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Herring Girls

Photo of The Herring Girl statue

Photo © Pam Sanders

North Shields Fishermen's Heritage Project LogoIn order to recognise the role and contribution that women have played over the years in the local fishing industry, the North Shields Fishermen’s Heritage Project commissioned a life-size sculpture of a Herring-Girl to be located within the regeneration area of the Fish Quay. The sculpture has been created by local artist and steel fabricator; Ray Lonsdale at South Hetton, Co. Durham. It complements Ray’s sculpture ‘The Fisherman’, located on Fiddler’s Green and celebrates the lives and achievements of the women who followed the herring fleets up and down the North Sea coast.  ‘The Herring Girl’ was unveiled in September 2023 by actress Brenda Blethyn and the event was celebrated with performances from Lindisfarne as well as local school children.

Visit The North Shields Fishermen's Heritage Project website to find out more about the Herring Girl sculpture
Read about the wonderful statue unveiling event on our blog page

Images by Ernest Storey

As part of the project members of North Shields Fishermen’s Heritage Project commissioned Remembering the Past to record a set of oral history interviews of people with memories of the herring girls and working in the fishing industry.  Collecting these stories not only recognises and records their contribution to our region, but also celebrates their character and resilience.

Below you can read and listen to these memories.  They tell the story not only of the herring girls but also of the fishermen who caught and landed the fish.  At it’s peak, the volume of herring landed at North Shields Fish Quay was enormous, but it was all landed in the space of two to three months before the herring moved further south and other ports took over.  The town did not have sufficient workers to meet the demand so the herring girls were welcomed in and many lodged with local families.  They became part of the community and many eventually settled in the town.  It is clear from these memories that the work was hard and the women had to be tough to do it.  But they also tell the story of the camaraderie that existed between them and how they still knew how to enjoy life.

Photo of herring girls working at the Farlin

Herring Girls working at North Shields Fish Quay
©Linda McCann

Albert Whiting

A fisherman’s memories of the herring girls.

There would be roughly 100 herring girls with their mothers, all ready to start work. There was big troughs around the market, and the herring girls would stand either side of them. The herring, he would get it tipped into these troughs and the herring girls would start to gut them about 9 o’ clock, 10 in the morning and could be 10 or 11 o’ clock at night when they finished.

Herring girls riding on back of truck

Herring Girls hitch a lift – © Ann Stewart

Ann Stewart

They took a kist and their knitting.

My mum and her sisters were herring girls in the 1930s.  Hard work but they loved it.  When the herring season was about to start, they would begin to arrange their belongings for the time they would be away from home.  They had a good sturdy wooden box called a kist.  They needed something sturdy because they went by train from port to port and the kist could take a bit of a bashing.

Photo of herring workers on North Shields Fish Quay

Herring workers on the Fish Quay
© Linda McCann

Linda Brash

It was like a family affair, my nana, my auntie my mother and me

My mother, my grandmother and my father all worked on the quay.  We came from Fraserburgh in Scotland when I was three years old.  My grandmother had moved there previously, long story; she was widowed when she was very young and left with 3 small children.

Photo of steam trawler

A typical steam trawler – unknown

Lynn Collins

A long family connection with fishing and the fish quay

My great uncle was on the Herring Girl Merchants Association, that was his title. The Herring Committee were at the western end of the eastern extension of the fish quay and they put all flags and banners up congratulating him on his wedding.  He is the only one out of the family that had anything to do with the herring girls.

It was mid 1970s she just one day said, “I want to have a fish and chip shop.”

Listen to Lynn's memories of her mother's fish shop and the fish quay

Herring girls gutting herring at the farlin

Herring girls at North Shields – © Linda McCann

Marj Banks

It was a hard life for all of them

My Nana was a fish worker and she worked at the kipper house. They lived very, very poorly, in a hovel on the fish quay and they would take the Herring Girls in. Now where they would stay, I wouldn’t even begin to imagine because they were very poor. They probably didn’t have a bed, they probably ended up lying on the floor.

Photo of herriing boats at the Fish Quay 1912

Herring Drifters at North Shields Quay – Newcastle Libraries

Rory Page

Rory shared a lot of memories with us.  Below you have the option to listen to the full interview (24 minutes) or to listen to separate accounts of his fishing heritage (11 minutes) and the herring girls (14½ minutes)

My Family and the herring

All the women came from Scotland and all the men came from south of the country.  Granda Cunningham he started off in sailing drifters out of Lowestoft.

Well, my Nana was, my Great Grandma was, and her Mam was as well. They were all herring girls and my Mam my Nana everybody.  They all worked in like a kipper house before the herring ban in 1977.

I am fifth generation fisherman, my family goes right back fishing to Samuel Eli Cunningham.  They were Norfolk and Suffolk.

A Fishing Vessel – unknown

Willy Jack

My Life at Sea

I left school at 15, in 1963. Straight out of school I joined the Ben boats as apprentice, just a schoolboy. First trip, steamed down to Faroe. Never forget it, as long as I live. Hailstones as big as pancakes bouncing off my head.

We hope you have enjoyed reading these memories.  Rory Page remembered that the herring girls often sang while they worked and he went on to say, “I used to get told the song when I was little, ‘What would we dee with the herring’s tails?’  I remember ‘The shoals of herring’ because that mentions North Shields.”  We thought it would be a fitting finale to feature versions of these two songs that we found on Youtube.