Why the boom times ended
Legend has it that, during boom times, you could cross busy harbours without getting your feet wet – by stepping from boat to boat. It’s not like that now. Steven Russell looks at a book about the rise and fall of the East Anglian fishing industry
THERE was little doubt about Ian Robb’s career choice when he left school, seeing as he came from a long-established fishing family. He joined the industry in 1962 as a 15-year-old tally boy with a fish merchant in Lowestoft and would have been forgiven for thinking he’d landed a job for life – so secure did the good times appear. But even as he wrote out his labels – the tallies that were fixed to the boxes in the packing station – he had a curious mind. “Following the 1964 season, I asked in my youthful zeal ‘With such an abundance of herring being caught this year, what if next year they disappeared?’ I was considered somewhat eccentric for this thought. Regretfully, however, 1965 did indeed see the demise of the herring, once hailed as the ‘Silver Darling’.”
Worse was to come in the final decades of the 20th Century – “the end of a way of life and the almost complete annihilation of an entire industry well over a thousand years old, caused firstly by over-fishing and later by governmental red tape and the high cost of fuel”.
Fishing had made this corner of England prosperous, and given much of the coast its unique character, but it was astonishing how quickly the industry declined once the rot set in.
“Some communities managed to adapt and begin anew in other fields of industry – oil and gas, for instance, and more recently offshore wind farms; sadly, others never fully recovered,” Ian reflects.
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He describes the long rise and rapid fall of the trade in his book Memories of the East Anglian Fishing Industry. It explains how ports such as Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth built their reputations, looks at what happened in smaller places such as Southwold and Aldeburgh, and paints a colourful picture of how fishing shaped communities – such as bringing to Suffolk the annual “friendly invasion” of hardy Scottish women who gutted, pickled and packed the herring and whose chatter and songs added to the atmosphere.
Woven into Ian’s commentary are the first-hand recollections of folk who worked on the boats or on the wharfs.
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Catching herring had been part of East Anglian life before the arrival of the Normans and at the time of Domesday the fish was still being used as currency. Kessingland, for instance, paid Hugh de Montfort a manorial rent of 22,000 herring.
At Southwold, where the town was held as a manor for the monks of St Edmund’s, fishermen annually caught 25,000 to feed the monastery.
Aldeburgh’s fortunes were founded on herring, alongside mercantile trade and boatbuilding. Red sprats were caught, dried and exported to Holland. Fishermen also caught sole and lobsters.
Great Yarmouth was the premier East Anglian port for nearly 800 years, though, thanks to its grip on the herring industry.
The migratory fish would swim up to Scotland and, later, down the coast on the way to their breeding grounds off France. By the time they reached Smiths Knoll, a sandbank off East Anglia, they were in their prime.
Lowestoft was actually a relative Johnny Come Lately to the fishing scene and in the 13th Century wasn’t considered a rival. Later, though, it began to benefit because of Yarmouth’s problems with silting. And, explains Ian – who has written a number of books about Lowestoft’s history – “Merchantmen wishing to evade the heavy duties they had to pay at Yarmouth began unloading their goods, including fish, off the coast at Lowestoft.”
In 1372 Yarmouth successfully petitioned Edward III to, in essence, establish a protectionist zone to the detriment of the upstart snapping at its ankles.
Much hinged on the interpretation of a unit of measurement – a dispute that would not be resolved until the 17th Century. The pair “continued as rivals, if not enemies, until the 20th Century – when, by 1999, both towns had lost their fishing fleets and their livelihood, and both communities were in dire economic distress”.
Before that, however, they enjoyed plenty of bright days.
In 1670, Great Yarmouth was home to about 220 fishing boats and Lowestoft 25. By the early 1790s, Yarmouth had 150 vessels fishing for herring alone. There was also mackerel and “north cod”, along with a large mercantile trade.
Yarmouth’s harbour allowed fishermen to use bigger vessels than at Lowestoft, where boats had to be beached on the shingle. Then, in the 1800s, the pretender made a push for the throne.
Lowestoft’s first harbour was built in 1830, says Ian, and strengthened its reputation as a fishing port. “Even in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, Lowestoft boats were reputed to have earned as much as �10,000 in six weeks.”
He credits entrepreneur and visionary Samuel Morton Peto, who persuaded Lowestoft fishermen to change a lifetime’s habit of selling catches in the open, near the beach. When the railway arrived – as it would in 1847 – fish caught locally could reach the Manchester markets the following day, he promised.
The industry quickly took advantage of the links to the Midlands and London. Yarmouth was tardier in exploiting the possibilities.
The new Waveney Herring and Mackerel Market opened in 1883 to deal with growing numbers of drift-net boats arriving not just from East Anglia but destinations such as Ramsgate and Lerwick.
“Each year, between September and November, every nook and cranny in the two ports of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft was given over to curing, pickling and packing herring. Each port in effect became what can only be described as huge fish-processing factories.”
The 20th Century delivered a bonanza in 1913, when about 1,360,000 crans of herring were landed at the ports between September and December – a cran being 28 stones.
Change was in the wind, though. There had been concern the previous year about over-fishing, prompted by proposals to trawl for herring. The use of drift nets caught shoals only when they rose to the surface to feed. Trawling saw nets dragged along the seabed, scooping up virtually everything – mature or not.
