A host of smoke-belching drifters brought prosperity to Great Yarmouth
- Credit: Clifford Temple
Half a century has passed since the huge autumn herring fishery finally petered out, a concept deemed impossible and unthinkable in its hey-day.
Scores of drifters and thousands of crewmen and ancillary workers contributing to elevate Great Yarmouth to the status of the world’s leading herring port became redundant within the space of a few years from the early 1970s.
The Prunier Trophy, awarded to the drifter landing the biggest single-night catch landed in Yarmouth or Lowestoft, was axed in 1966, indicative of the decline.
King Herring was dethroned after a long reign that was at times turbulent.
Few reminders of those heydays have survived, the majority soon swept away when the port welcomed its unexpected new lease of life as the major hub of the intensive exploration for oil or natural gas in the southern North Sea.
Rig supply ships replaced the herring drifters. The Scottish dialects each autumn were succeeded by year-round Texan drawls.
When our herring fishery was at its peak between the wars, the so-called silver darlings landed here in their countless millions were a popular food not only in Britain but also in some foreign counties - in Russia and eastern Europe, for example, where they were part of the staple diet for the impoverished.
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Large cargo ships laden with barrels of herring conveyed them there.
Yarmouth and Lowestoft’s economies were blessed because the summer holiday trade was complemented by the autumn herring fishery, providing off-season work. Unless the annual autumn animation when the Scottish drifter fleet arrived here to augment our local boats is conveyed to today’s schoolchildren, they might never become aware of this huge contribution to our prosperity.
For many youngsters hereabouts, their forebears would have been involved in the herring industry, as were mine on my father’s side.
He was a drifter mate, then skipper, for much of his working life, interrupted by war service, a common experience.
We are fortunate that the herring fishery was a popular subject for photographers who have bequeathed to us a comprehensive record of its picturesque facets.
When our autumn fishery was still active, and I was witnessing those scenes first-hand, we were almost blasé about it all.
But today - nearly a lifetime later - I can still experience a feeling of disbelief at some of those graphic shots of crowded quaysides, almost an accusation that the camera can lie despite the traditional rebuttal that it assuredly does not.
Favourite pictures feature a host of drifters, smoke belching from their funnels, jostling for position outside the twin piers to enter the harbour and steam to the Fishwharf to cran out their catches, aware the buying price might go down, depending on supply and demand.
If there was a glut, their hard-earned hauls might not fetch a decent price at auction and end up dumped at the herring reduction factory to become oil, fertiliser or cattle food rather than be served on family tables, cured into bloaters and kippers, or exported in barrels of brine.
Our autumn fishery was short – and sweet, if catches were good and prices held up. By early November, the end of that season was in sight. The Scottish drifters, which comprised the majority of the fleet, were already thinking about casting and hauling their nets for the last time and returning to home ports.
Occasionally observers on the riversides or Gorleston’s old Dutch pier spotted a Scottish drifter, heading for home with tethered deck cargo concealed beneath a tarpaulin – perhaps a three-piece suite of furniture, bought in Yarmouth from the autumn’s earnings as a surprise Christmas present bound for Scotland where perhaps prices and ranges were not as competitive.
Would it delight the recipient back in Scotland? Or was the wife hoping for a striking piece of jewellery from a Yarmouth specialist like Cox’s, Aldred’s, Bayne’s, Engledow & Gallant, Howlett Smith...