Domesday to Doomsday

Chapter 1 of David Butcher's book 'Driftermen' describing the rise and fall of the herring fishery of Lowestoft and Yarmouth


'Of all the fish that swim the sea
The herring is the king. '
(Traditional)


The 20th century has seen the collapse of many traditional ways of life, none more spectacular than that founded upon the North Sea herring. For many of the older inhabitants of Great Yarmouth, Gorleston and Lowestoft it must have seemed at times as if part of themselves were being torn away and stamped underfoot. In seas that once teemed with the silver shoals there is now a ban on their capture, part of an almost total restriction around our coasts and one that has been brought about by ever-dwindling stocks. If anyone had suggested 50 years ago that this would happen, not many people (if any!) would have believed such conjecture. The involvement with herrings at the time was too complete, had been going on for so long and would, as far as could be estimated, continue for ever. Even the period of depression in the 1920s and 30s, during which the whole fish trade had a bad time, held no indication of what was ultimately to befall the East Anglian herring industry. Total disappearance was unthinkable, impossible even—and yet this is what happened. And not only has a way of life passed and gone, but also the type of boat that caught the fish and many of the distinctive buildings that served the industry.

Such a change must at times seem total to those people whose lives were so closely tied up with the herring trade. It brought modest fortunes to a few, but for the great majority it meant long hours of work for little reward. Any community that grabs a living from the sea knows what it is to be hard up; and its members also have more than their fair share of sorrow. In the case of the East Anglian herring fishery, such experience was not just to be had along the seabord, for the inland villages supplied many crew members to the boats and were thus an integral part of this specialised maritime society. True, their connection with the fishing was not of such long standing as that of people living in the actual ports, but it was nevertheless of considerable importance. In fact, the combination of agriculture and fishing as an economic factor in the area's history is surely recognised in the pub name, 'Plough And Sail', which still survives in Lowestoft and which is traceable along the coastal fringe if one looks in old directories.

In purely historical terms the East Anglian herring fishery can be said to date from the late Anglo-Saxon period, with the first real documentary evidence of its importance to be seen in Domesday Book ( 1085-6). It is here that one notices the various annual herring rents paid by local manors to their particular lord. Then, as the Middle Ages progress, we witness Great Yarmouth's rise to pre-eminence and her attempts to control the autumn herring season at the expense of other local coastal towns and villages, especially Lowestoft. The competition between these two places over a period of 350 years would make a book all on its own, and even in our own century there was still a sense of rivalry between the respective inhabitants. It exists even now, and the planner who suggested some years ago that both towns should grow towards each other along the A12, thereby forming a conurbation to be known as 'Yartoft', obviously had no idea of local feeling!

Admittedly, by modern times it was usually a case of banter being exchanged rather than blows. Yarmouth fishermen were known as rednecks or duff-chokers, the latter term being an allusion to the light-duff or dumplings that were so important an item of the rations on board ship. The Lowestoftians were called pea bellies and this again had a dietary connection, referring as it did to the sea peas which grew wild on the local denes (and still do in places) and which were a staple food throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. There were other distinctions as well, not least being the working garb of the 19th and 20th centuries. Yarmouth men always wore blue jumpers (calico smocks), their Lowestoft counterparts tan-coloured ones—though both often wore white, undyed ones for best. Then there was a difference of technique in shooting the nets from the fishing boats themselves. The Yarmouth way was to pay the nets and ropes overboard, whereas the Lowestoft method was to throw them clear. Further variations are to be seen in the names given to certain crew members aboard the steam drifters: for instance, the second engineer was known as the fireman in Yarmouth, but in Lowestoft he was called stoker. Finally, the man whose job it was to regulate the speed of the capstan when the nets were being hauled (usually a lad in his late teens) was called a younker on board the Yarmouth boats, but was known as the cast-off in Lowestoft.

Apart from the rivalry that grew up between the two premier towns, the Middle Ages are also interesting for the amount of incidental information they afford regarding the herring and its place in the local economy. It is even possible to catch a glimpse of the men involved in fishing. There are those who made their boats and their nets important bequests to their sons; those who resented paying tithe to the parish priest; and those who broke the law in pursuit of their living. That there was wealth be to had from the sea can be seen in the number of superb churches that grace the East Anglian littoral fringe, particularly along the Suffolk coast. The perpendicular splendours of Walberswick, Southwold, Blythburgh, Covehithe, Kessingland and Lowestoft are all due in some measure to the herring. As well as the buildings themselves, a close look at their fittings (fonts, screens, tombs etc.) also reveals the fact that people were making money out of fishing. Such folk were invariably the half-and-halfers, who owned both fishing boats and farmsteads.

