“Utmost Fish”: A Churchill Story that is No Old Cod

“Utmost Fish”: A Churchill Story that is No Old Cod

Q: What can you tell me about Churchill’s order for “Utmost Fish” in 1939. What did this have to do with his role as First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty?” —L.S, Spokane, Wash.

A: It had noth­ing to do with his role. It was char­ac­ter­is­tic of his atten­tion to detail, and will­ing­ness to stray out­side his limits.

“Utmost Fish”

Sir Geof­frey Shake­speare, 1943 (Wiki­me­dia)

Hills­dale College’s “The Churchill Doc­u­ments,” Vol. 14, for Sep­tem­ber 1939-May 1940, car­ries a rec­ol­lec­tion by Sir Geof­frey Shake­speare. Shake­speare (1893-1980) was a Lib­er­al MP, 1923-45. He served Churchill as Par­lia­men­tary Under-Sec­re­tary of State for Domin­ion Affairs from 1940 to 1942. This note is from his diary for 18 Octo­ber 1939 in his book, “Let Can­dles Be Brought In,” pages 230-2):

One morn­ing I found on my desk a pink tab with a memo to this effect: “I am con­cerned about the short­age of fish. Par­lia­men­tary Sec­re­tary will imme­di­ate­ly take up the mat­ter with the Assis­tant Chief of the Naval Staff and the head of the Mine Sweep­ing Divi­sion to see if any trawlers can be released for fish­ing. We must have a pol­i­cy of “utmost fish.” Par­lia­men­tary Sec­re­tary will report to me by mid­night with his pro­pos­als. WSC.


This was indeed a pos­er. I had no knowl­edge of, or respon­si­bil­i­ty for, the fish­ing indus­try. That ques­tion came with­in the purview of the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and Fish­eries. I got busy, how­ev­er, and arranged with the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture to call a con­fer­ence of trawler own­ers from Hull, Grims­by and else­where, and Assis­tant Chief of the Naval Staff—Rear-Admi­ral Harold Bur­rough, whose name lat­er in the war was bril­liant­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the Mal­ta convoys—came to the res­cue by releas­ing a few trawlers.

After many hours of inten­sive study of the prob­lem, I dic­tat­ed a com­pre­hen­sive mem­o­ran­dum on the essen­tial facts of the indus­try, the num­ber of trawlers and drifters still used for fish­ing and the num­bers tak­en over by the Admi­ral­ty, dai­ly catch­es, dif­fi­cul­ties of pro­tect­ing fish­ing fleets from air­craft and mines, and I con­clud­ed by sug­gest­ing the for­ma­tion of a new Fish­ing Pro­mo­tion Coun­cil, com­posed of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Admi­ral­ty, Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, trawler and drifter own­ers, and of the trades unions concerned.

I com­plet­ed the mem­o­ran­dum just after mid­night and took it into the pres­ence. Churchill read it, asked numer­ous ques­tions and con­curred in the for­ma­tion of the new coun­cil and instruct­ed me to con­sti­tute it forth­with. He also asked me to approach Ernest Bevin [Min­is­ter of Labour]  to secure his interest….So a pol­i­cy of “utmost fish” was fos­tered by the Admi­ral­ty in wartime.

Churchill Trolls for Answers

As a result of his enquiries, Churchill con­vened a meet­ing. (Churchill papers, 19/3) 18 Octo­ber 1939

I have asked the Min­is­ter of Agri­cul­ture to bring Mr. Ernest Bevin and his dep­u­ta­tion to the Admi­ral­ty at 4.15 o’clock tomor­row after they have explored the ground among themselves….I will pre­side myself.

Mean­while Assis­tant Chief of the Naval Staff, Direc­tor of the Trade Divi­sion and Con­troller or Deputy-Con­troller should togeth­er with Finan­cial Sec­re­tary meet togeth­er this evening to work out a plan, the object of which is the Utmost Fish, sub­ject to Naval neces­si­ty. The imme­di­ate loss aris­ing from our req­ui­si­tion should be shared between ports… the fact that a port has built the best kind of trawlers must not lead to its being the worst sufferer.

Side by side with this equal­i­sa­tion process a type of trawler which can be built as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, and will serve its pur­pose,​ ​should be giv­en facil­i­ties in the ship-yards. As soon as these trawlers flow in, they can either be added to the var­i­ous ports, or else be giv­en to the ports from whom the chief req­ui­si­tion has been made, the equal­is­ing trawlers being restored after tem­po­rary use – this is for local opin­ion to decide. It is vital to keep the fish trade going, and we must fight for this part of our food sup­ply as hard as we do against the U-boats.

​No Carping Around

Nor­man Rose in Churchill: An Unruly Life, 254, is rather good on this:

Of course, not all were hap­py with Churchill’s for­ays into spheres beyond his imme­di­ate domain. His “Utmost Fish” order—intended to resolve the short­age of fresh fish—being a case in point. This carp­ing did not deter him.

Pro­fes­sor Rose was not floun­der­ing around when he wrote that.

Of course it wasn’t his sole point. But the sto­ry is no old cod, for sure.

5 thoughts on ““Utmost Fish”: A Churchill Story that is No Old Cod

  1. No idea how we could find out, short if going to the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and Fish­eries records in the Nation­al Archives, unless they have post­ed fish pro­duc­tion for 1940 online. I take his mes­sage as meant not to relax fish pro­duc­tion, rather than to set any spe­cif­ic goals. He was con­cerned about hav­ing suf­fi­cient food for the populace.

  2. What was the result of Churchill’a Utmost Fish pol­i­cy? Was there a quan­tifi­able increase to be direct­ly asso­ci­at­ed with this effort?”

  3. What was the rrsult of Churchill’a Utmost Fish pol­i­cy? Was there a quan­tifi­able increase to be direct­ly asso­ci­at­ed with this effort or did it turn into a “red herring?”
    Randy Otto

  4. As I recall, Churchill’s con­cern here was that the large num­ber of trawlers that he was req­ui­si­tion­ing for Admi­ral­ty use would have an adverse effect on the local fish­ing indus­try. So real­ly with­in his purview as First Lord.

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