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Cultural ecology of the North Sea
First warning (1895)
A Frenchman's view (1912)
A scientist's view (1957)
The catcher's view
Domesday to doomsday
Cultural ecology of the North Sea
Table of Contents
The North Sea
The chief kinds of fish
Cod and other bottom fish
The human self
The following description refers to the situation at the outbreak of the Second World War. This proved a turning point for the fortunes of the fishing communities bordering the North Sea, particularly those of Grimsby, Yarmouth and Lowerstoft as world leadesr in inventing the technolgies for catching, processing and marketing fish. In the 1930s the amount of fish caught and landed in the United Kingdom ports was 14 times what it is now!
The North Sea
The North Sea occupies a basin over which the Rhine and its feeders still flowed in quite recent times. A slight uplift would raise its southern area above the waves. If the sea bottom were raised 300 feet, Northumberland would be connected with Jutland, and if it were elevated 50 feet there would be dry land between Flamborough Head and Heligoland. On the Dogger Bank the film of water does not exceed 130 feet in depth; in fact, over an area of 250 square miles it is less than 65 feet, and in the south and southwest the submarine plateau gradually rises to within 50 feet of the surface. The southern edge of the Bank overlooks an east-to-west trough known as the Silver Pits, which has a depth of between 200 and 300 feet and is thought by certain scholars to be part of the old channel of the Rhine. Fishermen's trawls bring up from the floor of the Bank the bones of continental mammals, which lie scattered among river sand and striated pebbles. Northwards from the Dogger Bank the sea bottom slopes away gently from a depth of 130 feet to one of 200 ; then still more gently from 250 to 300 feet and from 300 to 600 feet. The edge of the shelf is reached off the north coast of Scotland, and there is at this point a steep descent to a depth of 550 fathoms.
The smooth regularity of the North Sea bottom is interrupted in its northern end by a striking feature. This is the Norway Deep, a deep, narrow trench with a gentle slope towards the North Sea, but a steep one on the Norwegian side. It cuts its way into the continental shelf off Aalesund and, after following the bend in the coastline of Norway, ends opposite Oslo. After the fashion of a gigantic fjord, it has its greatest depths (between 260 and 430 fathoms) at its inner end, while it grows shallower towards its mouth in the north. This trench has been explained as a channel through which the drainage of the Baltic lands once passed and which was subsequently enlarged by glacial erosion. But in fact its origin remains obscure.
Northern seamen confine their use of the name North Sea to the wide expanse of water north of a line drawn from the Wash to the Zuider Zee, preferring the term Flemish Sea-or, as English geographers call it, the East Anglian Sea-for the funnel-shaped area which lies south of that line and leads to the Straits of Dover. To this corresponds beyond the Straits the funnel-shaped English Channel. The East Anglian Sea might suitably be named ' the Sea of Banks,' for it owes the main features of its topography to a swarm of sandbanks of a peculiar form. The inequalities in the sandy bottom do not take the shape of wide platforms., like the Dogger Bank or Great Fisher Bank, but of long narrow ridges arranged in rows or in a fan-pattern. If the sea level fell, these ridges would stand up as a series of sandhills looking like huge flat-topped dunes separated by winding valleys. Some of them are ten or fifteen miles long, by one and a quarter miles broad, and 50 to 100 feet high. Off the coast of England between Cromer and the Dogger Bank there is a line of them, including Dowsing Bank, Haddock Bank, Leman Bank, Ower Bank, and Well Bank. Bank Falls and the Galloper are simple ridges off the mouth of the Thames ; but off the Flemish coast the banks form a group which close in towards the south and open out fanwise towards the north. Off Dunkirk these are succeeded by others which run in almost parallel lines, viz. Brwck, Breedt, Dyck, Ruytingen, and Sandettie.
Co-tidal Lines in the British Seas. Each line joins places
which have high tide at the same hour on a given day.
