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The life of Dora Walker, the first female fishing boat skipper, 1890–1980

Meet Dora Walker, a trailblazing British woman who made history as the first female fishing boat skipper on the North East coast. She pioneered her field and became an author, sharing her memoirs and tales of the fishing community in Whitby and beyond. In this article, we discuss the life of Dora Walker.

Whilst wandering around Whitby, you may have spotted the name Dora Walker or seen the sculpture of her on the Whitby Heritage Trail. It’s located on the Khyber Pass just past the Whalebone Arch. This incredible woman was the only female skipper to hold her licence in the North Sea throughout the war. In this article, we discuss Dora Walker so you can learn more about her incredible life.

Dora Walker’s early life

Dora Muriel Walker was born in a small town called Mirfield, Yorkshire. Her mother and father, John Ely and Mary Elizabeth Walker, were in the textile manufacturing business. Her father was a well-known blanket manufacturer, and Dora was one of many siblings, including her brother Sir Ronald Walker and her sisters Hilda and Kathleen (who later became the secretary to Ramsay MacDonald). Dora was even related to notable artists, including her sister Hilda Annetta Walker and her niece Marie Walker Last. And did you know that she was even the great-great aunt of James Northcote? It’s amazing how one family can have so many talented individuals!

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Skipper Dora Walker, The Whitby Heritage Trail.
Skipper Dora, The Whitby Heritage Trail.

Dora Walker was born in an era where young girls were expected to follow a predefined path in life. However, Dora refused to conform to society’s expectations. She thirsted for adventure and refused to let anything stand in her way.

Dora Walker during World War I

After her education, she founded the Boys Club in Ravensthorpe, taught at the Sunday School, and joined St Johns’s Ambulance classes. Dora joined the British Red Cross in 1914, at the outbreak of the war. However, as they did not allow Voluntary Aid Detachment to nurse behind the front line, she sought other opportunities to aid the war effort. She joined a Belgian Hospital run by Dr Antoine Depage. She worked alongside Elisabeth of Bavaria, Queen of the Belgians. With a gift of an ambulance from her family, she left to make a difference in the world. Later, she transferred to the Duchess of Sutherland Hospital in Calais, founded and run by Millicent Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland.

Dora Walker’s time in Whitby, Skipper Dora

She returned to nursing in London’s East End. After the blitz, Dora began suffering bronchial problems. Therefore, doctors advised her to seek out sea air to help. She bought a cottage in Whitby which sparked her love for fishing. She even had her boat, Good Faith, built and fished as Skipper with her trusted crew member Laurie Murfield.

Whitby Harbour.
Whitby Harbour.

During WW2, in Whitby, this remarkable woman fished, qualified, and even acted as a pilot for boats through the dangerous minefields. She was the only female skipper in the North Sea to hold her license at the time. Her bravery and skills were genuinely admirable. Despite the initial scepticism of her fellow Whitby fishermen, Dora quickly proved she was a skilled and talented Skipper. She had fine navigational skills and was adept at handling long lines and crab pots. She became known as Skipper Dora!

Tunny Fishing

Dora and her brother James were known for their impressive fishing skills in the 1930s. They were particularly famous for their ability to catch Atlantic bluefin tuna, also known as “tunny”, which was abundant off the coast of Yorkshire at the time. This type of big-game fishing became incredibly popular among the British aristocracy, military officers, and friends during that decade. The British Tunny Club, headquartered in Scarborough, was established in 1933. They attracted many prominent figures, including film actor Charles Laughton, newspaper proprietor Lord Astor, and Baron Henri de Rothschild – one of the wealthiest men of his time.

Skipper Dora Sunset.
Skipper Dora at sunset.

Dora’s impressive catches often made it to local and national newspapers; she was a skilled angler. However, the popularity of tunny fishing dropped off dramatically during the Second World War, and the practice eventually led to a significant reduction in local herring and mackerel stocks, resulting in the disappearance of tunny from these coastal waters.

After the War

After the war, Dora and her brothers James and Ronald created a fish company to buy fish from local fishermen at a reasonable price and sell it at a loss to assist struggling families without them suffering a loss of pride. This was a secret kept until she died in 1980.

The life of Dora Walker.
Dora Walker.

In 1946, she was appointed curator of the Shipping section of Whitby Museum. Her passion for antiques shone through in her work. At her residence of “Daneholm,” she kept many antique treasures. This included a statue of Captain Cook, which greeted visitors at her front door. Her dedication to the community was evident as she was named Vice President of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society and President of the Ladies Lifeboat Guild in 1952. Later, in 1954, she was appointed Keeper of Whitby Museum and inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1953.

Dora wrote three books during her lifetime. These include With the Lost Generation 1915-1919, Freeman of the Sea, and her autobiography, They Labour Mightily. Dora had a kind heart and selfless nature. Many people in Whitby can tell stories of how she helped in times of need. Her legacy lives on, and her impact on the community will never be forgotten.

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