The Fishing Heritage of Withernsea

Beneath the waves, a different world

Fishing has been a feature of life on the Holderness Coast for thousands of years. The unique landscape of meres, marshes and dry land are home to a rich variety of fish and wildfowl.

Before the arrival of the railway connecting Withernsea to Hull in the 1850s, Withernsea was a small settlement. In 1801 the township’s population of just 76 largely earned a living from agriculture or trade.

The railway brought huge changes. It was part of an ambitious plan by Anthony Bannister to turn Withernsea into a thriving tourist town. Bannister also hoped to make Withernsea an excellent fishing port. His vision was of fishermen landing their catches on a newly-built pier and then using the railway to transport the fish quickly to Hull. It turned out that fast sailing and later steam trawlers could easily get into Hull and Grimsby and so there was no need to create a stop off point at Withernsea.

Withernsea grew in size from the 1850s but as a result of tourism not fishing. Victorians travelled to Withernsea to take the sea air.

Fishing at Withernsea has always been small scale. Unlike harbour ports, fishermen at Withernsea have always launched their small boats from the beach. They are at the mercy of the weather. If the winds are too strong and the waves too high, it is impossible for crews to get out to sea to fish.

Withernsea’s fishing industry has developed around a few families, often working at subsistence level. A well-known fishing family, the Drewerys, would sell their catch from a stall on the seafront. In winter or bad weather the fishermen would look for other work. Bob Drewery also helped to dig the foundations for the town’s lighthouse in the 1890s.

In summer fishing families would supplement their income by taking tourists on sea trips. The length of the pleasure trips depended on the size of the queue. A book of Withernsea in old picture postcards gives this insight into the fishing industry in 1920:

There were a number of people fishing for a living, supplementing their earnings with trips for the summer visitors… These boat trips probably launched thoughts of the high seas and led to many a maritime career. Nowadays we have quite a number of commercial fishing boats based in the town. Cod and haddock are landed as well as plenty of crabs and lobsters. There is a well-filled boat compound at the Southcliffe Road Slipway catering for the pleasure fishermen. Shrimps are still caught at low water by adults and children alike.

Fishermen traditionally talk about the three fevers of fishing. The fevers were seasons for different catches: the first fever being shellfish, the second salmon and the third cod.

Now fishermen from Withernsea fish only for shellfish but the Yorkshire Coast crab and lobster industry is one of the UK’s best-kept secrets. In 2015 there were 73 registered fishing boats along the Holderness Coast providing a livelihood for 200 families. The Withernsea lobster fishery alone is worth around £1 million per year. There is huge demand for their produce across France, Spain and Portugal but there is still work to do to promote this product in the UK.

Crab and lobster thrive all along the Holderness Coast in habitats that are very different, from the chalk cliffs and rocky shores of Flamborough to Withernsea’s mixed ground of cobbles, pebbles and sandy mud. Young lobsters like soft ground so they can burrow, but older lobsters like rocky ground where they can hide.

Withernsea fishermen still use relatively small boats. Crews work hard to ensure their catch is of the highest quality caught in an environmentally sustainable way. They use Parlour Pots with soft bottoms to minimize damage and escape hatches to allow young or undersized animals to escape. They check each individual crab and lobster they catch. If any animal is young, undersized or pregnant, it will be returned to the sea. To find out more visit http://www.ywt.org.uk/fisheries.

In Withernsea, the fishing community and conservationists at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are working together. Their aim is for a healthy marine environment, and a healthy fishery.

Click here to read more, watch videos and download project support notes about the Fishing Heritage of Withernsea project.




A snapshot of the coast
On the sands