All at Sea? the Survival of Superstition

By Gill, Alec | History Today, December 1994 | Go to article overview

All at Sea? the Survival of Superstition


Gill, Alec, History Today


The New Encyclopaedia Britannica concluded that 'superstition has been deeply influential in world history. Being irrational, it should recede before education and, especially, science' (15th Edition, 1979). Supersition, however, shows no sign of receding. Currently, we are being urged by the symbol of the National Lottery to cross fingers for luck. The old folk magic seems ever present.

Eric Maple makes the refreshing point that 'there are apparently no absolutely new superstitions but only ancient ones which ... persist in advancing from generation to generation disguised as novelties' in Peter Haining's book Superstition (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1979). The 'advance' of superstition is through the oral tradition. This sometimes makes it difficult for historians to research because there is little tangible evidence -- superstitions are rarely written down. Thus, their survival is even more remarkable.

More by luck than design, my twenty-year investigation into Hull's trawling history led me into this ancient topic. The fishing families of my home-port provide a rich source of superstitious material. Although Hull's trawling industry is now much depleted, the former fishing community demolished and the people re-housed, the ancient superstitions can still be found amongst families linked with the sea. The cliche is true: 'Of all seafarers, there are none more superstitious than fishermen'. Fishing taboos touch many aspects of daily life: the women at home, men at sea, various animals and inanimate objects.

In the world of superstition, 'sailing day' is a critical period. Many taboos restrict the women in the community and stipulate what they must not do: never wash on sailing day/Or you'll wash your man away; never 'wave' a trawlerman off or a 'wave' will sweep him overboard; never utter the word 'Goodbye' -- it is too final and he may not return home; once he sets foot outside the front-door, never call after him for he must not look back or break his journey; women are not allowed to see men off from the dockside; females are strictly taboo aboard a trawler and must not go to sea.

In November 1966, Jill Harrison broke some of these 'sailing day' rituals when her husband left home for the Atlantic fishing grounds. She recalls, "It was in the early hours of the morning and, I don't know why, but I pulled back the curtain and waved him good-bye. Tony saw me, looked back, and waved too'. Coming from a fishing family, she knew it was 'wrong'.

Poor catches dashed the crew's hopes of being home for Christmas. Tony sent Jill a seasonal telegram from the St Finbarr. In her coded reply she unusually signed her name as 'Jillian' -- which secretly informed him she was pregnant. On Christmas Day fire broke out in the crew's quarters. Tony, aged twenty, was one of twelve men burnt to death. Jill was the youngest Finbarr widow. Incidents like this reinforced the ancient beliefs within the close-knit fish dock community. Seven months later Jill named her daughter Toni.

Fishermen have many unspoken taboo words. These vary from port to port, but some Yorkshire ones are: Egg, Knife, Church, Hare, Cat and Pig. In folklore, words have power. In Hull, even letters of the alphabet can be ominous -- especially 'S'. Anyone with that letter in their surname is at risk of being claimed by the sea. During my research many people mentioned this odd taboo. It was only after interviewing two of the three Williams widows that I was able to fully document the tragic side of this 'S' belief.

Obviously, the five Williams brothers had little control over their family name; but two of them broke another taboo: that it is unlucky for relatives to sail together (as seamen) in the same vessel, as one of them will certainly be drowned.

Against family advice, Terry and Harry each left good freezer trawlers to join the Hull-based Boston Lincoln. At the White Sea grounds off the Russian coast in January, 1974, there was a problem with the trawl gear. …

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