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Sea Fish and Shellfish

Winter Fishing

From the end of the herring season, which was usually in mid-September, until the Spring, fishermen turned their efforts to catching crabs, lobsters and white fish such as cod, haddock and whiting.

Until the 1840s, Eyemouth was the only local port where white fishing was carried out on a large scale. The inability to transport fresh fish over long distances restricted the market for white fish to the immediate locality. Prices were low, so few fishermen in most of our ports considered it worth the risk to take to sea in the winter. However, from 1846, the rapidly expanding railway network opened up new markets for fresh fish in distant towns and stimulated the local white-fish industry.

The fishermen used long lines, each half a mile long and fitted with 700 hooks spaced at 40 inch intervals. The hemp lines, ropes and nets were preserved by “barking”, or soaking in a tannin solution extracted by steeping oak bark in water and heating it in a “bark pot”. The remains of bark pots can be still be seen locally, for example beside the fishermen's huts in Beadnell, a little way down the Northumberland coast. Later, the barking was carried out using a substance known as terra japonica, or 'cutch', which was produced in the Far East from a species of acacia.

The womenfolk baited each hook with a mussel and limpet, then carefully coiled the lines into willow baskets called “swulls”. If the boats were unable to go to sea, the women had to remove the old bait from the lines and rebait them the next day.

The shellfish used for baiting the lines were usually gathered locally, but the larger scale of fishing at Eyemouth meant that the quantities of mussels that were needed had to be sourced further afield.

Extracts from contemporary newspapers relating to winter fishing in Victorian times

Extracts from contemporary newspapers relating to baiting the lines in Victorian times