Magazine told tales of red herrings and the town’s fishing trade
PUBLISHED: 10:59 23 January 2015 | UPDATED: 10:59 23 January 2015
TIMES change, of course, but I doubt that anybody launching a new publication in 2015 would call it: The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The price might well be right, but the title is ponderous and decidedly off-putting.
In its day, however, that weekly national publication was greatly respected, founded to educate the working man and inform him in detail about an unbelievable range of subjects during its 13-year existence. One wonders what proportion of working folk in that Victorian era were able to read the unsigned articles chosen for them by its publisher and its wealthy and learned supporters and contributors.
Before me as I write are pages from an 1837 issue, sent to me by ex-Gorlestonian Mike King, long resident in Lowestoft, because it features the herring industry and the Great Yarmouth scene in particular.
That typical image of an animated riverside lined with steam drifters busily cranning out that springs to mind when we talk about the long-gone Yarmouth herring fishery is largely irrelevant in this magazine’s context, for this was in the pre-steam era when smacks and working from the beach were the norm.
Our herring fishery begins in mid-September, the anonymous contributor wrote, and “the great object is to obtain a supply for the purpose of curing although in the early part of the season, large numbers of fresh herrings are brought to the London market from Yarmouth, and the consumption at Norwich and other places, which are not at a great distance from the coast, is also considerable.
“The fish are sometimes so rich in the early part of the season as to be unfit for curing, and on this account they are brought into the market for immediate consumption. The spawning season being over by the end of October or the beginning of November, the fishing terminates as the herrings are then in a poor and exhausted condition.”
The size of the boat “depends on the distance from shore at which the fishery is intended to be carried on, and also as to whether the intention be to cure red herrings or white herrings. As red herrings must be cured on shore, while white herrings require to be only salted and put into barrels, those who are engaged in the red herring trade find it convenient to keep within a certain distance of the coast.
“The white herrings may be cured on board the vessel, and as the fishermen may go out to sea wherever the fish are found, this is called deep-sea fishery and a vessel of a larger description is required than when the cargo has to be taken as speedily as possible to the drying house.
“The business at Yarmouth is entirely in red herrings, which are in the greatest demand for the home market, while the export trade carried on at other ports chiefly consists of white herrings.
“The vessels fitted out for the deep-sea fishery meet with the earliest and best herrings...and is a more permanent source of profit than the boat fishery although it requires a larger capital. ”
According to the author, Yarmouth boats were crewed by 11 or 12 men “of whom one-fourth are usually landsmen employed in ferrying to and from the decked vessel, and in curing the herrings on shore.” Sea depth was best at 15 to 20 fathoms (90-120ft).
Yarmouth fishing boats cost about £1000 to fit out and carried 180 to 200 nets costing in total up to £400. Nets and ropes needed renewing every four years due to “the destructive effects of the sea and the ravages of dog-fish which, in preying upon the herrings when they are enclosed in the nets, injure the nets themselves.”
After examining Dutch and Scottish practices, the article states: “The Yarmouth boats continue at sea until they have caught eight or ten lasts (of 13,000 herrings to a last) or are compelled to come to shore for provisions. They are generally absent from three to six days.
“The white or pickled herrings merely require to be salted and put into barrels which is done while the vessel is at sea but when it is intended to prepare red herrings, a different process is adopted.
“The herrings are sprinkled with salt, in quantities which depend upon the state of the weather or the distance from port. On being landed, they are immediately carted or carried away in baskets to the ‘rousing-house’ adjoining the house where they are intended to be hung and smoked.
“They are then again sprinkled with salt and are heaped together with wooden shovels on a floor covered with bricks or flagstones in which remain five or six days, and they are then washed, spitted, hung up and fired.
“In spitting, as well as in hanging up, great care is necessary to prevent the herrings touching each other. Spits are round rods made of fir, about 4ft long. The herrings are hung on these rods by the mouth and gills.
“The spits, when so full of herrings that no more can be put upon them without causing the herrings to touch each other, are handed to persons who place them regularly tier above tier on wooden fixtures, supported by joists, until the house is full.
“Fires of wood are then lighted, and the great art is to manage these fires in a proper manner. They must neither be too quick nor too slow, and at times they must be extinguished.”
Smoking took three weeks or a month depending on whether the red herrings were for home consumption or export, consumer preferences differing.
Curers divided the herrings into four categories. “The large, full-grown, and well-made herrings form the first quality and are known under the name of ‘bloaters’” - ah, yes, our renowned Yarmouth bloater!
There follows a detailed description of the elaborate art of packing red herrings into barrels.
The publishers’ list of its Yarmouth committeemen named borough MP Charles Rumbold and locally-born banker, botanist and antiquary Dawson Turner.
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