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My Family and the Herring

They had to do like 50-60 fish a minute and that was nothing to them


My nana, my great grandma and her mam were all herring girls and my mam and all worked in a kipper house before the herring ban in 1977.  All the women came from Scotland and all the men came from south of the country.

Herring Drifter North Shields-Newcastle Libraries

They originally followed the fleet but my granda Cunningham he started off in sailing drifters out of Lowestoft and he came when he changed over to steam and he was fishing from North Shields, met my great grandma, they got married in Percy Main in 1928.  She used to come down as far as Ireland then all the way around, Isle of Man, she didn’t like the south fishing she just wanted to be here and she settled here and that was that.

Then the first world war kicked off and she became a nurse and my granda was in the minesweepers.  He was having a boat built at the time in St. Monans, the Rejoice and he was part owner, he was going to be the skipper.  It was completed in 1915 and got requisitioned for war service, so it never went fishing until 1917. When he worked that fishing for herring he was skipper and she sunk off the Tyne in 1928.  I remember my granda told me that exactly, it was the year Clifford’s Fort closed and he had got word that the boat had sunk, but his dad was alright.  They were picked up by the Jenny Irvin.  He became mate of the Jenny Irvin, so he got rescued by that and he became mate and he was on there until he died in 1939.

Photo of herriing boats at the Fish Quay 1912

Herring drifters-Newcastle Libraries

I am fifth generation fisherman, my family goes right back fishing to Samuel Eli Cunningham.  They were Norfolk and Suffolk.  But originally, my dad’s great great Uncle, Edwin Thomas Page, he was the lighthouse keeper of the Low Light and he lived in what is the old Low Light now.  The building was alms-houses and he worked for Trinity House and my nana and granda lived in Clifford’s Fort which is across the road.  But obviously the families hadn’t met or anything yet so it just shows you.  It was 1910 he lived there and then he went back down to Suffolk, and I think he was working for Trinity House at the time, so fishing in the family it’s been a big thing.

I am in the process of writing a book about it all now.  I spoke to lots of different people over the years growing up with families, Alma Burgo and all different people.  Old Renee who lived round the corner she was a herring girl and she told me loads of stuff about going to the south fishing and going north and how they were selected. The buyers used to come down and watch them working and if they thought they were good workers they would buy them for the next season.  They would come down and they would pay them what was called Arles money, they’d give them 10 shilling, that sort of secured you so you couldn’t go and work anywhere else and you’d get a chit saying you were going to work in Shetland and then you’d get your train ticket so you were ready to go when the season finished at Shields.

Image of herring girl and cooper

Herring girl & cooper/salter

Because North Shields is in the middle of the herring ground it was one of the biggest stations and like Yarmouth was closest to the south fishing grounds because they were in the channel, they were right to Lands End all the way around.  So, you had Shetland, North Shields, Great Yarmouth they were the three big herring stations.

The herring in North Shields were full of oil, they were oily fish, and they were really sought after because they were in their prime when they were in the middle of the North Sea, especially if they went into deeper water.  But you know you could fish them right up to Tynemouth Castle at that time and I’ve heard my granda telling me about my great granda James was a bit naughty he used to come right up to King Edwards Bay, come right up the beach fishing for them because he knew they would follow the coast.

But there was also the Prunier trophy if you go down to the sparrow’s nest in Lowestoft they’ve got the Prunier trophy there and all the winners on it and lots of the boats are Scottish boats, there’s a few with North Shields, a lot of the crew was North Shields.  You had to land the most amount of fish, so if you landed over a hundred cran you got put into the draw. A cran of herring was 4 baskets and that’s how that worked.  But the herring had to be of a certain quality, and you got selected.  Jumbo Fiske, he was the main winner, I think he won it 6 times in the Suffolk Warrior and the Suffolk Adventure.  The North Shields Herring Board had a trophy but there’s hardly any record of who won it, how you won it, where it is, what it is.  There’s a photo of somebody presented with it but the North Shields Herring Board was made up of people from Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Hull, Grimsby, all the ports and they all sort of pooled in.

But a lot of the regular boats that were here, like Silver Crest LT46, I think everybody of a certain age worked on that boat at some point in their career.  Fourteen-year-old kids like my Uncle Bob, he told me the tale of them going on.  He wanted to be a fisherman because he wanted to go away on a herring drifter and he went away one night and my uncle Bob, his dad picked him up, took him down, away they went because he worked in Smiths Docks.  He says, “The worst night of my life.  I was sick from leaving the piers to getting up in the morning, I was just ill.”  So, not everybody’s cut out for it.