Roman numerals mark the hours of one high tide,
Arabic figures indicate the previous high tide.
The earlier and later tides meet off the mouth of the Thames.
Some of them are covered at low tide by a mere film of water 18 inches deep, but they are separated by troughs 50 to 65 feet deep. Off the coast of Kent an extensive bank, known as the Goodwin Sands, is partially uncovered at low water.
Between Dover and Calais the tidal currents are too strong to allow the formation of sandbanks ; but these soon appear again farther south, where long troughs like Blanc Fond, Creux des Platins, Fond Brun, and Grand Blanc Fond alternate with sandbanks called bassures by French sailors and bearing names like Varne, Colbart, Bullock Bank, Bassurelle, Vergoyer, and Bassur de Baas. They all run southwest-and-northeast, as do the tidal currents. Hence, the tidal currents would seem to be responsible for the submarine topography here. The succession of ' narrow seas ' and the string of funnel-shaped basins afford them a strong field of action. Moreover, their influence affects not only the formation of sandbanks and troughs, but also helps, by carrying sand along the bottom of the sea, to furnish the coast with broad beaches and long gentle slopes which gradually deepen seawards. Off Westkapelle on the Isle of Walcheren the isobath for 30 feet passes at a distance of more than five and a half miles from the shore, and this distance increases off Middelkerke to some seven miles.
Although tides are scarcely appreciable in the open sea and far from continental margins, they attain to a considerable height and force in shallow waters. As they reach the continental shelf their height increases, and the rising tide swells higher and higher as it meets obstacles on the bottom or shores of the sea.
The range of the tides, that is, the vertical difference in level between high and low water, increases .towards the inner ends of channels and bays. A normal spring tide, which ranges 16 feet in the relatively open sea around the Scilly Isles, ranges progressively higher as it penetrates into the Bristol Channel. Thus, the range is 271 feet at Lundy, 38 feet at Cardiff, 391 feet at Kingsroad at the mouth of the Bristol Avon, and 41 feet at Sharpness. Spring tides rise 201 feet at London Bridge and 23 feet at King's Lynn on the Wash. In certain circumstances the height of the tide is even greater and exceeds all forecasts; for instance, on February 8th, 1868, the high tide during a storm rose 261 feet at Leith, which was 4 feet 3 inches higher than usual. The same tidal wave advanced from Aberdeen to Hull in 4 hours 29 minutes at a speed of 92 miles an hour.
The marginal seas
The zone of contact between the influence of the Ocean and that of the land forms the habitat of a fauna rich in fishes. It comprises areas as far apart as the North Sea and Barents Sea on the one hand and Iceland and the Skagerrak on the other. It is inhabited by extraordinarily prolific species, which swarm on the sea bottom and move about in enormous shoals. It is the home of the herring, cod, haddock, plaice, and other species, which are caught in vast numbers. The region is marked by certain hydro-graphic characteristics, namely great seasonal variations in temperature and salinity, with high temperatures in summer; the temperature of the water seldom falls below 32° F. and over wide areas remains above 43° F. Murray and Hjort have named it the Boreal Region, and include within it the open sea off the west coast of Norway, the coastal waters of Norway as far north as the North Cape, the North Sea together with the Skagerrak and Kattegat, and the neighbourhood of the Faeroes and Iceland.
To the southwest of this lies another region which is warmer. Here the hake (Gallus merluccius) forms 35 per cent. of the catch if bottom fish off the southwest of England, and this percentage rises to 65 in the Bay of Biscay. The pilchard, a denizen of the Atlantic, is found off the Cornish coast, but does not penetrate far into the colder waters of the eastern parts of the English Channel. The herring scarcely goes farther south than Brittany and appears but irregularly off the whole of the west coast of the British Isles. The cod gradually disappears towards the south. It forms 81 per cent. of the catch off the coast of Norway, 60 per cent. in Iceland, 48 per cent. off the Faeroes, but only 45 per cent. at the southern end of the English Channel. Thus, the Boreal Region ends at the warmer waters off the shores of southern Ireland and Cornwall and of the western end of the English Channel.
