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The end of the herring industry

PUBLISHED: 15:25 16 October 2008 | UPDATED: 09:15 11 May 2010

The vessel Fertile

The vessel Fertile

THE END: a phrase long familiar to us, tacked to the end of films and television plays and returning us to a state of normality. This week's column - appearing in October, the month that for many decades saw the Great Yarmouth herring fishery in full swing - examines its symbolic end, and also looks at a drama on distant waters in which the crews of almost four dozen drifters and trawlers probably feared their lives might be at an end although their raw courage buoyed them in their fight against a far superior foe.

THE END: a phrase long familiar to us, tacked to the end of films and television plays and returning us to a state of normality. This week's column - appearing in October, the month that for many decades saw the Great Yarmouth herring fishery in full swing - examines its symbolic end, and also looks at a drama on distant waters in which the crews of almost four dozen drifters and trawlers probably feared their lives might be at an end although their raw courage buoyed them in their fight against a far superior foe.

The principal photograph illustrating today's feature is one of the thousands of the multi-faceted autumn herring industry taken during his career by the late Les Gould, the Mercury staff photographer from 1948 to his retirement in 1982. By chance, he was on Gorleston Pier in mid-November 1968 and caught the moment when the Scottish drifter Fertile looked to be almost engulfed by a heavy sea as she neared the harbour's mouth on her voyage back home to Fraserburgh.

Usually the visiting drifters fished for King Herring into December, but it had been a miserable autumn fishery seeking elusive shoals, and the dwindled fleet cut its losses and packed up early.

As it transpired, the Fertile's departure lowered the figurative curtain on that great seasonal mainstay of the borough's economy, and the days of super-animation along the Fishwharf and quaysides jammed with hundreds of drifters, were over for good. A tradition, a way of life, a means of livelihood, were all relegated to history.

Only five Scottish boats fished from Yarmouth in 1968 - 40 years ago this year - and had netted but 811 cran, small fry considering it was not uncommon for 20,000 cran (20 million) herring to be landed in a single day. Gross over-fishing had decimated the fish stocks.

This photograph, enlarged to an 11ft by 4ft mural, was a talking point for many visitors to the Mercury office in Regent Street, before we moved premises. Scores of prints were bought by customers as a poignant memento of those herring heydays. Thank goodness for such graphic reminders of yesteryear.

The exploits of the Yarmouth and Lowestoft fishing fleets and their crews in two world wars have been well documented, so it came as a surprise when I chanced upon a report in an old Mercury that rang no figurative bells. It told readers about a fleet of drifters and trawlers being assailed by a superior force far from its home waters in 1917.

Although the newspaper report said “several Yarmouth drifters were amongst those attacked” in the Adriatic Sea between Italy and Albania, I cannot find a list of the fishing vessels involved, despite trawling the internet, and therefore I cannot name the Yarmouth boats. Those singled out in the Mercury report were, I think, Scottish. This indicates that the Yarmouth contingent escaped without serious damage or injury to crewmen whereas those mentioned were in the thick of things.

Forty-seven ex-fishing craft, each with a ten-man crew and one small gun, were in lines guarding anti-submarine nets seeking to restrict the movement of Austrian and Hungarian raiders. They were regularly attacked, but this was the biggest raid so far, with the little ships facing the onslaught of three cruisers, two destroyers and three submarines.

Fourteen of 47 trawlers were sunk and a further three seriously damaged.

According to the Mercury, “In one case the enemy appears to have acted with chivalry towards the little craft, signalling by blasts on the siren and dipping her flag that the crews were to abandon their vessels. This cruiser approached to within 100 yards of the Gowan Lea and hailed her to take to the boats but Skipper James Watt, having slipped his nets, replied by ringing down for 'full speed ahead' and, calling on his crew for three cheers, bade them fight to a finish.

“Amid cheers, they manned the run and continued to fire with good effect until a shot from the cruiser disabled the gun. They stuck to it, however, under heavy fire, endeavouring to repair the damage until the cruiser had passed out of range.

“The Gowan Lea then proceeded to the assistance of a badly damaged consort, Floandi, which had four men killed and three wounded but whose skipper, though wounded in three places, remained at his post throughout the action.

“In the meantime the remaining cruisers had opened a devastating fire yet, despite the overwhelming odds against the drifters and the willingness of the enemy to allow the crews to take to their boats, a spirit of indomitable gallantry was shown from one end of the line to the other throughout the action.

“The crew of the Admirable only abandoned their vessel after the boiler had exploded and the wheelhouse had been shot away. Even then A Gordon, the second hand, scrambled back on board with the apparent intention of fighting the gun single-handed, but was killed.

“The Girl Rose, Coral Haven and Selby were not abandoned by their crews until they foundered under them. The crew of the sinking Taits, having taken to the boat and mustered their number, discovered that one was unaccounted for and returned to their vessel through heavy fire to search for the missing shipmate.

Second-hand Joseph Hendry, of the Serene, remained on board until the ship sank rather than be taken prisoner and was picked up out of the water an hour later by the British Crown.

“The crews of the Garrigill, Bon Espoir, Christmas Daisy and British Crown refused to leave their vessels, even when outranged and under broadside fire.

“The enemy displayed particular anxiety to destroy wireless telegraphy, and the behaviour of the wireless operators of Capillia (W Wandworth) and Garrigill (James Yarwood) in remaining at their posts throughout the action is thus rendered the more conspicuous.

“The wireless operator of the Floandi (Douglas M Harris) was found dead in his chair at the conclusion of the action, collapsed over the wireless log in which he was writing at the moment of his death.”

Skipper Watt, serving in the Royal Naval Reserve, was awarded the Victoria Cross “for most conspicuous gallantry” in defending his drifter under heavy attack from the flagship cruiser Novara.

The official citation said: “When hailed by an Austrian cruiser at about 100 yards range and ordered to stop and abandon his drifter Gowan Lea, Skipper Watt ordered full speed ahead and called upon his crew to give three cheers and fight to the finish. The cruiser was then engaged, but after one round had been fired, a shot from the enemy disabled the breech of the drifter's gun.

“The gun's crew, however, stuck to the gun, endeavouring to make it work, being under heavy fire all the time. After the cruiser had passed Skipper Watt took the Gowan Lea alongside the badly damaged drifter Floandi and assisted to remove the dead and wounded.

The British cruisers Dartmouth and Bristol, with Italian and French destroyers, engaged the Austrians, resulting in the Battle of the Otranto Straits. The British damaged the cruiser Saida and disabled the Novara.

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