Two fishing boats at North Shields Fish Quay

Fish Quay 1964-Newcastle Libraries

I had a good run fishing it was good I enjoyed every minute of it.  You had some bad times, had some good times.  It was definitely a tough life.  You made lifetime friendships.  My nana, Alma, Audrey, my Aunty Freda and all the other people all worked together on the herring and right up until the end they were still doing the roll mops, filleting herring and smoking it.   They met their husbands here, there’s loads of people got married here and maybe moved away. Renee who I mentioned before, was from Wick originally. She met her husband, here he went on the minesweepers, came back, raised her family here.   She was telling me when she left her mam had died, and she wouldn’t let them come down to Shields with her sisters and cousins and the rest of the team because she was only 14 and then the next year her dad said yes, and she came down and that was it.

But my nana’s told me the same, you go away and you do your green season, which is your first.  You’re learning a different way, it’s a different port, it’s a different way to do it.  Because we are all doing the Scotch cure, but you had different sizes of herring as well.  So, at different times of the season they were either spawning or they’d spent.  So, you had the spent falls and spawn and especially for the south fishing mostly all spent because they had spawned off here and then moved south, so they were thinner fish they weren’t the best.  If they weren’t up to speed, on your bike, you were away.

Herring girls gutting herring at the farlinSo, they had to do like 50-60 fish a minute and that was nothing to them really because you’re pulling the gills and the guts out.  So, at the farlin, which was like a big trough, the cooper used to come and salt them.  They had their fingers and their thumb rags on and do that, but if they got hurt, if they cut themselves, the salt used to go in and you used to see them with scars on their fingers, the salt’s gone in and healed it, and it hasn’t healed properly.

The Shetland buyers used to come down back end of the season and book the lasses to go north or vice versa, we used to have lads here. My granda used to buy herring here.  He used to work in the bullring and the boats used to come in with their samples, run in, get their sample, pick it up, put it on the board and bid on the herring, sell it all.  Sell by the cran.  And it had to all be a good sample.  It was 24 fish you had to take in a little swill, a little basket, like a garden trug and all the buyers would look at it and say, yeah, we’ll bid on that, bid on that.  They could buy the whole shot, which was the whole catch.  Or, I want 10 cran, I want 20 cran, I want 100 cran, whatever the boat had in.  But you’re talking 50-60 boats coming in, all rushing to get ashore.

There’s a tale of one, coming into the knuckle end of the fish quay.  He come in and put his nose on there and as he nosed in so the lad could run down with his sample, the boat was still going ahead, and the tide was pushing him and it peeled all the top of the boat back as it was going, and it got stuck under the thing.  The Scotch fishermen were all competitive, all god-fearing people you know, all religious until it’s sample time and that all went out the window, tripping each other over and things like that to get there first.

But if you cheated and you didn’t give a good representation of your catch, what used to happen was you’d go right to the bottom of the list and get the lower price, you’d get a bad price.  And if it didn’t sell at all, it would go to Tyne Brand to be canned and you only got pennies.  You had to be honest.

You had to get in first.  If you were first and you had good quality fish, you’d get a good price and be at the top of the list.  But as it went down the price went down, so you know, supply and demand and you can imagine 60 boats from Fraserburgh all racing in at the same time trying to get in to get a decent price.  Well, just to sell their fish, because a lot of it didn’t sell and it went to the Tyne Brand, and you used to just get a flat rate.

Herring fleet leaving the Tyne

Herring fleet leaving the Tyne

The boats used to go away 4 o’ clock teatime.  Because the herring come up during the night and when you’re fishing with a drift net, not when you’re trawling like later years the herring come up in the dark.  They come up for the moon especially, if there’s a full moon it’s good fishing weather.  So, you fish through the dark and then you’re hauling by the time the dawn comes up.  So, you’re hauling, shaking them off and getting it all aboard so you could be in at 5 – 6 o’ clock in the morning.

The girls would be up having their breakfast, wrapping up, especially in the old days when they were living on the quay in the huts and different places.  Because there was wooden huts along where Ballard’s smoke house used to be, what people used to call the deed house.  They used to live in there or above Ogleby salt works, which is on the car park now where Hunter’s and Caley’s is.  There was a big dormitory sort of thing, it was an old barrel store.  And the girls used to live in there and it was all done out with newspaper, and I remember my granda used to tell us they were playing in there and getting wrong off his mam, “You’ll get wrong, don’t go in there, there’s girls’ things in there.”  He says it was just like wooden beds and stuff obviously there was nobody in when he was there.

