Views of ports and harbours By William Finden, 1838 - old text about Robin Hood's Bay fisheries
The above is the name of a fine bay on the Yorkshire coast, between Whitby and Scarbrough, and also of the fishing village, situated towards its northern extremity. In the view, which is taken from the north, several of the houses are seen standing upon the very edge of the cliff. The promontory to the left is called Ravenhill, and forms the south-eastern extremity of the bay. From an inscription dug up at Ravenhill in 1774, it appears that there had formerly been a Roman camp there.
The ancient name of the bay was Fyling, and from what reason or at what period it first received the name of Robin Hood's Bay is uncertain. That it ever was the resort of the famed outlaw of that name is extremely questionable; although two or three tumuli on the moor, about two miles to the southward of the village, are said to be the butts, in shooting at which he exercised his men in archery. Near Whitby Lathes, about five miles to the north-west of Robin Hood's Bay, are two upright stones, which are said to mark the spots where the arrows of the bold robber of Sherwood Forest, and of his man Little John, fell, when, in a trial of strength, they discharged them from the top of Whitby Abbey in the presence of the abbot. As the distance from these stones to the abbey is rather more than a mile and a half, it is evident that a long bow must have been drawn by some one, if not by Robin Hood. It has been supposed that the place was originally called Robin Wood's Bay, from a fisherman of that name, who formerly resided there; but this conjecture rests on no better ground than the fact of two or three fishermen of the name of Wood having lived there in modern times. A family of fishermen of the name of Wood, with whom" Zebedee" appears to have been a favourite" fore-name," have resided at Runswick, a fishing village, about seven miles northward of Whitby, for several generations.
Leland, in his Itinerary, written about three hundred years ago, calls the village by its present name, Robin Hood's Bay, and describes it as" a fisher townlet of twenty boats." It is still, as in his time, almost entirely inhabited by fishermen. The houses forming the principal street are built on each side of a steep road, leading down to the shore; while others, as may be seen in the view, are built upon the very extremity of the cliff. The approach to the village is by a steep descent, which is extremely inconvenient for carriages. It is about fourteen miles north-west of Scarbrough, and seven south-east of Whitby; and the population is about a thousand.
Robin Hood's Bay, Filey, Runswick, and Staithes, are the principal fishing villages on the Yorkshire coast. Filey is about eight miles south of Scarborough; Runswick, as has been previously observed, is about seven miles northward of Whitby; and Staithes is about three miles northward of Runswick. At each of those places the fishery is carried on both by cobles and by five-man boats. At most of the other fishing stations on the Yorkshire coast, cobles only are employed.
The principal fishing ground for the cobles, is from eight to sixteen miles from the shore. In winter, however, they do not venture so far out as in summer, but usually shoot their lines between six and ten miles from the shore. There are usually three men to a coble. When the wind is not favourable, and they cannot set their sail, they use their oars; the two men seated nearest the head of the boat row each a single large oar, while the man on the thwart nearest the stern rows a pair of smaller size. The fish are not caught, as on some parts of the south-western coast of England, by hand-lines, which are suspended over the side of the boat, and pulled up when the fisherman feels that he has a bite. The mode of proceeding is to make fast a number of lines together, and shoot them across the tide; and after they have lain extended at the bottom of the sea for several hours-usually during the time of a tide's ebbing or flowing, that is, about six hours-they are hauled in. While the lines are shot one man keeps a look out, and the other two usually wrap themselves in the sail and go to sleep in the bottom of the coble. Each man has three lines, and each line is from 200 to 240 fathoms long. The hooks, of which there are from 240 to 300 to each line, are tied, or whipped as the fishermen term it, to lengths of twisted horse-hair called moods; each snood is about two feet and a half long, and they are fastened to the line at about five feet apart. Each man's lines, when baited, are regularly coiled upon an oval piece of wicker work, something like the bottom of a clothes-basket, called by the Yorkshire fishermen a shep; at Hartlepool, in the county of Durham, the same thing is called a rip. In this mode of fishing the hooks are all baited, generally by the fishermen's wives and children, before the coble proceeds to sea. The lines when shot are all fastened together; and when each is 240 fathoms long, the length of the whole is nearly two miles and a half. There is an anchor and a buoy at the first end of the line; and the same at the end of each man's set of lines. There are thus four anchors and four buoys to each coble's entire line. The buoys at the extremities of the line are usually formed of tanned dog-skin, inflated in the manner of a bladder, and having a slight pole, like the handle of a mop, passing through them, to the top of which a small flag is attached to render them more conspicuous. The intermediate buoys are generally made of cork. The anchors for sinking and holding the lines are mostly large stones; as an iron anchor, with arms like a ship's, is liable to get fast among the rocks at the bottom of the sea, and be lost in consequence of the buoy rope being too weak to force it loose.
The following description of a coble and her crew is from a letter apparently written about the latter end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, or the beginning of the reign of James I.; and probably addressed to Sir Thomas Chaloner, of Guisborough, in Yorkshire [note 1].
" Truly yt may be sayd of these poor men, that they are lavish of theyr lives, who will hazard twenty or forty myles into the seas in a small troughe so thinne that the glimse of the sunne may bee scene through yt; yet at eleven or twelve of the clocke in the morninge, when they come from the sea, they sell theire whole boaty's lading for 4s., or if they doe gette a crowne, they suppose to have chaffered fayre. Three commonly come in one boate, each of them having twoe oares, which they governe by drawinge one hande over the other. The boate ytself is built of wainscott, for shape excels all modeles for shippinge; twoe men will easily carrye ytt on lande betweene them, yet are they so secure in them at sea, that some in a storme have lyved aboarde three dayes. Their greateste danger is nearest home, when the waves breake dangerouslye; but they, acquainted with these seas, espyinge a broken wave reddy to overtake them, suddenly oppose the prowe or sharpe ende of theyre boate unto yt, and mountinge to the top, descende downe as yt were unto a valley, hoveringe untill they espye a whole wave come rovrlinge, which they observe commonly to be an odde one; whereupon mountinge with their cobble as it were a great furious horse, they rowe with might and mayne, and together with that wave drive themselves on lande."
