Michaelmas fishing fair at Yarmouth, 1726

Herring fishing off Yarmouth from 'Yacht Voyage Round England', by W.H.G. Kingston
Herring fishing off Yarmouth from ‘Yacht Voyage Round England’, by W.H.G. Kingston

Daniel Defoe describes the fishing fair and other trading activity in Yarmouth, during his travels in Norfolk. He is most complimentary about the townsfolk and likens the town and its quay to Marseilles. Defoe provides us with figures as evidence to the wealth of the town, particularly the import and export of herring, wool, timber and sailcloth both across the North Sea to close neighbours, the Dutch and places as far afield as Norway, the Baltic, Naples and Venice.

[Yarmouth] is plac’d on a peninsula between the River Yare and the sea; the two last lying parallel to one another, and the town in the middle: The river lies on the west-side of the town, and being grown very large and deep, by a conflux of all the rivers on this side the county, forms the haven; and the town facing to the west also, and open to the river, makes the finest key (sic.) in England, if not in Europe, not inferior even to that of Marseilles itself.

The ships ride here so close, and as it were, keeping up one another, with their head-fasts on shore, that for half a mile together, they go cross the stream with their bolsprits over the land, their bowes, or heads, touching the very wharf; so that one may walk from ship to ship as on a floating bridge, all along by the shore-side: The key reaching from the drawbridge almost to the south-gate, is so spacious and wide, that in some places ’tis near one hundred yards from the houses to the wharf. In this pleasant and agreeable range of houses are some very magnificent buildings, and among the rest, the custom-house and town-hall, and some merchants houses, which look like little palaces, rather than the dwelling-houses of private men.

The key and the harbour of this town during the fishing-fair, as they call it, which is every Michaelmas, one sees the land cover’d with people, and the river with barks and boats, busy day and night, landing and carrying off the herrings, which they catch here in such prodigious quantities, that it is incredible. I happen’d to be there during their fishing-fair, when I told, in one tide, one hundred and ten barks and fishing vessels coming up the river, all loaden with herrings, and all taken the night before; and this was besides what was brought on shore on the Dean, (that is the seaside of the town) by open boats, which they call cobles (open boats, which come from . . . Scarbro’, Whitby, &c., and come to Yarmouth to let themselves out to fish for the merchants during the fair-time) and which often bring in two or three last (ten barrels, each barrel containing a thousand herrings) of fish at a time. The barks (from the coast of Kent and Sussex, as from Foulkston, Dover, and Rye in Kent, and from Brithelmston in Sussex, and let themselves out to fish for the merchants during the said fair, as the cobles do from the north), often bring in ten last a piece. This fishing-fair begins on Michaelmas Day, and lasts all the month of October, by which time the herrings draw off to sea, shoot their spawn, and are no more fit for the merchants business; at least not those that are taken thereabouts.

The quantity of herrings that are catch’d in this season are diversly accounted for; some have said, that the towns of Yarmouth and Leostof only, have taken forty thousand last in a season: I will not venture to confirm that report; but this I have heard the merchants themselves say, (viz.) That they have cur’d, that is to say, hang’d and dry’d in the smoak 40,000 barrels of merchantable redherrings in one season, which is in itself (tho’ far short of the other) yet a very considerable article; and it is to be added, that this is besides all the herrings consum’d in the country towns of both those populous counties, for thirty miles from the sea, whither very great quantities are carry’d every tide during the whole season.

But this is only one branch of the great trade carry’d on in this town; Another part of this commerce, is in the exporting these herrings after they are cur’d; and for this their merchants have a great trade to Genoa, Leghorn, Naples, Messina, and Venice; as also to Spain and Portugal, also exporting with their herring very great quantities of worsted stuffs, and stuffs made of silk and worsted; camblets, &c. the manufactures of the neighbouring city of Norwich, and the places adjacent. Besides this, they carry on a very considerable trade with Holland, whose opposite neighbours they are; and a vast quantity of woollen manufactures they export to the Dutch every year. Also they have a fishing trade to the north-seas for white fish, which from the place are called the North-Sea cod.

They have also a considerable trade to Norway, and to the Baltick, from whence they bring back deals, and fir-timber, oaken plank, baulks, sparrs, oars, pitch, tar, hemp, flax, spruce canvas, and sail-cloth; with all manner of naval stores, which they generally have a consumption for in their own port, where they build a very great number of ships every year, besides re-fitting and repairing the old. Add to this the coal trade between Newcastle and the river of Thames, in which they are so improv’d of late years, that they have now a greater share of it than any other town in England; and have quite work’d the Ipswich men out of it, who had formerly the chief share of the colliery in their hands.

For the carrying on all these trades, they must have a very great number of ships, either of their own, or employ’d by them; and it may in some measure be judg’d of by this, That in the year 1697, I had an account from the town register, that there was then 1123 sail of ships using the sea, and belong’d to the town, besides such ships as the merchants of Yarmouth might be concerned in, and be part-owners of, belonging to any other ports.

To all this I must add, without compliment to the town, or to the people, that the merchants, and even the generality of traders of Yarmouth, have a very good reputation in trade, as well abroad as at home, for men of fair and honourable dealing, punctual and just in their performing their engagements, and in discharging commissions; and their seamen, as well masters as mariners, are justly esteem’d among the ablest and most expert navigators in England.

Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies Letter 1 part 3: Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, 1727 (London: JM Dent and Co, 1927)
Vision of Britain: Daniel Defoe