Remembering the days when returning boats were full of silver darlings

IT’S a Friday morning in late October, so I think I will head to Gorleston Pier to watch the drifters coming in, hopefully low in the water to indicate that overnight they had a good haul of herring.

Alternatively, to be nearer all the bustling animation and unmistakeable sounds and smells, I might catch a Fishwharf bus and stroll along the quayside, enjoying the sight of boats cranning out, hoping to finish in time to sail again to seek the shoals tonight. The lucky ones will be too late for that, for they will have brought in catches big enough to take hours to discharge.

The crews are weary, and emptying the fish locker cannot be hurried. Once the catch is on the quay in the swill baskets – a design unique to Yarmouth – it will be lifted on to a lorry or horse-drawn cart to be taken for auction.

Oh dear. Here I go again, indulging in wishful thinking and day-dreaming. It must be my age...

Until half a-century ago, the borough adopted a new persona in autumn. The holiday season had ended, Christmas preparations and shopping certainly did not start in September as they do nowadays, and we welcomed the resumption of the herring fishery that was one of the mainstays of our economy.

The Scots would sail in, their crews and drifters old friends with familiar names. By rail from Scotland would come the fisher-lassies who stood in all weathers on our exposed riverside sites gutting and packing herring into barrels while chattering – all at non-stop machine-gun speed.

Ancillary trades were all geared up.

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The attention of Yarmouthians was always on the local fleet, crewed by our relatives and friends, and we were ever hopeful that it would be a prosperous home voyage so there would be more money after “settling” and households could enjoy a better Christmas. There was a mixture of despondency and hope when hauls were puny, elation if shots were up above the hundred mark.

Every year we wished that a Yarmouth drifter would land the biggest single-night catch of all from here and Lowestoft, thus earning the coveted Prunier Trophy, presented annually by a French woman who owned a renowned London restaurant. The competition was launched in 1936, suspended during the war, and resumed from 1946 to 1966, ending when our herring fishery was near extinction.

Yarmouth drifters seldom fared well in the competition, claiming the trophy only three times whereas Lowestoft boats won it on no fewer than 13 occasions and Scottish ones (based in either port) nine times. The Yarmouth successes were: 1946, Romany Rose (YH63), 246 crans, skipper W Rudd; 1950, Wydale (YH105), 250 crans, skipper A Brown; 1962, Ocean Starlight (YH61), skipper “Bounty” Hewitt.

When our autumn fishery was in full swing, and Yarmouth rightly proclaimed itself as the world’s greatest herring port, there was an unofficial grapevine which disseminated the news of drifters steaming home with a major catch, enabling folk to be on the quayside to greet her.

In non-school hours, little lads on bikes cadged “a fry” of herring (enough for tea) from discharging drifters, or picked up spilled ones from the cobbles, carrying their fish home in a kerchief or by threading twine through the gills. Their mothers would chop off heads and tails and snotch each fish before rolling them in flour and dropping them into a sizzling frying pan.

Snotching? Scoring them with a sharp knife several times from back to belly, not only so they would cook right through but also to create bite-size segments easily picked off with the fingers (seldom were knives and forks used).

In the Peggotty household, my fisherman father had provided us with a deep frying pan similar to those used on the drifters where herring was the staple diet: it was a specially-made large square high-sided affair, lidless and with a handle across the top.

Herring were plentiful during the autumn and I loved them...apart from the roes, which I left. The smell of fried herring, and my father’s fishy clothes, permeated our home in autumn.

Another person whose thoughts each autumn hark back to the long-gone herring fishery is 89-year-old John Ball, of South Garden, Gorleston, son of a prominent skipper and boat-owner, who has been involved in – and kept abreast of – the industry all his life.

Six years ago he published Out of Yarmouth Harbour which he described as “A short chronicle of one man’s association with the Yarmouth herring fleet.”

Recently we were mardling about the time when steam was introduced. The size of the traditional sail fleet dwindled, producing a profound culture shock after centuries. “Steam first appeared for sea-going people around 1870 but initially it was confined to larger vessels and trawlers, the latter not only having more power but enabling much larger trawls to be used,” he said.

“Drifters benefited because they were no longer restricted by the weather and were also able to replace the manually operated windlass (winch) by the steam capstan.”

The capstan must have been a god-send to the driftermen.

John continued: “When the fleet was both sail and steam, in case of problems steam always had to give way to sail. Despite this, there were several incidents, particularly when the sail boys were entering and leaving harbour.

“Also in the early days when they were adapting to new technology, there was a spot of prejudice as it was felt that the noise of the engines would scare the fish away.”

And John has always wondered “why they didn’t supply a purpose-built toilet on the drifters. Surely it wasn’t a space problem – but on the one occasion when I visited the Lydia Eva, I forgot to check whether she had one!”

She is our museum piece, the last surviving steam drifter, named after her owner’s daughter. Yarmouth drifter names intrigue John Ball, who has informally classified the majority. Family members abound, some prefixed by Boy (Charles), Girl (Violet) and Young (Cliff).

Smith’s Dock Trust used written-out numbers, One to Thirty-Eight, while most of the Bloomfield fleet had the prefix Ocean (Ocean Sunlight), the other half of the names often reflecting the famous soaps and soap powders produced by its giant parent company, Lever Brothers.