Tributes: Trawlerman Jumbo Long – Lowestoft legend and ‘best granddad you could have’
PUBLISHED: 01:17 09 February 2019 | UPDATED: 00:35 10 February 2019
Records broken. History made. A pioneer of new fishing techniques that saved tons of fuel. Yes, Jumbo Long has truly earned his place in the story of Lowestoft’s fishing industry
“When he was about 12 years old and I was about nine and a half, we knew we wanted to go to sea. My dad went to sea, my granddad went to sea. That was in us, really.”
Billy Long’s talking about the brother he’s lost. A skilled fishing-boat skipper, a family man, a “true gentleman”, someone with a smile always on his face – the list of tributes is endless.
A war baby, “Jumbo” (as he was known) was born late in 1939. His family lived in Lowestoft’s Beach Village – the community below the cliff – so the sounds, smells, winds and rhythms of the North Sea were playing with his senses right from the start.
Billy remembers theirs as a happy childhood. “No-one seemed to have any money, but we always had some in our pockets because we used to be on the (fish) market, doing odd jobs. And in those days mum used to do a lot of pickling, and we used to go round the doors and sell that.
“We used to play truant a lot. We had a lot of fun. We were close, me and him, right the way through.” When the truancy officer was on the prowl, they’d hide under the table.
“She’d look through the letterbox and say ‘I can see you!’ I said ‘I can see you too!’ She said ‘I want you back at school tomorrow. If you’re not, you’ll be in serious trouble!’”
The fishing industry seems to have set the tone of their lives, along with that of younger brother Brian, who’d go on to work on the fish market.
Billy says: “In class, I’d be picking the herring scales off my arm. The teacher used to come along – that was when they’d give you a smack on the lug – and say ‘What are you doing, Long?’ ‘Getting fish scales off my arm.’ Me and my brother had been down the market, on the boats. We were always down there, helping out.”
So how did Jumbo – who went to Roman Hill school and was officially Leslie – get his nickname?
“He was always big,” says Billy. “I think his uncle called him it. ‘I don’t know how big you’re going to get. We’ll call you Jumbo.’ And that was it.”
Call of the sea
At the age of 15, Jumbo went to sea – and proved a natural. As a “deckie-learner” he mended nets, learned how to gut fish and worked on all the other skills a trawlerman needed. He was paid 10 shillings and sixpence a week.
Jumbo worked his way up, going on to gain his mate’s and skipper’s tickets and becoming one of the youngest skippers to work out of Lowestoft.
His progress had been interrupted temporarily by national service in the Navy from 1957. That was also the year the teenager met bride-to-be Delwyn. They first saw each other at a dance in the Great Eastern Hotel. “He was a handsome chappie,” she smiles.
And that was it. They got engaged the following year and married in 1959, when Jumbo was still 19. Next month, they’d have been celebrating their 60th anniversary. In fact, only days before he died he was helping to put together a list of guests for a diamond wedding party.
By the way, he was always Jumbo to his wife. “I never called him Leslie,” she says. Daughter Joanne adds: “If the coastguard rang up and said ‘Could I speak to skipper Leslie Long please?’ I used to think ‘Who?’”
Glory days (part one)
Jumbo began a long and fruitful association with Boston Deep Sea Fisheries Limited, building a reputation as a very successful skipper of the company’s boats.
The pattern of his working life became one of 12 days at sea, then just two at home. He’d serve on the same vessel for a while, two or three years perhaps, before moving on to another one.
The tradition after coming back from a fishing trip was to go and get his “settle” – his earnings. Delwyn would meet him and they’d have a drink in the pub. The next day was spent with the family, and the day after that he was off again.
Billy says his brother was really a “cod skipper”, with the knack of working what was known as “the rough ground” – big rocks and stones where there was a high risk of your nets being ripped. “He used to love that kind of fishing. He used to get close to the wrecks and the trawl used to come up full of fish.”
