Red herrings and silver darlings
David North, Head of People and Wildlife
The herring is only a small fish, usually not more than 10 inches long, shaped for speed and with shining silver scales on its sides and belly. Out of the water its scales reflect a subtle rainbow of colours and like many fish its beautiful colouration deserves recognition but rarely gets a mention.
This is a species that has changed not just the history of Norfolk but possibly the world! Don’t believe it? Well read on! It’s a story of war, of global trading, of kings, queens and slaves and of course of human greed and folly, and all centred on the humble herring. The herring is a births, deaths and marriages fish – it has changed human and family history both through love and through tragedy. There are many families today whose parents or grandparents met only because of our obsession with this species. ‘No herring, no wedding’ was once a common saying in fishing communities.
Let’s start with Norfolk. Three of Norfolk’s four largest towns all have links with the former trade in herrings, but few would argue that Great Yarmouth owes both its origins and its growth to the North Sea herring. The town’s origins go back to the tenth century when this coastal sand-bank was first settled by herring fishermen. The fishing was good and Yarmouth gets a mention in the Domesday Book (1086) as the centre of the herring industry. At this time over the border in Suffolk the Manor of Beccles paid an annual tribute of 30,000 herring to the Abbey of St Edmund which was increased to 60,000 after the Norman Conquest. Henry 1 declared Yarmouth a burgh in 1108 for an annual payment of ‘ten milliards herring’.
Yarmouth’s medieval herring fair, described as the ‘noblest fishery for herring in Europe’, ran from Michaelmas (29 September) to Martinmas (10 November) and attracted merchants from across Europe. Statutes of Herring passed in 1357 meant that herring had to be landed at Yarmouth before they could be traded.
The herring industry was the basis for the growth of the whole community in Yarmouth. It provided work not just for fishermen but for sail makers, rope makers, net makers, coopers (barrel makers), fishmongers, curers, shipwrights, gutters and by the 19th century for tug crews, railwaymen, dock workers and engineers. The scale of the industry is almost impossible to imagine today. In 1722 Daniel Defoe visiting Yarmouth writes of 40,000 herring barrels being prepared and by the start of the 19th century Yarmouth was the largest herring port in the world. The peak was in the early 20th century with 900 million herring landed in 1913 and the average catch in the early 1900s being 530 million herring in the 14 week season from September to November. The record came in 1907 when 90 million herring were caught off Yarmouth in a single day with only space for 60 million to be landed the other 30 million were diverted to Grimsby. Scottish coopers in 1906 were making 2,009,014 barrels and 422,080 half barrels for the herring industry. 1,163 Scottish drifters (the herring boats) moved south to Yarmouth in the 1913 season and 1,359,213 cran of herring were landed. (1000 to 1,300 fish make up a cran) These were the days when you could walk from one side of Yarmouth harbour to the other on the decks of the drifters, and 10,000 seasonal workers, fishermen, fishergirls and curers swelled the population of Yarmouth for the autumn herring season.
So herring was big business and led to the growth of one of Norfolk’s four most populous towns but what of wars, weddings and changing world history? Surely too much to claim for a 10 inch silver marine fish. Well here are just a few ways that herrings have changed the course of our history.
Lets’ start with the Romans and the Vikings – they both fished for herring in Norfolk waters. So maybe the healthy diet of herring was in part responsible for all that conquest, raping and pillaging. More seriously the origins of the Hanseatic League originated in the regulation of the herring trade. Lynn of course grew before it became Kings Lynn as a Hansa port and both Norwich and Kings Lynn had medieval Hanseatic League warehouses from where herring were traded for wool, hides and beer, and even with Russia for timber. So important was the herring trade that the Hansa took control of the salt mines at Luneburg to dominate the herring industry through control of salt.
The herring has been described as ‘the potato of the middle ages’. It was the staple diet of both rich and poor. Yarmouth had to provide herring pies for Royalty. When the English army were besieging Orleans in 1429 500 cartloads of salted herring were despatched but the French got wind of this (maybe literally!) which led to the ‘Battle of the Herrings’. The English army at the battle of Agincourt was fed on salt herring. In more recent times you could equally argue that the British Empire relied on salt herring. There were exports to the West Indies of Yarmouth herring to feed slaves and keep them working and healthy: all part of the herring story.
Did herring enable us to win the First World War? Well they certainly played a part. Steam drifters from Yarmouth were requisitioned as mine-sweepers but more vital than that as in wars through the centuries it was fishermen who enlisted in the navy (49% of UK fishermen enlisted in the First World War). With their knowledge of the sea they played a crucial part, many dying to keep trade routes open and Britain a free country.
Through the centuries many fishermen have died in pursuit of the herring but equally many weddings, love-matches and births have also been the herring’s legacy. The annual migration of fisher-lassies from Scotland following the herring south to Yarmouth for the autumn fishing season took place for nearly a century. In 1913 6,000 women gutted 854 million herring in 14 weeks in Yarmouth. They worked long hours gutting 30 herrings a minute with their hands wrapped in cloth to protect them for salt getting in the cuts they sustained. A good fishing year swelled the marriage register and not all these girls returned to Scotland. The end of the fishing season in November was a peak time for marriages in Yarmouth.
The story of Norfolk’s herring industry is one which we all still have lessons to learn from. For many centuries the practice of small wooden sailing boats setting nets at sunset to catch the herring as they rose from the depths to feed near the surface at night, though dangerous and a hard life, was also sustainable. Steam drifters from the early 1900s worked in much the same way heading out to work the seas up to 40 miles off Yarmouth – the most abundant seas were north-west of Cromer at Smith’s Knoll. However better technology and bigger ships meant that a great industry died through greed and the silver darlings no longer swam is single shoals more than two miles long. A change to trawling and purse-seining meant the herring could be hoovered out the sea at any depth and a combination of more engine power, bigger boats and electronic equipment to find the fish meant there were no refuge areas for herring in the North Sea. In the 1960s the Norwegians alone had 259 purse-seiners each capable of taking 1,000 tons in a night operating in the North Sea. By the early 1970s it is estimated that 75% of the entire North Sea stock could be taken in a single year and a combination of the British, Danes, Dutch, and Norwegians emptied the North Sea of herring. In 1977 the EU closed the North Sea herring fishery which led to a partial recovery but on nothing like the scale once sustained. Issues including illegal fishing, by catch, and a lack of will by politicians remain an issue though the welcome news just this month (Feb 2013) that the EU may ban discards and regulate North Sea fisheries on a more sustainable basis is decades overdue.
If you have followed this story I hope you will agree that the herring, Yarmouth’s silver darling, deserves its place in the hundred species that have changed Norfolk’s history. It’s a story of greed and the end of a Norfolk industry that once employed thousands. A story that we still need to learn from if we are to create sustainable seas and much needed Marine Conservation Zones. Let’s remember the silver darling, campaign for sustainable seas and hope one day the great shoals of herring will return to the North Sea.
P.S. And finally a red herring! The red herring was smoked whole and smoked long. So long that a single red herring could be used to lay down a false trail that would mislead a whole pack of hounds. They would literally be following a red herring.