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Sea Fish and Shellfish

White Herrings

The method of pickling “white herrings” was mastered by the Dutch in the 16th century.

To ensure that Britain could compete successfully, the British White Herring Fishery Commission was established in 1809 to supervise the fishing and certify the quality of herrings cured and packed for export.

Five or six tons of salt were needed for every 100 barrels of herrings, so

the British curing industry was stimulated by the abolition of Salt Duty in 1825. By the 1830s, the price of salt had fallen from £32 to £1 a ton.

There were herring-curing sheds in Spittal as early as 1806. By the 1840s the export of white herrings had become a major industry at Spittal, Seahouses and Eyemouth. One of the best-known firms of curers was established at Spittal in 1844 by Robert Boston. Some of the firm’s original curing yard buildings still stand in Sandstell Road.

When the boats arrived at the port, the herrings were unloaded and put into wooden troughs called “farlans” where the herring-girls stood. They removed the gills and guts with a single movement of a sharp knife. An experienced worker could gut 40 to 60 fish per minute. The offal was thrown into tubs, or cogs. The firm of Johnson & Co. used herring offal to make margarine, soap, fish paste and manure at their Spittal Point works.

After gutting, the herrings were sorted according to size and quality. “Fulls” were adult fish that were ready to spawn. “Matties” were immature fish that had not yet developed roe. The least valuable were “spents”, thin fish that had spawned. The herrings were put into a tub, salt was added and the fish and brine “roused”, or mixed together. The fish were then packed in the barrels. Each layer was laid in the form of a rosette with the heads pointing outwards in the first layer. The arrangement was reversed in the next layer and so on until the barrel was filled. Coarse salt was put between the layers. An efficient team, or “crew” of herring-girls could fill one barrel containing 850 to 1,200 fish every 10 minutes.

Extracts from contemporary newspapers relating to the curing process in Victorian times