Lydia was all alone... and now she is a lady of leisure

UNIQUE: the museum-piece Yarmouth drifter Lydia Eva off Gorleston Beach recently.Picture: SUBMITTED

UNIQUE: the museum-piece Yarmouth drifter Lydia Eva off Gorleston Beach recently.Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

SHE was alone, and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nonetheless, the very sight of her instantly conjured up memories of the much lamented but long gone vast autumn herring fishery.

CELEBRATION: skipper and crew of the Wyedale with the mizzen masthead weather vane presented to them

CELEBRATION: skipper and crew of the Wyedale with the mizzen masthead weather vane presented to them to acknowledge her Prunier Trophy success in 1950.Picture: LESLIE HAWKINS - Credit: Archant

Mrs Peggotty and I were enjoying one of our regular brisk walks along Gorleston Lower Promenade, heading to JayJay’s for a morning coffee in the sunshine early last month, when we spotted a familiar silhouette rounding the South Pier and heading on a course parallel to the beach, dark smoke puffing from her funnel.

There are no prizes for realising that it was, of course, the dear old Lydia Eva, the last known survivor of the thousands of steam drifters whose activities each autumn made Great Yarmouth the world’s leading herring fishery port in the 20th century.

Yes, admitted, she is steel built and not wooden, has bluff bows atypical of the rest of the drifter fleet, and the sign-writing of her name and YH89 are in a different style from those of her forerunners, but who’s quibbling? For she is now unique, a one-and-only...unless somebody knows of another veteran in some distant foreign harbour, barely recognisable after conversion to some new configuration and role.

When we interrupted our stroll along the promenade to make for the water’s edge to enjoy a closer sight of our maritime museum-piece at sea, we were forced to shield our eyes because the Lydia Eva was between us and the low morning sun.

She was not part of a procession of drifters heading out to sea as she would have been a half-century ago but alone, close to the beach (whereas she would never have been in that spot in her working years), and anyway, it was a month before the old autumn herring fishery would have begun.

None of those factors diminished the pleasure of seeing her at sea under steam.

Most Read

Later we came to appreciate our good fortune in sighting the Lydia Eva because she was on one of her rare ventures to sea, giving her volunteer crew and paying passengers a small taste of her long-ago working life as a fishing boat.

It seems there had been fears that the escalating and prohibitive costs of maintaining her might have resulted in her becoming immobile, robbing us of that poignant occasional reminder of yesteryear, but a combination of well-wishers and financial help gave the veteran ex-drifter the opportunity to steam again.

As decades pass, the small number of men who crewed our drifters dwindles still further, so it was heart-warming to learn from the Mercury coverage that one of the passengers on board the Lydia Eva that day was 88-year-old Bernard “Doddo” Sheppard, from Sutton in Norfolk, a veteran drifterman treated by his niece, Sue White, to his yearned-for mini-voyage.

And Doddo was not just any old drifterman, but was in the crew of the Wydale (YH105) in the autumn of 1950 when she won the coveted Prunier Trophy, awarded annually for the biggest single-night one-shot haul landed in Yarmouth or Lowestoft during each autumn fishery.

It took the Wyedale’s crew an exhausting 13 hours through the autumn night to haul in the nets and shake out the herring. Her total catch was a staggering 310 cran, but Skipper Alfred “Mabby” Brown decided to hand 60 of her herring-laden nets to another Yarmouth drifter, the Harry Eastick (YH278), also owned by Gorleston’s Eastick family (as was the Lydia Eva).

So the Wyedale steamed back to Yarmouth, landing 250¼ cran. One hundred cran was bought by curers but the rest, sadly, went to the bone and meal plant, probably at a lower price.

The Caister skipper’s decision was possibly so he could return to Yarmouth to catch the market, but that is surmise on my part. Perhaps Doddo Sheppard is the only man alive who knows the real answer, having been on board at the time.

Doddo was also the recipient of a silver ashtray, as were his shipmates, as mementoes of the Prunier Trophy win; Skipper Brown was presented with an inscribed silver cigarette box as a souvenir. The winning drifter was always given a mizzen masthead weather vane; the Wyedale’s is on display in our Time and Tide Museum.

All were usually handed to the winning crew at Madame Prunier’s exclusive London sea-food restaurant at a dinner that was the high point of a brief stay in the capital for the successful driftermen.

The marble trophy, depicting a hand rising from the waters clutching a herring, is in the Lowestoft Maritime Museum alongside the Sparrow’s Nest.

For 24 autumn seasons between its inauguration in 1936 and cessation in 1966, when the great East Anglian herring fishery was petering out, the Prunier Trophy was keenly contested and prized by drifter skippers and owners alike. If a Yarmouth or Lowestoft boat landed the biggest haul of the year, the top Scottish boat was always given the runner-up prize, and vice-versa.

The other two Yarmouth drifters to win the Prunier Trophy were the Romany Rose (YH63) in 1946 with 246¾ cran (Skipper Walter Rudd); and the Ocean Starlight (YH61) in 1962 with 294¼ cran (Skipper Stanley “Bounty” Hewitt).

Although the autumn herring fishery dwindled to nought in the late Sixties, we old-timers still enjoy a wallow in those halcyon times. Here we are, ten days into October, and the crowded wharves would have been buzzing, the sights and sounds and smells unmistakeable. The Scots fleet would have arrived to join their Yarmouth counterparts and competitors to seek the so-called silver darlings.

For a couple of months, there was intensive fishing in weather that could be fierce at times, bad enough to interrupt the drift-net fishing. At the Fishwharf, along the riversides and on the South Denes and over in Gorleston, everything was geared up to discharge, sell and despatch the herring, either fresh, cured as bloaters or kippers, or salted for export.

There would also have been a mini-invasion of the Scots fishergirls – as many as 6000 so-called fisher-lassies would be working in inhospitable conditions, their razor-sharp knives gutting herring at lightning speed.

It is a wonderful memory, in glorious Technicolor for the observer...but for most of the participants, it must have been in stark black-and-white reality, brutally uncomfortable and hazardous for most of the participants.