Newlyn Fish Market - boats due to land.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Fishing patriarch Billy Stevenson 1928 - 2021


Few fishing industry players in the history of Newlyn have provoked as much conversation in the pubs, down the quays in wheelhouses and on decks as that of Billy Stevenson, patriach of the Stevenson fishing company who passed away yesterday at the ripe old age of 93. One of his daughters, Elizabeth, remains in the family business which began back in the early 19th century with forebear John Stevenson arriving in Newlyn from Whitby. 

From those humble beginnings the fishing family have seen Newlyn take advantage of its proximity to rich fishing grounds and expand from being one of the smallest harbours in Cornwall with little protection from passing storms through continual quay building projects to becoming the largest fishing port in England. By the end of the 1970s the family presided over the largest privately owned fishing fleet in Europe with over 30 trawlers, netters and beam trawlers.

Billy began his career in the family business at the end of the second world war at a time when their fleet, managed by his father, Billy Stevenson, expanded rapidly and took on a number of 60ft plus ex-Admiralty MFVs from Brixham. The Jacqueline PZ192 was the first of many such vessels when long-lining and trawling was the preferred method of fishing for these boats.

For many years these ex-Admiralty vessels were the mainstay of the family fleet until the late 1970s when three ex-Dutch beam trawlers and three steel 'Sputnik' class trawlers arrived to expand the fleet further. These relatively modern vessels drove the family fortunes ahead as they took advantage of expanding European markets for a plentiful supply of quality flatfish species like Dover, megrim and lemon soles and monkfish. In those days over 90%of the fish auctioned on the market ended up on mainly French and Spanish plates. 

This British Pathé film made in the 1950s captured a trip aboard the Jacqueline which continued to provide the firm with fish until she was scrapped in the 1990s. 


Filmed just after the Second World War aboard the Newlyn sidewinder Jacqueline. The boat was an ex-Admiralty MFV (motorised fishing vessel) built in 1943 and bought by Stevenson and Sons to trawl from Newlyn. She was only broken up a few years ago after a lifetime spent sidewinding off the Cornish coast. Stevenson's longest serving engineer spent most of his working life aboard the Jacqueline.

She was one of five wooden ex-MFVs that worked from the port for over 40 years...


seen in this photo from around 1978...


aboard the Jacqueline bringing the trawl in over the side aided by the roll of the boat...


gutting the haul on deck...

running repairs to the more modern steel doors...



Billy Stevenson continued his fathers' belief in refurbishing secondhand vessels and when pressed on tis would say, "see, new boats don't catch any more fish". To this day the firm has never commissioned a new build to add to their fleet, many of which are named after family members, the Billy Rowney, Elizabeth Caroline, Elizabeth Anne Webster, William Stevenson, the Bryan D Stevenson, Marie Claire, Anthony Stevenson, Karen, ABS, Jacqueline, Lisa Jacqueline, Sara Shaun, Roseland...



here, skipper David Hichens is sat in the completely refurbished galley of the Elizabeth Anne Webster shorlty before he took her to sea for the first time...


and then, of course, there was William Sampson Stevenson PZ191 which starred in the BBC TV series The Skipper featuring a certain Roger Nowell who skippered the boat which he referred to as, "my little tiger". Roger like many skippers had an enduring relationship with Billy whose main responsibility within the family firm was to mange the skippers, crews, boats, engineers and every other trade required to keep a large fishing fleet at sea. 

Managing around 30 skippers and their crews, all of whom by the very nature of their work and sensibilities erred on the side of headstrong adventuring types to say the least inevitably meant that, at times, Billy's relationship with the skippers was tested to the limit and, when things weren't going his way (and given that as share fishermen there is absolutely nothing by way of any contract between the skipper, crew and vessel owner) such truculence occasionally resulted in an on-the-spot quayside sacking. Infamously, in what became known as, the 'Good Friday sacking' not one but five sippers were duly sacked for refusing to sail that day owing to what they considered to be inclement weather. One of the skipper's boat, the Sara Shaun was immediately put up on the slip - the skipper having once 'availed of' the boat after being sacked in a previous incident and fished a trip to make his point - but that's a story for another day. However, as had happened in the past, Billy relented and the skippers (bar one) were duly reinstated on Easter Monday and able to sail again. Though rumour has it they were all pretty pleased with themselves as the outcome was that they got to spend Easter ashore!