Good times. Billy remembers a very successful trip with his brother. They left on a Friday and were back on Monday, “and none of us had seen our bunks. We had 300 boxes”.
Jumbo’s granddaughter Wallis says: “He used to say that if he got 45 minutes’ sleep a night, that was a good night.”
It was the heyday of his home town’s fishing industry. “At the docks, you could walk on the ships from one side of the harbour to the other,” says Billy.
That era certainly made an impact on Jumbo’s daughter, Joanne. “I can’t tell you the buzz you would get down that fish market. I wish you could have bottled it. People auctioning fish… the smell… people in white coats, gutting the fish…”
Delwyn did a great job, some years ago, putting together a file chronicling her husband’s time at sea: photographs of the boats he skippered, certificates of discharge (like references; many describe him as “honest and trustworthy, and of sober habits”) and more.
One document shows he made more than £20,000 in 1979, which adjust-for-inflation guides suggest equates to about £200,000 in today’s money. He spent 205 days at sea that year.
On the other side of the coin was the fact Jumbo was a “share fisherman” and not actually employed by Boston Deep Sea Fisheries. There were no paid holidays, for instance, and an extensive list of expenses to be met for each fishing trip, including food, gas, port charges, ice, baskets, electric lights, travel and national insurance.
An annual highlight was what they called “the Boston Bonus”. It was usually about £300. Delwyn and Jumbo would fund a nice weekend in London, with friends.
There are stories aplenty from this period. Races to get back to shore first, to get the best prices. Swaps with Russian fishermen: getting bearskin hats in exchange for – ahem – a certain type of magazine.
Then there were the superstitions.
“If you saw a nun walking along the quay, you wouldn’t dare go to sea that day,” says Billy. And you wouldn’t have a wash or shave, though cleaning your teeth was OK. “You’d wash your luck away; that’s what they’d say.” A pause. “You didn’t have time to wash, anyhow!”
Glory days (part two)
Here are just a few of Jumbo’s best moments
* In 1974 the 90ft Boston Viscount (which he skippered) shattered a trawler earning record when it grossed £8,741 from an 11-day trip. It beat the old record by more than £2,600.
* He ushered in a new era at Lowestoft when the 90ft Boston Whirlwind made the first landing of fish graded and boxed at sea – 243 kit from a seven-day trip. The first box of lemon soles sold for £21.
* The same boat set a likely earnings record for a trawler of its class when it landed 294 kit worth £1,512. It took only seven hauls to make the catch in only 52 hours.
* Jumbo skippered the Boston Sea Cobra that, with another vessel, pioneered the technique of “bottom pair trawl”. It saved a ton of fuel a day. His friend, Terry Coulson, skippered the other trawler.
A wise old owl
Domestically, the couple had a flat in Lowestoft after they married. They later had a house built in Raglan Street for £3,200, then moved and spent 20-odd years in Park Road. In 2000, they moved to the town’s western edge.
There are three children – Glenn, Cheryl and Joanne – seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Joanne remembers family holidays in Cornwall, leaving in the small hours for the long drive and singing “holiday songs” on the way.
“He was always full of fun. When we were children we used to have power cuts, and he’d say ‘I’ll give you 10p if you dare walk upstairs.’ We’d go up and he’d hide in the cupboard under the stairs. We’d come down and we knew he’d jump out at us.”
Every day, when at sea, he’d call his wife and family on the radio at lunchtime. “He’d say ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!” says Joanne. “We all used to run (to the radio). He’d tell us he was OK.”
She adds: “My dad was one of life’s true gentlemen. I can say, with my hand on my heart, I’ve never heard my dad swear. Obviously, at sea he would probably swear, but the minute he stepped off that boat, I never ever heard him swear.”
Neither can Joanne nor Wallis remember Jumbo shouting. Not that he was a pushover.
“I lived here for about two years. Through my teenage years, too; so you can imagine… coming home late, and drunk,” says his granddaughter. “I’d sneak in. He would never shout. He’d just give you a look. You’d know you were in trouble and keep out of his way for the day!”
