What Was Life Like in a 19th Century Fishing Village in Massachusetts?

tags: fishing, New England

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Alternet, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: robinlindley@gmail.com.

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

—George Eliot

Bradley Bagshaw is known as an outstanding Seattle trial lawyer and an expert in maritime law. He spent decades representing individuals and families against fishing corporations and also represented parties in cases involving civil rights, including same-sex couples who were pioneers in the quest for marriage equality.

Now he’s left litigation behind and he’s embarking on a new path as a writer with his rousing debut novel Georges Bank, a tale of greed, power, and hypocrisy—and love—in late nineteenth century Gloucester, Massachusetts, a major fishing port. As the novel vividly recounts, fishing was a death sentence for many men who took on the dangerous work in a time without a social safety net, without unions, without any social support for the women and children left behind.

Mr. Bagshaw captures not only the perilous seas of New England but also the plight of those who were left behind when fathers, husbands, and sons died at sea. His resilient and feisty protagonist, Maggie O’Grady, an Irish immigrant, finds herself in a Gloucester brothel with a young son after she is cast aside and left penniless by the child’s father, a wealthy Boston merchant. 

The novel chronicles Maggie’s struggles as she raises her son in the brothel and faces hypocritical townspeople and abusive men, while it also charts her resilience and triumphs as she builds her business and seeks respectability. As she pursues an independent life and serves the fishing community, she witnesses the terrible toll the work at sea takes on those who remain. The novel also illustrates the grim machinations of the brutal legal system that designed for the wealthy while widows had virtually no possibility of compensation for the deaths of their spouses.

Mr. Bagshaw grew up in Gloucester, and his first job there was teaching sailing. For the novel, he drew on his rich experience in maritime law, his adventures at sea as a child and more recent sailing journeys as far as Tahiti, and his extensive archival research on Gloucester and the fishing industry of the nineteenth century.

Mr. Bagshaw worked for 35 years as a trial attorney with the Seattle firm Helsell Fetterman. He specialized in maritime law and often represented individuals against the fishing companies. He attended Harvard Law School after undergraduate studies at Bowdoin College in Maine, and graduate school in physics at MIT. 

Now an author and part-time flight instructor, Mr. Bagshaw has two more novels in the works. He just finished The Physicist, which also draws on his legal experience, as well as his knowledge of flying light aircraft and physics education. And, he is currently working on a third novel, Don’t Look. He lives in Seattle with his wife Sally.

Mr. Bagshaw sat down at a North Seattle café and generously responded to questions about his new career as a writer and his first novel Georges Bank.

Robin Lindley: You’re known as a distinguished trial attorney and now you’ve retired from that and you’re a writer. How did your legal work affect your new novel about the people who fished in nineteenth century America? 

Bradley Bagshaw: I wound up by happenstance coming from the fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and then representing fishermen for most of my legal career in Seattle. Much of the fishing is in Alaska, but the fishing industry in the Northwest is centered in Seattle. Their boats are here and their companies are here. They hire their crews in Seattle. They have facilities in Alaska for some larger boats. 

I had a number of cases representing crab fishermen and class actions involving guys who fished on big factory trawlers. A factory trawler typically has 140 crew members and most of them are processors who work in the bowels of the ship cutting fish and packing the fish. That really is a terrible job. It’s usually 12 to 15 hours a day or more, and they go out for 60 to 90 days. They work every single day, seven days a week. The conditions are really, really harsh. And a lot of the worker safety laws today do not apply at sea.

A big part of what inspired the book was a keen awareness of how badly, even today, the fishermen are treated by the fishing companies. In the novel, I look back to the nineteenth century in Gloucester. The danger of fishing then was so much greater than it is today, and today it may be the most dangerous profession, but at that time, it was unbelievable. 

Robin Lindley: Did you want to be a writer when you were young?

Bradley Bagshaw: Yes. I went to prep school. I had a very poor education until I started that. I almost flunked English class when I got there. But I knew I wanted to be a writer. I had a couple of good English teachers, one of whom helped me with the book: David Weber. He worked there until he retired, and he’s become a great friend in the last five or six years 

I decided I didn’t want to continue spending all of my time on those long Russian novels I was reading, so I changed my focus to physics and mathematics in college, and that’s where my early strengths were, and I went to grad school at MIT in physics. I decided though that I didn’t want to be a professor, so a couple of years later I went to law school, then became a lawyer. If I could have made a living writing novels back then, I would have, but I was too fearful about the need to make money. Few writers can support themselves on their writing alone.

Robin Lindley: And publishing is harder all the time. What inspired this novel about nineteenth century Gloucester? 

Bradley Bagshaw: My wife Sally and I took a sabbatical about ten years ago. I’d learned to sail as a youngster in Gloucester and sailing instructor was my first job. When I came out here, I sailed charter boats to the San Juans, but I’d never gone on the ocean and I’d always wanted to.

