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When sail met steam - a glimpse into Great Yarmouth's herring trade past

PUBLISHED: 08:00 24 November 2019

Keeping their nimble fingers busy: Scottish fisher-lassies enjoy knitting while awaiting the next catch of herring to be gutted.

Keeping their nimble fingers busy: Scottish fisher-lassies enjoy knitting while awaiting the next catch of herring to be gutted.

Archant

In days long past, late November and into December would have been seen the Scottish drifters sailing home after another autumn herring fishery.

Sailing drifters – augmented by a new steam vessel – leave Yarmouth harbour for the herring grounds, captured in Thomas Bush Hardy's 1896 painting.Sailing drifters – augmented by a new steam vessel – leave Yarmouth harbour for the herring grounds, captured in Thomas Bush Hardy's 1896 painting.

Occasionally, a departing Scots drifter would have a suite of furniture piled on her foredeck covered by a tarpaulin, the skipper taking advantage of a Yarmouth bargain compared with prices back home.

Perhaps it was a surprise Christmas present for his wife in Banff or Buckie, Peterhead or Inverness, Fraserburgh or Kirkcaldy...

Ashore, the Scots fisher-lassies would have gutted their last herring and packed away their needles and knitting wool they busied themselves in spare moments.

The Great Yarmouth driftermen were also winding down, planning for trawling from distant UK ports in the new year and reflecting on prices their autumn catches fetched because the occasional glut could have meant herring being dumped or sent to the reduction factory.

Ready to join the fishing fleet: the newly-built lugger-trawler Autumn Sun arrives in Yarmouth from the builder's yard.Ready to join the fishing fleet: the newly-built lugger-trawler Autumn Sun arrives in Yarmouth from the builder's yard.

Only our older residents can recall the herring fishery - but unquestionably, none is old enough to have experienced the years when sail predominated, beautifully captured in the evocative oil painting from the Victorian era illustrating today's column.

The artist was Thomas Bush Hardy, his 1896 painting entitled "Herring Boats leaving Gorleston Harbour, Norfolk."

It was sent to me from the west country by Dominic Sanchez-Cabello who explains: "I recently read your article on the herring industry in Norfolk and felt you might be interested in this painting, which shows the fishermen leaving Gorleston Harbour in early autumn.

"The composition is particularly interesting, as I believe it also shows the meeting of the traditional sailboats with one of the new steam-powered drifters, soon to supersede them.

"The boats are all marked with the 'YH' for Yarmouth and are numbered (from right to left) 79, 402 and 29. I do not recognise the flags, but I suspect you will.

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"The artist is Thomas Bush Hardy (1842-1897) and few can paint the gloomy brown seas of England (in the colder months) as he can. I live in Cornwall and found it in Penzance yesterday... when the sea in the bay was almost identical to the scene in the painting!

"The painting will eventually find its way to my new website, where it will be priced at £1200.

"Hardy is a strange artist who, unlike most, found great fame and success when he was alive, but became more and more obscure in the years after his death.

"He was born in Yorkshire, travelled across Europe during his formative years and in later life predominantly painted the east coast of England, from Scarborough to Dover."

Peter Allard, port lover and long-time friend of this column, managed to identify the principal sailing vessels in "the superb oil painting" but thinks the steamship is actually a paddle tug.

He believes they are: YH79, William Coy, built Yarmouth 1862, broken up 1883; YH402, Providence, built Yarmouth 1858, sold away in 1888; and YH29, Florence Mary, built Yarmouth 1868, lost with all hands at North Shields 1881.

He says that would date the painting to between 1868 and 1881.

Holidaying in the West Country in 2002, Mrs Peggotty and I visited the St Ives lifeboat station which played a vital role when Father Peggotty, skipper of the Yarmouth fishing vessel Autumn Sun (YH370), radioed SOS when she began shipping too much water for her pumps to cope with in ferocious seas when returning to port in Cornwall from herring-catching off Ireland.

"A wall of water" broke over the Autumn Sun, damaging her and worsening her list.

Five ships responded to the emergency call, and the Autumn Sun's crew fought to keep her afloat for ten hours until the lifeboat reached her after a 40-mile battle. "The most welcome sight I've ever seen!" said Father Peggotty.

Escorted by the lifeboat, she reached the safety of St Ives harbour under her own power. If only artist Thomas Bush Hardy had been there to paint it...

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