The Great Yarmouth herring industry, 2011


A well-attended November meeting, including several visitors with past and present experience in local herring fishing, heard Mary Fewster’s enthralling account of the industry that brought prosperity to our part of Norfolk. There was so much content that this report can only pick out some of the highlights.

Herring fishing has been important for many hundreds of years, with some pretty important customers, too. The Domesday Book (1086) records that Great Yarmouth was supplying herring pies to no less a person than William the Conqueror.  By the Middle Ages, herring fishing had helped Yarmouth become one of the four most important ports in the country. The town walls built partly on the strength of fishing incomes remain the third most extensive in England, exceeded only by York and Chester.

The herring were caught in drift nets of hemp and later of cotton, hung like huge curtains across the channels between the sand banks.  The fish on their way south simply swam into the nets.  As no great power was needed the drifters did not start using steam until the 1880s, much later than trawling.  The capstans used to haul in the nets were operated by manpower - a useful employment for farm labourers after the harvest.  When steam power took over this task these men lost their seasonal work - perhaps the first of the problems that the industry faced.  (To right - the Lydia Eva, the last surviving steam drifter, leaving Great Yarmouth.  Above: one of the hundreds of drifters from Great Yarmouth in the early twentieth century).

During the 19th Century Yarmouth herring, smoked or preserved in brine, were in demand all over Europe.  The saltiest fish (once described as fish-shaped salt) sold well in North Africa and the West Indies where they were made more palatable by being marinated in coconut milk.  By 1900 there were over 1,000 drifters working out of Yarmouth, boats were getting bigger, buildings had been thrown up on the Denes, some even on the beach, and as many as 4,000 girls were employed in gutting the fish.  1913 was the golden year - the biggest ever catch and all of it sold.

But then a combination of war, politics and poor marketing brought the golden age to an end.  Napoleon had already destroyed the Dutch trade, and after WWI the German and Russian markets collapsed.  Russia had its mind on revolution and Hitler certainly wasn’t going to buy our fish.  During both wars many drifters were converted to military use and many did not survive.  The home market had been neglected and white fish, especially cod and haddock brought in to other ports by the trawlers, led to the great British Friday treat of fish and chips.  Cod in batter was fine, but nobody wanted herring in batter.  The great buildings fell into disuse and eventually, by the 1980s almost all had been demolished.

Those Girls on the Beach

Every autumn overnight trains came down from Scotland loaded up with women and all their working gear.  These are the girls we see in so many photos and films, apparently cheerfully gutting the herring, working in the open air on the beaches.  They were a boon to landladies whose rooms were filled outside the holiday season.  Worried about the fishy smells, they would strip out carpets and furnishings, even lining the walls with newspapers.  The girls saved their money until December, when they had a spending spree and returned to Scotland loaded up with Christmas presents - whilst Yarmouth shops and boarding houses happily banked their out-of-season earnings.  Right: herring girls.

A Balanced View

This article has aimed only to describe aspects of the growth and decline of the herring fishing industry in Great Yarmouth.

In the later Twentieth Century it was realised that driftnet fishing causes damage to the marine environment. The United Nations has since taken action to reduce this problem. We also understand that a substantial part of the world's population depends upon fish as its main source of protein. We also know that many of the Scottish women were from poor families and came down from the highlands and islands, and their earnings were relatively low. 

Have a look at the research in Scotland on the herring girls from the Angus Mcleod collection (click the box here).

Yarmouth drifter

(Above: Yarmouth drifters)
(Below: Lydia Eva)

Lydia Eva

(Below: Herring Girls)

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