North Sea Herring Harvest

  • Theme - Local Industry
  • Year - 1930
  • Location - Lowestoft
  • Filmmaker - Ford Jenkins


The herring industry at Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth played a crucial role in the economic growth and prosperity of the east coast. The film includes remarkable footage shot from on board one of the steam drifters as it leaves the harbour on its way to the fishing grounds 30 miles offshore. On the outward journey the nets are prepared and stowed ready to be “shot “on arrival at the grounds. The nets were around two miles long and were played out overboard. They would “drift”, supported by floating buoys, through the night.

At dawn the catch is pulled aboard while gulls wheel around the vessel looking for easy pickings. A good catch, could take up to twelve hours to haul in. With their cargo on board the boats would race back to port to be the first on the quayside and secure the best prices. The fish were winched ashore in “cran” baskets before being taken for grading. An army of fast working, skilled Scots girls gutted the herring. Some fish were kept fresh by being boxed in ice for export on board huge ships heading for Europe and markets further overseas. Others were salted and pickled in a briny mixture known as the "Scots cure", which acted as a preservative.

The herring fishing season on the East Anglian coast lasted from about October to December. During the season, Scottish boats worked out of Lowestoft together with the local fleet. In 1913 - the peak year for the herring industry - over a thousand craft worked out of the East Anglian ports of Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Southwold. This was the heyday of the steam drifter, which had replaced the earlier sailing drifters. Much of Yarmouth and Lowestoft depended on the herring. A whole community, consisting of fish salesmen, gutters, barrel makers, boat builders, net makers and repairers amongst others, lived and worked in this thriving industry.

But the industry went into decline. After 1913, the over-fished North Sea could not offer the quantity of fish required to support such a large fleet. Over the years the locally-owned vessels dwindled and fewer Scots boats came down in pursuit of the herring. The last herring drifter to fish off the East Anglian coast worked the 1960 season. Films like this are an essential historical record of the important industry that once supported the east coast.

This film was shot in 1930 by Ford Jenkins, a local cameraman and photographer, during two trips aboard a drifter. Ford Jenkins was a member of a family of photographers and film makers who were well known in their local area. His uncle, Barrett Jenkins, filmed many events around Southwold during the 1920s. Some of these are in the Archive's collection.


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