But apparently in 1920 something there was an outbreak of cholera and that’s when they stopped, not just in North Shields but in different places where the girls had been living together in close quarters this is how they started getting billeted up in the town.  And a lot of them lived in Nancy’s Yard in Cullercoats they used to come through on the tram.

Three herring girls on North Shields Fish Quay

Herring girl team

They used to take people with them as well.  They used to have other girls living with them and that was a common thing where you fell in with a team.  You had 2 gutters and a packer, that was your team.  So, there was 3 girls and it was normally the tallest girl who was the packer which used to reach the bottom of the barrel and the 2 other girls were gutting.  My family’s all tall like me, so they were all packers which is why they’ve al got bad backs.  They’re doing maybe a hundred barrels a day and carrying all the cogs, the half barrels of fish.

They took no prisoners I tell you; I wouldn’t like to get involved with them.  Especially when they used to have their ceilidhs.  Friday nights or Saturday nights, no boats away on a Sunday; you go to church, everybody went to church.  All the girls, they used to have a party on a Saturday night in the old pottery yard where they used to have a dance.  They used to have a fire and get together and I’ve been told there used to be a fire and fishermen used to jump over the fire. They met their husbands at these dances and stuff like that.

Herring girl with knitting

Herring girl with knitting

And the girls used to knit a jumper and the famous socks.  They used to get the 3-ply wool, especially if they were coming from Shetland, they used to bring the wool with them.  The patterns for the gansey’s, because as you know, you used to wear your gansey.  There used to be a North Shields, Cullercoats, Blyth whatever all from a different pattern a little line here little line there just in case you got lost and they knew when you got washed up, they knew where you came from and the patterns got passed down.  They used to knit socks, but they would always knit one of their hairs into the jumper if they made it for their husband.  I think my nana used to tell us, they pull a hair out and you’d knit it in so you were with them when they were at sea.  They would never ever knit socks for your husband or your sweetheart because that would mean they were going away from you.  People used to think, “Oh, the knitting must stink when they’re doing that.”  The wools are oily, it didn’t penetrate.

My granda was telling me about my great granda James Cunningham, when they used to bring the herring in here it used to be full of oil.  When they used to put them in the brine before they smoked them, all the oil used to rise to the top and they used to collect the oil and it used to be good for soaking leather and boots.  The stables used to come and get it to do all the tack, the saddles and everything like that, so the herring oil was sought after.  All the offal, the guts and everything like that went in the fishmeal so it went in the gardens, so there was no waste.  Then you had the coopers who used to make the barrels but there’s all sorts of jobs and they reckoned for every man at sea there was 15 to 20 jobs ashore.

A lot of men at sea and a lot lost as well, a lot of lads lost if you go back.  But girls like my great grandma they were tough women.  I mean fearsome women, but hearts of gold, all of them, do anything for anybody, give them their last.  Didn’t suffer fools I tell you.

If you had families, you used to get a family member to look after them and go away and you done your work and come back to your family.  I’ve known girls from Scotland who have had big families and had to leave their family to come down to work.  Obviously it’s an income, work here, but not go to the south fishing just come as far as here and then go back to their family and then waited, you know until the following season, go back.  Until their families grew up.  The season here was two months from May to July, back end of May but it could begin in April.

The end here in North Shields was probably the second world war put an end to it.  There was still a good trade after the first world war but the ships coming in, they used to stop outside the mission, and then the Polish ship used to bring salt from the continent and take the salted herring back.  The second world war pretty much saw the end of the majority of the girls travelling as everything became mechanised and women were needed for other things, they were into making munitions.

My nana went in to making munitions in Coventry and when Coventry was bombed, she went to Birmingham.  It was the same with the drifters as well, a lot of boats were requisitioned for the war and a lot of the drifters from North Shields were taken for boom defence and mine clearing even troop carriers, water carriers and that sort of wrecked the trade.  With Germany especially, because Germany was a big player in the herring, they used to buy a lot especially from here.  I’ve got records of my granda from the war and just takes a dive.  Then after the war it started up again but it was never in the volumes that it was because people had started trawling more and so they were after white fish, there was more money in white fish.  The herring trade was still big, but it was nothing like the 1930s when it was like the boom years.

