"French Threat To British Fishermen"

This was very much a period of stop-go for the British fishing industry owing to the many wars which flared up with foreign countries - especially France. For much of the time it just wasn't safe for fishing boats to venture too far out from land because of enemy warships on the prowl. This fact prevented boatowners from investing in larger types of vessel-boats which could go further and stay at sea longer. Thus, much of the fishing remained a small, off-the-beach operation. This was especially true of Lowestoft, which in any case did not have a proper harbour for the anchorage of larger craft. But they did exist: two and three-masted vessels of 50 feet in length, around 15 feet in the beam, and with a hold depth of seven feet. They landed their catches by beaching themselves in the shallows, offloading the herring or mackerel into small rowing-boats, and then floating off on the next high tide. They were crewed by eight to ten men and boys and often stayed out at sea for days at a time, salting the catches down loose in the hold. These fish were no good for eating fresh,but they made excellent "red herrings", for which Lowestoft became famous in the 18th century. The fish were smoked for anything up to six or eight weeks and would then keep for months and months. They were a great delicacy grilled.

"The Hanging Gardens Of Lowestoft"

There was obviously a good deal of prosperity in Lowestoft at this time for at least some of the inhabitants. A number of very elegant houses were built along the top of the cliff for local boatowners and fish merchants and the face of the cliff itself was landscaped into a series of terraced gardens dropping down to the smokehouses and net-stores at the bottom. The so-called "Hanging Gardens Of Lowestoft" were a noted feature of their time and traces of them are still visible in one or two places. The High Street, too, retains a number of fine Georgian houses, but perhaps the most interesting building of the period was the porcelain factory that once existed in the town. Using locally dug clay from pits on the nothern denes, this little works produced fine soft-paste ware between 1759 and 1802. It is very collectable today and fetches high prices in the salerooms.

"Cod Voyages End - New Herring Ventures Begin"

To return to fishing again, however, the beginning of the 18th century saw the end of the cod voyages to Iceland. It was a gap that was never filled and no one knows for sure what happened to the boats that had been involved. No doubt some of them were sold off, others broken up and timbers re-used, while others still may have been converted to drift-net fishing for catching herring and mackerel. What is certain is that by the 1770s and 80s there had been an overall increase in the number of Lowestoft vessels fishing for pelagic species compared with those engaged 100 years before. It was at this time, too, that some local boatowners began send their craft on summer herring voyages to Scotland and the Isle of Man. This was the beginning of the seasonal migrations of fishermen, which was to become so much a feature of the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Accurate Statistics For The First Time"

Thanks to a man called Edmund Gillingwater, who compiled a fine history of Lowestoft published in 1790, we have for the first time statistics that can be relied upon relating to the town and its fishing industry. In 1773, for example, he records that 44 boats landed 1,557 lasts of herring during the autumn season - the biggest fishing ever known up till then. It is possible to work out from the details given that the individual boats were still of the small, rowing-boat type, so long favoured for fishing directly off the beach. In 1775 48 vessels were involved in the autumn voyage, but numbers declined steeply thereafter because of England's wars with France, Holland and the American colonies. In 1781 only eight boats put to sea for the autumn herring season, all the rest being laid up in readiness for better times. These were not long in arriving, for with the coming of peace in 1783 things soon began to improve. The recovery was aided by an Act of Parliament in 1786, which gave an annual bounty to vessel owners of twenty shillings per ton of herrings caught (a last of herring weighed about two to two and a half tons). This bounty was conditional on the craft having been built in England after 1780 and on being manned above a certain level, which shows that the act aimed to encourage the building and operation of bigger boats. Its success can't be accurately assessed, but we do know that by 1789 the number of herring boats fishing out of Lowestoft had once again risen into the 40s.

During the last decade of the 18th century a very significant change in the physical appearance of the town occurred with the building of the famous "Beach Village". This was partly due to the need to find houses for a naturally expanding population and also to accommodate folk close to where they worked in fishing and allied industries. Edmund Gillingwater tells us that in 1790 Lowestoft had 445 houses and 2,230 inhabitants. Many of the latter were involved in crewing the boats, handling and processing the catches on shore, making nets, ropes and other items of gear, and building vessels near the shoreline. Between 1790 and 1806, 76 dwellings were erected out on the denes east of the town and this became the nucleus of a community that grew and flourished throughout the 19th century. It developed an identity all of its own and eventually became known as "The Town Below The Cliff".