The herring season moved round the North Sea coast as the shoals migrated. They arrived off Norfolk and Suffolk from September to the middle of December. The usual method of measuring the catch was not by weight but by volume. A cran was a box or barrel containing 37½ gallons, approximately 1200 uncleaned fish, but this varied according to size. The Scottish fisher-girls followed the drifters all along the east coast as they made their way south. Their job was to clean (i.e. gut and behead) the fish and pack them into barrels with salt. They were extremely deft in handling the fish.
Herrings were a popular meal in Norfolk and Suffolk in the autumn. Grilled or fried and served with a slice of bread and butter they made a delicious and tasty dish – even better if the herring possessed a hard roe. Soft roe was not so popular. Only the bones were a slight problem in eating the fresh fish, less so with kippers or bloaters. They were very simple to prepare and inexpensive to purchase, and they were even deemed by some as a special delicacy. But the local demand for fish made no dent in the huge quantities caught. These were sent off to Russia and Eastern Europe, where salted herrings were popular. We in East Anglia did not eat salt or pickled herrings, but we did eat the fish when smoked as kippers.
Norfolk drifters were used to catch herrings, and no other fish. The technique of using a drift net was to string out a long net, suspended at no great depth with floats and weights. With a steadying sail set, the drifter then waited for the shoal to swim into the net – hence the term drifter. The mizzen mast was retained for setting the sail, even after steam and then diesel became the method of propulsion. Without the effect of the sail the boat would have tossed about while drifting. Obviously the method required an intimate knowledge of the herring, and the likely route of the shoal and the depth at which it would be swimming. By contrast trawling, where a net is dragged over the bottom under power, is a much more brutal way of catching fish. The types of bottom feeding white fish which end up in a trawl net are also more various than the oily fish caught in a drift net. I will leave the description and usethe use of the seine net for another time.
The river Yare at Yarmouth became a mass of drifters, not only those from Norfolk, but all the other ports from Fraserburgh, Aberdeen and all points north. In the 1950s it was still a fantastic sight, but by the mid-sixties the fishery had collapsed. The vast shoals of herring had been fished out. In 1905 the total haul from the two East Anglian ports of Lowestoft and Yarmouth was over 111,000 tons, well over half all the herring landed at English ports. The Suffolk port with 47,000 tons was only exceeded by the Norfolk one with 63,000 tons. In 1907 Lowestoft alone handled over 338 million herring, and unlike Yarmouth it also has an important trawler fleet as well, catching cod, skate and sole etc. Yarmouth had its trawler fleet – my step great-grandfather was skipper of a Yarmouth smack – but it was less important than the drifter fleet. The height of the industry was reached in 1913 with 1006 vessels in the fishing drifter fleet of Great Yarmouth and about half that number at Lowestoft. Where they kept that number of vessel during the off season I cannot imagine/
What caused the sudden death of the herring industry in 1960? Only a few years before there had still been the arrival of the fishing fleet from “down north” every autumn. (Unlike he rest of us the fishermen referred to “down north” because the ebb tide sets north along the east coast.) By 1961 there were no drifters left at Yarmouth. In the opinion of the local fishermen it was the sudden arrival of continental trawlers in the waters of the North Sea which led to overfishing, scooping up all the herring fry to be turned into fishmeal for animal feed. At the time territorial waters extended only three nautical miles beyond low water, and there were no limits on fishing beyond that narrow band; the North Sea was in international waters.
Built in 1904 by Fellows yard at Yarmouth Southtown the steam drifter YH 846, Seymolicus, was just over 79 feet (24 m) long. She had a crew of skipper, mate and 8 men including a cook. Her engine was 20 hp, and her tonnage was 66.58 gross and 22 tons net. By the early years of the century most new drifters were steam-driven, replacing the sailing drifters which nonetheless continued in use into the inter-war period. Most steam drifters were built of wood. When the building of new drifters recommenced after the Second World War they were diesel-powered motor vessels of steel construction.
YH 846 only lasted 10 years; on Wednesday the 18th November 1914 she was hit by a mine 12 miles off Smiths Knoll, a sand bank in the North Sea off Norfolk which was one of the prime herring fishing grounds. She was sunk with the loss of all hands. The vessel had been bought in that year by H. Fenner Ltd. She was skippered by 64-year-old Samuel John Hewett of Row 112 in Yarmouth. Described as a “younker” (junior seaman) was another crew member, 27-year-old H. L. Jones. Although she was one of the first drifters to become a casualty of war she was by no means the last.
Today the one remaining steam drifter is Lydia Eva, a steel boat built in Kings Lynn in 1930. She was an advanced ship for the time, even having wireless and electric light. Most fishing vessels still used oil for lamps including navigation lights, and had no radio communication. Lydia Eva was used for the herring fishery during the 1930s, and exceptionally was able to trawl outside the herring season. During the war year she was used by the Air Ministry and the War Transport Ministry for servicing buoys, and later for salvage work. By the 1960s she had been acquired by the Royal Navy, and on being disposed of by the Government she narrowly avoided being broken up. She is now preserved by a charitable trust.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE