What’s that got to do with the price of fish? Ole Theodor Olsen’s Piscatorial Atlas

Just for once, the answer to the question is ‘everything’. The late nineteenth century was the heyday of the thematic atlas, but I have rarely seen one quite so specialist or as magnificent as Olsen’s 1883 Piscatorial Atlas. A series of 50 lavishly chromolithographed charts record the distribution – spawning grounds and abundance – of the major edible species of fish, shellfish and crustacea caught in the North Sea and off the coasts of the British Isles (it would be an interesting but rather depressing exercise to contrast Olsen’s atlas with a modern equivalent). There are insets showing the fish themselves, and the vessels and gear used to catch them, with a table of detailed information covering time of spawning, number of eggs, when and how caught, bait and food, size and weight, quality, when in season and other remarks.

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Cod, with ‘a Grimsby Cod Vessel’.

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Plaice, with ‘a Scotch Trawler’. 

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Oysters, with an ‘oyster dredge’.

The atlas was published under a joint London and Grimsby imprint. By the 1850s the railway carried fresh Grimsby fish to Billingsgate and beyond, and in the second half of the nineteenth century Grimsby became one of the greatest fishing ports in the country – at the forefront of technological developments in the fishing industry. It was here that Ole Theodor Olsen (1838-1925) made his home.

Olsen was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. His obituary in the society’s transactions reveals that he was born in Christansand, Norway, went to sea at an early age and learned navigation on an English ship trading with India: “Although he never lost touch with Scandinavia, he became completely English in his sympathies. He had an extensive knowledge, gained from his own investigations, of the movements of fish in the North Sea, and he collected and collated deep sea soundings, so that he was often able to settle disputes as to the depth of ocean beds. After his life at sea he settled down in Grimsby as a maker of nautical instruments and a publisher of books for fishermen. He received honours in several countries, including Norway, Sweden and Japan.”

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