Can She Bait a Line?
The unsung heroines of North East England’s fishing communities
A talk on Zoom for New Bedford Fishing Heritage Centre USA
February 10th 2022
5-6pm UK time (12 noon EST).
In the traditional small-boat fishing communities of North East England, until the mid 20th century, fishermen relied on their wives and daughters for the unpaid, land-based tasks that kept the boat at sea. These tasks included gathering bait and preparing the long lines, each of which carried 1,400 hooks. It was also the women’s job to sell fish. American artist Winslow Homer travelled to England in 1881 and spent a year depicting these activities.
Alongside small-boat fishing, from the early 19th century the Scottish and English herring fishery became more industrialised. Some women gained a degree of economic independence in this fishery. Following the herring shoals down the coast, they worked in teams, gutting and packing herring into barrels with layers of salt.
My talk will include real-life examples from both kinds of fishing, together with some artistic and poetic responses. Along the way we’ll consider what we can learn from fisher women’s lives about human relations to nature, place and sustainability.
My work on the Northumberland coble fishing community includes poems in ‘The Lost Music’ and ‘Two Countries’, oral history in ‘The Bonny Fisher Lad’, and historical interpretation (with Dr Adrian Osler) in ‘Bednelfysch and Iseland Fish’ (Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 96, no. 1, Feb 2010).
The Coble & Keelboat Society
The Coble and Keelboat Society aims to preserve and promote the history of the inshore fishing tradition on the NE and Yorkshire Coast. I’ve been a member for about 30 years. In January this year, to my great surprise, the Trustees asked me to accept the office of President. I feel completely unworthy, but accepted in the hope that it might provide the incentive for me to write up more of what has been passed on to me by the people with the real knowledge and experience of fishing from cobles. Here’s a short essay I wrote for the CKS in response to this honour:
Charlie Douglas huddles by the stove in his tarred hut overlooking Beadnell Haven on a stormy January afternoon. He is telling me the story of Andrew Fawcus and his three sons, lost over a hundred years ago, when their coble capsized within sight of home. Their memorial stands, weathered now, and partially illegible, in Beadnell Churchyard. ‘Th’ was a lot a wund. Patterson had the sail reefed, y’ kna, so he didn’t hev ower-much sail on. But Andrew – Andrew Fawcus went away wi’ a full sail. Nivvor reefed hor, y’ kna. Went away for’ there, wund freshenin’…’ Charlie pauses, and hangs his head. ‘Ma gran’fetther telt me – him an’ Auld Foreman, Dick Haal an’ Jimmy Cuthbertson – a right night th’ put in, lookin’ for them. Ye cannot be ower-careful at the sea.’
Charlie told me that story about 30 years ago, around the time I joined the Coble and Keelboat Society. I was immersed in the life of the coble fishing community from Holy Island to Amble, a writer and poet finding inspiration in the people around me, many of whose memories stretched back to the ‘sailing days’. I made some wonderful friends at that time – Redford Armstrong and his sister Cathy, originally from Newbiggin; Bill Smailes from Craster; May Douglas and her brother-in-law, Charlie, at Beadnell. I was privileged to know each of them, too many to name; to listen to their stories and record as much of their knowledge as I could.
The coble fishing community that I knew has dwindled over the decades, replaced by a generation of younger fishermen who, while they preserve many of the same virtues, instincts and traditions as their forefathers, fish by necessity with less locally-distinctive boats, and in more intensive ways. This is, in important respects, great progress. Modern inshore fishing boats, with powerful engines, plotters, echosounders and radar, are safer than Andrew Fawcus’s sailing coble, and modern standards of living are far higher. I think especially of the women, who brought up their large families while gathering and ‘skeynin’ mussels, and baiting the 1,400 heuks of the long lines every winter’s day.
Without nostalgia, I try in my writing to express what I found so admirable about that older generation: their (not always harmonious) values of interdependence and community; their awareness of the importance of the past to the future; their intimacy with their fishing grounds; and, above all, the inherent sustainability of coble fishing – particularly long line fishing, hard as it was on the women. The coble was self-limiting by size, able to carry only small amounts of gear or fish, and – although poverty pushed fishermen into taking risks – unable to work in the worst weather. As we celebrate the fact that the hardship and acute danger involved in inshore fishing have diminished, we recognise that have lost some of the communality, sustainability and long identification with place that made the coble fishing tradition so unique. I believe that the CKS exists to celebrate these values, as well as the boat itself.
It is with deep humility that I accept the honour of President of the Coble and Keelboat Society. I could never hope to emulate the knowledge and experience of the former President, or of so many individual CKS members, many of whom know far more about coble construction and history than I do, or have practical coble sailing or fishing experience, which I do not. A Society is as diverse as its members, and its energy lies in all that those members bring to it. I hope that, as President, my role may be to pass on more of what others have given me. I feel enormous pride that the generation of fishermen and women whom I knew and loved, and who entrusted so much of their knowledge and wisdom to me, might be better remembered as a result of this honour. I thank them, and all CKS trustees and members, so much.
The FisherPoets Gathering 2022
The FisherPoets Gathering, which takes place annually in Astoria, Oregon USA, is online again this year. Since my first visit there in 2014, I’ve been a huge fan. I feel enormous solidarity with the men and women of the American West Coast who make their living from the sea, and write and sing about it.
You can still hear a BBC Radio 4 documentary which I made about the Gathering in 2014. Listen HERE on BBC Sounds.
Treat yourself to last year’s Saturday night FisherPoets performances HERE. (Listen all the way through if you can. I’m on near the end, at around 2 hours 47 mins).
For more details of this year’s Gathering, keep an eye on the FisherPoets’ website, HERE.
Plenty Lang a Winter
Food and Drink NE is a Community Interest Company which aims ‘to build the North East’s reputation as a flourishing food and drink destination with local heritage, sustainability, innovation and community at its heart.’ Together with GRUB Productions they have come up with this beautiful short film, based on my poem, ‘Plenty Lang a Winter’, from ‘Two Countries’ (Bloodaxe Books 2014). Watch it HERE.
Podcast, January 10th 2022
Click on the heading to hear an introduction to and reading from the collection ‘Sea Change’ (Guillemot Press, 2021), which Phoebe Power and I gave as part of an online event for Poetry in Aldeburgh in November last year. Not fishing this time, but post-industrial social and environmental regeneration on the Durham Coast. Also taking part with a fantastic music and poetry collaboration are Clarissa Álvarez and Petero Kalulé.