The rarity of meat was less of a penance to people who lived by the sea and habitually ate fish. All along Yorkshire’s North Sea coast, from Redcar to Ravenser on Spurn, thousands of families lived mainly or wholly from what they could catch. Scarborough and Whitby had become sizeable boroughs, but the others were very much smaller, often dependent on inland neighbours, such as Bridlington Quay and Flamborough. With more that 20 boats and fifty cottages, Robin Hood’s Bay had little livelihood apart from fishing.
Whales, porpoise, seal and sturgeon were known as “royal fish”. If found stranded on the shore they were to be delivered to local lords of the manor, such as the Cholmleys of Whitby. The records of the Admiralty court, which frequently met at Scarborough, show how men from Cayton and Filey were heavily fined or even imprisoned for disobeying this ancient law.
However, what one fishing authority called “the Skarborowe seas” was rich in all other kinds of edible fish, especially cod and herring. The cod were plentiful on the Dogger Bank and known in Scarborough as “Dogue Drague” and the town was famous for its habardine or large, mature cod. The annual migration of the herring southwards down the sea coast from Shetland to the English Channel had become so enormous in volume that it attracted huge numbers of fishing vessels from both sides of the German ocean.
In their five-man boats, Scarborough’s fishermen took “winter herring” from the beginning of Lent and sold it locally in Scotland. From August until November the schools of “land herring” progressed from off Scarborough down to Thames mouth. In that time of the year, particularly during the 45 days of Scarborough Fair from August 15 until September 29, its pier-protected harbour was the principal destination of fishermen from Scotland, East Anglia, Flanders and Holland.
Once the Dutch had asked for permission from Scarborough’s royal castle to fish in English waters, land their catch in the harbour, mend their nets, lines and hooks and replenish their supplies of food and drink there. But after King James I gave the castle to the earl of Holderness, who failed to garrison or maintain it, the Dutch treated the port as their own. Also, whereas the English and Scots fished for herring in small, five-man boats with hooked lines, the Hollanders had begun to sail large, open-topped, double-ended “busses”, which used drift nets and carried a crew of 15 men and a boy. No one could compete with them. Others had to bring their herring ashore, but the Dutch quickly gutted, salted and barrelled theirs on board.
Scarborough’s seafaring fishermen used three kinds of boats - cobles, five-man and farcostas. The cobles were clinker-built, nearly flat-bottomed and designed to work from an open beach which they approached square-stern first. Usually they had a crew of three, each pulling two short oars, and a single sail. Each man had three lines of baited hooks. Surprisingly, these little vessels, only 20 feet long, were sometimes known to venture up to a distance of 20 miles, but usually they fished inshore for lobster, crab and skate.
The five-man boat was much larger, up to 40 feet long, and carried two cobles, two sails and was decked at both ends. Contrary to its name, it carried five male shareholders, a sixth and a boy cook who were both waged. It could be as large as 40 tons, but was often smaller than that. It was the most common type of Scarborough’s fishing fleet.
Finally, the farcostas, also known as North Sea fishers or “Iceland fares”, were two-masted and carried crews of at least twenty. They had once taken Scarborough fishermen as far north as Iceland, but by 1600 they preferred to work closer to home on the Dogger where there was plenty of cod and ling, haddock and plaice.
The vital importance of fishing to Scarborough was set out in some detail in a letter addressed to Queen Elizabeth in 1565. She was informed that “the inhabitants there [were] moste maynteyned by fishinge”, which consisted mainly of salted ling and “haberdyne”; that of the £91 paid every year to the Crown for its borough privileges, “all butt £24 risithe of fishynge”; and that her £40 annual revenue from the parsonage derived largely from the fish tithe. This tithe was one twentieth of the gross catch or sale, one fortieth of the Dogger Bank cod and one tenth of “Ferth”, the herring taken early in the year from the Firths of Moray and Forth. Finally, Elizabeth was reminded that the 4,000 fish she received from Scarborough was “much undre price that other payeth”.
Since fishing of one kind or another went on throughout the year, night and day, and the catch had to be salted, pickled or smoked after landing, in practice it proved impossible for Scarborough’s market controllers to enforce their rules. That the bailiffs had to declare time and time again that “straingers” were not allowed to sell or buy fish except in the open, supervised town markets confirms that they were unable to prevent breaches of the rules. In 1517, hoistmen and fish porters were required to pay the borough’s chamberlains fourpence for every 250 herring brought in by foreigners. And more that a century later, in 1628, the bailiffs published an order that “no ane shall bye of any straingers any herring without the consent of Mr Balyff[s] under pain of twelve pence for every hundred of herring so bought”.
Given the amount of fish available, it is also unsurprising that Scarboroians themselves tried and often succeeded in breaking such rules. For instance, in April 1639, six women, three of them widows, and probably all of them very poor, were brought before the quarter sessions for “engrosing of fysh and selling of it againe in the same markitt contrary to the statute”. Their fate is not recorded.
If you could not afford to buy salted cod or smoked herring, you could always try to poach freshwater fish out of Scarborough Mere. But you had to be careful. The “stanke of water adjoinying to Wapnes called the Marre”, as it was described in 1604, was leased by the Corporation for 21 years to five of the town’s leading burgesses for 20 shillings a year. They, and the two current bailiffs who enjoyed free fishing rights there, guarded its 40 acres of water with close diligence. The Mere teemed with fish. In the past, salmon had come up to it by Ramsdale beck, and by 1600 it was famous for its bream and pike. As a result, “trespass on the King’s stank”, or Byward Wath, as it was also called, was regarded as a criminal offence. As late as 1781, John Pecket, languishing in York castle jail for fishing in the Mere, was refused release.