Guðjón Ólafsson from Gíslholt, who for many years was office manager at Fiskiðjan and who subsequently worked at Vinnslustöðin, wrote the following account for the Westmann Islands’ 1997 Seamen’s Day magazine. His article is reproduced here with his kind permission. Headings have been added.
When it was decided that Fiskiðjan’s story needed to be told and I was asked if I could do it, it was mentioned that few people knew the company’s history better, and I can’t deny that. So I agreed to the request and here follows an account of the main events in Fiskiðjan’s history.
Fiskiðjan plays a forty-year part in the history of the Westmann Islands. Over those years thousands of Icelanders and hundreds of foreign workers have worked at Fiskiðjan, some for decades, some for shorter periods. Although the company’s activities have come to an end, it is to be hoped that the buildings at Brattagarður will remain standing for the foreseeable future as a monument to people who built it.
Started at Thingvellir
According to the earliest Fiskiðjan records, the company was founded at Thingvellir in the Westmann Islands on the 3rd of September 1952 by Ágúst Matthíasson, Gísli Thorsteinsson and Thorsteinn Sigurðsson, along with their wives Sigurbjörg Benediktsdóttir, Ráðhildur Árnadóttir and Anna Jónsdóttir, all of them resident in the Westmann Islands. Ágúst, Gísli and Thorsteinn had all worked for Einar Sigurðsson, Ágúst as office manager and Gísli and Thorsteinn as foremen. Later they leased the Hraðfrystistöð Vestmannaeyja factory from Einar and ran it for several years before they established Fiskiðjan on 3rd of September 1952.
An immediate start was made to build at what later became known as Brattagarður. That first year fish were salted under fairly primitive conditions compared to what is expected today. A small amount of fish was frozen the following year and this increased as the building programme progressed. Thórarinn Jónsson from Mjölnir and Björgvin Pálsson from Hvol were the foreman for the first years, both of them well-liked by the staff. Thórarinn (Tóti) had a reliable group of men who would come year after year to work salting fish. Björgvin also had his own good people on the floor above.
Boats, Fishermen and Catch Kings
Putting up a building wasn’t enough, boats were also needed to supply fish. The company owned Hilmir VE-282 and it was recorded in the minutes on the 20th of December 1953 that:
„Ágúst Matthíasson suggested that the company should buy boats to support its business.“
In short, over the next few years, the company acquired Öðlingur VE-202, Ver VE-200, Sindri VE-203, Gylfi VE-201, and Mars VE-204. Ágúst also owned Freyja VE-260 in partnership with Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Stígandi VE-77 with Helgi Bergvinsson. Thorsteinn owned Ófeigur II and Ófeigur III in partnership with Ólafur Sigurðsson from Skuld. All of these boats landed their fish to Fiskiðjan, along with others that also supplied the factory with a great deal of fish, as there were a number of top fishermen among their number. Normally the cod catch would be between eight and twelve thousand tonnes for the spring season.
Mechanisation and the First Filleting Machine
The same set of minutes records that Thorsteinn Sigurðsson placed a great deal of emphasis on keeping abreast of changes in the production of frozen fish so that they could remain competitive, and he recommended that they should travel to the USA to study innovations in fish production.
According to the 6th of October 1955 minutes, we can see that an offer from the Icelandic Freezing Plants Corp (Sölumiðstöðvar Hraðfrystihúsanna) to lease a filleting machine form Germany had been accepted. This is the point at which we can say automation began and this lasted through the whole of the company’s life as equipment was constantly and progressively improved. In addition, there was the revolution that brought fork lift trucks and the pallets and tubs that went with them, replacing carts and wheelbarrows.
This progression was in line with the owners’ policy from the outset, the keep careful track of innovations and improvements in fisheries technology.
There were numerous new ideas during those first years, such as production for the pharmaceutical industry and experiments with smoking fish. The author recalls clearly managing this activity for the whole summer of 1954. At the end of the second year it was recorded in the minutes Gísli Thorsteinsson raised the idea of half-production and storage of fish to be finished during the normally quiet autumn. There is no record of this having become a reality. Gísli Thorsteinsson was exceptionally well-informed and imaginative, raising many ideas that were certainly clever but which never saw the light of day. Still, the rolling conveyor that was installed in the cold store was one such idea that saved a great deal of labour in carrying fish boxes.