The Boreal seas
The boreal waters, and especially those of the North Sea, are characterised by an astonishing wealth of animal life. Certain species found in it have a prodigious fertility. Plankton, which is a mass of living matter with microscopic elements providing fish-food, abounds in regions consisting of waters of different provenance, viz., on the margins of currents and in zones of contact between warm and cold water, where a great range of temperature is manifested in the surface waters. The regions of the northern hemisphere in which the range of temperature of the sea water exceeds 30° F. have become famous for their fishing grounds ; namely, the seas around Japan from Sakhalin to Formosa (Taiwan), the Atlantic off the coast of the New England States, the area to the south and southeast of Newfoundland, and the seas of Western Europe, including the Baltic, the eastern end of the English Channel, and the North Sea from the Humber to Lindesnes. In these marginal seas there are other sources of food-supply in the form of organic matter brought down from the land by rivers and refuse yielded by the luxuriant vegetation of ground-algae. Besides, the ceaseless renewal of these vast supplies is favoured by hydrographic conditions, namely the constant circulation of the water, the currents, and the storms which ensure the penetration of air and light into the surface layers and foster vegetable life and microscopic organisms. The Michael Sars found the deep layers of water poorer in vegetable plankton. The maximum amount was collected at a depth of 160 feet, but at a depth of 330 feet this amount had fallen off by a tenth.
These areas have been likened to inexhaustible and luxuriant pastures. They are so densely populated with plants and animals that they even derive their colour from them. The green of the English Channel, the North Sea, and Baltic, which are all rich in plankton, contrasts with the beautiful, transparent blue of the tropical waters of the Atlantic. Attempts have been made to measure the incommensurable exuberance of life. According to Hensen and Brandt, every square yard of the Baltic yields on the average 2000 grains of solid nutritive matter in the form of plankton. One diatom (Chcetoceros) is so abundant in the western part of the Sea that a cubic yard of water contains more than 349 billions of these tiny plants. Similarly, the fish reproduce in prodigious swarms. Every female turbot lays on an average 8,600,000 eggs ; the cod lays 4,500,000, the sole 570,000, the herring 31,000. At this rate of reproduction, the floor of the North Sea, as Mobius has said, offers man harvests a great deal richer than the sandy areas and wastes that often exist in flood plains.
A knowledge of the natural laws which regulate this exuberance of life is even more important to man than the wealth of the fishing-grounds. Mention has been made above of the periodic variations which occur in the temperature and salinity of the water and in the quantity and nature of the plankton, and of the sudden appearances of fish in certain places. Is there any connection between the hydrographic conditions and the biological phenomena ? Is there any prospect of discovering in the laws which govern the sea those which regulate the occurrence of fish ? Scientific research has not yet solved the mystery. Though certain relations have been established, the chain of cause and effect has still to be discovered, and it is thus all the more difficult to ascertain whether the movements of the fish depend on instincts proper to each species and even to each variety-that is to say, on causes which are still unknown. Hence, there is as yet no explanation of the uncertainties, irregularities, and vicissitudes in the fishing conditions, which have frequently during the course of history affected the fortunes of many North Sea towns.
The chief kinds of fish
It is usual to divide fish into two main classes: pelagic and bottom fish. Pelagic fish are found out to sea not far from the surface, although they may be met with at all depths according to the period of their life. When they swarm together periodically in enormous shoals to spawn, they are caught at the intermediate depths, Mackerel and, more especially, herring provide the most remarkable instances of this. Bottom fish live quite near to or actually on the bottom of the sea. They are round fish, like the cod, or flat fish, like the plaice, sole, or turbot.
