The Bonny Shoals of Herring: the unending pursuit of the ocean’s glorious bounty

Oh, it was a fine and a pleasant day,
Out of Yarmouth harbour I was faring
As a cabin boy on a sailing lugger,
For to go and hunt the shoals of herring.

So goes the second verse of Ewan MacColl’s classic 1960 ballad The Shoals of Herring. Even today more than 3.5 million herring are taken from fisheries across the Atlantic and Pacific and they remain a staple food source for many people.

Herring boats and their mighty catch on the wharves of Great Yarmouth
Herring boats and their mighty catch on the wharves of Great Yarmouth

That said, the romantic life of the herring fisherman as MacColl reimagined it has long since passed. No longer do men serve the same captain from boyhood to the grave, or haul in nets with their bare hands…at least not on a commercial scale.

Often found in fairly shallow waters, herring have long been prized as a catch of convenience. The earliest commercial fisheries are recorded in the Baltic during medieval times, with some 35,000 fishermen following the shoals of herring across Western Europe by the 13th century.

16th century Nordic herring fishing
16th century Nordic herring fishing

Great Yarmouth became one of Britain’s major herring ports, turning the town into a thriving metropolis by the early 18th century, as described by the visiting Daniel Defoe:

The river lies on the west-side of the town, and being grown very large and deep, by a conflux of all the rivers on this side the county, forms the haven; and the town facing to the west also, and open to the river, makes the finest key in England, if not in Europe, not inferior even to that of Marseilles itself.

The ships ride here so close, and as it were, keeping up one another, with their head-fasts on shore, that for half a mile [800 m] together, they go cross the stream with their bolsprits over the land, their bowes, or heads, touching the very wharf; so that one may walk from ship to ship as on a floating bridge, all along by the shore-side: The key reaching from the drawbridge almost to the south-gate, is so spacious and wide, that in some places ’tis near one hundred yards from the houses to the wharf.

The greatest defect of this beautiful town, seems to be, that tho’ it is very rich and encreasing in wealth and trade, and consequently in people, there is not room to enlarge the town by building.

The economic boon provided by the fisheries enabled provincial backwaters to flourish, but no doubt life was tough for the fishermen themselves. Several hundred years ago rudimentary navigation, vulnerable craft and few safety provisions rendered fishing one of the most dangerous jobs about.

Modern herring trawler in Norway
Modern herring trawler in Norway

That is not to say that the considerably smaller number of people employed on the industrial trawlers today take no risks. Now, though, the greater frustration lies with diminishing stocks and the irksome international fishing quotas rather than prospect of impending death.

One thing that has remained a constant, however, and which MacColl eagerly noticed is the toughness that the fisheries imbues in a human:

Now you’re up on deck, you’re a fisherman.
You can swear and show a manly bearing.

This is not, and never has been, a life for the faint-hearted. The rewards can be great but the consequences are often deadly. The drifters may have vanished from Yarmouth Harbour, washed up for good on the fertile Baltic coast, but the successors to the early mariners continue to pursue the bounty of the ocean.

Night and day the sea we’re daring,
Come wind or come winter gale, sweating or cold,
Growing up or growing old or dying,
While we’re hunting for the shoals of herring

Obscured and forgotten in the modern world, we still place great reliance on our hunters of the watery depths. So long as we protect our oceans, we shall continue to do so.

Barents sea
Herring fishing on the Barents Sea in the 1930s

Whatever Happened to the Romantic Travelling People?

British Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has called for swifter clampdowns on illegal ‘traveller sites’, responding to an overwhelming anti-traveller public opinion in the UK. ‘Normal’ people cannot build extensions on their property without planning permission, so why should travellers be able to create new homes for themselves wherever they see fit? That is the argument of the government.

The government is fed up with ad hoc traveller settlements
The government is fed up with ad hoc traveller settlements

The Gypsy Council, however, which represents travelling communities, argues that legal provisions for traveller settlements are insufficient and traveller rights are not enshrined in UK law.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that many ‘travellers’ don’t actually travel very much. An illegal community at Dale Farm, Essex, was finally evicted from the land it occupied in 2011 after over a decade of tenancy. The fierce confrontation between residents and policeman helped turn public opinion further against the obdurate travellers.

Perhaps traveller is not an apt term for the people it supposedly defines. It is certainly a far cry from the notion of the free-spirited wanderer of the eighteenth century.

Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Thomas Gray littered their works with natural imagery and participated in marathon walks across Britain’s untamed countryside, professing the moral virtues of those that freed themselves from the sedentary lifestyle. Wordsworth’s most famous poem, Daffodils, is officially titled: “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and was inspired by a walk he took with his sister at Ullswater in the Lake District.

Ullswater by J.M.W Turner
Ullswater by J.M.W Turner

The imagery in the poetry of the Romantics cries freedom. Ewan MacColl, writing in the 20th century acknowledged this, with his own take on The Travelling People:

I’m a free born man of the travelling people

Got no fixed abode and no man is my master

Country lanes and byways were always my ways

I never fancied being lumbered

A comment on the constraints of industrial living, MacColl’s lyrics reignited the romantic imagery of the traveller just when such sentiment had all but died out. In a country of increasing urbanisation, the lives of the travellers and the sedentary no longer cohabited so easily. A bias towards city dwellers forced the travellers into urban territory in search of vital services.

It was hard to retain a notion of Romantic freedom as urban slums evolved
It was hard to retain a notion of Romantic freedom as urban slums evolved

Meanwhile, across Europe, anti-Gypsy prejudice rose and widespread persecution continued, even after Hitler’s annihilatory efforts during WWII. The term traveller became used as a convenient cover for Gypsies keen to avoid the prejudices wrought upon their kind.

Simply, there is no easy place for the true traveller in modern society. There are just too many of us. The glorious wanderings and sightseeing of the Romantics could only be sustained by an eccentric few withdrawn from mainstream humanity.

Other so-called travellers despoil their reputation by leaving filth and ruin in their path as they move to the next abode. In paying respect to the land they supposedly cherish, it would be easier to accept their nomadism, however illusory it may be.