The history of the Scarborough fishing industry

For hundreds of years the Scarborough fishing industry chugged along at the same pace. The fishermen paid tithes to the monastries for the right to fish the seas. The industry never really took off because the fishermen never had much of a market. There was not the capability to transport fish to the big cities. This was especially the case in Scarborough surrounded by hills and moorland with no town for fifty miles. Any increase in production would probably produce a glut in fish and with that lower incomes. So expansion was not really possible. The industry continued along in its own way. In the 1830's Scarborough enjoyed a boom in its fisheries.

Local historian, Thomas Hinderwell, was particularly critical of Scarboroughs fishermen who he claimed lack industry and initiative. This local historian made his views known. It is noticable that Scarborough boats did not take much of an interest in the herring fisheries. A Flamborough historian has recorded the number of boats which took part in the herring fishing at Yarmouth. In 1794 there were 15 from Staiths,5 from Runswick, 8 from Filey ,5 from Robin Hood's bay, 4 from Flamborough and just 3 from Scarborough. This was not the only fishery but it was important. Perhaps Scarborough had other distractions such as maritime shipping and shipbuilding. The most likely case is that Scarborough boats stayed in local waters with the abundance of fish. They took only the best fish such as prime Soles, Brill and Turbot. They simply discarded other fish such as plaice, Dabs, Ling and Hake. They relied on the Five Man boat. They used line fishing - with as many as 2500 baited hooks. They were just set in their ways.

The boom in the Scarborough fishing trade came before the advent of the railways. In 1830's and 1840's Scarborough was already growing in size and developing a tourist industry. The first trawlers off the North East coast around Scarborough were not local fishermen. Instead they came from Southern ports such as Brixham or Lowestoft. Both Barking and Brixham claim the first use of the Beam trawl. Southern trawlers came up to Scarborough and made it the centre of the fishing industry on the North East coast. They were taking advantage of the good prices to be had in the coastal resort of Scarborough during the tourist season. This boom around Scarborough lasted between 1830 and 1840.

The height of the 1830's Scarborough boom came when the 'Silver pit' was discovered in 1835. This was discovered quite by chance when the fishing fleet was dispersed during a storm on the Dogger Bank. One boat became seperated from the rest and had not had chance to haul its nets up. The skipper was pleasantly surprised when his trawl was crammed full of fine soles. He came back to this spot with the help of a navigator and soon the area was known as the 'Silver Pit'. At the height of this boom soles were so abundant that they sold for as little as 5/- a truck load. The boom was short lived here as the soles disapeared from the 'Silver Pit' in 1838.

In 1845 a new impetus to the Scarborough fisheries came with the opening of the York to Scarborough railway line. At this time Scarborough matched the ports of Hull and Grimsby. It was the centre of the industry! Nationally there was a boom in trawling - as the English fleet expanded, from 130 in 1840, to 800 in 1860. Railways carried fresh fish to Britains industrial heartland. Previously fish discarded by Scarborough boats was now sold cheaply in the cities.

There was also a boom in the inshore fisheries in Scarborough. In the 1870's Scarbough had 40 cobles compared to just 6 in the 1820's. Fresh crabs could be transported vast distances by train. The remainder could be sold along the pier front. But the inshore fisheries were already in danger. In 1890 inshore trawling was banned. A report of the Fishery Officer, HB Boothby, in 1909 painted a bleak picture. Huge numbers of cobles were using trawl nets illegally - 20 in Bridlington, 7 Scarborough and 11 at Hartlepool. They knew they were fishing illegally but they had to risk it. They simply could not make a living.

Even by 1909 warning signs were there. The increase in fishing was not even good for the fishermen. In 1909 there were 1,522,191 CWT caught as opposed to 1,381,592 CWT in 1908. Yet the increases forced the price down and the total value of all fish was reduced. In Hull this was also the case with a 64,439 CWT increase in fish caught compared to the prevcious year but a £141,390 reduction in sales.

In the trawling industry the focus was always on the herrings. In 1875 the first steam trawlers appeared and they could work in all conditions. The size of the nets increased. The use of ice was introduced. A Royal commision was established in 1863 to investigate fishing stocks. But with the absence of sound statistical information and good science all Acts of Parliament regulating the fisheries were repealed.

In 1891 the first Grimsby trawler visited Iceland. By the 1880's Scarboroughs trawler fleet was clearly behind the big Humber ports. Scarborough boats were often the old style paddle trawler. These were gradually replaced the last of this type - the Constance - was sunk on 22nd March 1910. The new screw steam trawlers now took over such as the Otter, The Seal and the Dalhousie.

Scarborough did have a capacity to innovate. The 'Otter' trawl seems to have been poineered in Scarborough with the Normandale owned 'Otter'.This was a revolutionary new net.

