Filey's narrow escape from the chain gangs

Remarkable story uncovered of plans for convict labour to build huge fortified naval base at Yorkshire port Mark Branagan BACK in 1882 Parliament was presented with an astonishing solution to the bulging prison population – rather than transport convicts to the colonies, they should be used as slave labour to build a fortified naval base in...Filey.

Plans were drawn up to extend the harbour across Filey Bay. It would accommodate 20 of the Royal Navy's biggest warships to defend Britain from the new "northern powers" of Germany and Russia.

The advisers to William Gladstone's Government could not decide whether to put the chain gangs to work in Filey or Dover.

In the end Dover won only because rail operators were willing to invest in harbour improvements for the sake of the growing passenger traffic across the English Channel.

Now the story of how Filey nearly became the Portsmouth of Yorkshire is to be recalled in a new 39,800 project, largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with Filey Town Council, on the rise and fall of the town's fishing industry.

Details emerged after the supervisor of the Eric Pinder, tracked down what is believed to be the last public copy of the Employment of Convicts in the UK report to Parliament of 1882.

Gladstone had already suspended the transportation of convicts to penal colonies because it was thought that Britain might benefit from their labour, and would it be good for the prisoners too – all that digging would teach them "habits of industry".

There had already been success at Dartmoor, originally built for prisoners of war. In 1850 it had been adapted for ordinary inmates to be put to work on farms and land reclamation schemes.

Now the Government, alarmed by the number of shipwrecks off the Yorkshire coast, wanted convicts to create a port of refuge which would also accommodate a squadron of Royal Navy ships to defend Britain and its coal shipping lines from the Humber to the Tyne.

The benefits for the fishing industry would have been huge because of Filey's closeness to the Dogger Bank, transforming the town into the most important port in Britain and also upstaging Hull and Grimsby as the centre of the trawling industry.

Filey Brigg would have been extended to create a new harbour entrance, guarded by a fort. There would have been a massive pier extending all the way down to Reighton Sands, with another fort at the pier end and a third fort on the sands.

Government advisers were also rubbing their hands that Filey "is so little developed that no difficulties would be formed in obtaining a site for a convict prison" – to hold the 750 inmates who would be required to work on the 1.25m scheme for 12 years.

In the end the prison was built on the white cliffs of Dover, although lack of Government support scuppered the port docks scheme and Dover had to wait until the turn of the 20th century for its national harbour to be built by the Admiralty.

The story might have sounded a tall tale had not Mr Pinder, 64, who retired to Filey after teaching electrical engineering at Doncaster College, did some research on the internet and traced a copy of the 1882 report to a second-hand booker dealers in the South, who sold it for 90.

The failure of the scheme was followed by a downward spiral in the local fishing industry, which now consists of just a handful of cobles. But as a lover of Filey, Mr Pinder reckons in the long run the resort had a lucky escape.

He said: "It would have looked like Portsmouth instead of a tiny little place. It would have become a prison town, industrial in character, and may have been derelict by now."

The council is now seeking a project officer to upgrade the archives on Filey's fishing past to produce a permanent display – recalling the days when Filey was the second most important fishing station on the Yorkshire Coast after Staithes.