Photo gallery: How the Kaiser put an end to the Kipperdrome
15:44 23 April 2014
The east coast fishing industry has faced many challenges over the years but few have been more deadly than the German U-boats that patrolled the North Sea during the First World War.
Before the outbreak of the conflict, Southwold was home to a thriving fishing industry. Its bustling harbour was filled with smacks and its fish market – dubbed the Kipperdrome – did a roaring trade.
But many of the town’s boats were sunk or destroyed during the war years and the prosperity enjoyed before 1914 did not return with the end of hostilities in 1918.
Frank Upcraft, curator at the Alfred Corry Museum in Ferry Road, has put together a collection of photographs, wartime posters and extracts from news reports, which describe the impact of the conflict on the town’s fishing industry and the people that made a living from it.
As part of the exhibition, the museum is urging people to research their family history to find out more about the role their ancestors played during the First World War.
Visitors from the Southwold area and further afield are being asked to contribute stories, letters and other artefacts to the museum to feature in a special display.
“We want to get people interested in their own history and find a picture of their ancestors at war, a letter sent home or a story about them so we can display it on our wall here,” Mr Upcraft said. “We’re trying to get people interested in going back in time and seeing what it was like for their ancestors.”
When war broke out in 1914, most of Britain’s steam drifters and trawlers were requisitioned by the Admiralty for minesweeping or patrol duties.
However, Mr Upcraft said that Southwold had none of these and its sailing smacks continued to work the southern North Sea, suffering great losses at the hands of the German U-boats.
Enemy vessels would often draw up alongside a smack and order the fishermen into their dinghy before plundering the catch and blowing up the fishing boat.
Some of the owners persuaded the Admiralty to arm a small number of boats with a gun that could be used to attack submarines.
The ploy was initially successful and a small number of U-boats were sunk but the German sailors soon became wise to this and stayed out of range, attacking smacks with their heavier guns.
The exhibition at the Alfred Corry Museum includes the story of stubborn longshore fisherman Dubber Hurr, who ignored a ban on fishing after dark and was caught out one night by a U-boat.
He was fired on by the enemy, sustaining an injured arm, but fortunately survived to tell the tale.
Mr Upcraft said that, with the end of the hostilities in November 1918, people came back to fishing expecting the industry to continue as before.
But the boom years were over for both trawling and herring drifting. Many of the 250 sailing smacks that fished out of Lowestoft and Southwold in 1914 were now at the bottom of the North Sea and there was no money to replace them.
The steam drifters and drifter trawlers which had survived the war returned but the herring shoals became progressively smaller because of over-fishing. The collapse of various European currencies further damaged the industry.
Mr Upcraft said: “When they started again after the war, there was no point in coming to Southwold because there was now so much space at Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.
“Before the war Lowestoft and Yarmouth were filled up with boats, which is why Southwold had something to do.”
In an effort to maintain their livelihoods, some crews made long voyages away from home to fish in other areas around the British coast.
Meanwhile, Southwold’s once-thriving fishing industry was reduced to longshore fishing from the beach and a few sailing smacks at the harbour, with fishermen forced to supplement their income by providing bathing machines and trips around the bay for holidaymakers.
■The Alfred Corry Museum is based in the former Cromer lifeboat shed, which was moved to Southwold in 1998. It is home to the Alfred Corry lifeboat and features a number of displays, including the history of Southwold’s lifeboats and the tidal surges that have hit the town. It is open daily from 10.30am to noon and from 2pm to 4pm until the end of October.
■To contribute First World War memories or artefacts to the exhibition, email Frank Upcraft at firstname.lastname@example.org or speak to the steward on duty at the museum.
Are you organising any events to commemorate the start of the First World War? Email email@example.com