Dora Walker (1890–1980) was the first female fishing boat skipper on the North East coast. She was also an author, writing her memoirs of nursing in World War I and history and tales of the fishing community in Whitby and the North East.
Born 2 July 1890, Dora Muriel Walker was the daughter of John and Mary Walker, a textile manufacturing family in Mirfield, Yorkshire. At the outbreak of World War I she joined up as a volunteer nurse wanting to help the troops fighting in France and Belgium. She worked in the Queen of the Belgians Hospital at La Panne and then in the Duchess of Sutherland’s Hospital at St Omer until the end of the war.
After the war, Dora suffered from bronchial problems and was recommended by her doctors to seek some sea air. She bought a cottage in Whitby where she became interested in fishing, going out with her brother James in the boats of local fishermen such as Bobby Harland and John Robert Storr. Dora was determined to become a skipper in her own right and had her own boat Good Faith built at William Clarkson’s Dock End yard. She fished as Skipper with Lawrie Murfield as her crew and engineer.
Despite the initial adverse reaction of Whitby fisherman to a woman skipper, they came to respect and admire her capabilities. Adept in handing long lines and crab pots, and with fine navigational skills she became known as Skipper Dora and was accepted into the fishing community. She fished throughout World War II with a pistol in her belt and a tin hat on the bench, the only woman skipper to hold her licence in the North Sea throughout the war. Many fishermen had been called into the Royal Navy. This led to a re-shuffling of crews and wartime restrictions meant daytime fishing only. After the war, she created a fish company with her brothers James and Ronald to buy fish from the local fisherman at a reasonable price, often selling at a loss to assist the struggling families without loss of pride. This was kept secret until her death in 1980. At the end of her fishing career in 1954 she gave Murfield and his son her boat, Good Faith.
She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1953, and in the same year became the Honorary Keeper of the Whitby Museum, as well as curator of the Museum’s Shipping section. Dora was also President of the Whitby Women's Lifeboat Guild. During her lifetime she wrote three books, one about her experiences as a wartime nurse and others about fishing in Whitby, They Labour Mightily and Freemen of the Sea. Many of her extensive collection of ship models were bequeathed to the Whitby Museum and can be seen on display in the Shipping Wing.
For the last five years of her life, Dora lived in a retirement home in Ruswarp. She died att the age of ninety in December 1980. A memorial service was held at Whitby’s Mission to Seamen on Tuesday 6 January 1981, and her ashes were carried out to sea aboard the coble Mayflower A.
Whitby’s unique and truly remarkable lady, the coast’s only female fishing boat skipper, Skipper Dora, finally returned to the sea she loved.
“From childhood I had yearned to own a Whitby coble and fish it, and as it often happens that, when you intensely desire a thing, you get it. I got my coble!”
Source: Dennis Buck
Photos courtesy of Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society