Delight at herring fishery newsreels

THE long-vanished herring fishery is gone but not forgotten by older Yarmouthians, living on in our memories, indelible and sharply etched. Even today, decades since the once-huge industry had dwindled to nought, words continue to be penned about its colourful contribution to our history.

Inevitably, the number of unrepeatable photographic reminders is finite, so it was a delight recently when I visited an online computer website to watch a clutch of herring fishery newsreels from the first 60 years of the 20th century, a cornucopia of nostalgia there before my eyes.

A Mercury report in August said British Pathe (one of the big three newsreel makers along with Movietone and Gaumont-British) had put its huge archive of 90,000 films on line so the public could access it freely. Hitherto only historians and researchers were allowed to examine it but now Pathe (1896-1976) hopes that online viewers might provide details of clips to help it comprehensively to catalogue the collection.

My personal mission centred on my father who, in 1947, was mate of the Bloomfields drifter Ocean Dawn (YH47) skippered, I think, by Charlie Johnson, of Suffield Road, Gorleston. She took a Pathe cameraman to the herring grounds to record the routine of fishing for the so-called silver darlings.

When the clip was screened as part of a Saturday night programme at the old Regal Cinema, the family went to see it but we failed to glimpse him. But Pathe gave the crew members still photographs, including one of Father Peggotty helping to shoot the nets.

Inserting “Great Yarmouth herring fishing” into the Pathe archive site’s search facility produces nine clips of between a few seconds’ duration and nine minutes, including some silent, unissued and unedited. The 1947 one filmed on the Ocean Dawn was there, but again my dad was not in the five-minute segment.

The previous year, the cameras were at Yarmouth filming drifters idle at the wharves and Scots usually-busy fisher lassies with nothing to do: it was because of an unofficial strike of crews demanding more rations, a claim they won. But the voice-over by Bob Danvers-Walker said these were scenes that ought never to be seen “in food-hungry Britain” and questioned whether there were better means of settling disputes without harming the public.

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A quiet day on the wharves was filmed in 1933, but the lack of activity (“a silent forest of masts and funnels”) was due to the fact that it was a Sunday when all Scottish drifters observed the Sabbath in port while the Yarmouth boats sailed for a night’s fishing without competition.

By contrast, The Tragedy of Yarmouth (1934) recorded a day of bumper landings but, because of a glut, history was sadly made when no buyer bid for the 6000 tons of herring, 2000 tons of which had to be dumped at sea.

In 1948 Pathe Gazette produced Herring Moon Warms Yarmouth, the commentator reporting that more than 400 drifters and 4000 men were enjoying a bumper harvest, and hopefully the eight-week season would end with 800 million fish being landed at Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Film of some of the thousand fisher lassies cleaning 50,000 herring a minute was included, plus shore workers preparing the fish for bloatering and kippering, the latter complete with Cellophane wrapper “which makes the kipper look more appetising”

According to Danvers-Walker, the industry was expanding steadily, and the provision of a herring oil plant was a possibility. “Yarmouth is serving the nation’s bread-basket,” he added, as a steam train trundled herring cargoes along the South Quay rail line heading for Vauxhall Station and onward conveyance.

At first I was puzzled by a 1924 five-minute pre-talkie silent film of general Fishwharf scenes and “bonnie Scotch fisher lassies hard at work”, followed by the Prince of Wales (“one of whose proudest titles is Master of the Fishing Fleets”) on a drifter berthed in Yarmouth, then with his entourage passing through dense crowds on the quay before getting into his white Rolls Royce.

Next we saw him cutting the ribbon to open the new Haven Bridge and walking across it, accompanied by the mayor and other borough officials. A shot of the twin-spans closing – with the old temporary bridge behind them – cut to a thronged Hall Quay, the royal and civic party walking towards the Town Hall.

But as most Yarmouthians know, the future King Edward VIII came here to inspect the fishing fleet and open the new bridge in October 1930 – not six years earlier as indicated on the website. But these were obviously two separate films being wrongly spliced together, for later in the Pathe “herring” list is the royal visit as a separate item and properly dated 1930.

A nine-minute unedited and unissued film taken at Yarmouth features various herring fishery scenes on shore, including fish being bloatered and kippered, with Scots girls at work and wooden boxes of the oak-smoked products being loaded on to lorries for John Woodger, one of the leading names in processing.

A 1959 item covered a conference in London of fish-catching countries anxious to stop the practice “by greedy foreigners” of immature herring being netted, thus threatening the future of the herring fishery; a 1925 clip studied the dexterous high-speed skills of the fisher girls on the South Denes, plus a packed Fishwharf as drifters cranned out, including the G.A.W. (YH627); another recorded the revived herring fair and showed flag-bedecked drifters participating in the review of the fishing fleet off Yarmouth in 1957, sailing in line past a saluting base on a Royal Navy warship; and a web-site caption writer admitted to being unclear whether another film entitled The Herring Capital of the World depicted Yarmouth, Norfolk, or its Isle of Wight namesake...

It was all wonderfully evocative, rekindling older memories and surely of interest to younger generations, for these newsreels were the next best thing to a stroll along the Fishwharf familiar to us in those distant decades. But be warned: if you put “herring fishing” into the British Pathe archive search facility without specifying Great Yarmouth, you will find local clips plus others covering Scotland, Yorkshire, Canada, the United States, France, Holland and Ireland.

If you log on to the website (, I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. Besides, you might well be able to help Pathe in its quest for information and details of those herring fishery films.