Every place has its characteristic, and that of Filey is its hardy race of fishermen, stout, broad-chested, wide-shouldered; blunt and honest in speech, but kindly-hearted and open to every advance of truthful interest on the part of strangers. In the matter of temperate habits they stand at an immeasurable superiority above those of their own class at Flamborough and Scarborough; tea is their strongest drink, and sweet-cakes are their favourite food.
Their wives are as steady as their husbands and brothers, cleanly in their homes and picturesque in dress; their strength is almost equal; they carry the water-kegs upon their heads, and huge bales of nets up the steep cliff-paths with an ease akin to grace. No work is done on Sundays. With the high tide on Saturday morning the whole fleet of twenty-four yawls may be seen under easy sail making for the bay, and, in succession, beaching themselves upon the smooth fine sands on which they lie, while the fish are landed, the nets changed, and the men take their dinners.
With the next flood-tide they get under sail again and run out to anchor inside the Brigg until Monday morning, when they again proceed to sea.
Each yawl, varying in tonnage from 28 to 45 tons, costs from £600 to £650, and is divided into shares; of its earnings 3s. 6d. in the pound are paid to the owner or owners, 10s. are devoted to the current expenses, and the remainder is divided among the men who find the bait. When a new boat is required, several persons -gentlemen speculators, harbour-masters, &c., and boatmen - take certain shares of it which vary in amount from a half-quarter to a half of the cost; application is then made to a builder, sail-maker, anchor-maker and other tradesmen; and the vessel, in due time, is paid for, equipped, and given over to the owners.
Each lugger-yawl carries two masts, and is provided with three sets of sails to suit various states of weather. The foresail contains 200 or 250 yards, the mizen 100, and the mizen-topsail 40 yards; the lesser sizes being severally of 100, 60, and 50 yards. The jib is very small. On the average the yawl is of 40 tons, and measures 51 feet keel, or 55 feet over all, and is of 17 or 18 feet beam; drawing 6.5 feet water aft, and 5 feet forward. The amount of ballast varies from 20 to 30 tons. The yawl is provided with 120 nets, each of which costs £30. Half of this number are left on shore and changed at the end of every twelve weeks. The crew is composed of seven men and two boys.
For instance, the Wear, commanded by Colling, a first-rate seaman, carries two others like himself, part-owners, four men receiving, besides their food, £1, and one boy at 18s., and another at 11s a week ; each fisherman, who is a net-owner, receives 24 shillings a week. The expenses in wages and wear and tear are calculated at from £12 to £15 weekly. The herrings are valued at £2 per 1000 on an average. Sometimes 23,000 fish are caught in a single haul, occasionally as many as 60,000, but 40,000 are considered a good catch.
To remunerate the crew, £50 or £60 a week ought to be obtained. Each net is 10 fathoms long, and is sunk 9 fathoms during the fishing, the upper part being floated by a long series of barrels, which are fitted at intervals of 15 fathoms. The warps used for laying out the nets in each vessel measure 2200 yards. Two men take up the nets, two empty the fish out of them, and one boy stows the nets while his fellow stows the warps, which are raised by a windlass worked by the men.
Each net weighs about twenty-eight pounds. In order to preserve the nets and sails, it is necessary, at frequent intervals, to cover them with tanning, which is prepared in large coppers. These coppers cost £40 a-piece, and are banked up with bricks, a small outhouse being attached to the rear of the fishermen's cottages for the purpose. In Old Filey, the roads are streaked with channels of a dull red colour, being the effect of the waste water of this boiling apparatus.
Occasionally the losses of the fishermen are very great. On May 28, 1860, nine yawls were driven from their moorings and dashed to pieces against the white rocks in Specton Bay; there had been a fierce gale of wind from the north, which lasted from 2 A.m. until 6 A.m., when a sudden hurricane swept over the bay from the S.W., lashing up the sea into sheets of foam. The fishermen, who had clustered along the cliffs waiting for the lull, ran to their cobles and gallantly launched out to save their yawls; owing to the driving spray, the sea was so dark that they could barely see the distance of a boat's length with the greatest difficulty, but at the most imminent risk, they scrambled into the yawls which lay nearest; and, with one or two crews crowding into single vessels, succeeded in saving the greater number; while one intrepid fellow actually got a little sail set, triumphantly rounded Flamborough Head, and carried his salvage into Bridlington.