Joanne says: “He was strict (when he needed to be). He’d just say ‘Up those stairs!’ I can remember writing little notes, saying ‘Daddy, I’m sorry. Please can I come down and watch Man About the House?’ ‘No!’”
Underneath, she says, he was a big softy, and a wise old owl.
Trouble at sea
Later, quotas and other changes began to bite, and the fishing industry declined. Boston Deep Sea Fisheries wasn’t immune, and proceedings to wind up the company began in the late 1980s.
Many skippers found work in the oil industry, but Jumbo was never tempted. He owned or co-owned three boats over the years, working with friend Terry Coulson as independents.
There was the Fremantle, Leanda and Coral Reef – and, with Fremantle, came Jumbo’s most dramatic episode at sea.
It happened 40 miles off Cromer. Billy says his brother was in the engine room when a fuel pipe burst at about 1am. There was just a small spray of fuel, but it hit the hot manifold. “It caught fire behind him. He had a hard job getting out.”
The skipper and his crew of four took to life-rafts. They were there for two hours during the freezing night, as flames engulfed the trawler, before being picked up by a Great Yarmouth-based supply ship.
Jumbo “escaped” with a burned face and badly-burned hands. “He had blisters on his fingers that were hanging down,” remembers Joanne. Fortunately, he healed without scarring.
They’d sailed on Friday the 13th. Not a day when superstitious fishermen would normally take to the sea, but they’d gone because it was business, and would avoid the cost of an extra day in the harbour. “He never went to sea on Friday the 13th after that,” says Billy.
The boat (and its fishing licence) was eventually sold. One of those vessels that seems fated, it had a chequered after-life and eventually sank.
Later, when Jumbo called time on his active fishing career, he worked on the tugs – putting his knowledge of local waters to good use.
You never heard him moan
It was in 2000 or so that Jumbo started to get ill, but the family says he battled on. “You never heard him moan about it,” says Billy. It was early that decade that Jumbo stopped working on the tugs.
In retirement, he’d fish from the beach and from son Glenn’s boat. “He loved the sea. Absolutely. That was his life,” says Delwyn.
“Even last year. It was my sister-in-law’s golden wedding, and they’d got this boat up at Orford. The skipper let Jumbo ‘drive’ the boat. He was ill then, but he was in his element.”
Jumbo had to endure various cancers and lymphoma over time, but never complained, says the family.
Billy says he and his brother sat on the sofa a few days before Jumbo died. “He asked me to sing with him. We were singing songs we used to sing when we were kids.”
He did like music: country and western, rock and roll, Irish folk, Doris Day, Johnny Cash.
“He used to go in his shed, with a record player. He’d potter around – just sorting screws out – windows open, music playing,” remembers Wallis.
He also loved eating fish. “When granddad had kippers we used to moan because of the smell. In the end, nanny chucked him out to the shed!
“I remember as a child going into the garage. He’d caught lobster, and the lobster would be crawling around. We’d be wanting to get a choc-ice, and we’d have to step over to get to the freezer.”
He was so jolly
Jumbo’s funeral is on February 21 at 2pm, at Waveney Memorial Park and Crematorium, Ellough, Beccles.
“He was a family man,” says Delwyn. “He used to have sack races and egg and spoon races in the garden with the grandchildren.”
Wallis says he was always surrounded by laughter. “The best granddad you could have. He was so jolly. So happy. Always wanted to have a laugh.
“He’d say ‘I’ve got a present for you. As a six- or seven-year-old you’re so excited. ‘Hold your hand out.’ And he’d drop a fish eye in your hand!
“There were always fishing nets in the garden, and the life-raft we’d think was a bouncy castle.”
His spirit remained strong. “Even on the last day, he smiled,” says Joanne.
Glenn: “He was cracking jokes half an hour before he died, pulling funny faces at the grandkids.”