Most of the herring went to the Tyne Brand or it went away to be smoked.  It was all kippered then, there was hardly any barrelled.  If it came into North Shields in volume it was all klondyked, which meant it went into an 8 stone box, rough packed.  It wasn’t packed, the girls still did it and it went straight onto a ship, and it was away to Poland or to Russia or somewhere like that.  And then in the late 60s and early 70s you had the klondykers, the big Russian ships used to come in and the boats used to just tie up alongside them and land there, with mackerel as well and herring.

Tyne Brand advert

Tyne Brand advert

The girls all evolved into the Tyne Brand, a lot of the girls that stayed here or they went into a filleting house likes of Harry Hornes and Marshalls and places like that; Davisons, me grandas, Collins, Jimmy Hill and places like that.  A lot of women were still needed you know because they were good filleters, they were quick, good workers as well.  I remember being little and going amongst them with me mam, especially when me mam was working with me nana down at, it’s North Shields Grindings now, but that was a big smoke house then.  They didn’t just do herrings, you got salmon and all sorts in there.

But yes, when the girls used to leave, they used to leave and do their first season when they were 15.  When you think they were 15-year-old and were working from 5 o’ clock in the morning, sometimes till midnight and up again at 5 o’ clock.  And away from home and living in a strange house in a strange town.  The shops used to open late, I used to say how did you do your shopping and they said, “Oh the shops used to open late.”  There was always shops on the fish quay, but up in the town they used to open late so that they could go in to get clothes and make up and stuff like that.  But I remember me nana saying that wherever the girls were staying you could always tell because their stuff was always outside the front door, it never got pinched.  All the stuff was outside it was either in the back yard or it was outside the front door because of the smell.  And in the houses, they used to put newspapers on the wall because it used to permeate the newspaper and they could scrape it off and paint the wall.

Two herring girls at work

Two herring girls at the Fish Quay

All the girls used to stay up, in Walker Place and Toll Square, especially where me nana used to live in Toll Square.  They used to have people, you know if they came down especially if they were young girls, they didn’t want them hanging around on the fish quay living anywhere, “Come live with us.”  And me nana and granda used to do that, fishermen used to come down from different places, nowhere to stay.  I mean the mission could only take so many people, so a lot of families took fishermen in, especially in the herring season when it was really busy.  The mission was quite big in North Shields and a lot of the lads, fishing lads, a lot of the girls as well stayed at the mission.

There’s not a lot about what the girls did, where they lived, how they lived, how they came down.  My great granda when he came up with the boat, he had all the gear on the for the girls to come back up to North Shields.  He used to come here, if it was going further north it would be put on the fish quay.  Another boat would pick their tins up, take it back up to Fraserburgh or wherever it was going, next port of call.  So, it was like a ferry service as well, saved the girls carrying them on a train.

When they were coming down, they used to have their kist which was their tin which was their everything, it was like a box with everything in.  They would have their clothes and stuff like that.  I remember me nana saying when they were living in a hut, they used to bring something from home; There was only limited space, so someone would take a mirror, one would take a lamp or something, so it was a bit like, home from home. Then they were sleeping on straw mattresses you know, you’re talking of 50s and 60s and they’re still sleeping on straw.

Photo of herring workers on North Shields Fish Quay

Herring girl team and coopers/salters

There was a big thing in 1935 where there was a big riot in Great Yarmouth where they were arguing about pay because they were getting paid more here in the north than they were down there.  So, they ended up getting a shilling a barrel and then obviously a few years later the war kicked off, so it didn’t last very long.  But the police put hoses on them and everything.  They were getting locked up and all sorts.  But they were getting a shilling a barrel here in 1930.  The shilling was shared out between the team so depending on how many teams were in the yard because the yard could send for, “We need 5 teams”, so that was 5 teams of 3. Then you had the coopers and then you had the salters and then you had the inspectors.  There was lots and lots went on around it.

They were always singing that was one thing that I got through listening to all of them they were always singing, they would sing us songs about all sorts of things.  I used to get told the song when I was little, “What would we dee with the herring’s tails?”  “The shoals of herring,” I remember that song because that mentions North Shields.  Happy memories going back thinking about it.


Rory was interviewed as part of the North Shields Herring Girls Project.

Images captioned with Newcastle Libraries are from their collections on Flickr
Thanks to Linda McCann for all herring girl images – © all rights reserved

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