One coble is attached to each yawl, and is of peculiar shape, being flat-bottomed for half her length, and having a keel forward. This form enables the fishermen to berth the coble conveniently on the deck of the yawl, and the simple but ingenious device of an axle and a pair of wheels suffices to carry up the boat to a position on shore, safe from the reach of the tide. The cabin of the yawl is of comfortable dimensions, and fitted with four beds, each capable of holding two persons, one fisherman always being on deck at a time to keep watch, who wakes his mates in case of danger by giving three loud stamps upon the deck.
At night a lantern is carried at a height of four feet above the deck. In front of the cabin arc, successively, the warp-room and well-room, with wings capable of holding ten lasts of fish, the net-room with the salt-cribs on either side, and the cable-room. The salt is used for sprinkling the fish lightly, if fogs or bad weather detain the boats at sea.
The chief ornaments in a fisherman's cottage are rolling-pins of china-ware grotesquely painted with ships and waves of prismatic colours, which are given by the dealers to the men, when they purchase coals at Shields.
Most of the nets are now made at Musselburgh, at the rate of 1000 a day; they are made of cotton, as being lighter and more supple than hemp. The chief manufacturer in Scotland is Stuart. The sails are made at Hull. The nets are generally soaked in tan from Saturday night, on the return of the fishing-yawls, until Wednesday morning, when the women spread them out to dry upon the slope of the common-land under the north cliff of Old Filey.
On the arrival of the yawls, the men may be seen carrying down large black tubs slung upon a pole, full of tan scalding hot, while their wives and daughters hurry along with kegs full of fresh water for the use of the boatmen in their next cruise. Two stone of beef and meal for dumplings, sea-pies, sweet cakes, 0.5 cwt of bread, and a quarter pound of tea, form the weekly provision for the commissariat. Each yawl carries from six to eight water-kegs, besides a huge cask holding as much water again, which is refilled as occasion demands at Scarborough or Whitby.
From the latter part of March to the early part of June the fishery for halibut, cod, ling, skate, and turbot continues at the Dogger Bank, which is about eight hours' sail from Flamborough Head, and consists of an enormous sand-bank reaching from the latitude of the coast off Newcastle to the Humber, with water from 35 to 40 fathoms deep round it. From July 15 to November 20 the yawls fish for herrings, following their migration southward between Hartlepool and Flamborough, until late in September, when they proceed to the Dogger Bank, which lies East by North, and while remaining at that point the herrings are salted, as the boats remain there for weeks at a time.
Between November and March the fishermen catch cod, skate, and turbot off the coast, using their cobles, or smaller boats, and lay up the yawls in Scarborough harbour during some ten or twelve weeks, at a cost of £1 for first-class boats. In looking for herrings, the "spouting" of a whale, or "santallamant," as the fishermen of Filey call them, or, according to the Cromer boatmen, the "blow-fish," are certain indications of the presence of a shoal, or "skoal."
In recent times the fishermen occasionally frequented Bridlington harbour i but, as the authorities imposed a due of two shillings or half-a-crown on each visit, they have abandoned the port. While employed in herring-fishing the foremast is half lowered, the nets are shot over the side between 3 and 7 PM, when supper is served, and the crew retire to their beds, except one man, who remains on deck, and between 2-30 and 4 AM wakes them up to take in the nets.
The greatest enemy of the fisherman is the dog-fish, which will not only clear the net of its entire take, but makes great rents in it. The French fishermen are likewise a considerable annoyance, as they wantonly sail over and among the English nets, and in return have their own nets cut adrift. Their boats are of considerable size, carrying as many as thirty-three hands, and continuing at sea during two months at a time. As the steamer which, to protect our fisheries, may compel them to keep at a distance of three miles from the shore, is not visible at night, they can then, almost with impunity, inflict damage upon the English nets, if so inclined.
About five years since, for the first time, a French fishing-boat was captured and taken into Shields, fined £30, and forbidden to fish for the season. The Englishmen's nets were found on board headed up in barrels, and stowed away as if they had been herrings. The Dutchmen have a better character; but a year or two ago they landed from sixty sail of fishing-vessels at the little village of Kilnsea, between Flamborough and Spurn Point, and actually carried off the entire provisions of the place.
Unfortunately, the numbers of the boats were not taken, and no redress, in consequence, was obtainable. The French receive a bounty from their government, as their fishing-boats form a minor school of navigation, and they frequently purchase the herrings from the English boatmen, and rub the scales over their nets. The English fishermen partially salt their herrings on board, and between 12-30 and 1 o'clock AM, smoke them over fires of ashwood in the curing-houses, preparatory to sending them off by the morning trains to London, Leeds, Manchester, and York.
