Plymouth has a fascinating history extending back to the Bronze Age. Originally called Sutton, meaning south town, Plymouth gradually grew from a small settlement by the sea into the busy city we know today. Thanks to its natural harbour, Plymouth was initially a fishing village primarily, and Sutton Harbour was the major fishing port for the area – as it remains today.
Fishing was the most important industry in Plymouth during Tudor times and over time, coastal trade increased. In 1497, it’s stated that John Cabot discovered Newfoundland and its rich population of fish, and from then on, Plymouth fishermen caught seafood off of the Newfoundland coast.
The fight for fish
Fishing has always been an incredibly important industry for Plymouth, as most of the city’s trade started from the buying and selling of fish. Plymouth is in a prime location for sailing and fishing both, with the natural harbour of Sutton Harbour making for a perfect port for fisherman to moor up safely and sell their seafood.
As surrounding towns grew, there was more local competition for selling seafood. Many fisherman would catch fish in Plymouth waters and sell at a different local port. It is said that in 1384 Parliament decreed that all fish caught in the waters of Sutton, Plymouth and Tamar should be displayed in Plymouth and Saltash only.
As the population of Plymouth increased, so did its reputation. In 1641 it’s claimed a writer stated that Plymouth was ‘chiefly dependant on the fish trade’, whilst in 1669 a foreign writer said that Plymouth was ‘among the best cities in England’- and we are inclined to agree still today!
Although other industries were introduced throughout the decades, fishing remained an important industry in Plymouth throughout the 20th century.
The first fish market
In 1889 Sutton Harbour Company secured permission to build a new, covered fish market along the Barbican quayside. Before this, fisherman would sell their seafood on carts or from the boats themselves. Construction started in 1892, and the market building measured 230 feet long and 60 feet wide, officially opening in 1896.
What we know today as The Edinburgh Woollen Mill was once the location of this first fish market, where fishing boats would moor along the road and unload their catch of the day. The market was right in the heart of the harbourside and although the fish market was covered with a roof, the rest was completely open. Passers-by were able to see, hear and smell everything that was going on while they walked along the cobbled streets with ice creams in hand.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the fish market was struggling to meet the requirements of the modern fishing industry and so, a new fishing complex was developed.
Following a major investment from Sutton Harbour Group plc, Plymouth Fisheries opened in 1995 on a new site, transforming the region’s fishing facilities. The purpose built fish market was relocated to the eastern side of the harbour along Fish Quay for greater ease of access for the workers and buyers, and to be able to expand and upscale the market from specially designed new buildings with more space for lorries to unload and load fish.
The custom built complex is now one of the most important fisheries in the UK, selling more than 6,000 tonnes of fish every year. The fisheries offers an electronic auction system which is operated by Plymouth Trawler Agents and helps secure the top prices for fisherman.
As we move forward in uncertain times for the fishing industry, it is reassuring to see that fishing remains at the heart of Plymouth’s industry – and its importance to the city is unchanged too.