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A packed audience was treated to an informative talk by local historian and poet Katrina Porteous at the January meeting of Glendale Local History Society.
Katrina made excellent use of images from the past depicting girls and women whose lives were integral to the fishing industry of the North East coast. Those communities are connected by the Anglian culture, in which dialect and the fishing coble are fundamental.
Starting with the American artist Winslow Homer, of the Cullercoats artists’ colony, she led us from the romanticised “bonny fisher lasses” through to Isa Thompson’s pair of fishwives in their dark clothing, trudging over the shore, and on to beautiful medieval images from France and Italy of women practising the skills still in use 700 years later. The method of knitting a net has not changed for even longer, possibly 6,000 years.
Photographs from places like Seahouses, Beadnell, Craster and Newbiggin gave an insight into the work and toil of these hardworking women. It was fascinating to travel back in time to familiar places, such as the car park at Beadnell beach, occupied by women rough-salting the herring before the finer packing into wooden barrels when there was a glut.
Just as important as the images were the quotes and anecdotes Katrina has collected from local people working in the industry. Many of these characters are no longer with us and fishing as it was in the first part of the 20th century has almost disappeared.
Some of the people Katrina has known have inspired her poetry, now published in several books. Among these was Cathy, from Newbiggin and later Amble, whom she described as “busy as a sanderling”.
Fundamental to the women’s story is the fact that without their work the men could not do their job and fish could not be caught. It was women’s job to bait the lines, half a mile in length, with 700 hooks, each requiring a limpet and mussel to be added by hand.
Normally each man took two half-lines, carefully wound into a “sweel”, a basket shaped to hold the line so it could be fed into the water smoothly.
The woman who had several unmarried grown-up sons would have all those lines to bait every day. In some cases other women had to be paid to do so as it was a time-consuming and skilled job. It was rare for a man to marry into a non-fishing family because it was essential to have a wife who already had the skill to bait a line. It was not a skill a woman could simply ‘pick up’.
And, of course, they had first to fetch the bait from the shore. It is said that Beadnell women walked to Waren Mill to gather limpets, which they took home to plant on the rocks at Beadnell in the early 20th century. Such toil meant that it was usual for women in fishing villages to die much younger than men.
From the end of the 18th century the herring industry began to be industrialised. Most of the fish was exported to the Baltic once improved methods of preservation were introduced.
We learnt about the tradition of the herring girls, both those resident in local villages, who must have anticipated the arrival of the shoals each year with mixed feelings, and those from the North of Scotland who followed the fleets down the coast as far as Lowestoft. In the early 19th century they travelled with the boats, but used the railway from the middle of the century.
The latter were fortunate to acquire some freedom and independence, as well as hard cash through their work, but at what cost? Paid a retainer for the months they were not working, it was not unknown for them to work up to 16 hours daily. Employed by the coopers, many of whom settled in the county from Scotland, the girls slept in dormitories above the herring yards.
They worked in teams of three, with two gutters and one packer, aiming to deal with one fish per second. Those gutting suffered cuts on their hands from the sharp knives. The record is said to have been set at Seahouses when a team packed 24 barrels in a single day, each containing 1,000 herring. Some of the Scottish women married Northumbrian fishermen.
Smaller villages like Beadnell ceased their involvement when over-fishing by steam trawlers from the Tyne saw a decline, but places like Seahouses continued to fish for herring after World War I.
Women’s work did not end when the men set sail. Many would walk miles carrying their own weight in creels as they sold the fish at markets or door-to-door around neighbouring villages. Once home, they would take up their knitting needles and oiled wool to knit ganseys for their men, incorporating family motifs. They would even knit as they walked and waited for the boats to return.
Another task for women was launching the boats. The coble came into its own in the absence of a harbour. Its flat bottom could be dragged over the sand. To avoid men getting wet from wading into the water before going to sea, women carried out this task and also launched lifeboats. This was such a hard job that many families moved from places like Newbiggin to Amble, where there was a harbour. There are many tales of heroic action by these strong women.
Katrina’s presentation was followed by numerous questions from an enthusiastic audience, privileged to hear this knowledgeable and inspirational speaker.