway). All that remained were the docks.

A month or so earlier, I’d been browsing Facebook and come across a set of photos from my friend’s uncle, John Whitfield. John had gone for a bicycle ride through the docks, which, he’d written, were “virtually derelict . . . My old workplace has now gone”. The images were striking, so I dropped him a message to ask if he’d be up for another trip.

At 16, the day he’d finished his exams, John walked on to the docks and got a job as a “barrow lad”, wheeling around boxes of fish. It was a difficult place to work, he said. Even in the 1970s, when he’d begun, the consensus had been that the industry was doomed. Tramps, many of them former fishermen, were living in old fish boxes. The certainty that the industry would go, I heard elsewhere, dated back to the 1950s; the end was looming even at the very peak of its history. The whole enterprise seemed permanently volatile; in the fishing heritage centre there is a stark depiction of the trawlers’ strange economy. “If there was a glut of fish on the market, the prices fell. The trawler then did not clear its expenses and the crew ‘landed in debt,’” the exhibition notes.

We cycled slowly. The docks are like a hidden city no one ever goes to, on the edge of a town that almost no one ever goes to. They were hauntingly empty, a kind of vast Marie Celeste: I half-expected to glimpse unfinished meals on the tables through the cracked shop windows, which still have that specific 1950s pre-computerised font on their blue and green fronts. There was an equipment shop, where John told me new recruits used to be sent to ask for a “long stand”. They were told to wait in the corner for 15 minutes and then sent away empty-handed. The Ice House, which looks like it’s just emerged from a John Ruskin essay, produced boxes of ice to preserve the fish caught on three-week expeditions. Then there is the tower. It is, as I mentioned, visible from many of the town’s major streets, but, more importantly, it is visible from the sea; it was a traditional beacon for hundreds of homeward-bound ships.

Today, the great hope for Grimsby is renewable energy: the Danish company Dong Energy has invested significantly in the area. For now, though, the industry of the past is still more powerful. It is one thing to observe the obvious truth, that the decline of British industry is a meaningful factor in the country’s recent economic and political history, but it is quite another to experience this decline, beyond its mere technicalities and measurements, in terms of the way the people of a town think about the world.

This does not quite divide the generations in Grimsby, but it makes them distinct; one has lived through a kind of industrial trajectory, the other does not necessarily notice the legacy of this trajectory at all, which is hiding in plain sight. You can see the Dock Tower from nearly anywhere in the town but, depending on your age, I’m not sure you see the same thing.

John and I stopped with a clear view of it, close to the sea wall. Even the seagulls had fallen silent. Now was probably the time to talk about Brexit. But there were better topics of conversation. I asked if he’d ever been out to sea. He’d been offered a job on a small boat, but turned it down. He’d once asked his mate about life on the trawlers. You slept with a constant buzz in your ear, he’d said, given the heavy machinery. Didn’t that make it hard to sleep? John had asked. No, his friend replied. The noise let you know the machinery was all still working. What kept you awake was silence.

Thomas Hale is the FT’s capital markets correspondent

Illustrations by Annabel Wright

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