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My Fishing Heritage

I am a fifth generation fisherman


Herring drifter off North Shields

Herring Drifter North Shields-Newcastle Libraries

All the women came from Scotland and all the men came from south of the country.  [Great] 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.

Then the first world war kicked off and my [great] 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.  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 at the Fish Quay

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.

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.

Herring Boats at North Shields Quay

Herring boats at North Shields Quay

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.  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.

Fish Quay sheds with a morning's catch

A morning’s catch at the Fish Quay

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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