For centuries nothing was known about the life of the herring, except the annual episode of spawning. It appears suddenly off the coast in multitudinous shoals, from which the nets bring in astonishingly large catches. Fishing smacks have been known to take 700,000 herrings in at a single haul. Sometimes a shoal of herrings extends for 90 or 125 miles. The fish come to within 65 or 125 feet of the surface, chiefly at night, and they are caught in drift-nets placed across their course. As all the females do not spawn at the same time, the shoal remains in the neighbourhood of its spawning-ground for a month or two. Consequently, the fishing season lasts that time. Then the shoal disappears suddenly and is not seen again till the following year. The life of the fisherman is regulated by this periodicity. It was long a mystery what became of the herring in the intervals between the fishing seasons, and it was supposed that they migrated to great distances. But, in fact, they do not leave the seas in which their spawning-grounds lie : they merely move to greater depths.
Hence, the old theory that the herring came from the Atlantic in a great annual migration, like an army marching by successive stages, must be abandoned. The truth is that all these shoals of herring which regularly appear at different times belong to local varieties which differ in appearance, shape, anatomy, spawning season, and spawning-grounds. Three main varieties of herring have been recognised in the North Sea. The Dogger Bank herring, which is caught off the east coast of England and on the Dogger Bank, is small, being only 91- to 10 inches long, and it spawns in August. The Shetland herring, which is 12 inches long, spawns in July and August ; whilst the Norwegian herring, which is still bigger, spawns in spring.
Of all the fishing-grounds in northwestern Europe, the east coast of Britain is visited most regularly by shoals of herring. Elsewhere the fish seem to come more irregularly and capriciously. The true home of the herring, the haunt which it has never deserted and which for centuries it has visited periodically in summer and autumn, is the western area of the North Sea along the shores of Britain. Its appearance may be followed by observing the movements of the fishing fleets which go out to catch the fish. In June and July they will be seen manoeuvring near the Orkneys and Shetlands; in August and September off the coasts of Scotland and England almost as far south as the Humber; from September to the end of November off Yarmouth and Lowestoft. These positions mark the fishing-grounds which have made the fortunes of the British and Dutch fishermen.
The mackerel, a pelagic fish like the herring, appears in shoals near the coasts at the spawning season from spring to autumn. It was formerly thought to spend the winter in the Atlantic ; but it is now known to remain all the year round in .a special locality, each locality having its own species or variety. But it is a southern fish and appears on its more northerly and easterly spawning-grounds progressively later, as the warmth of the sun increases. By January it is being caught off the Cornish coast, but the season does not reach its height off the southwest of the British Isles till March and June. It lasts from June to August in the Irish Sea, from May to June and also from September to October off Lowestoft ; and from June to September off the coasts of Scandinavia. In the winter months of January and February mackerel are caught only in the western end of the English Channel.
Cod and other bottom fish
Of all the bottom fish the cod is the commonest and most important from the economic point of view. It is found in large numbers throughout the North Sea at all seasons. Unlike the Lofoten cod, which appears in March, April, and May, and the Icelandic cod, which is caught in summer only, the North Sea cod is caught nearly all the year round. Hence, cod-fishing has long been the necessary complement of seasonal fishing for herring and mackerel. Its true home is off the coast of Norfolk and above all on the Dogger Bank (Dogger = cod ' in Dutch).
Bottom fish prefer shallow water which is affected by variations in air temperature and reached by the direct rays of the sun. In this zone, which is hardly ever deeper than 130 feet, live the sole, turbot, plaice, dab, flounder, and brill. In winter many of these fish, which are very sensitive to cold, collect in the deeper hollows, like the. Yorkshire Hole and the Silver Pits, where variations in temperature do not affect them. Fishermen still remember the discovery of the Silver Pits, then an unexplored trough, from which the nets brought up a fabulous number of huge sole. The Bay of Liverpool swarms with sole and plaice. In the English Channel conditions are not so good, and trawling-grounds occur only at intervals off the Eddystone Lighthouse, Brixham, and Hastings, as well as off the mouth of the Seine. But the special haunt of these fish is in the eastern and southern parts of the North Sea, which resemble a gigantic fish-pond and have long been exploited by trawlers without becoming exhausted. The richest areas are known as the Easter Grounds and lie off the coasts of the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. Large dab and turbot abound in them. For a long time the London market was supplied with turbot exclusively by Dutch fishermen. Sole and plaice are hatched in vast numbers in the Heligoland Bight, whence they emigrate later to people the other trawling-grounds farther south in the North Sea.