I suppose it would be fair to say that a Roman Catholic England must have favoured fishing more than a Protestant one, and it is significant perhaps that Elizabeth I's early governments did their best to compel people to eat fish on Fridays and Saturdays. However, such artificial stimulus was not really what was needed to boost the English fishing industry, and if any lessons were to be learned then it was the Dutch who should have been regarded as teachers. From the end of the 15th century they had organised their whole enterprise on surprisingly modern lines, employing large vessels that not only caught herrings in quantity, but which also processed catches on board. Their particular method of curing had been perfected in the late 14th century and was to become known 500 years later as the Scotch cure. It entailed removing the gill and long gut and packing the fish in barrels between layers of salt, an excellent method of preservation, which ensured quality that no rival country could match. There were around 1,000 Dutch boats fishing the North Sea in 1560, 2,000 in 1620. Many of them were substantial craft, 50 feet and more in length, crewed by
anything between 10 and 15 men and boys, and with a storage capacity of between 35 and lOO lasts depending on their size. The last was l2,000 fish at this time. It grew to l3,200 later on.

All the while this great expansion was taking place, and with Dutch herring fetching two and a half times as much per last as English ones, the home industry remained small in scale. Most of the boats were little more than longshore craft, carrying a crew of three or four, and their efforts were puny compared with the busses from across the North Sea. During the reign of James I two East Anglian men, Tobias Gentleman of Yarmouth and Edward Stephens of Lowestoft, wrote pamphlets advocating the expansion and more efficient organisation of the English herring industry. Their advice, however, fell on deaf ears; and even the naval wars with Holland later on in the 17th century, which actually caused the Dutch to become less adventurous, didn't result in any great expansion. Throughout the whole of the 16th century the number of boats fishing for herring out of Lowestoft totalled about 20. By 1670 it had risen to only 25. Yarmouth, on the other hand, had around 220 vessels, though most of them were small ones.

The 18th century saw an increase in the number.of East Anglian boats fishing for herring —until the last two decades, that is, when war with the American Colonies and with France brought about a serious decline in the number of boats. The eventual end of the Napoleonic Wars saw an upward turn in the fishing and this time it was to be a trend that continued right through to the end of the 19th century. There are several reasons for this, not the least initially being the decline of the Dutch, who were no longer the economic force they had once been. They still fished for herring in the North Sea, but on a smaller scale, and by about 1830 they had largely ceased to be part of the annual 'invasion' of Yarmouth. Thus ended the connection between them and the country's premier herring town, a bond that had survived two centuries of political and maritime disputes between England and Holland and that had led to a resident community of Dutch people in Yarmouth, complete with its own church and pastor. Dutch cargo boats still continued to put into Lowestoft, however, to pick up consignments of salted herrings (a practice that continued right up until World War Two), and at times the old Fishermen's Bethel on Commercial Road had so many of the visitors in its congregation that services were conducted in their language.

Apart from the decline of the Dutch, another factor in the gradual expansion of the East Anglian herring industry in the first part of the 19th century was the development of the three-masted lugger. This was a bigger, more efficient boat than the craft used hitherto and led to greatly increased catches. It was Yarmouth particularly that prospered with this vessel, for she had a harbour and (until 1830) Lowestoft didn't. Direct landings on to the beach obviously necessitated either smaller fishing vessels or the use of rowing boats to ferry catches from the luggers to the shore. In 1844 Yarmouth had 120 luggers of her own (many of them two-masted by now), plus numerous smaller craft, and around 40 cobles that came down from Yorkshire to work for local owners and merchants in the autumn season. After the railway arrived (also in 1844) the number of boats grew to 200 or so a decade later, and the increased prosperity was reflected in the building of a large wharf and herring market between 1867 and 1869.

Lowestoft's mid l9th century boost not only had to do with the railway, but also with the man who brought it from Norwich to the town. Sir Samuel Morton Peto was one of the great builder-contractors of the Victorian era and his moving into the immediate vicinity was Lowestoft's great piece of good fortune. He bought out the bankrupt harbour company in 1844 and proceeded to develop and improve the whole complex, marrying this expansion with the coming of the railway in 1847. He guaranteed to local fish merchants, at a meeting in the Lowestoft town hall, that any catches landed in the morning would be delivered 'alive' in Manchester the next day. And he kept his promise. By 1872 the number of boats fishing for herring from the port had risen from 80 to 210, and the population had grown from 4,837 to 13,620 in just 30 years!

