Melvyn Bragg reveals archive footage telling the history of modern Britain. Looking at 1920s Great Yarmouth when it had the world's largest herring fleet.
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Just over a century ago, the motion camera was invented
and changed for ever the way we recall our history.
For the first time, we could see life through the eyes of ordinary people.
Across this series
we'll bring these rare archive films back to life
with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.
We'll be inviting people with a story to tell to step on board
and relive moments they thought were gone for ever.
They'll see their relatives on screen for the first time,
come face to face with their younger selves
and celebrate our amazing 20th Century past.
'This is the people's story.' Our story.
Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned in 1967
to show training films to workers.
Today it's been lovingly restored
and loaded up with remarkable film footage, preserved for us by the British Film Institute
and other national and regional film archives.
In this series we'll be travelling to towns and cities across the country
and showing films from the 20th Century
that give us the Reel History of Britain.
Today we're pulling up in the 1920s
to hear about the heyday of Britain's fishing industry
before overfishing and market forces changed it for ever.
We're in Great Yarmouth on the east coast
where, in the 1920s, ports like these had massive fishing industries.
We'll be showing films of that time and bringing in people
who were involved in that and asking for their memories of it.
Coming up, we salute the resilience of Britain's fishermen.
They were wooden ships and iron men. That was colossal.
I'll be learning about the heyday of herrings
before the fish finger got us hooked.
The herring industry, in parts of the country, employed a quarter of the population.
And there's an unexpected musical treat from a fishing lass' descendant.
# Aye, the place to see the heron is the quay at Yarmouth town. #
We've come to Great Yarmouth because it was once home to the world's biggest herring fleet.
Around a thousand boats jostled for space in this harbour in the 1920s
and more than half of the local population depended on fishing in one way or another.
There used to be so many fishing boats in the area
that locals boasted you could walk across the harbour from deck to deck without getting your feet wet.
In the 1920s, before dwindling fish stocks and rising imports
depleted our fishing industry,
ports were thriving around the coast of Britain.
Aberdeen, Plymouth and Grimsby were bustling places,
thick with workers gutting, salting, packing
and selling a variety of fish and seafood.
North Sea trawlers fished for cod and haddock
while ports of the Thames Estuary supplied oysters to London and beyond.
But it was herring that made the east coast ports among the biggest in the world.
So what better place to learn about the fishing industry in the 1920s than here?
Joining me are fishermen and their families from all over the country
to tell me their stories about life on the high seas.
Many of them will be seeing our films for the first time,
showing us photos of their younger selves
and telling us what it was like to be part of a fishing family at that time.
Fred Normandale has come here today from Scarborough.
His family have been fishing since the early 1700s,
and Fred's been a fisherman all his life.
He's looking forward to seeing our films of the steam drifters
his forefathers worked on.
How are you? Nice to see you.
When did you get involved yourself in fishing, then?
I used to go out with my dad and uncles. I had lots of uncles.
I used to go out when I was nine, ten, eleven-years-old.
Mostly hauling crab pots, long-line fishing
and I took my son when he was six.
I took for a two-day trip.
-Is he out fishing now?
-As we speak, he's fishing off Norway.
He landed into Lerwick two days ago, in Shetland.
That's all he's ever wanted to do.
He's nearly 40 now and all he ever wanted to do was go fishing,
as I did too.
We're going to show Fred some compelling films from the National Archive.
But will they take him back to the days when his father went to sea?
It was the 'old salts' like these men
who taught Fred everything he knows about fishing.
The old boys would teach you how to splice, how mend nets,
how to bait lines, and none of us realised that they were teaching you
so you could help them.
You never got paid, or if you did, you didn't get much.
But you were learning a trade. We all were.
Despite growing up with the stories, actually seeing this rare film
of the extreme working conditions his father faced comes as a surprise.
It's phenomenal footage and I know a lot about it because it's my heritage.
What is very, very noticeable is that everything was physical.
There's no winches to help anybody do anything.
Nobody was overweight, was they?
These 1920's fishermen are working on steam powered herring drifters,
so named because they literally drifted
and waited for the fish to swim into huge curtain-like nets.
They would start in Scotland
and then follow the migrating shoals of herring down the East coast.
Unlike today, every task was manual.
In those days, it was just so physical,
even the young boy in the rope locker in the stem, coiling that thick rope round him.
There'd be two miles of rope there for that young boy to coil.
In Scarborough, Fred's home,
as well as herring drifters, they'd fish for cod in trawlers.
This silent film from 1925 is called Heroes of the North Sea.
It shows trawlermen winching on-board a catch of cod and haddock.
