'Crossing the Bar of Yarmouth Harbour, by A. Miller

YARMOUTH was originally a settlement on a sandbank which gradually spread across the mouth of a great estuary reaching from Caister to Corton. It was in fact, in early times, an island, and ships going up-river could do so by navigating either the channel to the north or that to the south. This latter exit to the sea was much more difficult to navigate, and in consequence that to the north, known as Grubb's Haven or Cockle Water, became much more important. No official records concerning the Haven and dated before the time of Edward III are in existence, but most authorities believe that this northern outlet began to silt up soon after the Norman Conquest and, in consequence, that to the south, despite its navigational hazards, was extensively used. Unfortunately, this too began to choke with sand and by 1336 was quite impassable.

yar_IMAGE0662_2.jpgThe exact location of Grubb's Haven still remains in doubt despite the fact that it marked the northern limits of the town. In fact by the time of Henry VIII the men of Caister and Yarmouth were so much at loggerheads about it that a royal commission was appointed to go into the matter. In consequence a ditch was dug in 1546 to mark the boundary between the two places, but Swinden, the most reputable of the town's many historians, claims that Grubb's Haven was in fact some 520 yards on the Caister side of this ditch. A more modern view is that the Cross in the Midsands, a cairn built of stones from the beach and situated just west of the racecourse, marks the boundary. This is certainly most likely, for the origin and purpose of the cross are otherwise not explainable. It is suggested that the cross was probably erected about 1277 by the Cinque Port bailiffs who would be particularly desirous of marking out the area over which they had control during the Free Fair in Herring.

By 1336 Yarmouth was without a navigable haven, and the burgesses petitioned Edward III in 1346 for permission to cut a new channel just to the north of Corton. The king no doubt remembering the yeoman service which the town had rendered at Sluys and Calais, readily gave his consent, but despite the enormous expense involved, the channel remained navigable for only twenty-six years. Then ships were compelled to unload in Kirkley Roads, but the town could not then obtain the tolls which were levied. In consequence, after much petitioning, the king agreed that Kirkley Roads should be united with Yarmouth. He also decreed that no herring could be unloaded at any other port within seven leuks of Yarmouth. For these favours he demanded an increase of £5 in the fee-farm rent. These rights were strenuously opposed by the people of Lowestoft and in 1377 the king revoked them. Richard II followed suit; for he first granted and then revoked similar privileges. By 1382 the town was in a parlous state. Many people had abandoned it. The fee-farm rent could not be paid and not enough men could be raised to defend what was at the time one of the strongholds against the king's enemies from overseas. Richard came and saw all this for himself and graciously re-granted all previous rights to Yarmouth, including control over Kirkley Roads.

By 1375, however, this opening to the sea had become quite unusable, and a second cut was made in 1393 across the Denes about half a mile below the site of the Wellington Pier. Large sums of money were spent on maintaining this haven and a tax of 1s. was levied on every last of herring to meet this expenditure, but the citizens were fighting a losing battle and some sixteen years later they were again petitioning the king about the state of their harbour.

Henry IV agreed that another attempt to construct a haven should be made near Newton Cross. The exact location of Newton is in some doubt, but it is generally believed that it was a parish between Gorleston and Corton which has since been swallowed up by the sea. These workings certainly lasted much longer than the earlier ones, for the haven was navigable for about a hundred years, but once again maintenance costs were ruinous. Henry IV was even persuaded to grant £100 per annum for five years from his customs to keep the haven open, and Henry VI remitted part of his fee-farm rent for six years, but despite this help, the constant drain proved too much and even the herring industry could not be run at a profit.

It is unlikely that these early havens were protected by piers or breakwaters, and being exposed to the storms and gales and the constant shifting of sand, it is little wonder that their duration was brief.

A Yarmouth three-masted lugger unloading just below Yarmouth Bridge
which was erected in 1785. Ity was converted from a lever to pulley
lifting system, as illustrated from 1810

yar_IMAGE0663_2.jpgWhen in 1508 it became obvious that yet another haven must be cut, a less persevering people would have despaired. All that is known of the site of this channel is that it was "much nearer to the town". This fared no better than its predecessors, for in 1529 yet another channel was being made-this time very near to the site of the existing haven-but once again history repeated itself, and it was destroyed by wind and seas and the £1500 spent on its construction was lost. The town was once again in desperate straits, but after many deliberations another attempt was made to construct a navigable haven without which the town could not survive. This sixth attempt was dogged by ill-fortune. The work on the sixth haven was inaugurated by a solemn procession from the parish church where a special service had been conducted. The expenses of the undertaking had been met in the main by the sale of the plate, ornaments and vestments from St Nicholas, and afterwards the churchwardens received a sharp reprimand from the bishop for this gross impropriety.