The yarns and incidents surrounding Billy's reign over the fleet are the stuff of local legend and would no doubt fill a book, or two. The are few people in the wider fishing community who don't have a favourite story which all depend at some stage in the telling on the inclusion of Billy's actual words, and you know when one of these quotes is coming as they are inevitably proceeded by the word, "see" and a short pause. 

My personal experience to exemplify such tales harks back to the time when I skippered the converted wooden ex-Admiralty MFV Trewarveneth, built in Rye in 1946 and after a lifetime trawling converted to netting in 1990. 


he date is a crucial element as it is a key in contextualising Billy's attitude, his way of working and his sense of humour. In the early 1990s while fishing the Pistola Bank south of Ireland many miles from the nearest land I was forced to dodge overnight as a severe gale tore through the area. Keeping the boat head to wind as the odd sea tumbled over the ancient boat's bow and down the shelteredeck, I spent much of the time consoling the youngest member of the crew who found the experience was not to his liking, not helped by the fact that over the VHF radio we were listening to a Mayday situation some 20 miles north of us as an SAR helicopter was preparing to take off the crew of a sinking coaster. Concerned that as a result of the constant battering from the growing seas and the age of the wooden vessel that she might be taking water I had the fishroom checked on a regular basis to see that she was not taking water any faster than normal. In the end, all was well and we picked up our nets again from the afternoon onwards and completed the trip a few days later. 

Back in port, landed and the fish sold on the morning auction I headed up the steps to the office to collect the settling for the trip - in those days this was in cash. Mindful of the experience and the stress that the boat had been put through I felt I ought to convey some concern for the lack some precautionary safety arrangements aboard the 'Trewar'. While it might seem a little odd today, at the time there was no bilge alarm fitted in the fishroom, just the engine room. Billy spotted me from behind the counter and enquired as to how we had found the trip given the poor weather we had fished through. I took that as an opportunity to raise my concern over the lack of a warning system in the fishroom considering her age and said, "By the way Billy, there's no bilge alarm in the fishroom", to which he immediately replied, "See, she never had one when she was built!". To be fair, by the time we sailed one had been duly fitted.


Billy lived and breathed harbour life, his fleet of boats and every other boat that entered his domain were all subject to eternal concern. His white Triumph Dolomite gave away his presence every time...


as can be seen here as he watches a Breton trawler head for the gaps in a severe storm. In the car would also be his trusty camera which resulted in a huge collection of photos stretching back decades, a large number of which are available online in the 
Billy Stevenson Collection at Cornish Memory. 


At home, a pair of glasses was a permanent feature by a rear window. Even after he retired, the home which he shared with wife Enid afforded him a ringside seat and allowed him to continue to monitor the constant comings and goings in the port...



seen here giving the shore staff the benefit of a lifetime's experience in running the fleet.

From the first day he had a VHF fitted at home, every skipper just knew that sooner or later they would hear is dulcet tones calling them up as they headed for the gaps on the way in.


His love of his boats extended to sending the Excellent when in her sidewinding days to the huge classic boat festival in Brest...


and, not to be outdone by the Mount's Bay Lugger Society's Happy Return, he had the Children's Friend restored as a lugger.



Every year, Billy would see to it that one of the fleet would be put up on the slip and suitably decorated for the Christmas period, in this instance, the Elizabeth Caroline.

Billy has now joined many of those that worked on and in his fleet of boats, his legacy will remain in the collection of boat memorabilia and his huge photo collection that will surely find a home in the heritage centre planned for the port. Likewise, in the Swordfish and Star, pubs which almost owe their very existence to his fleet of boats even though he never crossed their thresholds, the stories about him will no doubt be handed down to further generations of fishermen, many of them preceded by that single word. One oilskin-clad wag suggested that perhaps his headstone should carry the epithet,

"See, you're fired!"