Fish laid out to dry on trestles at Aberdeen
Owing to the amazing productivity of its waters, the North Sea holds a prominent place in man's economic system, for its fishing industry has been the cause of the maritime life of the people who dwell on its shores. The fishing craft which normally frequent it may be estimated at more than 30,000, of which two-thirds are British. Their types vary according to sailing conditions and the character of the people. Some are little boats which do not go far from the shore and which return to port nearly every evening. For instance, there are the motor well-boats which drag the snurvaad over the shallows of the Danish coast ; bomschuitten or flat-bottomed boats used in the Dutch estuaries ; undecked boats used in the Norwegian fjords ; little sailing trawlers from Boulogne and Ostend, herring-smacks, and line fishing-boats from all the countries around. There are also large ships fitted out for long voyages, such as luggers and sailing dundees, which catch and salt herring ; steam herring-boats or drifters ; and steam trawlers. The tendency is for larger and better equipped boats to replace the older and smaller types. Four-fifths of the larger boats are British.
At the height of the fishing season certain areas in the North Sea bear floating towns full of eager, swarming men belonging to many nations. Sometimes boats of several nations cast their nets into the same shoal of herring. From these rival interests have sprung international laws. It has been necessary to define the boundaries of territorial waters. For every country, except Norway, this has been fixed at a distance of three miles from the foreshore. It has been necessary, too, to anticipate disputes over lost or tangled nets and collisions between boats, to organise the supervision, policing, and hygiene of these temporary towns. Formerly, special boats, called ' coopers ' or bumboats,' went round the fishing fleets selling tobacco, victuals, and alcohol ; but after the international conference at the Hague in 1886 this unwholesome traffic was forbidden.
With the British craft are mission ships which ensure medical attention and opportunities for religious services. Before the war of 1939-45 more than 130,000 men- i.e., the population of a large town-were employed on the fishing boats. Of these 35,000 were English, 40;000 Scottish, 20,000 German, 20,000 Dutch, 8000 Norwegian, 7000 Danish, 3000 Belgian, and 2000 French. To those who manned the boats must be added those who worked ashore salting and smoking the fish, making barrels and nets, building boats, and selling the fish. In Britain alone the total number of workers was about 250,000 persons. If the workers' families are included, it means that nearly a million people depended on fishing for their daily bread. Since the end of the war there has been a return to normal conditions ; but with the gradual increase in the size of the boats, the number of persons employed will decrease. On the coasts large towns, like Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Grimsby, Hull, Aberdeen, Peterhead, Bergen, Christiansand, Geestemiinde, Ijmuiden, and Ostend, owe their origin and fortunes to fishing (see Plate XII).
Of the total selling price of the North Sea catch, England usually takes 43 per cent., Scotland 17, Norway 13, the Netherlands 9, Germany 8, Denmark 4, and Belgium 1.5. The herring counts for 29 per cent. in the aggregate value of the catch, the cod for 15, the haddock for 12, the plaice for 8, the sole for 3, and the mackerel for 3. It is calculated that the quantity of fish caught amounts to 2800 tons a day and 1,000,000 tons a year. Finally, when the yield of the various seas is compared, it is found that the fishing-grounds of the English Channel and the Atlantic give 29.9 cwt. of fish for every square mile of surface, the Mediterranean 19.5 cwt., and the North Sea 182 cwt.
