Great Yarmouth Herring Fishing Industry

These wonderful images depict the Great Yarmouth herring fishing industry when it was at its peak, in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The industry began in medieval times and the size of the fishing fleets grew – as did the size of the catches.
In the autumn months fishermen lay in wait for the massive herring shoals which migrated south from Scotland down the east coast. Because herring swim and feed close to the surface special boats, known as drifters, were used to catch them. Nets were hung vertically in the water between boats, and at night unsuspecting herring swam into them. It was a lucrative trade and by the end of 1886, the number of boats in Yarmouth registered under the Fisheries Act amounted to just under 450. At this time it was estimated that between 4,500 and 6,000 men and boys were working in the business. It was said that in the early 20th century at times there were so many fishing boats in the harbour, it was possible to cross from one side of the river to the other by walking from deck to deck.
Once caught the fish had to be gutted. This was a time when fish girls followed the herring shoals as they migrated down the coast. In October the girls descended on Yarmouth to process the catch which had to be done as soon as the boat landed. The fishing girls worked tirelessly in very harsh conditions. They were skilled at their job, the best being able to gut one every second, singing as they worked.
Sadly, in the early 20th century the industry went into decline. This was a result of a number of factors, including both a fall in demand for processed fish as refrigerators and freezers became common place, and also a decline in supply of herring as a result of over-fishing.