The trawler, you take your net to the fish.
You'll tow a bag along the seabed or even mid-water and scoop your fish up.
And they fished overnight and the next morning,
they went to the carrier and they rode their catch they'd caught for the night over to the carrier.
Now, the North Sea is a cruel place to be sometimes.
God, they were wooden ships and iron men.
It was colossal.
Given his family background,
Fred knows just how dedicated a fisherman has to be.
Fishing is not a job, it's a way of life.
When my dad was going to sea at three and four in the morning,
with his long lines in winter,
he would get home and before he went to bed at six or seven at night,
he'd make a crab pot ready for the summer fishing.
And he never got day off.
Fred's father survived what's considered to be one of Britain's most treacherous occupations.
Loss of fingers was commonplace
and the vast majority of deaths came from drowning.
All fishing is dangerous because you're at sea in weather
that's always unpredictable. It's an extreme occupation.
It's so sad because it will never come back,
the way of life has gone.
It's gone forever.
Fantastic, wonderful footage.
Really historic. Wonderful stuff to see.
It was a little bit before my time, but I do remember the herring drifter's
but they were diesel drifters by the time I remember them, not steam.
In its 1920's steam-powered heyday,
the industry employed millions of people across the UK in all manner of support jobs.
Fishing involved a lot more than netting fish.
I'm meeting Maureen and John Fryers from Lowestoft, who've come to our cinema
to share their memories of their fishing fathers.
What was your experience of it, Maureen?
-My father wasn't a fisherman, he was a lumper.
He unloaded the boats when they came in.
When one boat came in, and they finished early,
he went on the market and asked if he could do filleting.
-And it was hard on your hands, wasn't it?
-It was on his.
I had the job of pulling the fish bones out of his fingers
with tweezers, and it was horrible.
We're going to give Maureen and John a glimpse of the tough working lives
their fathers would have endured in the 1920s.
John's father, Jack, was only 15 when he first went to sea.
He became an engineer, working in hot, dirty conditions
in the engine room of a steam-powered herring drifter.
Just like this one John's watching today.
They had to load the boilers with coal
and keep the steam up - no steam, no boat, simple as that.
Your living accommodation was a bit grim, actually,
it were like living in a cupboard.
Because the object of the boat was to store fish,
not have pleasantries for the crew.
The toilet was a bucket,
beds were a bunk,
18 inches wide if they were lucky.
That's how it was.
Watching this film is a bitter sweet experience for John.
His father, Jack, died 32 years ago and today John has seen
the harsh reality of his father's working life.
If they weren't born to it they soon learnt to live
the life of a fisherman, which was a hard, rough, tough life.
And I am proud of my father.
Here in Great Yarmouth, in its heyday,
up to 1,000 steam drifters sailed in and out of port
with up to 10,000 men like John's father on board.
Today, there's only one boat left.
I'm on the Lydia Eva, which is the last relic
of the great herring industry in Yarmouth.
It's also the last remaining steam drifter in the world.
The Lydia Eva cost today's equivalent of £200,000
and carried up to 50 tonnes of coal to fuel her engines.
'In charge of the Lydia Eva's engine room today is Fireman Robert Burman.'
It's an amazing piece of work.
It certainly is.
Yes, indeed, the original engine, built in Great Yarmouth, 1930.
We burn coal. We heat her gently cos she's an old lady.
We carry somewhere about 1,000 gallons of water in the boiler alone.
The boat itself was made as a herring drifter, also a white fish trawler.
In other words, they would have a big engine because at one time
she would have pulled a net as well as just drifted.
You can't help but feel sad that a beautiful fishing boat
like the Lydia Eva is the only old girl left in the world.
Talking of girls, it wasn't just men who worked in fishing.
I'm staying on board to find out the important role that women,
most of them Scottish, played in that industry.
The herring lassies, otherwise known as the "Gutting Quines",
followed the migrating herring all round the UK.
They travelled from port to port in special trains staying in huts
or, if they were lucky, guest houses.
-How are you? Very nice to see you.
'Irene Watt from Aberdeen'
has strong family connections to fishing.
Her father and her grandfather were herring drifter skippers
and her mother and aunties were all herring lassies.
What were the stories you heard about the herring women?
I heard lots about the huts that they lived in,
and, you know, great fun that they had.
There was a lot of camaraderie, I think.
They all found it really sort of exciting. Hard work but exciting.
But their huts were really sparsely furnished
with their sort of bunk beds and sometimes the girls had to
double up, you know, they would have to sleep top and tail
cos they were really, sort of, packed in there.
Yes, it looked a lot like sardines but they enjoyed it, you know?
