The South Quay brimmed with Scottish fisher girls whose fingers were a blur as they gutted up to 30 herrings a minute while immersed in the over-powering stench from the innards.
A fisher girl would wrap her fingers in strips of rags torn from flour sacks to protect them from the razor-sharp gutting knives before starting a 12 to 15-hour shift in one of the industry’s most gruelling jobs.
This strenuous life on shore was less perilous though than that of the fishermen who could be at sea for weeks, navigating through storms and spending up to five hours at a time out on the deck hauling in the nets.
Most of the vessels headed for Smith’s Knoll, around 30 miles north-east of Great Yarmouth, which is where the herrings were funnelled after swimming south.
This ground was one of the best places in the world to catch the herring, or the silver darlings as they were fondly called.
|Fishermen hoist their catch ashore|
The size of the sea harvest landed at Yarmouth’s fish wharf propelled its reputation as the world’s leading herring port.
Extra workers were drafted in to process the catch for export to Germany, Russia, Africa and India, among other places.
As the herring shoals arrived to feed off the coast each autumn, the Scottish fisher girls would fill the town’s temporary herring stations, where they would live while they gutted, graded and packed the catch.
They would bring their belongings in a wooden or tin container known as a kist and would sleep on a karf which they would stuff with fresh chaff at each stop down the east coast.
At the herring industry’s peak during the early 1900s, Scottish fishermen, fisher girls, curers and coopers (barrel-makers) would boost the town’s population by 10,000.
The squawks of the sea gulls that circled the skies above the harbour were drowned out by the noise of fishermen bus hoisting their swills (baskets) onto dry land so the next boat could dock as the quay workers struggled to keep up with the 800,000 herrings coming in each day.
While the fisher girls had one of the industry’s smelliest jobs, and the fishermen faced the hazards, the people turning over the money were the merchants.
|John Andrew's former house|
The cramped rows where the workers lived were capped by the wealthy merchant houses, which lined the quay, so the industry’s lynchpins could look out and watch their money mount.
In the early 1700s, John Andrews was Europe’s wealthiest fish merchant and he lived in what is now the Port Authority office.
He exported herrings across the world but was outraged by the level of heighning tax (a toll on herring catches) and refused to pay.
In response, the council banned him from building steps at the front of his house so he was forced to climb in with a ladder until he relented.
Considering Yarmouth started life in 1000 AD as a barren spit of sand where fishermen would dry out their nets, its prosperity was astounding.
At the herring industry’s zenith, it was said that people could cross the quay from one side to the other by walking along the decks of the vessels which came into dock on a Sunday.
However, the times when fleets trawled so many herrings that the surplus was dumped back at sea eventually came to an end.
The herring industry dwindled due to over-fishing, foreign competition and the collapse of the overseas markets.
|Part of the Greyfriars' Cloisters|
By the mid-1960s, the town’s herring trade was virtually over, which was in vast contrast to 1913 when 655 vessels landed their harvest in one day at the port.
Norfolk Nelson Museum
As well as a home to a prominent industry, South Quay once welcomed world-renowned visitors and was an important naval base.
Nelson docked his ship here after the battles of the Nile and Copenhagen, which is one of the reasons why the country’s only museum dedicated to the admiral is situated on the quay side.
The Norfolk Nelson Museum tracks his rise from a Norfolk parson’s son to an inspiring war leader with nearly 1,000 items of memorabilia including a cut of wood from HMS Victory and its interactive Below Decks Experience.
If the rumblings of war and industry get too much for your imagination, then head to the tranquil sanctuary of Greyfriars’ Cloisters, which is tucked behind the quay along Row 92.
The remains of this 13th century Franciscan monastery include two elaborate stone vaulted cloisters with two tomb recesses.
There is also evidence of medieval wall paintings at this English Heritage-owned site.
From South Quay head for Haven Bridge. Cross the road towards the Star Hotel, turn right and then left into Regent Street at the Town Hall. At the end of Regent Street turn left and walk past the market until you’re near the Fishermen’s Hospital and can see St Nicholas Church.
Archive picture credits: Great Yarmouth Museums