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7 February 2011
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The wheelhouse We take you on a journey through the heritage of commercial sea fishing off the east coast of England through rarely seen archive in the East Anglia Film Archive.

Fishing is one of the oldest industries known to man. The quays of fishing ports were always bustling places, thick with workers gutting, salting, processing and selling fish.

Watch some of the earliest moving pictures of Fish Quay Scenes on Great Yarmouth Quayside in 1902. Men are shown unloading their catch whilst the fisher girls prepare the fish ready for distribution.

The Docks

Scotch Fisher Girls at Great Yarmouth (1935) shows the herring girls gutting the fish. They carry baskets and pack the herring in barrels (kitts) of salt and ice. The whole process was very messy with fish oils dripping on the increasingly smelly girls as they hung the fish up ready for packaging.

Herring girl
Herring girls had one of the smelliest jobs on land

Herring - Great Yarmouth (1946) provides footage of the race between fishing boats to get back to port first to unload and sell the catch. Once on land, see how the herring girls worked quickly to get the catch ready for sale, and watch the fish being smoked, frozen and packaged.

A Man's World (1973) shows the ice factory on shore and loading ice onto trawlers.

Life at sea

Fishing is an incredibly dangerous occupation, seventeen times more risky than mining, the most dangerous job on land. Arctic Harvest (date?) shows fishermen working on a moving deck, facing freezing winds and lashing rain, and the risk of being swept overboard.

The crew were on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Deckhands did much of the hard manual work.

Trawling for a good catch

Heroes of the North Sea (1925) shows deep sea fishermen preparing the trawl using traditional fishing methods.

Trawl Fishing - Lowestoft (1930) illustrates life on board, the nets being cast and the cramped conditions above and below deck. The film shows how water poured onto the decks, drenching the men wearing their smocks as they landed the catch.

Drifting (1949) reveals how fishing was important to many east coast UK ports from Aberdeen and North Shields in the north to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft in the south.

Watch the fishermen prepare their boats and see them in action in the deep sea fishing grounds. Hauling the nets up was a laborious and demanding process, starting at 1am and often lasting for over five hours.

Arctic Waters

Conditions at sea were often treacherous and physically demanding. Cine films made by deep-sea fisherman Jim Williams provide a unique insight into fishing 2,000 miles away from home.

Williams' film shot in the Arctic Ocean shows ships contending with icebergs, iced-up masts and frozen decks.

Fishermen were estranged form their families for weeks on end and wives became 'fish widows' left to bring up their families alone. 24 Hours (1968) shows how men often knew no other trade, and continued to go to sea despite the hardships and family separations.

Arctic Harvest illustrates how ships started to sail further afield and take more risks in the name of profit. The film also shows the valuable by-products of fishing including cod liver oil which was sorted on deck and processed back on shore.

Tragedy at Sea

Fishing is one of the most treacherous of all professions with death and injury common in an industry that pits man against the forces of nature.

The Rescue of the Sargon (1948) illustrates the harrowing tale of the Sargon which capsized in Arctic waters after the ship's rigging iced up. All of those on board perished (check) including Jim Williams' uncle who died in the wheelhouse.

Fisherman in silhouette
Disasters were commonplace
in Arctic waters

Tragedies were a regular occurrence and everyone in a fishing community knew someone who has been lost at sea.

In 1968 there was a catastrophic chain of events - three trawlers from Yorkshire (check) sank in quick succession with the loss of all hands.

24 Hours (1968) is a BBC film about the loss of two of the trawlers, the St Romanus and the Kingston Peridot, which disappeared whilst fishing in Arctic waters.

The trawlers had met with Force 12 gales, mountainous seas and freezing spray. Interviews with the men's families provide a poignant reminder of how dangerous deep sea fishing could be.

In the film the families express their anger at the loss of the ships and the lack of safety precautions on board.

A BBC News story (1968) features women campaigners lobbying for better safety following the sinking of a third boat, the Ross Cleveland, in atrocious weather with the loss of xx lives.

Deep Water

Economic survival was always the issue for fishermen and the trawler owners, but increased competition meant that stocks began to go into decline.

Whilst the 1920s and 30s had been a period of uncertainty for the herring industry, the years after the Second World War saw the herring fishing industry was in decline, and many firms went out of business.

Herring girls
Herring girls - a dying breed

Herrings for Sale (1955) is a promotional film made by Unilever showing older fishing girls at Yarmouth gutting and packing the herring on the Fish Quay. This was considered to be a 'skilled woman's job' but mechanisation of the gutting process, seen in the film, was about to make these women redundant.

Meanwhile the deep sea fisheries continued to prosper and by the 1950s Grimsby was the world's largest fishing port. It was the age of 'three day millionaires' when a good catch could make a trawlerman.

But the boom was to be short-lived, and fishermen started to explore more distant fishing grounds in the search of fresh fish stocks. It was the beginning of the end…

Cod Wars

By the mid 1960s the Russians, Danes and Norwegians were hoovering up the sea, and fish stocks were being depleted at an alarming rate. Jim Williams' cine film shows Russian factory ships trawling for large catches, and processing the fish at sea.

Panorama (1968) illustrates how the depleting of fish cod stocks led to the Cod Wars of the late 1960s and early 70s. The BBC film shows both sides of the cod argument with Icelanders claiming that a 50 mile limit was needed to guarantee their economic prosperity and prevent over-fishing.

The documentary also shows the concerns of the British Trawlers Federation who believed that any exclusion of English trawlers would jeopardise jobs both at sea and on shore.

The seriousness of the situation resulted in many head-on clashes. A BBC News film (1976) shows the ramming of the British trawler the Boston Kestrel by an Icelandic gunboat off the coast of Iceland.

War on the high seas

Skipper Pitts Goes to War (1972) is a remarkable TV documentary shot during the Cod Wars and covering the exploits of Charlie Pitts including skirmishes with Icelandic gunboats.

Murky waters - the Cod War was the end of the line for the fishing industry

Filmed on board the trawler Arctic Galliard (check), the documentary shows skipper Pitts as he sets sail from Hull to Icelandic fishing grounds.

The film includes footage of incidents between the British trawler and the Icelandic gunboat Odin (check). In a memorable scene, the Galliard plays Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia at the gunboat whilst the crew of the trawler get ready with hoses to repel any borders, with almost comic overtones.

Uncertain Waters

Charlie Pitts was not the only trawlerman to face an uncertain future. Behind the scenes, decisions had been made by the British government to let Iceland win. The new fishing limits were set at 200 miles off the Icelandic coast.

Ports such as Hull and Grimsby were thrown onto the scrapheap. As a concession, areas of the North Sea were given over exclusively to British fishermen, but after years of unregulated fishing, there was nothing left to catch.

Despite this the British Trawler Federation was still promoting fishing as an exciting, romantic career, full of prospects. A Man's World (1973) is a recruiting film shot on board a Lowestoft trawler.

The film shows classroom demonstrations and on-board training, with the emphasis on combining traditional skills with modern know-how.

Despite the film's upbeat message, the industry was on its knees and was virtually finished. It was the end of an era.

Today there are just a few remnants of the dying fishing industry. The films from the depths of the archives provide a fascinating glimpse of an industry beset by decline from the turn of the century.

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