The foundations were now well and truly laid for the golden age of the herring, which lasted from the final quarter of the l9th century until the outbreak of World War One. It was a two-phase affair, with the years 1880-1900 being the heyday of the lovely ketchrigged dandies (a development from the earlier luggers) and those afterwards seeing the rise to pre-eminence of the steam drifter. Not only did the arrival of steam power bring about a large increase in catches from the local boats, it also hastened and encouraged the annual autumn visit of Scottish fishermen and curers which had been getting under way in the last two decades of the l9th century. Old men who can remember those days before the First World War still talk about the sheer quantity of herring landed and the money earned. Their tales are not romance. Those were the days of the thousand drifter fleet in Yarmouth and Gorleston, when you could walk from one side of the harbour to the other across the boats, and when Lowestoft had between 700 and 750 vessels in port.

For the sake of brevity, let us consider the incredible year of 1913, the one that topped all others. The 1,006 boats fishing out of Yarmouth (264 local, 742 Scottish) landed a total of 824,213 crans of herring (a cran weighed 28 stones), while the Lowestoft fleet of around 770 drifters (350 local, 420 Scottish) brought in nearly 535,000 crans. And on that note everyone went to war. There was little herring fishing between 1914 and 1918, and not just because of the U-boat menace around our shores—most of the drifters were on charter to the Admiralty for patrolling duties or for minesweeping. After the war things began again in a mood of great optimism, so much so that in 1920 there were 1179 boats in Yarmouth for the home fishing, 973 of them Scottish. But how quickly it all turned sour. Catches came nowhere near pre-war levels and the collapse of European currencies left many fish curers and merchants ruined—or very near to it. The thirties saw the decline continue and by 1937 Yarmouth had only 87 drifters and 17 drifter-trawlers registered at the port, Lowestoft 135 and 84 respectively. The number of Scottish boats was also much reduced and catches were about a third of what they had been in 1913.

With the onset of World War Two the boats were either laid up or hired out once more to the Admiralty. When they began fishing again it was the old story of the downward spiral, though perhaps this wasn't at first obvious in a sea that had had a six year rest. By the middle fifties, though, the writing was on the wall and seen clearly by most people connected with the industry, especially after the disastrous season of 1955, when the lowest quantity of herring ever recorded (up till then) was landed. By the early sixties Yarmouth had all but ceased to be a herring port (except for longshore craft) and is now very much geared to servicing the North Sea oil and gas industries. Lowestoft had a handful of drifters fishing up until about 1967-68, but is now entirely given over to the trawlers that had always been so important a part of her economy.

And thus the curtain came down on the North Sea herring, which was not only a fish but a way of life as well. At one time it must have seemed that the sea would yield its silver harvest without ever stopping, but that was not to be. The quantities being landed before the government introduced its ban on herring fishing were minute compared with the huge catches that once made Yarmouth and Lowestoft the world's two great herring ports. There are various theories as to what occurred to end it all, but one factor is undoubtedly overfishing. The North Sea stocks have been decimated. The purse-seine net has snatched the swimming shoals; the close-mesh trawl and suction pipe have cleaned out the nursery grounds. Sad that so much of this 'industrial' fishing has been carried out not to feed people directly, but to provide fish meal to feed cattle to feed people. What a wasteful chain of conversion! Nothing is more nutritious than the mature herring, nothing more beautiful visually when in prime condition. Worshipped is too strong a word to use, but the fish was reverenced by many of the men who went hunting for it. As one of them once said to me: 'Our lives depended on it. Who would ever have thought that we'd live to see it disappear?'

That remark sums up admirably the attitude of the people whose experiences are recorded in this book. Their generation was born at the height of the North Sea herring industry; and they have lived long enough to see it all vanish. Many years ago someone worked out that every steam drifter afloat gave employment to a total of 100 people. Consider then the overall effect of 600 locally registered boats in Yarmouth and Lowestoft before the First World War, to say nothing of the arrival every year of around 1150 Scottish vessels. It meant that from October to December everything in the two towns was geared to herring, and even when the boats departed for other waters many people were still required at home to service the industry. In Lowestoft particularly fishing was everyone's life-blood, and for many youngsters leaving school the choice of job was quite simple: the boys went on to the boats or down on the fish market, the girls into the net factories or beating chambers.

