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Big catches and some near misses

PUBLISHED: 19:44 20 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:48 30 June 2010

Scots drifters discharging their catches on a busy day in 1950 at Yarmouth Fishwharf

Scots drifters discharging their catches on a busy day in 1950 at Yarmouth Fishwharf

THERE used to be a fishermen's ditty called Up Jumped the Herring, always a highlight of live and recorded performances by the late beloved Sam Larner, of Winterton.

THERE used to be a fishermen's ditty called Up Jumped the Herring, always a highlight of live and recorded performances by the late beloved Sam Larner, of Winterton. The shanty song was popular far beyond his native village.

It seems an appropriate song for today's offering, for you cannot keep a good herring down. Mention that fish - for long a mainstay of the commercial life of Great Yarmouth - and, lo and behold, up jumps another, figuratively speaking.

Recently I wrote about the Scottish drifter Boy Andrew, inaugural winner of the Prunier Trophy, awarded annually for the biggest overnight catch of fresh herring by a boat fishing from Yarmouth and Lowestoft each autumn, and the Mercury was hardly published before my telephone rang.

The caller was a man too young to have experienced the great herring industry first-hand, and he was seeking more information. “I've just been reading about the Boy Andrew getting the Prunier Trophy with 231 cran in 1936,” he said, “and you wrote that she'd have landed well over 300 cran but had so many nets full of fish that she passed some containing 100 cran to a Yarmouth drifter working nearby.

“Was that a one-off?”

Although the driftermen risked their lives in pursuit of King Herring and needed big catches of the silver darlings to make their voyages viable, occasionally they had to let caution prevail and handed some nets to a neighbouring boat. The Prunier Trophy was up for competition for only 24 years before and after the war (1936-1966) but there was another example in 1950.

That autumn, the Yarmouth drifter Wydale (YH105) won the award with 250 cran...and would have been the first to exceed 300 cran had Skipper A Brown not passed nets holding a further 60 over to the Harry Eastick, another local boat. Incidentally, the Wydale has a permanent place in the history of the herring fishery by being the last steam drifter to work from Yarmouth, according to the late Kenneth Kent who monitored the records; when she was sent to the breaker's yard in Holland in 1961, she did so ending another piece of port history by towing to a similar fate the former pleasure steamer Cobholm.

Only four times was the 300-cran mark bettered, all in successive years in the early 1950s after the Wydale's near miss: in 1951, the Scottish drifter Star of Bethlehem returned to Yarmouth Fishwharf to discharge 303 cran, the following year the Lord Hood, of Lowestoft, delivered 314 cran, and in 1953 the Fruitful Bough, a Peterhead boat, landed the all-time record 323 cran at Yarmouth - when the runner-up (Yarmouth's Ocean Lifebuoy) managed 301 cran.

Had that initial winner, the Boy Andrew, hauled all her nets instead of passing some to a drifter fishing close by, she would have established a record catch of 331 cran that would stand throughout the 24 years of the Prunier Trophy.

There was another case of what-might-have-been in 1954 when the Scottish drifter Jessie Sinclair took the trophy with 272 cran, two cran better than the Yarmouth-based Wilson Line whose 270 cran earned the runner-up spot. However, when the Wilson Line set sail the next morning after landing those 270 cran, “her crew found eight cran of herring still in one of her lockers so, had she landed all her catch, she would have won the trophy that year,” Gorleston author Kenneth Kent wrote in his 1992 book about the Prunier.

For the record, 102 years ago the cran became the standard measure for herring catches, but a cran was also 37½ gallons, or 28 stone in weight. A cran was usually reckoned to contain roughly 1300 fish, but that figure varied according to their size.

Now, from sea to air, and in January I wrote about a long-lost propeller, believed to have come from an aircraft based at the South Denes Royal Naval Air Station in the 1914-18 war. Reader Robert Keenan, of England's Lane, Gorleston, remembered that for years it stood in the stairwell of the Market Place shop of cutler and tool retailer Smith and Daniels where he worked but, when the business was sold in the mid-1960s, it was carefully manhandled out of an upstairs window and taken away by the Fleet Air Arm, successors to the Royal Naval Air Service, to its Yeovilton headquarters.

As I reported at the time, my efforts to track the current whereabouts of that propeller proved fruitless, with the Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton and two other RAF museums unable to locate it. I gather air museums have thousands of potential exhibits in store and old propellers must be prolific.

Another failure was being unable to find the Mercury photograph or report of the removal of the propeller although Mr Keenan recalls this newspaper being present at the time. But now some better news: Mrs Valerie Richards, whose grandfather founded the business, pinpointed the publication of the report and photograph to the first Mercury of 1965.

Then came another set-back: some vandal had ripped from that 1965 Mercury its final two pages...and the story was on the back page! In the end I looked it up at the public library, the file lugged up from secure storage, and found the January 1st Mercury intact, with no pages missing.

According to the Mercury, the propeller was 16ft long and constructed of metal-bound mahogany. The need to find a new home for it was because Smith and Daniels were vacating their premises to move to The Conge. The propeller had been acquired years earlier by a member of the family firm. “Possible interested parties were sounded out and eventually the Fleet Air Arm came to the rescue,” reported the Mercury.

Mr Keenan had said the propeller was manoeuvred from an upstairs window down to a waiting lorry, but the photograph appears to show that it is being carefully carried out of the shop door. What is not in doubt is the eventual destination of the propeller. The Mercury stated that the Fleet Air Arm declared: “We'll take it for our aircraft museum at Yeovilton.”

I remain curious to know if it is still there, perhaps dusty in an old hangar crammed with vintage propellers and other memorabilia. But Mrs Richards, who lives in Herefordshire, assures me that she has visited the Yeovil museum in search of the elusive propeller, but without success.


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