The unsung heroines of North Northumberland’s fishing communities
Public Talks in October and November
Most people have heard of the 19th century heroine, the Northumbrian lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Grace Darling. Fewer are aware of a different kind of heroism – that of the everyday labour of women in Northumbrian fishing communities over the centuries. Most Northumbrian coastal villages between Spittal and Hauxley were shaped by inshore fishing, which, like farming, was the occupation not of individuals but of whole families. Although fishermen were superstitious and it was traditionally unlucky for women to set foot in a boat, until the mid 20th century they relied on their female relatives for the unpaid, land-based tasks that kept that boat at sea.
In particular, all winter, as soon as the family coble was launched, the women set to work gathering bait for the next day’s line. For centuries, the long lines were the staple fishery, catching high-priced white fish such as cod and haddock. Each was nearly a mile long and carried 1,400 ‘heuks’, and each heuk was baited with a mussel, and often a limpet. It was left to the women and children to harvest these shellfish, carry them home in creels, and ‘skeyn’ or shell them before placing them on the heuks. It took real skill to bait a line. Each baited heuk was laid neatly in rows in a basket called a ‘swull’, so that the ‘sneeds’ which carried the heuks would not ‘fool’ (tangle) when the line was shot.
Kate Douglas baiting a line, Beadnell c1914
When the boats returned from sea, around dinnertime, the women carried the heavy wet lines ashore, and helped to sort the catch. Traditionally they then took over the next task, which was to sell fish in neighbouring villages.
Although fisher women’s lives were almost unimaginably hard well into the 20th century, from the early 19th century some younger women began to enjoy a degree of economic independence unusual for the time. This was due to the emergence, alongside the local economy, of the more industrial summer herring fishery.
Herring were caught at night, and were processed as soon as they were landed. Throughout the 19th century in the herring season, fisher lasses worked in teams of three, gutting and packing the herring expertly into barrels with layers of salt. As the shoals moved down the coast, the Scottish lasses travelled with them, staying in lodgings above the yard to supplement the local workforce. Many Northumbrian lasses joined them as they ‘travelled the fishin’s’. Away from family supervision, journeying as far as Great Yarmouth, unmarried girls from villages like Beadnell and Seahouses could enjoy wider horizons than those in farming communities just a few miles inland. Although hours were long, women often looked back with affection on the female companionship of the herring yard, and the relative freedom which it represented. It was certainly a great step from the near-slavery of the winter long lines – although one which also foreshadowed some of the problems which have beset fisheries in more recent times.
You can read a fuller version of this summary in The Cheviot magazine, issue 3, Winter 2016, available HERE.
I’ll be giving some talks about all of this, in the context of the centuries-long tradition of the Northumbrian fishery, with a few real-life examples; and considering what we can draw from these two models of female labour about wider human relations to nature, culture, place and sustainability.
All talks are open to the public. There may be a small charge.
Rothbury & Coquetdale History Society, Jubilee Hall, Rothbury. Friday October 19th, 7pm
Coble and Keelboat Society, Crescent Club, Victoria Crescent, Cullercoats, NE30 4PN. Saturday October 27th, 3pm
Friends of Berwick & District Museum & Archives, Parish Centre, Parade, Berwick-upon-Tweed TD15 1DF. November 23rd, 7pm
Beadnell Women packing herring, c1910
For more Northumbrian fishing history, please see: Limekilns and Lobsterpots by Katrina Porteous