A History of Fishing in East Yorkshire

Fishing is East Yorkshire’s oldest economic activity...

The rich waters of Holderness and the North Sea coast have provided a livelihood for countless generations of local people and locally caught fish have been sold as far afield as continental Europe for hundreds of years. Few regions in Britain can claim a longer continuous engagement in fishing.

The early hunter gatherer peoples 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 the 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.

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 celebrated quarrel between the Abbeys of St Mary’s, York and Meaux over Hornsea Mere fisheries was only settled after two duels.

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 and conveyed inland 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 which were boiled on board their boats and sold in local towns and villages.

Although the railways created new inland markets for fresh fish, there was a regular 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, although a few Flamborough craft pursued the salmon fishery. The summer months marked the peak of the Yorkshire coast herring fishery and the seas were filled not only with locals but with fishing vessels and fishermen from around the British coasts as well as France and the Netherlands. By the end of the nineteenth century Bridlington harbour was often full of visiting fishing vessels 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 but in the twentieth century such craft were motorised and joined by larger keel boats that initially sought many varieties of white fish. 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.

Robb Robinson
Maritime Historical Studies Centre
The University of Hull




A snapshot of the coast
On the sands