Herring fishing in Great Yarmouth

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Just occasionally, when buying magic lantern slides, something remarkable turns up. Today’s slides are from a group of about eighty relating to Great Yarmouth’s fishing industry in the early 1900s. They were in a large collection that I purchased some years ago, ninety percent of which were poor quality slides of boring subjects but then I opened the last box and was amazed by what I found.

From the late Victorian period, a number of coastal towns in the north of Scotland and east of England relied on the vast shoals of herring that migrated annually (do fish ‘migrate’?) from the west of Scotland, eastwards along the north coast and then south down the east coast. Huge large fleets of fishing boats and thousands of men were employed to catch the fish but, perhaps of more interest from a social history viewpoint, is the fact that, once landed, they were gutted and packed into barrels by Scottish girls. The girls followed the fish as they moved around the coast. It was hard, often very cold work but they were so skilled that they could sometimes achieve a gutting and packing rate of three fish per minute.

I was aware of the ‘fish girls’ before I purchased these slides as I have other photos of them in various locations and the expressions on their faces make it clear that it was a miserable job. However, every one of the Great Yarmouth slides shows the girls smiling and having fun.

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I have many questions that I don’t know the answers to. Did they stay with the same families each year as they moved around the coast from town to town; did they work for a ‘gang master’; were they paid on a piece work basis; how did they travel; who looked after and protected them? Perhaps our seasonal, often migrant, agricultural workers are the modern day equivalent of the Scottish fish girls.

This is not ancient history. My father remembers watching ‘fish girls’ working on the quayside when he was a boy in Scotland in the 1930s. Even as a small boy, he was amazed by their speed and dexterity.

The three slides shown are fishing trawlers being towed out to sea by a steam tug and the girls working in Great Yarmouth.

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