Tough Years in the 1960s
The company ran its own net loft at that time, managed by Thórður Gíslason. At the end of 1963 there was a change of ownership as Gísli Thorsteinsson sold his share to Friðrik Jörgensen.
The next few years were important ones as new people with new ideas came in. Fiskiðjan left the Icelandic Freezing Plants Corporation that had sold its fish from the outset. Friðrik Jörgensen and Árni Ólafsson took over handling sales. This was not as successful as had been hoped, but we won’t go further into that here.
In October 1963 Fiskiðjan bought the assets of Eyjaver hf and the fishing boat Stefán Thór VE-150 from Ingólfur Arnarsson and Áki Jakobsson. The building was used producing saltfish and a chiller space was fitted out on the ground floor for receiving fresh fish. Stefán Thór was renamed Breki VE-206.
Early in 1966 Stígandi VE-77 was bought from Helgi Bergvinsson and shortly afterwards he was appointed as the company’s fleet manager, a role he fulfilled for some years.
There were major changes in 1967 when Gísli Thorsteinsson returned, acquiring Friðrik Jörgensen’s share in the company and on the 18th of October Guðmundur Karlsson was taken on as managing director. Ágúst Matthíasson and Thorsteinn Sigurðsson stood down from management but remained as board members.
The company’s accounts for these years demonstrate that times had become harder and the running the company had become a tougher business. The minutes of the 3rd of February 1970 show that Ágúst Matthíasson and his family sold their share to Haraldur Gíslason and his wife Ólöf Óskarsdóttir. Gísli Thorsteinsson and Thorsteinn Sigurðsson had already announced that they would not exercise their pre-emptive right to buy the shares. Soon afterwards Guðmundur Karlsson became an owner of a 1/6 share of the company, equivalent to half of Haraldur’s share.
The Heimaey Eruption
Just as the company appeared to have achieved a level of stability, a disaster occurred in the form of the Heimaey eruption and it goes without saying that all of the company’s processing was suspended. The boats continued to be operated from Thorlákshöfn and Reykjavík. Ragnar Borg was generous enough to offer Fiskiðjan, FIVE and VSV office facilities at Rauðarárstíg 1 in Reykjavík for as long as might be needed. After that our offices were moved to Vatnagarður. Machines and other equipment were also moved there. Engineers Magnús Jónsson and Ágúst Óskarsson spent the winter there cleaning, fixing and overhauling the machines.
The stay in Reykjavík was something of an adventure, or so it seems in hindsight. There was often fun to be had when the boys on the boats came to get their money and a drink or two was taken. There are plenty of tales told about that time that we won’t go into here.
Trawling starts again in the Westmann Islands
Stefán Runólfsson, who was later managing director at Vinnslustöðin, was foreman at Fiskiðjan. The company had been through good and bad times in the preceding twenty years. It had also bought the Fishmeal in the Westmann Islands from Ástthór Matthíasson in partnership with Vinnslustöðin.
Thorsteinn Sigurðsson became managing director at FIVE and many changes took place under his management. Thorsteinn had qualified as a master builder and there was nothing he liked to see better than a new building taking shape. Fiskiðjan bought the Emma building from Eiríkur Ásbjörnsson and also other places, as well as holding shares in Stakkur, Ísstöðin and Lifrarsamlag Vestmannaeyja.
Not long after the eruption the company started to dispose of boats. In some cases the skippers and engineers were interested in buying the boats they had been running. The company had come to the opinion that the boats were better in the hands of the men who worked them. At that time nobody foresaw how fisheries management would develop and al the changes that quotas would bring.
The arrival of stern trawler Vestmannaey VE-44 in 1973 saw trawler fishing return after a break of some years. The three processors, Fiskiðjan, Ísfélag and Vinnslustöðin, had assisted Bergur-Huginn hf. in buying the trawler, which also ensured them access to a share of its catches. In 1973 Fiskiðjan, Ísfélag and Vinnslustöðin also set up fishing company Klakkur hf. to manage a trawler bought from Poland that arrived in the Westmann Islands on the 3rd of April 1973 and carried the name Klakkur VE-103. In June 1977 FIVE bought the trawler Skinney SF-20 which became Sindri VE-60 and in November the same year the multi-purpose fishing vessel Guðmundur Jónsson GK-475 which subsequently became Breki VE-61.