The purchase of their "take" is made by fish-salesmen on the shore: when the tide is at flood the beach presents an animated scene, while the cobles, laden with hampers of fish, are drawn close to the shore, and their freight is transferred into long, low carts and waggons drawn by four horses, and the rest of the crews not thus engaged take the nets to be changed on shore, or stagger along in groups of six under the weight of some heavy sail, which is to be tanned forthwith.
The yawls carry a mizen and mizen-topsail, a foresail, and jib on their two masts, the three-masted luggers being no longer in use. They sail close by the wind, within five points, whereas ships cannot lie closer than seven points, and thus handled they can make ten knots an hour. The large coble has only a small forecastle deck, and carries a foresail, mizen, and jib, containing severally 70, 28, and 8 yards.
About the middle of October their crews enter on board the yawls, and the strangers and landsmen employed up to that time are discharged. The herrings caught in October are reckoned to be the finest fish.
Pilchards and mackarel are occasionally caught. The pilchard is easily distinguished from the herring, because, when lifted by the back fin, the tail droops, whereas the head of the herring, being heavier, is lowermost.
The herring-houses are occupied by speculators in the fish ; their profits on their purchases from the fishermen depend upon the market value of the last, which in turn is affected by the amount of the catch. One of the principal herring houses is held by a fisherman who lost his yawl during the terrible storm of May, 1860, and who forthwith determined to give up his old occupation. Fortunately, his wife inherited a small patch of land, and upon it he erected his herring-house.
The building includes a large shed open to the rafters, which contains casks, boxes, washing-tubs, spits (long sharp-pointed pieces of hazel wood), and piles of herrings, and is used for washing and spitting the fish. Opening upon this shed is a long narrow room fitted with two tables; on one of these the fish are packed, on the other the packing-boxes have their covers nailed on.
At the far end are piles of spitted herrings which the assistant hands to the packer, who strips the herrings off the spit, by twenties at a time, upon the table, and then rapidly places them by fifties in boxes, which a boy quickly covers. On the side next the only window is a wall-ladder, leading into an upper room, where boys, who receive from 5shillings to 7 shillings a week, are employed in making little packing- cases, the boards for which are supplied ready-made from Sheffield. Upon the opposite side are two doors, each of which leads into a room open to the roof, higher than the shed, and capable of containing 12,000 herrings.
Upon the floor several fires of oak and ash wood are burning and throwing up clouds of smoke; rude racks of wood line the walls on either side, and across these are laid the spits with the herrings strung upon them. The fish are usually salted for a fortnight, and smoked for various periods, varying from two hours to an entire night, to convert them into bloaters; and from a day and a half to weeks, to make them red, or as they are locally called, "soldier" herrings.
Four girls, who commonly begin their work at three o'clock in the afternoon, can spit at least 10,000 herrings in two hours upon their spits of hazel wood, at a payment of five shillings among them; and as each spit is covered with twenty fish, it is piled upon a rack. The scene is one of great animation at this hour: one man shovels the fish off the floor of the shed into baskets with open wicker sides, with a broad flat spade; while another transfers them into a larger swill or basket, which he immerses in a huge tub of cold water, and stirs with both hands to free the scales from salt. When perfectly clean, the fish are thrown into a long flat tub which is dry, and then quickly spitted by the nimble fingers of the girls, who relieve the monotony of their task by a vivacious and almost unbroken conversation, often interrupted by peals of hearty laughter.
A last of herrings, according to the period of the season or the amount of supply, fetches from £10 to £40. Bloaters are sold to the salesmen in towns, at rates varying from 2 shillings to 5 shillings for the case of fifty. The herring-curers buy the herrings on the shore by the hundred of 31 warps, equal to 124 fish, and sell them by the true arithmetical hundred. From February to June the fish are called "shot-herrings;" in June "midsummer herrings," when they begin to fatten; in July they contain roe or milch, and in August and September they approach our coast, spawning in October or the beginning of November; they then resort to the deep water again.
The fishermen wear blue woollen frocks, blue trousers, long boots, and sou'wester-hats: the latter on Sundays are exchanged for fur-caps. In bad weather they put on cotton overalls, and coats painted, so as to be waterproof. A crimson neckcloth is often adopted when on shore.