The figures given in this paragraph were those for the years prior to 1939, and may be regarded as normal. During the war the requisitioning of many of the larger fishing vessels and the calling-up of most of the younger fishermen for service with the Royal Navy, caused the annual catch to be reduced to one-quarter of its former quantity. The fact that the North Sea and Norwegian fishing grounds could not be used was another factor, which also caused the relative quantities of the different fish to be greatly changed. Thus, in 1944 cod formed 30 per cent, of the total quantity of the catch, plaice 10 per cent, haddock 5, sole 5, and herrings only 3.7 per cent.
The sea is the chief factor in this concentration of population and in the growth of towns. The abundance of fish in the North Sea has given rise to a string of fishing ports stretching from Aberdeen to Wick and beyond this to Shetland. This remote group contains 21,400 inhabitants, which is a great deal for so barren a land. Little return can be expected from the soil in these distant, treeless islands which are so cold that spring does not begin till April and summer ends in August, and which are so far north that daylight lasts through the summer nights, whilst the days are almost dark in winter. Hence, men earn their living by the sea. Many Shetland boats join the international fleet which fishes for herring every year off the islands. From June 1st to July 15th the fishing is carried on mainly to the north of the Shetlands. A temporary village of wooden huts has been built along the wharves in the little harbour of Balta Sound. Between 8000 and 9000 people, mostly women, flock to this spot from Norway, Scotland, and England to clean, salt, and pack the herrings. Nearly 1500 English, Scottish, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and German boats land their daily catch here, and for six weeks the work goes on feverishly. About the middle of July the place becomes empty, the shops shut, and solitude reigns once more. From July 15th till September the fishing centre is moved farther south (see Fig. 17) to Lerwick (pop. 6000), which itself has more than a thousand boats. The same workers, the same vessels flock thither, and the same busy scene recurs. With the arrival of shorter days and bad weather in September, the work stops, and cargoes of herrings are despatched in barrels to the Baltic countries. Similarly, Kirkwall in Orkney sends out about a hundred fishing boats, and these operate as far south as Lowestoft.
Thurso, which was once the centre of Sottish trade with Scandinavia, is now only a local port and ships large cargoes of paving-stones, known as Caithness flags, quarried from the Old Red Sandstone in the neighbourhood. The line of Scottish fishing ports which continues as far as Aberdeen begins at Wick. The season in these ports lasts from the end of July to the beginning of September and brings with it a great deal of bustle, sometimes doubling the population of some of the towns through the inflow of workers engaged by the curing factories. The 7000 inhabitants of Wick live on the herring fishery. Pulteneytown, a suburb built in 1808 by the British Fisheries Association, has a deep harbour giving access to the boats at all states of the tide. The season and bustle are the same at Buckie (pop. 8000), Cullen, Banff, Macduff, Fraser-burgh (pop. 11,000), and Peterhead (pop. 13,000). In all of them King Herring rules men's lives and fortunes.
The only large town in the Highlands and the most northerly in the British Isles is Aberdeen. Its population numbered 18,000 in 1801, 44,000 in 1851, and 161,300 in 1931. It occupies a classic site at the head of the tidal estuary of the Dee, near the point at which the Don reaches the sea, and so it commands two valleys which run far back into the Grampians. The rapid growth of the town in modern times dates from the construction of its two wet docks which give a safe haven to trading and fishing vessels and enable them to berth and sail regularly. More than 250 steam trawlers from Aberdeen frequent the Great Fisher Bank. Besides the preparation of smoked and salted herrings and cod (see Plate XII), which is the traditional form of treating fish in Scotland, Aberdeen deals in fresh fish, distributing it by means of express trains to the towns in the south. One-third of the fish caught in Scottish boats is landed at Aberdeen. The town is run by fish merchants and others connected with the trade, and fish is the main source of work and livelihood.
