Bloomfield, James

Marine Engineer and Founder of the Ocean Fleet of Herring Drifters

Of all the fishing companies that flourished in Great Yarmouth a century ago, the most well-remembered, was that founded in 1911 by James Bloomfield. Fortunately for historians, a good collection of that firm’s business records including the minutes, the ledgers and the correspondence, has survived and is kept in the Norfolk Record Office. (Norfolk Record Office; Catalogue series BR 51).

James, a qualified marine engineer, originally came from Liverpool. He arrived in Great Yarmouth in 1902, as the chief engineer to the drifter fleet of Smith’s Dock Trust Company. In 1904, he was promoted to general manager and he remained with Smith’s Dock for another seven years. During this time he settled into the fabric of the town, becoming a borough councillor in 1908 and a Director of the Fishermen’s Widows and Orphans Fund. In his spare time James had a side-line in drifter ownership. In 1907, he and “Wee” Green of Winterton, jointly bought a new steam drifter, the Ocean Gift (YH 574) and ran her very profitably. In 1911, he left Smith’s Dock to found Bloomfield’s Limited. The company’s 50,000 £1 shares were snapped up by investors from all around the country and within a year he was operating 15 steam drifters and his shareholders were receiving a handsome ten per cent dividend. The company had branch offices in many British fishing ports and in addition to fishing it was involved in kippering, fish sales, salt trading and ice manufacture.

While working hard for his own company, James was also active on behalf of the British herring industry. When the trawling industry began catching herring and damaging stocks he championed the driftermen. This led to James organising an international conference at which the herring trading nations condemned the practice of using trawl nets on herring. His business skills were recognised nationally; in 1912, he was appointed a Director of the Marine Insurance Group, known as The Sunderland Clubs, and he was asked to manage the six drifters of the City and Peterhead Drifting Company. Bloomfield’s salary was increased to £1,000 a year, together with a company car, and the firm paid for the telephone at his Great Yarmouth home in Sandown Road. In late 1912, Bloomfield’s Limited were approached by Vladimir De Sivers, an equerry of the Imperial Russian Court and a Captain Spahde. In 1913, James and two fellow directors made a trip to St. Petersburg, where they signed up to a joint venture called the Russian Northern Maritime Industries. Bloomfield’s invested the rouble equivalent of £11,500 into this project. In June 1913, James dispatched a steam trawler, the Pecha, to the White Sea to prospect for herring and to instruct Russian fishermen in handling driftnets; (with their larger coal bunkers, trawlers were more suitable for long voyages than drifters). “Wee” Green skippered the Pecha on this trip. The Russian venture is a story that deserves its own book but, sadly, only fragments of the full story remain. The stated objective was to develop and modernise the Russian fishery in the far north, but several factors suggest that this may not have been the entire truth; firstly, the Tsar had granted de Sivers a remission on the Russian import duties on foreign fish, secondly, before negotiating the partnership, de Sivers had bought 2,000 shares in Bloomfield’s Limited and thirdly, a well-known Scottish herring curer and exporter, Andrew Bremner, had just become the largest shareholder in Bloomfield’s.

In August 1914, the Admiralty commandeered nearly all the steam drifters and trawlers. James reputedly encouraged his now jobless crews to join the Royal Naval Reserve, where they manned steam drifters; now on naval duties. Possibly for age and health reasons, James himself did not see active service, but worked instead as a salaried employee of the Ministry of Munitions and then the Admiralty. However, he continued to receive 80% of his Bloomfield’s Limited salary. Once the war was over the drifters were returned to their owners and the English herring industry moved back into action. In 1919, Lord Leverhulme bought Bloomfield’s to form part of his Mac Fisheries empire, but kept James on as the managing director. In late 1919, Bloomfield’s auditors, Lovewell Blake, declared that the £11,500 investment in Russia was now worthless, because post-Russian Revolution hyperinflation had wiped out the value of the rouble. James continued to lead the company until 1922, when he died at the age of 54 years. Such was the reputation of both the man and his company that Unilever part founded by Lord Leverhulme continued to use the Bloomfield’s name until they disposed of their fishing fleet in 1963 and finally closed the company down in the 1970s.

Ocean Starlight a Bloomfield boat c1952