So, when we had the opportunity to take time off—Sally was concluding one job and I could take a sabbatical at my law firm—we got a 39-foot cutter, a sailboat, with the intention of taking a long sailing trip, and we wound up taking it out of Seattle, down the coast, off to the Marquesan Islands, to Tahiti and Bora Bora and then, eventually, back to Honolulu and back to Seattle—over about two years. 

During that, I was thinking about stepping away from my legal career. And I was thinking about my life, as you do with a big break like that. And I really wanted to be a writer—so why don’t I take a crack at that too. 

When we came back, I changed my schedule at the law firm to working half time and I started writing Georges Bank. I really liked doing that until, a couple years ago, I quit the law practice altogether and took up writing. 

The sail boat trip and my early Gloucester years played a big part in determining what this story would be about. 

Robin Lindley: You capture terrific ocean storms, and I imagine that writing is based on first-hand experience from sailing around the Pacific.

Bradley Bagshaw: We were very careful on our trip to plan and make it very unlikely that we’d have the horrible weather these guys face on Georges Bank. We knew about the hurricane seasons in the Northern Hemisphere and typhoon season in the Southern Hemisphere. Trips with boats like ours start in March up here, a little before hurricane season starts and after typhoon season ends, so you won’t run into those horrible storms. Before the typhoon season started in the Southern Hemisphere, we took the boat out of the water and came back to Seattle for six months and let that season go by, then put the boat back in the water. 

We didn’t run into anything really bad. The first three or four days out of Seattle, and the last three or four days into Seattle were pretty rough. It’s unpredictable around the coast. We got back in late July and we were all bundled up in foul-weather gear and head gear and boots. Even then, our coast was rough. 

Robin Lindley: What are a few things you’d like readers to know about Gloucester and conditions in the nineteenth century?

Bradley Bagshaw: As a kid, I admired the fishermen of Gloucester. They had beautiful sailing boats. And Gloucester is extraordinarily proud of its heritage. Back in the nineteenth century when Georges Bank is set, Gloucester was the biggest fishing port in the world. At any one time, at least 400 fishing vessels were sailing out to various banks. 

The newspaper archives from that time are readily available, as are lots of secondary materials. And I already knew a lot about the fishing industry and also the way the workers were treated. And that’s how the novel came about.

And I thought: what about all the women? At the time I’m writing about, fishing was so dangerous that it was almost a self-inflicted genocide. In 25 years, from 1860 to 1885, over 300 schooners sank on the banks out of Gloucester, and 2400 men died. 

In those days, there weren’t many things a woman could do to support herself. 

Robin Lindley: And there weren’t social programs.

Bradley Bagshaw: No social programs. No Social Security. No Aid to Families with Dependent Children. No support for medical expenses. And no jobs. Basically, the main choice for a woman widowed in those days was to find herself a new husband right away or go back and live with her family and take her kids with her. If you couldn’t do one of those two things, your life would be desperate. 

Those are the people I write mostly about, exemplified most by Maggie O’Grady. She winds up in a brothel after she’s abused by a nineteenth-century Harvey Weinstein. She has his baby, and he says he has his life to live and gets rid of her. Then, with determination, she pulls herself up by her bootstraps. She becomes a business owner and finds a fisherman and marries him. Of course, her business is running a brothel. She meets obstacles and she has flaws, but she perseveres and triumphs. 

Robin Lindley: You vividly describe the dangerous fishing and tremendous storms off Georges Bank. What is Georges Bank?

Bradley Bagshaw: It’s a fishing bank off the coast of Massachusetts. And, back then, it was one of the most lucrative fishing grounds in the world. The Gulf Stream comes into it from the south, and it has a shallow bed. And cold water from the Gulf of Maine intersects with the Gulf Stream. That’s why it’s so dangerous. And that’s where a lot of fish come in.

Robin Lindley: From your book, that area sounds much more dangerous than going out to sea or to other locations.

Bradley Bagshaw: Much more dangerous off Georges Bank. The reason is, because back then, the technology was so limited and they had to handle the boat and put their lines out over the side and run them in one or two at a time. 

And one of the most lucrative times to fish was in the winter. So, they’re out there anchored in February at a time in Massachusetts when you can have clear, cold days and then you could have a rip-roaring storm a few days later. In those days, of course, there was almost no way to get advance warning. They had barometers and could see if they dropped, and they could watch the clouds, but it was really hard to judge how bad a storm might be, how desperate the situation was. So, they were anchored a half-mile out in the ocean and faced big waves, and when they came into the shallow area, everything got magnified, so the waves were really enormous and they could break and it was extraordinarily hazardous. That’s what happened to many of those 2400 men who died.

Robin Lindley: Did you fish when you lived in Gloucester?