Place aux Dames - the fishermen marry young, for they require a helpmate to take charge of the gear, to dry and mend the nets, to sow on the head-seams, to collect "flithers," (a flat shell fish,) and other kinds of bait, and prepare the tan.
The men put the corks upon the nets. The fishermen's cottages are models of cleanliness, for the "mistress" is a careful housewife, dressing simply in the quietest and most substantial materials, her only ornaments being a red and striped petticoat (shawls or cloaks never being used), and a pair of gilt earrings (purchased from some travelling pedlar), as a safeguard against sore eyes; the bonnet is worn drawn over the eyes, with the "curtain" lifted up behind like the expanded tail of a bird; and strings are unknown, although a gay-coloured ribbon is a usual adjunct. The cotton-nets, which have been about seven years in use, are found to outlast those of hemp, dry more easily, and are less liable to injury by the dogfish.
All the Filey yawls carry the letters "S. H." (the abbreviation of Scarborough) on their bows. In the vear 1786 a bounty of 46. was given on each barrel of fish caught, in order to encourage the employment of apprentices ; but in 1836 the sum was gradually reduced by 4 shillings a-year, until it finally ceased in 1839. The average value of fish taken in the year ranges from £20,000 to £27,000: in some years as much as £2000 have been paid to the N. E. Railway for its transport.
The old men who are unable to go to sea catch crabs and lobsters on the N. side of the Brigg, and take out pleasure-parties at the rate of 2 shillings and 6 pence an hour, or 15 shillings by the day. At the Brigg, billet, and occasionally salmon-trout, and in the bay, gurnet, haddock, whiting, and dabs, may be caught. Owing to the want of water at Scarborough, and of a landing pier at Filey, much time is lost in landing the fish and nets; the consequence is that on an average the boats do not fish more than three nights in the week. An easterly gale is a cause of extreme danger to the fishermen, and when the sea runs very high, fires are burned on the cliffs at Scarborough and Bridlington to warn off the boats, which in that case must find refuge at Yarmouth or in the Humber.
A life-boat, rowed by 14 men, who receive 10 shillings each for their venture, was built in 1823; on one occasion it was the means of saving the crews of 10 out of 14 vessels which were stranded in the bay, in all 120 lives. It is a reproach to the government that along the entire east coast there is not a single harbour of refuge; the few harbours which intervene between the Humber and the Tweed are tidal. It is this part of the coast which should first be considered: within these hundred miles one fourth of all the wrecks of the kingdom take place.
The commissioners appointed in 1857 to report upon the question, recommended Filey and Tees Bay as harbours of refuge; £900,000 would suffice to render the former the Portland of the northeastern coast, at once a station for men-of-war, and the means of saving hundreds of lives. At the present moment vessels off this coast, when overtaken by a sudden gale from the eastward, are unable to clear the land on either tack.
Filey lies between Flamborough and Whitby, the most dangerous headlands, and by its depth of water, its sheltered position, and its natural breakwater, the Brigg, it offers the most advantageous site for the construction of works which ought to be held indispensable by any government which desires to carry out its duty, by preserving the lives of the people entrusted to it.
Upon a fine day in October a yawl was beached, but a sudden storm arising she drove, though two anchors were let down, and was brought up by a third anchor only after her deck had been raised three inches by the strain: and half a week was lost in having the necessary repairs made at Scarborough. Fishing-boats and merchant ships, with their crews, are the antecedents of men-of-war and naval armaments, and are the nursery of those elements of our maritime defence.
While we are fortifying our arsenals, and strengthening our dockyards anew in their structure and resources, - while no expense is spared in the strategic system which converts our southern seaboard into a line of military posts,- and while every precaution is taken against the possibility of an enemy landing upon our shores,- a duty as solemn, pressing, and patriotic is neglected in a time of perfect peace, that of affording shelter and protection to our fishermen and merchant seamen on the line of one of the greatest highways of our commerce.
Impregnability is all but an impossibility; every front of approach or assault cannot be efficiently guarded; but it is alike impolitic and inhuman to resist the entreaties of the very class to which we should look to man our vessels of war, if menaced by an enemy; and while we lavish our expenditure upon building batteries, we ought not to grudge what is necessary in order to preserve our coasts from those risks at sea which make the yearly wreck-chart a national reproach.
In "Once a Week" by Mackenzie E. C. Walcott in 1862