So they told us about all those things,
and about the cry in the morning that the cooper would
cry them out of bed and say, "Come on now, quines, tie up your fingers."
And that meant that they wound strips of cloth
round the tips of their fingers to protect them from the razor-sharp knives that they filleted with.
That was five in the morning, and then they would go
down to the gutting yards and then they would be gutting all day.
You wouldn't want to mess with these girls!
It was back-breaking work but they were skilled at what they did.
Their fingers were a blur as they gutted up to 60 herrings a minute,
hour after hour,
often singing songs to help pass the time.
Now, I was told that while they were doing their work, the women would sing.
That wasn't unknown in working class work places for women at that time.
You have evidence that they did sing songs while they worked.
Oh, yes, they sang. They sang all sorts, but there are a lot of songs
that have been written about their life and they're the ones that actually I tend to sing,
because those songs reflect their,
er, their lives, their work, their travels.
And Ewan MacColl, particularly, wrote one called Come A'Ye Fisher Lassies.
I will try and sing it for you.
# Come aa ye fisher lassies noo an come awa wi me
# Fae Cairnbulg an Gaimrie an fae Inverallochy
# Fae Buckie an fae Aiberdeen an aa the country roon
# We're awa tae gut the herrin we're awa tae Yarmouth toon
# I've gutted fish in Lerwick an in Stornoway an Sheilds
# I've worked alang the Humber 'mongst the barrels and the creels
# Whitby, Grimsby, I've traivelled up an doon
# But the place tae see the herrin is the quay at Yarmouth toon
# Aye the place tae see the herrin is the quay at Yarmouth toon. #
-And here we are. Yarmouth toon.
-That was lovely.
Today On Reel History we're remembering the heyday of the British fishing industry.
Thousands of communities right round the coast of Britain
depended on fishing.
Especially places like Cornwall, with its many miles of coastline.
Someone who has come along to tell us
about his family's Cornish fishing heritage is Geoff Provis.
Geoff's grandfather was a fisherman at Port Isaac,
as was his great grandfather.
And this is Geoff, out on his grandfather's boat.
How important was the herring industry in Cornwall, at its height?
Absolutely vital. It was certainly vital at Port Isaac,
for my family, who were fishing for generations.
My family bought the Boy Fletch in 1920.
My grandfather Anthony, his brother, Jack, and their father, John, worked it.
The thing to stress is how important herrings were
because the local people, the local ladies,
would have goods on tick in the shops.
They'd buy coal and groceries
and the favourite saying was, "We'll pay when the herrings come."
Pay when the herrings come.
We're going to show Geoff a rarely seen film made in St Ives,
just down the coast from Port Isaac, in 1938.
The film's called The Cornish Nets
and Geoff has never seen it before, and it will remind him of
the life his forefathers lived,
eking a living as small-scale fishermen.
The herring industry was essential to the local community at Port Isaac.
They relied on the herring
in the autumn from mid-October to the end of December
for income and for the food.
This film reminds Geoff of the stories his grandfather
told him about local hardship.
If there was no herring, the villagers went hungry
but they would all group together and help each other out
and there was people there much worse off than my grandfather.
Some families were very poor indeed
and food would be left outside their door by the wealthier ones at night.
I mean, I am now 64 and watching the film, seeing the herrings coming in,
did take me back to my youth,
down at the harbour talking to the old men.
There was a special bond in the village
and the herring meant so much.
So, given the opportunity of talking about it is fantastic for me.
We're winding the clock back over 70 years now for one more
special guest, 87-year-old Ronnie King.
Ronnie first went to sea in a Great Yarmouth drifter
as a young deck hand.
He's one of the few remaining men with first-hand memories
of life on board a steam drifter.
We're showing him an extraordinary silent film that will take him back
to a time in his life he thought he'd never see again.
Made in 1929 by the pioneering filmmaker John Grierson,
Drifters follows the voyage of the North Sea herring fleet
between Great Yarmouth and Scotland.
Grierson, in his own words,
believed this film celebrated
"the ardour and bravery of common labour".
It's claimed that Grierson coined the word "documentary"
and Drifters has served as the prototype
for many films that followed.
Ronnie was a boy of 14 when he first went to sea
and this film brings those days back to life.
When you're a boy of 14, it's a great experience.
There used to be two young fellas,
the lower deck boys, we were known as youngers.
They were the two last members of the crew and our job was to take
the seasons off the main rope
as they were hauling the nets and that.
And let them go to the people
who were hauling the nets down the fish hold.
A herring drifter would cast up to two miles of nets
which had to be pulled in in all kinds of weather.
