Collisions and rivalry - the history of Southwold's ancient fishing industry

Robert Jellicoe with his book in Southwold

Robert Jellicoe with his book in Southwold - Credit: Charlotte Bond

We have a proud and rich heritage here in Suffolk, there’s no doubt about that.  

If you head out to the coast, you'll find some amazing stories and tales going back centuries.

In particular, Southwold is a place where fishing has been practised for 1,000 years. 

And one local man has spent decades working on his debut book, ‘Shorelines: Voices of Southwold Fishermen’, exploring the cultural and historical significance of the longshore fisherman that once populated the settlement. 

Robert, who has lived in Southwold his whole life, spent years researching the town's fishing heritage for his book

Robert, who has lived in Southwold his whole life, spent years researching the town's fishing heritage for his book - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Meet Robert Jellicoe. If anyone knows Southwold, it’s him. Born and raised in the town, he’s spent pretty much his whole life on the Suffolk coast, where his family trace their roots back to the early 19th century. 

“My ancestors are buried in the churchyard in Southwold and appear in some of the records. One was actually a mayor, while others went to sea.  

“Growing up, I remember my uncle had pictures of the ships they went to sea in and interesting objects in his office that I was fascinated by as a child. Southwold and the sea are rooted in me, I feel rooted in Southwold. It’s the town where I come from.” 

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After graduating from university, while many of his peers sought to escape Suffolk, Robert knew the coast was where he wanted to remain. 

“One of the reasons was because the sea and the landscapes were, and remain, very important to me. I never pictured myself in an urban environment,” he says.  

It was when he was in his mid-20s that Robert first had the idea of possibly putting together a book, after he was inspired by local oral historian and folklorist George Ewart Evans.  

The book features a number of drawings and illustrations that show what life was like in Southwold for the fishermen

The book features a number of drawings and illustrations that show what life was like in Southwold for the 19th century fishermen. Pictured here is Southwold Beach looking towards the town by Thomas Smythe - Credit: Thomas Smythe

“George Ewart Evans moved to Blaxhall after the war where his wife became headteacher of the local school, while Evans was a househusband who looked after the children as well as trying to write. Evans had a neighbour, Robert Savage, and they got talking over the fence one day. Savage remarked that a ‘tempest’ was coming up the Alde estuary, and the use of that word in its Shakesperean sense intrigued Evans and made him wonder what older ways of life Savage’s generation could recall.  

“He eventually started recording other older people in the area, documenting their stories, tales and anecdotes over the years.” 

It was this collection of recordings that allowed George to pen his book, ‘Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay’.  

Released in 1956, he went on to publish a further 10 books over the following three decades.  

“I found the idea that the older generation who were still in touch with their memories, and perhaps with a less mechanised world, very interesting,” explains Robert. 

Baiting the line by P.H. Emerson, c. 1886

Baiting the line by P.H. Emerson, c. 1886 - Credit: P.H. Emerson

And as it happened, Evans came to Southwold in 1976 to conduct a series of lectures for the Workers' Educational Association. 

“I attended these and was spellbound. Evans played the tapes of his recordings of these old men who had the most incredible voices, and could talk about their work in a very authoritative way. That was what made me think that I could try and record the remaining old fisherman of Southwold. 

“I knew the fisherman worked from the beach before the First World War, using boats only powered by wind, sail and muscle, and like the farm workers, I wondered if they’d be able to tell me about their way of working.” 

Inspired by Evans, Robert began tape recording old Southwold fishermen who were born at the end of the 19th century. 

Two Men by Fishing Sheds and Boat by P.H. Emerson

Two Men by Fishing Sheds and Boat by P.H. Emerson - Credit: P.H. Emerson

He soon found the history of the town's fishing culture still in living memory began to piece together. 

“Evans was much more professional in his approach than I was, but nevertheless I went about it and was well rewarded by those I spoke to, as many of them were natural storytellers in the oral tradition.” 

And some of the most fascinating stories he found? 

One goes all the way back to the 19th century, and involves an intense rivalry between two cliff companies in the town. 

“Back in those days, one of the ways the fishermen in Southwold made money was by putting pilots aboard any ships that were going to London, and the pilots would pay them from their fee. What they would do is look out through their telescopes and when they saw a ship flying a pilot jack signal, they knew a pilot was wanted so they would scramble a crew together to put a pilot on board. It was always first come first serve, and the first one to board a ship won the job.  

Packing the cod for the London Market, Southwold by P.H. Emerson. c. 1886

Packing the cod for the London Market, Southwold by P.H. Emerson. c. 1886 - Credit: P.H. Emerson

“And in 1858, a collision took place between two yawls who were competing to put a pilot aboard a ship flying the signal. One of the companies, the Long Island Company, got there first and when they were securing their yawl, a boat from the second company, Kilcock, arrived but they were too late. The helmsman of that yawl, instead of turning away, must have lost his head because he sailed straight into the winning yawl and to the ship. Luckily, no one was killed or hurt, but it did destroy the yawl.  

“The records in Southwold mention this very collision, but they don’t say what happened afterwards - so I thought I would try to investigate this further for my book.” 

Robert discovered that the Long Island Company took the Kilcock Company to the Admiralty Court in London to try to get compensation, and that the records were held at the National Archive at Kew.  

“I went there and found them. They came wrapped in sooty paper bound with a pink tape and the reason for the soot was because they had been sitting on a shelf near the fire in a lawyer's office. It was like a scene out of Dickens." 

The Long Island Company's Lookout, c. 1880 by P.H. Emerson

The Long Island Company's Lookout, c. 1880 by P.H. Emerson - Credit: P.H. Emerson

Upon inspecting the documents, Robert found that the helmsman of the boat that had suffered the collision had made an affidavit.  

“While the mayor of Southwold transcribed it into standard English, I could hear his own sailor’s voice in it, and I used exactly what he said in the book. I transcribed it back into his voice, as if he was talking to me. I found the whole tale, and finding the records, very interesting. I managed to discover a bit of Southwold history that everyone knew about, but no-one knew the full details of.” 

Robert’s book paints a vivid tale of life in the Suffolk fishing town, and uncovers what it was like for the families of these fishermen, and how they survived during the harsher winter months when they didn't go fishing. 

Also throughout, there are a series of illustrations, photographs and paintings from local artists including P.H. Emerson, Joseph Southall and Neil Bell, to help the reader better visualise such a specific and fascinating moment in history.  

Robert, who began recording his interviews with fisherman in 1976, didn’t finish transcribing and penning his works until he retired from his teaching role back in 2016.  

“When I was recording the conversations, I was interested in not just what the fisherman had to say, but finding out how they did their work. It was just as important to learn how they set their nets up, how they knew where the fish were, the best times of day to go, and how they managed to survive the winter months when they didn’t go fishing. And I feel the book covers all of that, and more.” 

East Coast Fishermen, c. 1886 by P.H. Emerson

East Coast Fishermen, c. 1886 by P.H. Emerson - Credit: P.H. Emerson

What does Robert hope readers will gain from Shorelines?  

“I hope they get some sense of the practice of longshore fishing in Southwold, and hear the voices telling a now long gone way of life. There have been fishermen in the town since before Doomsday, and I wanted to get hold of the very end of the tradition before it disappeared completely. I hope people also get some understanding of how different the town was to what it is now.” 

‘Shorelines: Voices of Southwold Fishermen’ is out now and available from Black Dog Books.  

On Saturday November 6, Robert will be appearing at the Ways With Words Festival in Southwold at 9.30am to discuss his book.  

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