Smoked herrings, whether kippers or bloaters, are despatched in boxes ; salted herrings are packed in barrels ; smoked haddock is prepared for the English breakfast table ; and the more dainty fish is transported in ice. Aberdeen ranks with Hull, Grimsby, Yarmouth, and Lowestoft among the chief fishing centres on the east coast of Britain. The great town is responsible for the close connexion of the Highlands with the general life of the North Sea.
Along with the general shipping trade on the Humber goes another seafaring occupation, namely, fishing. The situation of the ports between the fishing banks in the North Sea and the swarming populations of the inland districts raised the occupation to the status of an important industry. Its prosperity here goes back to the middle of the 19th century, when fishermen hailing from Brixham and Ramsgate came from the Channel waters to trawl in the North Sea and found some extraordinarily rich grounds, particularly the Silver Pits which were discovered in 1845. Settling at Hull, they initiated the trawling industry in the North Sea. But to reach that port the boats were forced to sail upstream for 25 miles in an estuary dangerous on account of fog. Hence, when the railway to Grimsby was built in 1859, the trawlers took to landing their fish at that place. Gradually, Grimsby became the world's largest fresh-fish port. The railway company which constructed the harbour works made excellent arrangements not only for landing, selling, and despatching the fish by express trains, but also for supplying the boats with water, ice, and coal. The interval between the landing of the fish and its despatch by train has been reduced to a minimum. Every evening special trains take the catch to London, Birmingham and other Midland towns, Manchester and Liverpool.
The series of towns which have grown up along the coast is of more recent formation. Some were once fishing villages, but since the construction of the railways have become seaside resorts. Such are Southwold, Aldeburgh, Felixstowe, Walton, Clacton, and Southend. Clacton has a delightfully bright, clear climate which is mild in winter and dry in summer. Geraniums will grow in the open even in winter. Harwich (pop. 13,000), which is an hour and a half by rail from London, is the terminus of a main line of the London and North Eastern Railway and a ferryport for passenger traffic to the Netherlands and Germany. Finally, Yarmouth (pop. 51,000) and Lowestoft (pop. 43,000) have grown up near the North Sea fishing banks and are now large towns with great fishing industries.
Yarmouth, at the mouth of the Yare, is the largest English town engaged in the herring fishery. Its activities in this respect were mentioned as early as Domesday Book. In 1108 the town bought the privileges of a borough with a yearly payment of 10,000 herrings. For centuries it has continued to profit by the regular appearance of shoals of these fish in the North Sea. When trawling came into practice, Yarmouth adopted the new method of fishing, and in 1883 it owned 700 trawlers. A Yarmouth firm introduced the use of ice for preserving the catch on board the boats and organised the fast transport of fish by special despatch to the London market about 1900-1903 the trawlers moved to Lowestoft, and Yarmouth now concentrates almost exclusively on herring. The fishing season lasts from October to December, and the work is carried on by steam er sailing drifters. During this time the Yarmouth fleet is joined by Scottish boats, so that more than 800 vessels land fish at the town in the season. Their annual take forms two-thirds of the British herring catch. To the 2000 fishermen who man the boats must be added the employees of the installations which deal with the fish. Every autumn 5,000 Scottish women come to Yarmouth to salt and smoke herrings. During the off-season for herring in the North Sea, the herring-boats catch mackerel off the Irish and Cornish coats, returning to Yarmouth for the great autumn season.
Lowestoft engages in fishing of a far more varied character. Its boats catch herring from the beginning of October up to Christmas, during which period they are joined, as are the Yarmouth boats, by Scottish vessels. The Lowestoft shore establishments also employ Scottish fishwives. From May to July mackerel fishing is carried on off the mouth of the Thames. But the prosperity of Lowestoft in modern times has been due to its trawlers, which catch the more dainty kinds of fish. In order that these may be supplied fresh to London and other towns, the former London and North Eastern Railway Company, which had constructed the harbour, organised a fast service of special trains. The number of trawlers registered at Lowestoft exceeds 300. As at Yarmouth, Hull, and Grimsby, fishing is a regular industry organised on a large scale with the best equipment. Before 1940 the annual catch at Yarmouth and Lowestoft together totalled 175,000 tons, whilst Grimsby and Hull landed 275,000 tons. During the war of 1939-45 fishing from Yarmouth and Lowestoft was reduced almost to nothing. Since 1945 the two ports have been, well on the way to recovery.
