In the halcyon days of the 1950s, Fish Dock Road in Grimsby was so frantic that workers recall struggling to cross the crowded street. Back then, Grimsby hosted the world’s biggest fishing fleet; its 700 vessels trawled all the way to the Barents Sea.
Only the grand Victorian buildings remain to testify to that golden era – for now at least. A huge stretch of Grimsby’s old port area – the Kasbah – faces demolition and that has sparked a battle to preserve the evidence of its glory days.
Heritage groups have denounced the destruction, arguing that it demonstrates a callous disregard for Britain’s industrial legacy. The government’s adviser on such issues, Historic England, views the Kasbah’s surviving buildings as the “most important representation of the industrial-scale fishing trade in England”. The World Monument Fund hails them as an “integral part of Grimsby’s globally important fishing heritage”.
In Grimsby itself, the razing of the Kasbah has triggered a debate over the town’s identity: how should a community balance the need to hold on to its past with the post-industrial need to reimagine itself for the modern global economy?
Native Grimbarian Richard Enderby, who runs a traditional fish smokehouse opposite the doomed Cosalt buildings, accuses the port owner, Associated British Ports (ABP), of “malign neglect” and of deliberately running the Kasbah into the ground. But ABP says that levelling the buildings makes it easier to develop the port for future needs.
The company, which owns 21 ports, 570 hectares of “strategic development land” and last year announced pre-tax profits of £324m, argues that it needs the space to develop Grimsby as a base for offshore wind farms. “The port needs to be ready to provide space for the industry to grow,” said a company spokesman.
Across the railway tracks that separate Fish Dock Road from the town lies the East Marsh ward, the location for Sacha Baron Cohen’s film Grimsby. More than half the children in this area are classified as living in poverty. Close to the high-rise flats off Albion Street, Darren Keening, 22, who is unemployed, said: “They can do what they want with the Kasbah. The place is a shithole.”
Even the few people who still work nearby – only 100 people now work in the Kasbah compared with 10,000 at its peak in the 1950s – have ditched sentimentality. One staff member at Tom Taylor & Son, which sells equipment to fish processing businesses, pointed to the crumbling red brickwork and said: “The buildings have gone too far, they’re way past their sell-by date. At one point they could have been done up, but look at them.”
That view was shared at nearby Excel Seafoods, opposite the fish market. “It’s time to move on, leave what happened in the past,” said one worker lugging crates of frozen seafood into the ice store.
Enderby, who has worked in the Kasbah for 40 years, said that the sense that Grimsby had been ignored by politicians and major investors over many decades had sucked the fight from the town’s residents. “It’s defeatism. The town has lost all its pride, we’ve been ignored. We’ve never had any major government investment and now, in the case of the Kasbah, a small council has been intimidated by ABP.”
North East Lincolnshire council approved demolishing the Cosalt buildings by six votes to four. Yet most anger is directed at central government. Labour has held Great Grimsby for more than 70 years, which many believe has countered political incentives to encourage and help the town to recover from the collapse of its fishing trade.
The sense of abandonment may explain Grimsby’s decision to vote overwhelmingly to leave the EU in the referendum, with 70% opting for Brexit, although some votes were no doubt inspired by anger at the perceived injustices of the EU’s common fisheries policy. Many believed that rejuvenating the Kasbah would have been the ideal place to start injecting hope back into Grimsby. Enderby visualises the Victorian cluster of buildings as a hub of artisan cuisine, fish restaurants and traditional cooking and smokehouses.
The campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage even drew up plans to convert its buildings, with a covered market, shops, bars, galleries and restaurants overlooking the existing marina.
Associated British Ports would not release images of how it intends to develop the dock. It also refused to comment on complaints by a smattering of businesses in the Kasbah of being offered six-month rolling leases that effectively prevent them from investing while maintaining buildings to a workable minimum. “The sword of Damocles hangs over us. We would have opened a shop, but it was impossible,” said Enderby.
Other fears over ABP’s stewardship of the dock revolve around the Grade-II listed Ice Factory, once the world’s largest. Despite its historic and architectural importance, the Ice Factory has been left to decay for many years and now faces an uncertain future. Save Britain’s Heritage, which last week withdrew its legal objection to the Cosalt demolition due to costs, has described ABP’s stewardship of the Ice Factory as the “most callous neglect of an outstanding listed building we have seen in years”.
ABP counters that new offshore wind farms will “revitalise areas of the port that have long lain idle and promise the creation of significant numbers of new jobs”. A Green Alliance report found that 231 direct offshore wind jobs have so far been created in Grimsby. But if and when the demolition on the Fish Dock Road goes ahead, the local sense that a once-thriving town is the victim of neglect and indifference will only deepen.