Occurred in Scarborough between the 1930s and late 1950s, and attracted mainly the rich and famous and very affluent people from around Britain, and beyond. It even attracted the Rothschilds who famously anchored off Scarborough, with the intention of partaking in the Tunny fishing.
It led to the formation of the Tunny Club on East Sandgate.
My Grandad, Walt Eves, worked on these charters from the aged of 17 into his 20s.
He would tell me how the people who would charter the vessels were incredibly wealthy and very generous. They would often say to the crew “do you smoke?” and when they were told yes, the customer would produce packets of cigarettes which would be given to the crew. In those times, packets of cigarettes were few and far between, and the fishermen only ever really saw loose tobacco. Similarly, the customers would bring big wicker hampers, full of various foods, and would often give these away to the crew.
Around the same time, Scarborough had vast herring shoals and herring drifter fleets and it was thought the Tunny were here feeding on the herring, and possibly the water may have been warmer back then.
A customer would charter a vessel, and they would be taken out to sea, the customer would be placed into a smaller wooden vessel, whilst the crew of the main charter watched on.....The customer would wear a harness but this would only be attached to their reel. They were not attached to the vessel, for this would be a rule breach. A dead herring would be placed onto a hook, and a float would be used, due to tunny being a pelagic species. It would quickly become apparent when a tunny had been hooked, as the smaller vessel would quite literally be towed around the sea. The customer would let the fish run, and try to reel it in where possible, this process going on and on until eventually the tunnys heart would burst. It would become apparent it had died, as the smaller boat would come to an abrupt stop. The customer then had to reel in the fish unaided. Once it was on the surface, then the larger vessel would gaff the fish (hook it) and winch it onto the larger vessel.
Mr Hedley-Lewis, a wealthy Lincolnshire estate owner / farmer, travelled to Scarborough from his Lincolnshire home in 1949 and chartered the vessel “Good Cheer”, he hired second hand equipment and as opposed to buying his bait, he exchanged a crate of beer for it. He swapped the beer for a crate of herring from some fishermen on the scarborough pier.
They left Scarborough at midnight and headed north towards Whitby, the fish was hooked at 3:30am and was eventually brought aboard the larger vessel by 5:05am. It took a total of 50 minutes to get the gigantic fish aboard the boat.
Mr Hedley-Lewis was quoted as saying to the Mercury newspaper “It broke the hook and the double line, but the single line held. It was drawn into the trace three times, and broke the break on the reel. The reel would not work properly and the brake would not hold. They tell me it pulled quite a way”
Mr Hedley-Lewis' fish was weighed in Scarborough and weighed 852lb or 356 kilograms. However, a lot of controversy soon came about, thanks to the previous record holder, Mr Lorenzo Mitchell-Henry, an Irish angler. Mr Mitchell-Henry had previously caught an 851lb tunny in 1933, also off the coast of Whitby, as Mr Lewis had. Mr Mitchell Henry claimed the record couldn't stand, as the rope used to weigh the 852lb fish was “too wet, too long and too thick” and would have contributed to at least an extra pound of weight, if not more. This chaos became known as the “Tunny wars”. Mr Lorenzo Mitchell-Henry “an aristocratic angler” was noted to have remarked how he wasn't accepting having his record beaten, and “certainly not by a “farmer” and the 852lb fish never did make it to the official record books. Some may say, it was a very pretentious standpoint.
However, whilst the 851lb fish did make it to the National records, it didn't make it into the Scarborough Tunny Club records, as it didn't meet the Tunny Club Rules, where Mr Hedley-Lewis' fish had done so.
I was told Mr Hedley-Lewis had the fish stuffed, and later it was donated to the town by either him or his family, and was on show in the Woodend museum for a large number of years, along with some of the equipment used to catch it. I saw it with my own eyes in the early 200s, possbibly 2002. The woodend museum was repurposed and become more of a hub for performing arts. We have been told the Tunny was moved to the Scarborough art gallery, but alas there is no back story to it. A Chief executive of the Museums trust wrote in the local paper that he thought it was a “replica” however I was always told, it was the actual fish caught by Mr Hedley Lewis.
The 851lb official national record was the largest line caught tuna in the world. In 2001, a Tuna weighing 968lb was caught off the coast of Ireland, and thus this took the european and world record. There has since been one said to have weighed 1496lb caught off Nova Scotia, Canada. However, the last line caught tunny in Britain was 1954 and none are said to have been caught since, and the 851lb fish remains a British record to this day.
To this day, my Mother has a letter, written to my late Grandad and Nana, from Mr Hedley Lewis' wife. Sadly, it isn't dated, so we can't say for sure when it was written, but it was addressed to my Grandparents jointly, so I would imagine it would be after they married. In the letter, his wife states, that Mr Hedley-Lewis had been very poorly, and if I remember from the letter, she wrote advising them of his passing. He was ill before deciding to travel to Scarborough, and the letter quotes him as saying to his wife “I am going to go to Scarborough and catch the biggest tunny their ever was”. She states, she couldn't believe it when it flashed up on the TV “Lincolnshire estate owner catches record Tuna”. (She would have been one of a few who owned a TV, as in 1949 they were a luxury, but they were very wealthy land owners in Lincolnshire)
No Tunny has been caught in Britain since 1954. There are various reasons and theories for this, and each person has their own theory. In the 1930s – 1950s Tuna wasn't consumed in Britain, and any fish caught would ultimately go to waste. My Grandad stated that Denmark and Germany began commercially fishing for them using floats, off our waters, once word had spread of their presence. It's possible they were then sold commercially to Asian countries, where consumption was common. There is also the issue of the overfishing of the herring, which depleted a lot of their food sources, and thus if they have no food they either move on or die out, and of course, the overfishing of the tunny. However, others will disagree, stating we were experiencing unusually higher water temperatures back then, which have since changed.
No matter what though, the Tunny fishing proved to be a huge draw to Scarborough in those years, bringing in very wealthy tourists from all corners of the lands. It also became a key part of Scarborough’s history, and maritime history particularly. It remains to be seen if we may ever see such as these here again. It's said there have been sightings off St Ives, so who knows?