In the same account mention is made of a"five-man coble," which was considerably larger than the other, and doubtless the original of the modern fishing vessel called a"five-man boat.""It was my fortune," says the writer, describing the coast in the neighbourhood of Redcar,"to see the cominge in of a five-man coble, which in one night had taken above twenty-one score of greate fishe, of a yearde or an ell in length. Happie were that country yf a generall fishinge were entertained by building vessels and store of fish boats."
The vessels now called five-man boats, though their crew always consists of seven persons, are about forty-six feet long, sixteen feet eight inches broad, and six feet three inches deep. They are clinker-built[note 2], sharp at the bows like a coble, and have a deck with a large hatchway in midships, and a cabin towards the stern for the men. They have three masts, on each of which they carry a lug sail. Their other sails are a jib, and, in fine weather, a topsail set on a shifting topmast, above the main-mast. As the sails are all tanned, a five-man boat forms a picturesque object at sea, more especially when viewed in contrast with a square-rigged vessel with whit esails. The crew of each five-man boat consists of seven persons; five of whom, called shares-men, have equal shares of the proceeds of the voyage, or the season, after the boat's share is paid. The sixth person is often a young man who receives half a share, and is a kind of apprentice to the captain or owner of the boat. The seventh is generally hired at a certain sum per week, and not sharing in the profits of the fishery.
To each five-man boat there are two cobles, which in proceeding to the fishing ground are generally hauled up on the deck. On arriving at the place where it is intended to fish, the boat is anchored, and the cobles being launched, three men proceed in each to shoot the lines, while one remains on board. The lines used for this more distant fishery are called haavres[note 3]. They are about the same length as those used in the coble fishery nearer the shore, though thicker, and having the hooks placed at greater intervals. As the six men who fish have each two sets of lines, they are thus enabled to shoot one set immediately after they have hauled the other. In the five-man-boat fishery the hooks are always baited at sea. The boats usually sail from the place to which they belong on a Monday morning, and return home on Saturday. They mostly fish near the outer edge of the Dogger Bank, and the principal kinds of fish which they take are cod, halibut, skate, haddock, codfish, and ling. Part of the fish thus caught is sold to smacks, which are constantly lying off the fishing ground, for the supply of the London market; and the rest is brought by the fishermen to the shore, where it is either cured or sold to persons who dispose of it in inland places. The cod which is not immediately sold, is, in summer, mostly dried; but in winter, salted in barrels.
The five-man boats, which are all laid up during the winter, are generally fitted out again about the beginning of March. About the middle of August, part of them engage in the herring fishery, which then commences off their own coast, and about the middle of September they all proceed to Yarmouth, and continue to fish for herrings off the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk till the latter end of November, when the fishermen return home and the boats are laid up for the winter. The herrings which they catch at the Yarmouth fishery are sold to the curers there, who contract with them for all that they take during the season at a certain sum per last of ten thousand. On their return home from Yarmouth after a successful season, they indulge in festivity, which is shared by the humbler class of trades-people of the village, who then generally receive payment of the little debts contracted by the families of the fishermen during their absence. In winter, when the large boats are laid up, most of their crews employ themselves in coble fishing.
Five-man boats, like most lugger-rigged vessels, sail well upon a wind in smooth water; but in running before the wind in a rough sea they are not very safe, as their sails are then so liable to"jibe,"-at a time when, above all others, it is of the greatest consequence that they should be kept steady. Most of them, however, have now a storm square-sail, which they set in running for the land before a gale of wind from the eastward. On perceiving the approach of a storm from the eastward, when fishing, they immediately haul in their lines with all speed, and make directly for the land. When a storm comes on suddenly, raising a heavy sea on the shore before they can arrive, five-man boats are sometimes lost in attempting to gain their own harbours. In a violent storm, on the 14th of April 1815, four five-man boats, three belonging to Runswick, and one belonging to Staithes, were lost in approaching the shore.
"Ye who dwell at home,
Ye do not know the terrors of the main!
When the winds blow ye walk along the shore,
And, as the curling billows leap and toss,
Fable that Ocean's mermaid shepherdess,
Drives her white flocks a-field, and warns in time,
The wary fisherman." - Southey's Madoc, book iv.
1. This letter,which is signed" H. Tr.," and contains some account of the lordship of Guisborough, is in the Cottonian Collection of MSS. It is referred to by Graves in his History of Cleveland, as being in the volume marked" Julius F. C.;" and the Rev. G. Young in his History of Whitby, and Sir C. Sharp, in his History of Hartlepool, both cite the volume under the same title. It is, however, contained in"Julius F. vi.," and the account of a Redcar coble, given above, occurs at folio 433 b.
2. Boats and vessels are said to be clinker- or clincher-built, when the planks overlap each other in the manner of slates on the roof of a house. The flat tiles used in covering houses are called clinkers, and from them the term" clinker-built" is probably derived. A vessel is said to be caulker-built when the planks do not overlap each other, but have their edges brought close together, and the seams caulked.
3. This word is derived from" Haaf," which in the Swedish language signifies the main sea. The fishermen of Shetland call their fishing ground" the Haaf."