The return of the fisher girls

STEPHEN PULLINGER It was more than half a century since she had gutted herrings on trestle tables set up along Yarmouth's then buzzing Fishwharf. Yet the technique which became instinctive during often gruelling 12-hour shifts came back to Isabella Christie as though it were yesterday the moment she picked up a gutting knife at the town's Time and Tide museum.

STEPHEN PULLINGER

It was more than half a century since she had gutted herrings on trestle tables set up along Yarmouth's then buzzing Fishwharf.

Yet the technique which became instinctive during often gruelling 12-hour shifts came back to Isabella Christie as though it were yesterday the moment she picked up a gutting knife at the town's Time and Tide museum.

Mrs Christie, 69, was among a 22-strong party of former fisher girls and retired fishermen from Shetland who arrived in Yarmouth yesterday during a nostalgic week-long trip to the ports where they once worked during the autumn herring season.

She fondly remembers making the arduous trip to Yarmouth with three friends along with hundreds of other Scottish girls back in 1956, the one year she came.

“We had to take the boat from Shetland and then a train from Aberdeen. It took ages and as it was a steam train we were filthy when we got here,” she said.

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Mrs Christie, whose merchant seaman husband died two years ago, cannot recognise much of today's Yarmouth, but has precise memories of lodging with a Mrs Cumby at 56 Exmouth Road, just a few hundred yards along from the quay where she sometimes toiled late into the evening on days when there had been a good herring catch.

She recalled that in those days the harbour was packed with herring boats, many having come down from Shetland and Lerwick (LK) registered. “We did not make much money but we really enjoyed our time in Yarmouth. We were out all the time,” she said.

Grace Fowler, 81, wearing a colourful gansey pullover like the ones she and fellow fisher girls used to knit between shifts, said that her last visit to East Anglia had been to Lowestoft in 1939. “We used to eat a lot of herring during our stay - and I still like it today,” she said.

Jessie Anderson, 82, another fisher girl in Lowestoft, made the long trip with her sister in 1947 and recalls lodging in St Peter's Street.

“I remember how cold it could get working on the shore with the breeze coming off the sea. It seemed even colder than Shetland,” she said.

William Solomon, 69, was a fishermen working out of Yarmouth and Lowestoft from 1953 to 1966 on boats including Ocean Sunlight, but moved to Shetland after marrying a Scottish girl.

He said Yarmouth today was unrecognisable from the lively place he remembered during the September to December herring season.

“Lowestoft was so packed with herring boats you could walk across them from one side of the dock to the other,” he said.

He remembers young men, like himself, gazing at the fisher girls at work, some gutting the fish and others expertly packing them in barrels between layers of salt, ready for export to such places as Russia.

This week's trip, which has also included stop-offs in Hull and Grimsby, has been organised by the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, which celebrates its centenary in Shetland this year.

Mission superintendent Peter Dade was formally welcomed by area museum officer James Steward who said the memories of Scottish girls working in the port were still cherished, and Time and Tide, “which was built like Yarmouth on herring bones”, was a testimony to that great relationship.

Borough mayor Paul Garrod welcomed the party and said that as a lifeboatman for 17 years he had the utmost respect for those working in the fishing industry.

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