A few years ago Yorkshire TV released a program made by a husband and wife Glen Crawford and Ann Morell-Crawford. This documentary presented an evocative and haunting insight into the lives of the Filey flither girls. These were the wives of the fishermen.
Even up to modern times the life of a Filey fisher woman was hard. The majority of Filey boats were cobles and they long lined rather than trawled. It was much harder work. They had to gather bait and prepare it. The women and girls had to skein the mussels. The living mussel is taken out of its shell - prised open then scooped out. Its tedious work and women often got up in the very early hours. Filey men recognised the need to marry early if they were to progress as a fisherman on their own. Of course, they needed to marry women capable of work - "a woman who didn't want to work wasn't worth having!"
The Yorkshire TV program concentrated on one particular aspect of the Filey fisherwomen lives - the flither gathering. Women and girls used to go out gathering bait. The paths along the coast were made by women as they gathered bait.
The documentary explores the hardship of the women. If they could not get bait in Filey Bay they went to Gristhorpe. If they could not get bait there they went to Flamborough. The women had to get bait! They would trek up to Cloughton, north of Scarborough. They went further afield if it was needed. They went to Robin Hoods Bay or Whitby!
On occasions these were truly epic journeys. Few who have watched the program could forget the accounts. One winter they could not get bait in Filey or Flamborough and had to WALK all the way to Whitby. Few had shoes and they had to venture through snow drifts on the Yorkshire moors. They then had to wade along the rocky coastline in cold sea water. The work was hard even on a summers day but to have to do this in winter seems almost unbearable.
The documentary uses the diaries of Arthur Munby - a social commentator in Victorian times. How accurate exactly was this? Some have said that these accounts must have been exxagerated because no person could have endured such hardships. To have walked up to Whitby in the snow and then walked back! In the meantime to have hauled up their skirts and waded into freezing seas.
Certainly things got much easier for the Filey Fisherwomen. In the later part of the 19th Century they travelled by train rather than walked up the coast. There was a special bait gatherers rate on the train.
During hard times any victorian could apply to the Workhouse for relief. But this was something any self respecting person would never do unless they had to. It was such a humiliating experience. Put simply - for some the Victorian Workhouse was NOT an option! It was a fate worse than death.
The program concentrates on the haunted looks on the womens faces. There must have been some good aspects. One account by Mackenzie E. C. Walcott in 1862 of Filey herring girls (admittedly these were herring girls rather than flither girls - but their life was not easy). The work of the herring girls was described in the following way - "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".