That 1913 bonanza – the best year on record – was enough to lull anyone into a false sense of security. Great Yarmouth hosted 264 English boats and 742 Scottish vessels, landing more than 824,000 crans. Lowestoft had 350 English boats and 420 Scottish, bringing home almost 535,000 crans. Eighty-seven per cent of the catch went for export.
“The outbreak of the First World War meant there was no 1914 season; had there been, the herring would have disappeared a lot sooner than the 1960s,” writes Ian.
Demand for that fish began to fall, affected by instability in Europe and the collapse of markets such as Russia and Germany. Coupled with the recession of the 1930s, it saw Yarmouth’s fleet fall to 87 drifters and 17 drifter/trawlers.
In 1966, at Lowestoft, Small & Co phased out herring-catching. “The remnants of the drifter fleet made one final attempt in 1970, when only five Scots boats fished off the East Anglian coast. All they landed was sixty crans. King Herring was no more.”
The town’s remaining drifters were either sold or converted to trawling, “but the North Sea is not very deep and trawling did nothing to help the situation. In fact it made it worse. Lessons had not been learnt by the loss of the herring”.
The changing fortunes of Yarmouth, which did not switch to trawling to the same extent as its rival, were not easily ignored. By 1971 its population had dropped to 50,000-odd from nearly 53,000 a decade earlier.
Lowestoft concentrated on whitefish, with plaice its main catch, and continued to expand. Its population overtook its neighbour’s and Lowestoft became East Anglia’s premier fishing port. But the fault-lines were widening . . .
“Following nearly two decades of intensive trawling, by the early 1980s it was clear that North Sea fish of all types were on borrowed time.”
Ian argues: “From the 1970s, the EEC ‘common pond’ policy also meant that more vessels were fishing for an ever-decreasing stock. Despite later governmental dictates and restrictions, fish stocks continued to dwindle.
“Although eventually there was some improvement, EU quotas effectively throttled not just the North Sea fisherman but even the longshoreman’s livelihood. The situation was not helped with the introduction of continental boats vacuuming everything off the sea floor.”
The decline was becoming quite personal for Ian. By the 1980s, Rossfish – with its processing and freezing plants, and sales office – was the largest employer on the Fish Market at Lowestoft. It was also the first major domino to tumble.
“Every day when I was taking back auction prices and noting the drop in quality of the fish coming into the factory, it was clear that one way or another, sooner or later, we’d be out of a job,” he remembers.
No surprise, then, that one autumn day in 1981 saw him and his colleagues being told that the Ross sales office would be closing that October. “The factory itself followed, with the remaining 100 men and women being made redundant in March 1982 . . . An era was about to end.”
Over the last 20 years of the 20th Century, too, the decline of prime and whitefish stocks went hand in hand with changes in eating habits. “The high street fishmonger has been superseded by the supermarket.” The popularity of traditional chip shops shifted, also. “Fish now has to compete with pies, sausages, mushy peas, drinks, chicken, spring rolls, beef cutlets and more.”
Lowestoft struggled on in vain. In April, 1995, when the European plaice quota earmarked for the east coast went instead to the Dutch, 14 Lowestoft boats were decommissioned, he says.
“No longer did we hear the bell calling all to auction. No longer did we hear ‘Let go the ropes’ or ‘Let go aft, let go for’rard.’”
The author laments: “Lowestoft, that final bastion of the North Sea fishery in East Anglia, still survives – but only just. The Fish Market built in the 1980s is now home to a handful of wholesale fish merchants and is a shadow of its former self.”
Will the boom times ever return? He quotes Ernie Dewhurst, who has fished off the coast since 1975: You can catch as much herring as you want, but there’s nowhere to sell it. “The boats won’t come back like they were. You can’t get the workforce, and the price doesn’t warrant the effort put in and the expense – the price of diesel, the price of paint [and] gear.”
n Memories of the East Anglian Fishing Industry is published by Countryside Books at �7.99
The friendly invasion!
EAST Anglian life was given extra colour by the annual arrival of Scottish fishergirls who followed the herring south – women with reputations as some of the hardiest workers in the industry. “Their nimble fingers were ideal for gutting, pickling and packing the herring into the thousands of barrels once seen stacked everywhere during the season,” says Ian Robb.
“In the early years of the 20th Century some of these girls were as young as thirteen – in a number of cases even as young as twelve. Several of the married lassies would bring their bairns – their young children – with them.”
Many came down by train, year after year, “working in the open in the bitterest weather with their hands wrapped in binding to protect them from the salt and brine throughout the cold winter nights, not to mention to protect themselves from their extremely sharp knives”.
Landladies would go through an autumn ritual of stripping rooms virtually bare and covering walls with newspaper or brown paper to protect them from the fish oil and brine that got into the girls’ clothes and skin.
“Box rooms – or small bedrooms capable of taking only one person during the summer – would now accommodate three girls in a single bed. Not quite as draconian as it sounds – the girls usually worked in shifts and took turns sleeping.”
At the height of the season, fishergirls at Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth would gut 60 herring a minute, working in teams of three: two gutting the fish, a third packing them into barrels.
Ian adds: “What fascinated East Anglian folk was their language – mainly Gaelic – which has been described as a cross between singing and talking, and their hands, which were always on the move. During a break, to keep their hands nimble, the girls would be forever knitting.”