You were hauling all night long, sometimes eight, sometimes ten hours
through the night in hauling the nets,
then the day time, you'd to pull the nets up and clean them
and then stow the fish away.
Then you used to have a little sleep,
you got about four hours sleep a day, something like that.
This film, Drifters, reminds Ronnie of the ancient methods
that he and other fishermen used to detect the migrating shoals.
A good sign was to see whales.
If you saw whales you knew that fish were about
and if you saw the gannets dive, that was a sure sign that there were
shoals of herring, plus the colouration of the water too.
A good skipper could read the waters,
well, so could some of the crew.
You used to shoot your nets and hang for about six hours,
and if your nets were full of herring
you used to start hauling then, you see.
I have hauled in several gales of wind
but you knew what was happening and you all knew your work and you
carried on till the weather fired away again, you got used to it.
But they were days gone by.
I was young then, and you didn't care and you had more nerve then.
Now you realise how dangerous it was, what could have happened and that.
But has Ronnie enjoyed going back to his early days
as a deck hand on board a herring drifter, over 70 years ago?
It's been a great day for me, a marvellous day.
Brought back memories, that did, yes, yes, those steam drifters.
I was back with them and that.
I was there myself hauling them nets again.
I've not been a great man but I've always enjoyed life and that
and loved the fishings and things like that, yes.
It's been a very happy life. Yes, yes.
'Ronnie's loved sharing his memories with us,
'memories we've now preserved for the future.'
Was there anything to do except work?
You worked, you ate, you slept, you worked. Was that it?
Yes, a routine all the time, routine all the time.
You had good meals. You lived well.
You ate plenty of fish and that!
Did you just eat fish?
No, no, no.
On Sundays in port,
you had a lovely breakfast of eggs and bacon.
-But it was fish the other six days of the week?
-Oh, yes, it was.
Do you think that's why you're such a healthy chap?
It's been great hearing Ronnie's stories
about life as a Great Yarmouth fisherman
when there was still plenty of fish in the sea.
But times have changed.
'I'm meeting the maritime historian and writer Mike Smylie,
'who goes by the name of Kipperman,
'to find out what impact the decline of the industry had on this town.'
I think it's very sad, obviously, walking around the town,
it's not what it used to be during the heyday of the fisheries
you know, when there were thousands of people here.
You know, 500 boats here and 500 in Lowestoft, or whatever,
and all the goings on. You've got all the people working on the shore,
you just haven't got the crew, you've got the boat builders,
the sail makers, the riggers, the engineers,
the coal men - it's a huge industry.
The herring industry, they say that in parts of the country it employed
a quarter of the population, and that is a lot of people.
By the end of the 1930s, the fishing industry,
not just in Great Yarmouth, but right around the coast,
was declining for a whole raft of reasons.
Artificial refrigeration and freezing technology gathered pace
in the 1930s and meant that fish could be stored for longer periods of time
without the need for pickling, smoking or salting.
And by the 1940s, machinery had started to replace men.
Over fishing had severely depleted the herring stocks.
And consumer tastes started to change.
The popularity of the fish finger in the 1950s helped to create
a demand for cod and other white fish.
And the herring industry was doomed.
There were only 20 fishing boats left in Great Yarmouth by the 1980s.
Today there are none.
Despite its decline, our fishing heritage is quite extraordinary.
One of the things, I think,
for these so-called ordinary men and women who were doing this,
is how heroic they were.
The work was so hard, pulling those two miles of nets,
gutting thousands and thousands of herrings, doing it day after day
and just getting on with it.
I'm glad that Reel History has been able to record and remember them.
Next time on Reel History.
We're at Bristol Airport, to marvel at the rise of the package holiday,
in the '70s.
You would go to the supermarket, buy a bottle of lemon and olive oil.
So you smelt like a chip cooking!
I mean, guys had never worn shorts in their life!
SQUEALS OF LAUGHTER
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Reel History Of Britain is on tour.
This week we're going to Grimsby,
so come along, watch the archive, and get hands on with your history.
Full details are on the BBC website.
Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country, to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, to tell the history of modern Britain. This episode comes from Great Yarmouth, once home to the world's largest herring fleet, and looks back to the 1920s and the heyday of British fishing.
Melvyn speaks to Fred Normandale, whose family have been fishing since the early eighteenth century, and Ronnie King who first went to sea in a steam drifter in 1937. Maritime historian and writer Mike Smylie talks about the heyday of herrings before the fish finger got us hooked. And fishing lassie descendant, Irene Watt provides an unexpected musical treat with a sea shanty about the work of her ancestors.