World War One was a major blow to the Scarborough trawler fleet. Eleven trawlers were lost in one night when U-Boat U-57 single handedly destroyed the Scarborough fleet. Just a handul of trawlers remained. The end to hostilities did not bring an end to the misery either as three trawlers were lost in 1920 to unexploded mines. Between the wars the Scarborough industry never really recovered. At the beginning of World War Two there were just seven trawlers(compared to 191 at Hull and 381 at Grimsby). This went down to 3 in December 1943.

After each war herring fisheries enjoyed a temporary boom. Huge shoals of herring were once again to be seen. The fishing stocks had been allowed to recover.

The proud tradition of trawling continued on with a few families. The Normandales in particular trawled well into the 1970's. But the port never really was ever capable of competing with the likes of Grimsby. A few well established local families would not give up fishing out fo Scarborough. They continued in the port of their birth. The main trawler fleets ran out of Hull and Grimsby.

In 1954 the last Tunny fish was caught off the Scarborough coast - this was a bad omen for the herring industry. The tuna fish fed on the shoals of migrating herrings. The decline when it came was gradual. The last Scarborough Steam Trawler was the William Wilson. This trawler had only come into Scarborough twelve months previously. After six months she was stuck in harbour unable to find a crew. The Emulator had left port months before and was fondly remembered. By the 1970's the Scottish fisher lasses had stopped coming to town and the herring fleets were no more.

Part of the problem was foreign competition. The herring industry depended on the Russians and Germans export market. Yet now other countries were joining in the herring boom. When Britain joined the European Union the fishing industry was handed over as a prize. Things got really bad when the Russians started building factory ships with Purse Sein nets. These just emptied the seas of fish. That was that. A thousand years of fishing heritage just lost. Communities were built around the industry which they loved - they knew nothing else. It was a hard blow and one which is still felt by the old fishermen.

For a fleeting moment in the middle of the 1800's the Port of Scarborough was the most important on the Yorkshire coast. But this was short lived. Overall the town was like many of the fishing villages such as Filey,Staithes and Robin Hood's bay. It was inward looking and unfriendly to outsiders. Everyone knew everyone else and 'blowins' were not welcome. In the busy ports of Hull and Grimsby newcomers could easily be lost in the hustle and bustle. New ideas would spread fast and new people were welcomed. Industry was close by to support the spare parts needed.

Some wonder why Scarborough was never able to compete with the likes of Grimsby and Hull. But one simple fact comes from the period of Scarboroughs greatest success. In 1864 400 ships were at the port of Scarborough but only 100 inside the harbour - 300 fishing smacks stood outside. The port of Scarborough could never compete with Grimsby where there was docks all down the riverside. Scarborough could never have accomodated the fleet that Grimsby could. It was as simple as that.

Much is said of the decline of the herring fishing but really it was always going to happen. A species which swims together in shoals 6 miles long and 4 miles wide is always going to be fished to extinction. They moved in predictable directions down the east coast and even turned the sea a shimmering silver colour. As technology improved during the 19th Century the stocks became strained and in the twentieth century the industry effectively killed itself off. Fishermen enjoyed their lifestyle and simply did not want to give up.

It was easy to criticise the lack of regulation but effectively it was a free for all. Trawlers from as far away as the Isle of Man visited the Yarmouth coast. It was not just British trawlers but also the Dutch. To quote Thomas Scales "I've seen this harbour full of herring vessels. Dutch, Scotch, Yarmouth, Lowestoft, South country ships. The Scarborough trawlers couldn't get in when it came bad weather one time I remember as a boy, and they all had to go to Hartlepool for shelter. Both harbours was absolutely full - right to the harbour mouth.".

The herring industry always seemed so healthy and scottish fisher lasses still came to Scarborough as late as the 1960's. It was an instition. But Scarborough had simply become a curing station. Most of the boats simply came out of convenience. Their visits were short stay. It couldn't even be described as a local industry - the Scottish fisher lasses moved on in September. Except for a few local families the boats were all outsiders. The Scarborough fishing industry was more of an illusion than reality.

To quote that old expert on Scarborough fishing, Captain Sidney Smith "Oh yes, tremendous changes, yes, trawlers gear's been improved and improved and better improved, and the drift net for herrings, thats gone now which is a pity because British, Dutch, Belgians, and French fished North Sea for herrings for a thousand years with drift nets and it makes no difference to the stocks, but greed made them change to ring nets and that devastated 'em because ring nets used to circle a shoal it used to fill a boat up in no time with 'em and er... that was superseded with this modern method of purse-seine which was even worse, because its such a vast net to circle a whole shoal of herrings, and draw the net and ... the end of the net together and they couldn't get out an' then they'd haul 'em a foot rope and that'd close the bottom of the net too, so there was absolutely no chance for 'em and they'd suck them out with a vacuum. And one the whole shoal is taken - big ones, small ones, immature ones, and that's what's cleaned the herrings out of the in the North Sea".


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