Spirit of lost fishing ‘village’ rises again
PUBLISHED: 15:01 15 September 2018
It was once home to more than 2,000 people, all connected to Lowestoft’s booming fishing industry. But today, little remains that even hints at proof of The Grit’s existence. Sheena Grant finds out about a new show that aims to put that right.
It was the country’s most easterly community, perched where the land met the North Sea, but it was never given a proper name as it didn’t exist as a separate place. Not officially anyway.
In reality, of course, it did exist. In full, glorious technicolour. And although it is long gone, swept away by the march of time and changing tastes, the rich history of those days and the stories of those who lived through them, continues to echo down the decades.
To many it was known as The Beach village but it also had another name; one that seemed to reflect all it was about so much better: The Grit.
Poet and writer Dean Parkin, who grew up in Lowestoft, where The Grit was a kind of community within a community, wrote a book about it in the 1990s with fisherman, lifeboatman and local legend Jack Rose, known as Mr Lowestoft. But The Grit has never really left Dean and after he did a project about the demolition of post-war prefab homes in Stowmarket, celebrating the stories of the people who had lived there, he just knew he had to revisit it.
“The Unity Housing in Stowmarket was my journey back to The Grit,” he says. “It was exactly the same thing in many ways: a working class community that did its best in difficult circumstances and was swept away in the same fashion. And for all its faults and hardships, people missed that community.”
Now Dean has penned a show about The Grit, which tours seven Suffolk venues with nine performances this autumn.
Pearls from The Grit is part of a year-long Heritage Lottery-funded project about Lowestoft’s almost forgotten fishing village and will be followed, next spring, by the publication of a revised, redesigned and updated edition of Dean and Jack’s 1990s book.
Dean’s association with The Grit goes back to the 1970s, when his dad ran a factory in one of its disused net stores. By then, most of The Grit had already gone, along with the fishing industry that had once been so important to the town.
“At its height, it was home to 2,300 people, three schools, churches, shops and 13 pubs but it never had a proper name,” says Dean. “It was a town under the cliffs, mainly called The Beach but the older generation who lived there before the First World War knew it as The Grit, because of the unmade roads and the strength of character of its inhabitants; their true grit. That seems to me to represent what it was really about.”
In the early 20th century Lowestoft was one of the country’s leading tourist resorts and a top fishing port with a population of 23,000.
“It was the Aldeburgh or Southwold of its day,” says Dean. “Yet you also had this community of fishermen living in this most easterly point, around Whapload Road.
“In the September to December herring season the population swelled with incoming fishermen and fisher girls. It was like a second summer season and must have been a very exciting, vibrant place. A lot of the fisher girls married Lowestoft fishermen. The women gutted and packed fish and mended nets and brought up the kids as single mothers when the men were at sea. And, of course, every time the men went to sea, they might not come back. Fishing was the most dangerous profession in the world at one time.”
Millions of herring were landed at Lowestoft, with much of the catch exported to Germany and Russia. The First World War dealt a blow to those markets from which the industry never recovered. There were floods in the 1920s followed by the depression of the 1930s, by which time the industry - and The Grit - was in terminal decline.
By the 1960s The Grit was being swept away as families moved to newer homes with running water and indoor toilets. Herring was out of fashion too. People had fridges and no longer wanted a box of kippers from Lowestoft.
“People always talk about the community support,” says Dean. “Despite awful economic times, people you speak to who grew up there in the 1950s and 60s describe an ideal childhood. And there was a lot of humour, which I’ve used in the play.”
In Pearls from The Grit, Dean, who narrates the show, uses the words of Jack Rose as a guide as he travels back in time to piece the story together. Audiences will meet no-nonsense fisherman, old Ned; Billy, a larger-than-life skipper during Lowestoft’s fishing boom and his daughter, Ruby, one of the taskforce of women keeping the fishing industry afloat. At the ‘pub’ piano, ‘Tickler’ Sam will provide live music. Together, they’ll deliver a surprising, tender, entertaining family show, with original songs and incidental music composed and performed by pianist Maurice Horhut.
“It is celebrating The Grit,” says Dean. “People have said like they felt they had been forgotten because of the way it was swept away. It is putting that right; celebrating the amazing story of the country’s most easterly community.”
:: Pearls from The Grit, produced by Poetry People and directed by Alys Kihl, opens at the Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft, on September 26. It will also be performed at the Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket; The Cut, Halesworth; Avenue Theatre, Ipswich and the Long Shop Museum, Leiston, before returning to Lowestoft, at the Bethel Theatre and Christ Church Halls - attached to The Grit’s own fishermen’s parish church - in early October. Tickets cost £6.50 or £4 for under 16s. Go to www.poetrypeople.co.uk for ticketing information or call 01986 872033.
From the Lowestoft Journal, 1903...
“The Lowestoft beach population is in every sense of the term a peculiar people. They acquire a sturdy independence of character and are generally speaking a quiet unobtrusive class of persons, but when the latent ‘Viking’ spirit is aroused in their breasts, they are like the ocean in a storm.”