Apart from the employment angle, the herring fishing also made its mark on Yarmouth and Lowestoft in another way, one that is still visible although the industry itself has gone. This is the pattern of urban development that took place in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Broadly speaking, it falls into two categories: streets of smallish two-up, two-down terraced houses, built speculatively for rent and inhabited by all kinds of working folk; streets of larger, terraced villas, with bays at the front and three or four bedrooms within. Many of these latter were bought by the successful drifter skippers, the lesser boat owners and the small fish merchants. In Lowestoft there was such a congregation of fishing boat masters in Worthing Road and Sussex Road, at the northern end of the town, that both these streets became known as Skipper Rows. It was the fashion at one time for an aspidistra in a brass pot to stand on a round table in the downstairs bay window. The room had also to contain a piano, even though it was likely that no one in the house could play it. Some of the houses even sported two instruments! Oh, the excesses that even a modest affluence can lead to!

Of course, the spread of domestic buildings wasn't solely due to the fishing, but it was the underlying factor. You soon get an idea of its former importance if you walk these streets and look at the names not only on individual houses, but also on groups of cottages. Many of them still hark back to the fishing, by boat names, by geographical place names and by general maritime references. Without having to think too hard, I can summon up Mizpah, Belvedere, Newlyn, Rathmullen, Oban, Lerwick, Compass, Mariners and Anchor. Finding these old name tablets on the fronts of houses is very rewarding for it says so much about a bygone era. Their treatment too in terms of decoration is also interesting, because some remain as they were when the houses went up, others have been painted over and a few obliterated completely.

There is another detectable legacy in the form of bricks and mortar—the buildings that once housed industries allied to the fishing. Those that survive are but a small remainder of what once stood above ground and they have invariably been converted to other uses. In Yarmouth much of the quay area has been taken over by the gas and oil companies, and also by freight services across to Holland. Offshore supply craft and container vessels now lie where the herring drifters once unloaded their catches. Various light industries have moved into many of the old net stores, and there is only one firm remaining that cures (smokes) fish on a large scale.

The story is much the same in Lowestoft, though the recent North Sea industries have made less impact there. Most of the net stores (a few remain to serve the trawling industry) are now builder's yards, paint shops, car repair centres, fibre-glass moulding works etc. One has even been changed into an indoor bowls rink, another houses an office equipment showroom and yet another manufactures carry-cots. The smokehouses too have declined, until there are only two or three left working at the present time. Most of the large commercial ones have either gone or have been converted to other uses, while the small backyard ones often serve now as garages or garden sheds. ]However, their tall, narrow outline and pantiled roofs are still very much a feature of the streets in the Roman Hill area of the town.

The chief legacy of the herring fishing era, the living one, is to be found in the memories of people directly involved with the industry before it collapsed. They were so much a part of it, and it of them, that many of them still find it hard to believe that everything has gone. There is no sense of bewilderment on their part; it is more a case of acknowledging that what they had always regarded as immutable could change and did change. Those people born between about 1890 and 1910 were the members of the last generation for whom the herring was not only a livelihood, but a way of life as well. They were at the end of a tradition stretching back centuries and they lived long enough to see the end of it. More than this, they were part of the process which saw modern technological advances applied to an old, established industry and they were glad enough, at the time, to help put into operation the ideas and methods which had been pioneered by their fathers.

As it turned out, the steam boats (and the diesel craft that succeeded them after World War Two) had a relatively short stay in the total span of the herring fishing over the centuries. Once they had gone, the face of both Yarmouth and Lowestoft was drastically changed because their passing was also the passing of a staple industry. I suppose that for many of the people brought up in both towns during the herring era to see it all disappear must have produced feelings not unlike those which might be experienced by a native of Barnsley if all the coal mines were to close down. The analogy is probably imperfect, but does serve to make some sort of comparison. No herring scales, no coal dust; no muck, no industry.

It is perhaps the boats themselves that constituted the biggest loss, for they combined utility with great visual appeal. One is reminded of this in the sheer number of postcards and photographs of steam drifters that were produced in the heyday of the fishing, and it's hard to believe at times that so many vessels disappeared so quickly. But disappear they did, the majority of them getting scrapped, while others were converted almost beyond recognition and sold off for various uses. This was what made August 9th, 1978, such a sad occasion, because it was on this day that the Lydia Eva YH89, last of the East Anglian steam herring drifters, left Yarmouth for good. She had been in her home port for five years as a floating museum, but now her owners, The Maritime Trust, were calling her to London for permanent exhibition in St. Katharine's Dock. As she came down the river for the last time, leading out the Tall Ships at the start of their race to Oslo, there must have been many people present that morning who saw not only the departure of an old steamer, but also the passing of the age she represented.