Bradley Bagshaw: Just a little bit, but I never really was a fisherman. I never went to sea in the fishing boats. I did work on the docks for four years at a summer job during college. I floated in dories when I was a kid. A friend of mine and I bought a derelict fishing dory for $45. I was ten years old. We rowed that thing all over the harbor and did wonderful explorations, the way kids do. At about the same time, I learned how to sail.

Robin Lindley: Was your protagonist Maggie based on a particular person?

Bradley Bagshaw: Maggie isn’t based on anyone. I did have an Irish great-grandmother named Margaret. That’s where I got the name. I never met her, but she was well-known in the family as a powerful woman. She and my great-grandfather established a small business and he died relatively young. She took over the business and ran it. They made needles for the textile industry in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Nashua, New Hampshire. Back then, there was a big textile industry in that part of the country. And she was renowned for taking over a business and making it work. To that extent, Maggie is somewhat based on my great-grandmother. 

For the Irish part, my dad was one-quarter Irish with the one grandmother, but if anyone asked his ethnicity, he said, “I’m Irish!” He was proud of that. I got a little of that, and I’m one-eighth Irish. So that was also in there.

Robin Lindley: Did you go back to Gloucester and do archival research?

Bradley Bagshaw: I spent a good amount of time in Gloucester on research. There’s a good local library and it has an excellent archive of local history. And there’s a maritime museum. There’re also some good secondary sources. 

I also visited Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, and they have a Gloucester fishing schooner, the L.A. Dunton, in the water and all made up the way it would have been when it was fishing. It was a little later and a little bigger than the schooners at the time of the novel, but otherwise typical of those ships. You can walk inside, see the bunks, see how the men would have lived. 

Robin Lindley: You also bring up nineteenth-century legal history, and stress that widows had no right to sue for compensation for the deaths of their husbands at sea.

Bradley Bagshaw: The greatest injustice was the Harrisburg case [The Harrisburg,119 U.S. 199 (1886)]. The Court found there was no cause of action for wrongful death at sea under maritime law. It didn’t matter why somebody died. That was partially changed in 1920 when the “Death on the High Seas Act” was passed. Deaths that weren’t covered after that were then covered after an act in 1970. But, even today, for mariners and others who die at sea, their wrongful death recovery is a shadow of what we get at shore. When the BP oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico had a big fire a few years ago, several people on the platform were killed. Congress was outraged to find that there were no punitive damages or pain and suffering damages that the widows could collect because of what was left of this old case. Congress proposed changing the law, but only for people working on oil platforms. All the other people who go to sea on fishing boats, merchant ships, and other vessels, never managed to get the attention of Congress, and in the end it did nothing, no relief even for the widows of men killed on oil platforms.

Robin Lindley: Your novel also details life in a brothel and the day-to-day lives of the prostitutes and the men who frequented the establishment. Does Gloucester have a brothel museum? We see these in some western towns like Wallace, Idaho. 

Bradley Bagshaw: In marked contrast to the archives on fishing back then, there is almost nothing on the brothels then. The only bit of history that I could find was an article from around 1870 about a candidate for mayor who was going to clean up the taverns and brothels. He was elected, but a year later there was a recall election and he was booted out of office. Usually fishermen didn’t bother to vote, but they came out to kick the bum out. That was the only place I found any real history. 

I had to research nineteenth-century brothels in other parts of America. There are studies of New Orleans at about that time and there’s statistical data out of New York. And then there’s semi-historical writing on the brothels of the Wild West.

Robin Lindley: These women are overlooked in history and you’re making a place for them.

Bradley Bagshaw: Yes, but not many brothels have been written about. There’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which is a light treatment of the situation with everyone having fun — not very realistic. 

Robin Lindley: You’re up for challenges. You’re a flight instructor and you’ve been a sailing instructor and now you’re taking on these big literary works. 

Bradley Bagshaw: I love doing that. 

Robin Lindley: Is there anything else you’d like to mention about Georges Bank or your writing.

Bradley Bagshaw: You mentioned that you’d like to try some creative writing. Just do it. I’d never done it. I’d written a lot of briefs as a lawyer. If anyone wants to write, start. I just started. I wrote a first draft of Georges Bank straight through. Then I showed it to people who actually knew something about creative writing, and they gave me an education about everything I was doing wrong. But that was fixable. I then did a second and third and fourth draft, and every time I was making it better, and I felt really good. It’s very satisfying.I love the process. It’s great to get a book published, but if it never happened, I’d still be working on my third book. 

Robin Lindley: I appreciate your enthusiasm and inspiring words Brad.

Bradley Bagshaw: I’m 65 years old and this is the best time of my life. I’m absolutely having more fun now than I’ve ever had before. I have some mobility issues and I walk with sticks. I’ve got muscular dystrophy. It hardly matters. Everything else is so wonderful in my life.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your comments on your new novel and the auspicious onset of your new career as a writer. And congratulations on Georges Bank.

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