"Religion Boosts Fishing Industry"

The importance of fish in the Middle Ages was twofold. First of all, it provided a food that could be eaten on Fridays, on the many major holy days, and during the season of Lent - all occasions on which the consumption of meat was forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church. Secondly, it provided a source of protein other than meat - especially during the winter months. Fresh meat was in short supply then owing to the practice of slaughtering off most farm animals at the end of the autumn. There was only sufficient fodder produced to keep the best breeding stock alive until the spring, so all the others had to go.

Lowestoft grew steadily as a fishing village throughout the early mediaeval period and by the mid-14th century had established itself as a place of some success. It was at this time that the important town of Great Yarmouth, some ten miles or so to the north, tried hard to restrict Lowestoft's share of the herring trade - but without complete success. Yarmouth was England's foremost fishing town and it had a fine natural harbour, something that Lowestoft did not possess. This meant that she could provide space and anchorage for large boats. Lowestoft, on the other hand, only had the beach, where boats had to be pulled up above the highwater mark when not in use. Small boats can't catch and carry as much fish as bigger ones, and so Lowestoft lagged behind Yarmouth in commercial importance. Most of her fishing vessels were what we would call rowing boats today, somewhere between 14 and 18 feet long and with a crew of four or five men. They also had a mast and sail. There is no record of the size of the fleet, but it was probably no more than 20-30 craft.

In the days before refrigeration fish had to be cured if they were to keep for any length of time. There were two ways of doing this, salting and smoking, and both were widely used. The processes were especially important where herrings were concerned, as the fish made up much of the total catch, though sprats and mackerel were landed as well, plus cod and various other demersal species. Herrings that were packed (gutted or ungutted) in barrels between layers of salt were known either as "white herrings" or "pickled herrings". Those that were smoked were called "silver herrings" or "golden herrings", depending on the length of time they were hung over the fire. In both cases, they were left ungutted, mixed on the ground with salt, shovelled around into heaps for a day or two, were washed, threaded onto wooden rods through mouth and gill, and hung in the smokehouse over a slow-burning oak fire. Silver herrings were taken down after about a week; goldens were left for a fortnight or more. Both kinds were packed in an assortment of barrels and cases and were very popular at home and abroad.


"There's Gold In Them There Herrings"

During the 14th and 15th centuries Lowestoft was no more than one street, about half-a-mile long, which ran along the top of the cliff. Houses were built on both sides of it and smaller streets and alleys went off at right-angles. None of them ran for very far and thus the population was concentrated in a comparatively small area. One can't be sure of actual numbers, but the Lay Subsidy Roll of 1327 shows 29 people paying a total of £1-9-Od (£1.45) on lands and household goods. That of 1525 shows 140 people paying £29. We can't work out a definite population from these figures, but a twenty-fold increase in the money collected and a five-fold one in the number of people taxed indicate that the town had grown considerably. There is visible evidence too that wealth was being amassed, because during the 1480s the townspeople built themselves a mighty new church, over 180 feet long, which still stands today.

Wills left by Lowestoft merchants, especially in the latter half of the 15th century and the first half of the 16th, show that a number of families were making quite a lot of money out of fishing and fish-curing. Most of these people lived in houses on the edge of the cliff, overlooking their smokehouses and tackle-sheds which lay at the bottom. Between these industrial buildings and the beach proper, where the boats were drawn up, lay an open area of short, wiry grass and scrub vegetation known as "The Denes". It was here that fishing nets were laid out to dry after the catches had been landed. Mackerel, sprat and herring nets are all specifically referred to in several of the wills and they formed valuable bequests from father to son. They were all made from locally-grown hemp and, in the case of the herring nets, seem to have been 20 and 30 yards long by 15 to 20 feet deep. Most of them appear to have worked somewhere between six and 12 of these, and their owners and crews would have regarded a catch of 100 stones weight as a pretty good one.

Other references in the wills show bequests of rope, oars, masts, sails, curing-salt, barrel-staves and billets of oak wood for smokehouse fires. There is also the occasional mention of vessels known as "liners" or "great liners". These were boats about 40-50 feet long that went on summer voyages to Iceland to catch cod and ling. The fish were taken by hand on baited longlines and were then gutted, dried and salted down on board. Once the fishermen had filled their boat, they returned to England. Lowestoft had 14 of these craft in the reign of Henry VIII and they brought their owners a good profit with every successful voyage.