James Methuen, Conservationist and the 'Greatest Herring Curer in the World'

A fish curing yard James Methuen, who also supported the retention of the Brand, had very different origins from the Hon. Bouverie Francis Primrose. He was the son of a fishcurer and was born in Tweedmouth in Northumberland in 1797 1 . His father John moved to Burntisland in Fife, and he grew up to work in the family business there, training, like his father, as a Master Fish Curer 2 . He married Agnes Stocks in 1827 and moved his main business to Leith in 1833 although he also retained his premises in Burntisland 3 . It would appear that these premises were extensive 4 , which suggests that although he apparently came from humble origins 5 he had some start capital in building his fishcuring empire. From 1833 to 1835 he lived in Elbe Street, before moving to a relatively modest flat 6 in Albany Street, Leith (not to be confused with the street of the same name in Edinburgh) which was within easy walking distance of his business premises in Giles Street. He was living there with his family at the time of the 1851 Census 7 . In the Census entry he was described as a “Fishcurer employing 1000 men and 400 women” 8 . His two sons, James (Junior) and John were occupied as clerks in the family business. He also had six daughters and a house servant.

The Port of Leith was a very different place from Edinburgh. While the Scottish aristocracy were establishing themselves in Edinburgh’s smart New Town, Leith was decidedly more utilitarian. In 1833 it became a parliamentary burgh with its own provost, magistrates and town council. The first provost was Adam White, a merchant who traded with the Baltic. The Port of Leith grew steadily in size and importance 9 . From its early beginnings in 1836 the Hull and Leith Steam Packet Company also steadily expanded its routes, and in 1856, reflecting the changes that had been made, it became the Leith, Hull and Hamburgh Steam Packet Company. The development of Leith as a port made it a good place from which to export herring to the Continent.

For many years James Methuen campaigned tirelessly to promote his beliefs, and wrote numerous letters to various Scottish newspapers. He felt strongly about conservation and the need to allow herring spry to escape capture. In 1834 he wrote and published a letter to the Lords of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade detailing what measures should be taken to preserve the spry. He was quite outspoken and criticised ‘men of theory of whatever rank, or previous knowledge, but who want practice’. He went on to say that ‘knowledge without practice has been the ruin of many previous fishery laws’ and asked that the Board should ‘take the matter into [your] immediate consideration and act, as the case demands, promptly.’ 10 He was obviously prepared to be quite blunt and forceful in advancing his arguments. In 1838 Methuen chose to speak at a meeting in Leith about a change in the local taxation: ‘… The petty customs now levying are unequal and oppressive, and extremely injurious to the industrious classes’ 11 While he was obviously concerned that the charge also affected the sale of herrings, it is also clear that it was natural to him to identify with hard-working people.

Methuen was clearly admired by his contemporaries. In 1841, the John o’ Groat Journal reported: ‘Mr. Methuen, fishcurer, Leith, always first in the field, has had 21 barrels brought to Wick and despatched by a boat to be shipped per steamer at Invergordon or Cromarty for Leith and thence forwarded to the Hamburgh market, where we hope he will find a demand and a price equal to what he merits, for his great exertion in prosecuting the early fishing’ 12 . As an exporter of fish to Hamburg, Methuen also had to cope with the uncertainties of war. In 1848 the ships which he despatched from Stornoway had to run the risk that they would be prevented from reaching Hamburg by the Danes, who were blockading the port as part of the First Schleswig War 13 .

By 1854 Methuen had established his place in the market: ‘this gentleman has, for many a long day; occupied a first position in the trade. He has evinced a high spirit of enterprise. His fishing stations are in the south, on the Moray side Of the Firth, at Caithness, in the Highlands, and in Orkney. He is extensively engaged in the home and foreign trade. His transactions must have spread a deal of wealth amongst his Countrymen, and certainly merits, for so much good to others, to have retained a large share to himself’ 14 .

James Methuen was one of the people who gave evidence to the enquiry on the future of the Fishery Board. Although he was clearly in favour of the continuance of the Board, and largely agreed with its policies, he was also quite critical of its mode of operation. He attacked what he regarded as its failure to prevent French fishermen from harming British fishing interests 15 , and given his interest in conservation, he was opposed to trawling 16 .

In keeping with the Scottish Calvinist tradition, he was a strict Sabbatarian, working long hours during the week, but putting business aside completely on the Sunday 17 . He also invoked religion in his campaign for the conservation of the fishing stocks. In a speech at a meeting in Glasgow he said: "The herring fisheries of Scotland have been the greatest and most productive in the world, and are the gift of God to man for food. Genesis 1: ‘Have dominion over the fish of the sea.’ Dominion does not mean extermination." 18

1. The Scotsman 3rd of January 1885, p.7 Berwick on Tweed as a Fishing Station

2. Scotland's People Death certificate 1862 Methuen James 692/010154, North Leith

3. John o’ Groat Journal 4th of September 1862

4. Edinburgh Evening News 16th January 1877

5. Bertram, J. The Harvest of the Sea (London, 1869) pp.259-260

6. It was subsequently offered for sale at a price of £300 in the Caledonian Mercury on the 23rd of January 1854

7. Information taken from Pigot’s National and Commercial Directories of Scotland p.5

8. Scotland's People 30/03/1851 Methuen James, Census 1851 692/01 011/00028

9. Porter A. Victorian Shipping, Business and Imperial Policy (Woodbridge, 1986) pp 30-36 p. 2

10. Caledonian Mercury December 1st 1834 p.4

11. Caledonian Mercury 20th of December 1838

12. John o’ Groat Journal 21st of May 1841

13. The Times 22nd of May 1848

14. Thomson J. On the Existing State of our Herring Fishery (Aberdeen,1857)

15. Glasgow Herald 23rd of August 1860

16. The Scotsman 23rd of April 1860

17. John o’ Groat Journal 4th September 1862

18. Glasgow Herald 5th February 1861