These three vessels formed the basis of the establishment of Samtog in 1980 by Fiskiðjan, FIVE, Ísfélag and Vinnslustöðin. Gísli Jónasson was appointed managing director and Hjörtur Hermannsson later took over from him. Trawlers Gideon VE-104 and Halkion VE-105 were later added.
At the end of 1986 Ísfélag Vestmannaeyja withdrew from Samtog, taking Halkion og Gideon as its share of the company.
Samtog was dissolved on the 5th of November 1990 by Fiskiðjan, FIVE and Vinnslustöðin. Fiskiðjan took Klakkur and Sindri, while Breki went to Vinnslustöðin.
But back to Fiskiðjan. At an annual general meeting in July 1979 Thorsteinn Sigurðsson announced that he had given each of his daughters, Sigrún and Stefanía, a third of his holding in the company.
At a board meeting in November 1979 Guðjón Ólafsson and Hjörtur Hermannsson were appointed deputy managing directors, as Guðmundur Karlsson had been elected to Parliament. At the same meeting it was also reported that FIVE had bought Eyjaberg from Sigurður Thórðarson.
During 1980 and 1981 there were long discussions over whether or not to construct a building on the north side of the Fiskiðjan factory and for fish reception and saltfish production. An architect was taken on to produce plans, but like so much else, the idea got no further than the drawing board.
On Saturday the 29th of August 1981 a new aquaculture company was established with Sverrir Snorrason and Ólafur Skúlason. This was a short-lived venture.
The minutes of the 16th January 1987 meeting show that Sigrún Thorsteinsdóttir offered her share of the company for sale. Guðmundur Karlsson, Haraldur Gíslason and Viktor Helgason between them bought Sigrún’s share.
Gísli Thorsteinsson died in July 1987. Gísli Már Gíslason inherited his father’s share of the company and attended his first annual general meeting on the 19th of September 1987. At a shareholders meeting on the 24th of October a letter was read from Gísli Már Gíslason informing the shareholders that his 1/3 share of the company had been sold to Sæhamar hf. Shareholders at Sæhamar at that time were as listed in the minutes: Thórður Rafn Sigurðsson, Bergvin Oddsson, Gunnlaugur Ólafsson, Sveinn Valdimarsson, Steindór Árnason, Guðjón Rögnvaldsson and Guðni Ólafsson.
Thórður, Bergvin and Gunnlaugur each held a 1/5 share while Sveinn, Steindór, Guðjón and Guðni had 1/10 each. These men had a great deal of fish at their disposal and the company’s future looked positive. We won’t say too much about the reality of these hopes, except to say that over the coming years things became increasingly difficult for a variety of reasons, such as the high cost of raw material as as much as 60% of the sale price of finished goods, and high interest rates at 25% higher than wages. It was easy enough to see that things would not continue to add up. The company was in dire straits.
One of the largest SH manufacturers
I have relied on the minutes of company meetings, especially those detailing changes of ownership, in compiling this essay. Minor decisions have not been included here. The activities of Fiskiðjan came to an close at the end of 1991 when the merger with Vinnslustöðin came about.
It is worth mentioning that Fiskiðjan was consistently one of the Icelandic Freezing Plants Corporation’s larger producers and wa sin 5th place in 1990 with 3700 tonnes of products in 1990.
The last board of Fiskiðjan hf. was made up of Guðjón Rögnvaldsson, Viktor Helgason, Haraldur Gíslason, Thórður Rafn Sigurðsson and Guðmundur Karlsson. Guðni Ólafsson and Steindór Árnason were substitute members.
It has not been possible in this short article to mention all of those fine people who worked at Fiskiðjan. But I can’t finish without mentioning four staff members who were so closely associated with the company that they became virtually inseparable from it.
Anton Bjarnasen, the chief accountant for many years, a careful man with an eye for detail.
Engilbert Thorvaldsson didn’t stop working until he was in his eighties and even then there was hardly a day he didn’t pay Fiskiðjan a visit, even when he was into his nineties.
Ingólfur Thórarinsson started as a driver, then worked as a foreman in both saltfish and herring salting.
Kristný Ólafsdóttir. Nobody wrote more or better than she did.
The last three mentioned worked at Fiskiðjan for the whole of its forty-year career. These people, as well as many other good men and women, were constantly there to keep a careful eye on Fiskiðjan’s welfare.
Christmas & New Year 1996-1997.