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Looking back on Great Yarmouth’s plaque-worthy autumn herring fishery trade

PUBLISHED: 07:00 28 October 2018

The Yarmouth drifter Wydale (YH105), reputed to be the last local boat to fish for herring.

The Yarmouth drifter Wydale (YH105), reputed to be the last local boat to fish for herring.

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Is spotting blue heritage plaques on buildings the 2018 adult version of the “I spy, with my little eye” children’s game?

Busy fingers: Scots fisher lassies gutting herringBusy fingers: Scots fisher lassies gutting herring

They are nearly 100 hereabouts, according to a recent Mercury report about the head of the British Plaque Trust criticising their increasing prevalence nationwide. His opinion cut no ice here where we rightly love them.

I am confident that those who champion our borough’s history are careful in their selections because an over-abundance of plaques could pin-point comparative trivia, thus devaluing the entire concept.

Without checking, I wonder if one of the most notable and vital economic assets Great Yarmouth ever had has been acknowledged with a blue plaque.

I am referring to the autumn herring fishery, but so few relics and reminders of its past remain today that anyone contemplating bestowing a blue plaque to acknowledge it might find it tricky to locate a site for it.

Awaiting the herring! The South Denes covered in empty barrels in which pickled herring will be exportedAwaiting the herring! The South Denes covered in empty barrels in which pickled herring will be exported

The culprit might be the North Sea oil and natural gas industry which took over the Fishwharf and South Denes, removing redundant fishery relics. If that was so, it was a small price to pay for helping to stabilise our local economy.

We were grateful for the offshore industry, and shippers like Norfolk Line and the Sealords to provide jobs. The offshore industry, plus wind-farms, are welcome but will never counter-balance those departures.

As for the autumn herring fishery, are our schoolchildren are ever taught about its importance and influence hereabouts? Mind you, there cannot be many teachers who can remember that era.

Our herring fishery, when quaysides were lined with hundreds of Yarmouth and Scottish drifters from October until early December, gradually petered out.

Day off: Scottish drifters four abreast line Great Yarmouth's South Quay on a 1960 Sunday, observing the Sabbath while the Yarmouth fleet sailed for the herring groundsDay off: Scottish drifters four abreast line Great Yarmouth's South Quay on a 1960 Sunday, observing the Sabbath while the Yarmouth fleet sailed for the herring grounds

Because it did not come to a sudden halt, it is impossible to put a date on its ultimate demise – but it might well be that the remaining few drifters cranned out their final catches here in the autumn of 1968 – exactly a half-century ago.

The Scottish fleet usually outnumbered the local drifters, but in 1968 only five sailed through our twin piers to participate.

The following year, none arrived. King Herring had died, as far as Yarmouth was concerned.

A one-time hugely dominant industry, a vital part of our local economy, was no more. Our long reign as the world’s foremost herring port had ended.

Never again would local folk stand on the old wooden Dutch pier at Gorleston to welcome the drifters as they returned to our safe haven, waving excitedly to family and friends on YH-registered boats.

Saturday was the day when the words of that old song, The Fleet’s In, became reality. That was because the rules decreed that all drifters had to spend Saturday nights in port.

The Yarmouth driftermen always had an advantage over their Scottish competitors.

Although every drifter had to be in port over Saturday nights, the Yarmouth fleet sailed to the fishing grounds on Sunday mornings while the Scots observed the Sabbath, not joining them until Mondays.

Of course, the herring industry spread wider than the crews of the drifters, for it was supported by a variety of businesses providing year-round or autumnal work for basket-makers, net-makers and repairers, victuallers, rope makers, coopers, dry docks, coal merchants, box makers, ice makers, lorry or horse-and-cart owners...

We oldies miss the animation, bustle, Scots dialect, highs and lows of bumper catches and paltry landings, fisher-lassies (constantly knitting off-duty) preparing herring for export in barrels by large cargo ships to Eastern Europe, drifters steaming hard back to port to land their fish early to make the best prices, the downside when catches were poor or there was a glut and surplus resulting in unwanted fish going to the £100,000 herring reduction factory – built near the Harbour’s Mouth in 1952 to produce oil, fertiliser and cattle-food.

That fishery was part of Yarmouth’s industrial fabric, and only gloom-mongers forecast that one day it would dwindle to nought. For once, they were correct.

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