The south and west
Brixham fresh fish is famous. The larger boats spend the period from January to August fishing in the Irish Sea and Bristol Channel, landing their catch at Milford Haven, whence express trains hurry it off to the great towns.
Except for some local coastwise trade, commerce holds little place in the life of the ports on this coast, for there is only a limited backland. In the 17th century Falmouth was used as a terminus for mailboats from the West Indies, Portugal, and New York, couriers from London reaching Falmouth by way of Exeter and Truro ; but, though this function still persists, the port is overshadowed by Plymouth and Southampton. Today the ports content themselves with the modest trade of their immediate neighbourhood. They all import Welsh coal ; Fowey exports kaolin, and Penzance flowers, vegetables, and fish. None of the towns mentioned is of any considerable size, Penzance having a population of but 21,000, Falmouth one of 17,000, and Dartmouth one of 6000.
There is, however, one large urban centre of 208,000 inhabitants. This is Plymouth, which with its annexes of Stonehouse and Devon-port extends along the shore of Plymouth Sound. This magnificent estuary is accessible to the largest ships and is divided into several arms and bays, viz. the Cattewater, or mouth
The human self
Gutting and cleaning herring at Stornoway
My mother was born in Stornoway in the Hebrides. She was one of the Scottish fisherwomen who would annually make their way to England to process fresh herrings during the herring season. They would work as a team preparing the fish for the smoke houses, which finished up as kippers or bloaters. They worked piece work which meant that they were paid for the amount of fish the processed. They travelled to the port where they were needed during the season- namely Grimsby, Hull, Fleetwood and Lowestoft. After the season had finished they returned to Stornoway until the next year. It was very demanding work and very cold as everything was done outside in the street where the barrels of fish were put ready for them.
My mother settled in Grimsby after meeting my father who was a Grimsby fisherman. Unfortunately for my mother, he left our famly home quite soon after I was born, I could never remember him living with us.
My mother had four shildren. Sadly, one had to be adopted as my mother could not afford to keep her. Furtunately we did meet up with each other years later. We were all living in Grimsby without any relatives nearby as they were all up in Scotland. We had no money coming in, so mother had to find part-time work, taking in people's dirty washing, which was done in the backyard with a dolly tub and an old wooden mangle. But she was still left with insufficient money for our everyday needs. When the man came for the rent, we would have to pretend to be out and hide from him as he knocked at the door. We moved from house to house to avoid paying the rent, though they eventually caught up with you in th end.
One of the things my brother and I used to do was to go to the Freeman Street market. At one corner, cose to Garibaldi Street, was a large square rubbish bin with two round openings, each about two-feet in diameter. Myself being skinny, would drop down into the bin looking for anthing that was edible, which had been discarded by the stallholders. I would throw it out to my brother. To climb out of the bin I had to rely on boxes being inside to climb on. Lots of other poor people used to live like this and I am thankful that life has changed so very much these days and I now live very comfortably. We did have one consolation though. Occasionally, neighbours were able to supply us with good old Grimsby fish. It was a usual sight to see dockworkers with their parcel of fish in their pocket as they cycled from work off the docks.
Unfortunatey, the poor lifestyle caught up with my mum. She died when she was 42 years old in 1942 of tuberculosis and malnutrition.
Reminiscence of Arthur Everett of Grimsby, age 73.
(Grimsby Telegraph Special 'Bygones' Publication, Feb. 1, 2003)
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