But now the burgesses were faced with a new hazard-they must combat not only the might of nature but also the malice of man. Rebellion was abroad and Robert Kett marched at the head of his men on Yarmouth. He arrived in the summer of 1549 and demanded that he be provided with provisions. The townsmen refused to help, but they were surprised by Kett's attack and were compelled to surrender their two bailiffs, who were carried off as prisoners to Norwich. They soon escaped, however, and returned to Yarmouth, which they fortified as though to withstand a siege. The insurgents determined to take the town by storm and placed six cannon on high ground overlooking the town. The men of Yarmouth resorted to cunning. They fired a huge haystack in Southtown and under cover of the dense smokescreen they sallied from within their walls and routed the rebels. That night, however, a remnant of the band seeking revenge returned, and in their spleen destroyed the harbour workings. After this calamity no more work was done until the following year, when more expensive machinery was obtained from London, but fresh difficulties soon arose, and then in the midst of these troubles Mr Thompson, the engineer in charge, died.

Still the burgesses persevered; more machinery was obtained. A ship was sunk to dam the harbour, but after spending over £6000 they were once more compelled to admit defeat. The burgesses were now on their knees but they were not yet knocked out. They made one more supreme effort and in 1560 commenced digging the seventh haven which has survived until this very day. This project was so important to everybody in the town that they all joined in the digging of it. Men, women and children alike laboured with pick, bucket and spade often up to their middles in muddy water. After a few days' work an outlet was made which even at low water was some 10 feet deep. Breastworks were made to confine the channel, and stone from the ruins of the Bachelors' Aisle in the Parish Church and from St Mary's Southtown was used for this purpose. All this was done under the supervision of the Dutchman, Joas Johnson, who had been engaged to undertake the work because of his wide experience of similar problems in his own country. The north and south piers were next erected, their foundations consisting of piles and huge stones. The south pier was 340 yards long and it was filled with stone and brushwood to prevent the ebb-tide from flowing through to the south.

A shrimper moored on the Bure just above the north-west Tower
The north pier was only 235 yards long and had no filling until 1660, although the haven itself was completed in 1613 at a total cost of £38,652. Although the haven had now been successfully established the burgesses must have been in some doubt about this on many an occasion. In 1566, before the job had been completed, the sea broke through the pier, and the river made for its old outlet near Newton. Then in 1694 the inhabitants were summoned to cut a way through the sand bar which had formed across the harbour's mouth. The expenses of the haven were high and although assistance was from time to time obtained from the Crown, most of the money came from the imposition of tolls. In 1567, with the haven only half completed, fortunes were at their lowest ebb. The people, realising that drastic problems demand drastic measures, invested in a Virginian state lottery. They bought between them ninety-one r os. tickets, but alas, their horse was among the list of also-rans. Nothing daunted, they risked a further £25 in 1614, but again Lady Luck deserted them. Many other expedients were resorted to and an equal number suggested. In 1650 Parliament turned down the town's application for the lead from the roof of the "useless cathedral at Norwich". The earnings of the boats sailing from the port were taxed and private citizens dug deeply into their pockets, but slowly but surely the debts of the port grew. At length, in 1670, Charles II agreed to an Act appointing commissioners to take over the management of the haven. Recognising that many neighbouring authorities as well as Yarmouth were dependent upon the haven, he ordained that of the ten commissioners three should be appointed by Norfolk, three by Suffolk, and two by Norwich. Since then the commissioners have received a great diversity of advice from a great many celebrated marine engineers, but fundamentally the haven as we see it today is the work of one man, Joas Johnson from Holland.

In the curing house, the herring were suspended upon riving spits which were hung across the smoking chamber on the horizontal bars known as loves. The fish were left hanging for a few hours and then smoked by fires of oak chippings which were skilfully controlled to produce that individual flavour demanded by the market