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South Quay in the 19th century heyday of the port

FISH HAD been caught off Yarmouth from the earliest times, but soon after the Conquest the herring fishing began to develop rapidly. Official records of many kinds all show how important the fishing was becoming, and by the middle of the thirteenth century the herring had become a favourite food with people in all walks of life. Henry III purchased them to distribute as alms; Edward I granted a lease of land at Carlton on condition that he was provided with twenty-four pasties of freshly caught herring.

yar_IMAGE0608_2.jpgIn 1300, 18,500 herring were purchased for Stirling Castle and forty lasts for the personal use of the king and his household. Monasteries, too, were great purchasers of Yarmouth herring. The town undoubtedly benefited from the fact that many foreign states were hindering the growth of their herring trade by adopting a protectionist policy towards it. In England, however, herring could be bought and sold with little hindrance, although the Statute of Herrings enacted in 1357 fixed maximum prices, depending upon condition, for a last of 10,000 herring and decreed that no fish could be sold within seven miles of the port unless at the Free Fair. The legal restriction on the price of herring seems strange in view of the Free Trade policy governing the fair, but it did not prove too restrictive, for it was swept away in 1362. Nevertheless, the lot of the fishermen was hard. Fishing has always been a most exacting and hazardous occupation, making great demands in terms of courage and physical effort on the men who follow it. Richard II knew this full well and at the same time understood how important the industry could be to his nation's welfare. Consequently in 1386 he exempted all East Coast herring fishers from feudal service. As a result many an adventurous spirit, finding a life on the lord's estate singularly lacking in charm, succumbed to the appeal of the sea. As the size of the fleets grew, so did the catches, but more and more world markets were being opened up, and the men were fishing farther and farther from their own shores, and the grounds off Norway and Denmark were particularly favoured. Soon Henry V was receiving complaints about the size of these fleets and so much pressure was put upon him he was forced to forbid his ships to sail in these waters.

The Dutch now began to forge ahead of all rivals, due in the main to their superior method of curing herring. This process was kept a secret for many years, but it is attributed to George Benkelen, and depends absolutely on the herring being cured at sea immediately they are caught. A treaty dated 1494 allowing them to fish off Yarmouth was also an asset, particularly as the East Coast fishers, although granted reciprocal rights, preferred to buy from their rivals rather than fish off Holland. So the size of the English fleet dwindled. All through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Dutch extended their herring fishing not only in the North Sea but also in the Baltic, the Scottish Lochs, and the English Channel.

Henry VIII was perhaps the first monarch to regret this tendency, for he found the lack of a strong fleet an insurmountable obstacle to his dreams of European conquests. Moreover, it took more than his appeal to the people to abstain from eating meat throughout Lent, to restore the industry to its former greatness.

A tyical Dutch fishing boat
yar_IMAGE0659_2.jpgIll-feeling against the Dutch increased, for they caught fish under the very noses of the Yarmouth men and carried them to all parts of Europe. Things were made worse by the fact that in the early years of the seventeenth century there was a scarcity of herring. In consequence, in 1610 the government forsook its free trading policy and began to protect the home industry by levying heavy tolls on foreign fishermen coming to the fair. The Dutch, however, claimed exemption from these dues for many years. From now on the greatness of the Free Fair in Herring began to wane-due perhaps in part to the difficulty now being experienced in maintaining a navigable haven. The difficulties facing the local fishermen and the sad decline of the industry were very clearly pin-pointed in a pamphlet written by Tobias Gentleman, a very wealthy Yarmouth citizen, in 1614. "England's way to win wealth and to employ ships and mariners", as the pamphlet was called, aroused some shame for our neglected fisheries, but the protectionist policy was still pursued by each succeeding government and Charles I entirely prohibited the importing of fish caught by foreigners. The only positive steps taken seem to have been further leas for Lenten abstinence and the remittance of salt dues by Oliver Cromwell.

Not one of these measures was in itself successful, but the industry did partially recover, and when Defoe visited the town in 1724 he saw no sign of the apathy that had existed previously. In fact he was most impressed by all he saw in Yarmouth-buildings and quays, ships and fishing-all delighted him. Some twenty-five years later Parliament was persuaded to put money into the industry and voted half a million pounds to that end, and inaugurated the payment of a bounty to all owners re-equipping their vessels for deep-sea fishing. The conditions governing this bounty were constantly altered, and at one time, towards the end of the eighteenth century, it was paid on each barrel of exported herring.

Then came the Napoleonic wars. The Dutch were badly hit as a result of the tight blockade of Europe and lost their fishing and trading monopolies. With the days of peace the Dutch again came to Yarmouth, but the Scots were now rivals to be seriously considered, for they had adapted methods used so successfully by the men from overseas. The Herring Fair was now no more. Instead there was a great fair on the South Denes. Stalls were erected and goods of all kinds, toys and food were sold or exchanged. People travelled in from miles around and the spirit of carnival was abroad. On the Sunday nearest Michaelmas a ceremony known as "Wetting the Nets" was held, and the fishermen received the Church's blessing on their labours. The Dutch ceased coming to Yarmouth about 1830, but the Scots were by this time well established. They followed the herring all down the coast, and the success of their methods, allied to the gutting and curing facilities ashore, and the existence of a first-class haven near the fishing grounds on Smith's Knoll, made Yarmouth the premier herring port in the world.

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Scots fisher-girls cleaning and gutting herring on the quay. This photograph was taken in the early part of the 20th century. One girl could handle a cran (about 1200 to 1500 herring) an hour

The end of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century saw the heyday of the industry. In 1913, 1163 boats were fishing from the port and caught between them 2,488,140 hundredweight of fish, or well over 800,000 cran. About 87 per cent of this catch was exported to Germany and Russia, but the outbreak of war closed these markets to us, and our fishing fleet was directed to minesweeping and other defence duties. With peace the once flourishing export trade did not revive. Russia, Poland, and Germany had no money to buy, and many pre-war customers equipped fleets of their own and began to compete with those of the Scandinavian countries, who now controlled most of the world markets. Catches, too, were small, and although a slight improvement was discernible from 1925, the advent of the Second World War once more brought fishing to a standstill. Resuming in a modest way, the industry recovered a little, but the indiscriminate fishing of the North Sea by the other nations of Europe now seems to have reaped its due reward. There are fewer and fewer herring to catch, and the East Anglian herring industry is once more facing a crisis. In 1957 only 111 boats fished from Yarmouth and between them they caught only 72,000 cran or just 8 per cent of the 1913 total. There have been other years when the herring has been hard to find, for the story of the industry is one of ups and downs, but despite the industry's power of recovery it seems unlikely that so many Scots fisher-girls will ever walk our streets again.

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A swill used for hoisting the fish from the hold to the
quayside. Its use was once universal in the port, but
was eventually superceded by a metal box.