Fishing is East Yorkshire’s oldest economic activity

Photo courtesy of Visit East Yorkshire (VEY)

Bridlington Bay Lobster

It all began a long time ago…

The early hunter-gatherers who settled here after the end of the last Ice-Age were drawn by the fish, fowl and animals which frequented Holderness, then mainly a watery mix of marshland, meres and islands, as well as the foreshores and inshore waters of the nearby coastline. Archaeological excavations have uncovered barbed points made of bone and antler, flint blades and other hunting and fishing implements as well as examples of ancient log boats, no doubt used in hunting, fishing and other human exploitation of the region’s waters.

The lobster capital of europe
Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

Fishing worth duelling for

In medieval times, the meres and watercourses of Holderness were important sources of fish, waterfowl and reeds. The Counts of Amaule controlled well stocked meres at Skipsea, Withernsea and Lambwath, amongst other places, where pike and perch were netted in large numbers and abundant catches of eels were harvested. Fishing rights were the source of many disputes. One celebrated quarrel between the Abbeys of St Mary’s, York and Meaux over Hornsea Mere fisheries was only settled after two duels between champions representing the religious houses.

One of the first commercial fisheries

In this same epoch, the East Yorkshire coast was also the focus of one of the world’s first commercial sea fisheries. The lost town of Ravenser Odd played host to fishermen and merchants from across the North Sea. Before the town was washed away by the sea in the mid fourteenth century, large quantities of herring were caught, processed and traded at its annual herring fair. Ravenser Odd made a great deal of money from this harvest of the sea and was regarded as one of the wealthiest towns in the country, exporting barrels of salted herring to many continental towns.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, line fishing for haddock and related species was the principal activity. Large fish were also taken by decked vessels working off the Dogger Bank and the salt-dried cod produced from the catch was traded as far afield as Spain and the Mediterranean. Crabs and lobsters were also taken inland – transported  on the tops of stage coaches – to towns such as Hull and York. Fishermen working from Paull and Patrington took shrimps and prawns from the Humber, boiled them onboard their boats and then sold them in local towns and villages.

Now the lobster capital of Europe

Although the railways created new inland markets for fresh fish, there was a seasonal rhythm and pattern to the local sea fisheries in the nineteenth century. Fishing with baited lines in inshore waters often took place during the winter months, from October to Easter, and then many vessels went crab and lobster fishing until the middle of July. 

The summer months marked the peak of the Yorkshire coast herring fishery and the seas were filled not only with local fishing boats, but with vessels from around the British coasts, France and the Netherlands. By the end of the nineteenth century, Bridlington harbour was often full of visiting fishing boats during the summer herring season.

For centuries local inshore fishing activities were pursued from the ubiquitous coble and its variants, which were originally powered with oars and then sail. In the twentieth century the craft were motorised and joined by larger keel boats. They worked out of Bridlington Quay which, by the early twenty-first century, had emerged as Britain’s leading shell fishing port, its catches much sought after by Spanish and French consumers.

Today, Bridlington is the lobster capital of Europe, landing over 300 tonnes of lobster a year – more than anywhere else in Europe. These Yorkshire delicacies are so sought after that they are sold within the UK and exported to markets as far afield as the Azores.

Robb Robinson
Maritime Historical Studies Centre
The University of Hull