Herring girls

Herring girls in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Image from Berwick Record Office.

Herring girls in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Image from Berwick Record Office.

Herring girls (or herring lasses) were groups of women who would travel the east coast of the United Kingdom from as far north as Aberdeen to as far south as Great Yarmouth, following herring as they migrated throughout the year.

Herring, sometimes called ‘silver darlings’, are a small fish that were caught in huge numbers in the North Sea from the eighteenth century right up until the mid twentieth century. Over the course of the year, the herring migrated to new breeding grounds, so the best place to sail from to catch them would change depending on the time of year – Scotland and northern England in Spring down to the coast of East Anglia in the Autumn.

Men worked on trawler ships catching the herring, but on land, it was the women’s job to preserve them. Because there was no refrigeration, when herring were caught, they needed to be salted, smoked or frozen quickly. The herring girls typically salted their catches. Women worked in groups of three or four, gutting and salting, each group packing one barrel at a time. The women were paid depending on the amount of barrels they finished, so it paid to work fast.

The work was all outside, so it could be freezing cold in the winter. Standing in a quagmire of mud and fish guts (imagine the smell!), the women worked with sharp knives to gut the fish, which could cause injuries, and combined with the salt and brine, the work could be very painful. It was also extremely tiring – the women had to work for as long as it took to gut and salt the whole day’s catch, which could be up to fifteen hours a day.

It would have been scary for some. Some girls started work at sixteen. The women would often be away from home for months at a time. Some of the herring girls from the Scottish islands may not even have spoken English, only Gaelic. However, working in the herring industry gave these women huge amounts of freedom to travel and work, increasing their independence and confidence. Some crews travelled and lived together for a whole season, instilling a huge amount of camaraderie and community in the group.

Herrings were overfished by 1960 and from 1977 to 1981 fishing herring in the North Sea was banned. When fishing resumed, the herring industry no longer existed.

To watch a video of some herring girls at Great Yarmouth, click here.

-Jocelyn Anderson-Wood
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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