Maritime Scarborough

November 2023

This episode looks at the extraordinary maritime history of Scarborough, a port town on the UK’s northeastern coast. Famed for its medieval herring fair that features in Simon and Garfunkel’s 1960s version of the traditional English ballad ‘Scarborough Fair’ it has a lesser known but significant maritime history. Once one of the largest shipbuilding ports in the country, Scarborough had no fewer than twelve yards on its seafront, with supporting rope and sailmaking businesses in the town. Scarborough-built ships have travelled the world encountering pirates and transporting convicts. The fame of the town attracted huge numbers of people from a variety of backgrounds: Scottish ‘Herring Lasses’ travelled down from the north to work in the booming North Sea herring industry, whilst rich gentleman travelled up from the south to catch enormous tuna and the town became Britain’s first seaside resort. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Mark Veysey from the Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre.

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    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register F, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror podcast. Now I’ve been wanting to do a mini series on port towns for some time now, and that lovely Mark Veysey from the Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre got in touch simply bubbling with pride over his own town of Scarborough. And sure enough, it has a fascinating little history and one well worth sharing. Scarborough is famed for its mediaeval herring fair. Yes, that’s the Scarborough Fair that was made famous for the song by Simon and Garfunkel. But it was also one of the largest shipbuilding ports in the country with 12 yards on its sea front, rope and sailmaking in the town. Scarborough-built ships have travelled the world encountering pirates, transporting convicts, and Scottish herring lasses travelled down from the north to work in the herring industry. While rich gentleman travelled up from the south to catch enormous tuna in the North Sea, you simply will not believe the size of the fish that these men caught in the 19th century. To find out more, I gave Mark a call. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. Here is a man awash with local maritime history. He’s caught on the tuna hook of Scarborough’s past and is now committed to sharing it as widely as possible. Here is Mark.

    Sam Willis
    Mark, thank you very much indeed for joining me this morning,

    Mark Veysey
    Sam. It’s a great pleasure. Thank you.

    Sam Willis
    So we’re talking about Scarborough, but I should just say to our listeners that you are currently not in Scarborough, are you? Why don’t you tell everyone where you are?

    Mark Veysey
    I’m just travelling around France at the moment. So I should be back in Scarborough at the end of July.

    Sam Willis
    Very nice indeed have a bit of a bit of a break we’ve been trying to catch up for for a couple of weeks now. Are you born and bred in Scarborough?

    Mark Veysey
    I’m not. I’m a Londoner and my maritime connections are purely through my sort of grandparents who worked in East End in the docks. So coming to Scarborough has been a whole new chapter in my life. Becoming the chairman of the Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre wasn’t expected that one

    Sam Willis
    No, but well done you I hugely admire your enthusiasm and energy to find out about it. I suppose. It’s all East Coast though, isn’t it? London’s East Coast, Scarborough’s east go so you do share a bit of heritage? That’sThat’s

    Mark Veysey
    That’s right. And I particularly enjoyed your last podcast about the Essex coastline and the boat building there. And Scarborough obviously had its own boat and shipbuilding, its own particular form of what they call it the Yorkshire coble. And we built huge ships here. That took convicts to Australia. You know, people think of it as a seaside resort, but it was an industrial town going back a few centuries

    Sam Willis
    What’s a Yorkshire coble. Tell us about that.

    A Yorkshire coble is a small sort of inshore rowing boat. And it’s got a kind of slightly Viking shape to it. It’s got a, you know, a keel, a double keel so you can land on the beach without it tipping over. And they’re very robust in the North Sea. They make slightly larger three man and five man cobles. I believe they call them couballs in other places. But it’s your typical sort of local long line fishing boat. And they were built with trees, you know, from probably from the castle Howard estate and the forests of Pickering.

    Sam Willis
    All right, and do they carry a sail? Or was it just oars?

    they had sails as well. And I mean, the last boat yard in Scarborough closed in 2009, which was when we opened the maritime centre, and they actually donated us their steaming box and the moulds to make a Yorkshire coble so we could technically reproduce one if we had the skills to do it. But there’s not many people left that can remember how to do it now.

    Sam Willis
    That’s a shame but at least you’ve got somewhere to start. I’ve just got a Viking ship in my mind with a big square sail. Did they have a four and aft sail?

    No, no, just a main sail in the middle. And as I say long lining was the kind of local fishing they didn’t really go out very far at that time. And you know, a very sustainable way of fishing longline fishing of course, they do it. Well, the women and children used to go down to the rocks early in the morning and pick the flitherss off, as they call them, which are what we call probably whelks isn’t it in from London and the women baited the hooks. So you had a long line about 500 yards of line, I would bet 500 hooks, they baited the hooks with the flithers and then wound that up on what they call a skep, which is like a wicker tray, carried it down and then the men would row out in the coble feed the line out behind. And you know, you caught enough fish for yourself and to sell them for your family very sustainable. And of course all that changed with trawling and the invention of steam and diesel.

    Sam Willis
    Did they just sort of they took the line out and then just left it there for a certain amount of time and then brought it back in hopefully with fish attached, or are they are they kind of slowly pulling the line back in to kind of get the fish to go for the bait?

    I mean, we do have some glass floats, some quite old glass float. So I’d imagine they may have tied the end of the line to a glass float and left it and come back to it but they also might have rowed as well. Both techniques probably would have worked at different times of year maybe.

    Sam Willis
    What are they catching?

    Mostly herring. Scarborough was the fifth largest herring port in the country at one time. And we all know the song Scarborough Fair that was sung by Simon and Garfunkel. And that is based around this huge mediaeval herring fair that the herring swim past Scarborough in August in the summertime. So it was a place that a lot of fishermen came to. The Dutch came over. We had people up from the south coast and the Scots coming down from the north to all fish, the herring off Scarborough in the summer. And if you read the very old sort of reports, you know, from the 1700s you could literally scoop the herring out of the sea with a bucket. They were in thier millions, the sea shimmered silver you didn’t even need a hook or a line.

    Sam Willis
    No, I mean, and I always find it fascinating how localised thing a phenomenon like this was, so we think it was like that off Scarborough, but it wasn’t for example of Berwick, which is a little bit further north, but not too far away.

    Yeah, I mean, certainly the Scots herring glasses as we call them travelled down, started to migrate down the south coast in the summer, and the Scottish boats followed the herring down and the Scottish lasses caught the train or walked. And so Scarborough would be mobbed in the in the summer with the Scottish herring glasses and there’s lots of lovely old photos of the whole of the harbour area covered in wooden barrels. And these women gutting the herring. 60 A minute allegedly the fastest one that’s one a second

    Sam Willis
    that’s unbelievable. Yeah, a whirlwind.

    incredible. I know they’d do that you know from dawn till dusk as the fish kept coming in or their hands got very sore with the salt and the sharp knives and and this fish scales but they made a lot of money and had a good time did a lot of drinking and even married a few Scarborough men you know there are a connections with some Scottish families.

    Sam Willis
    So they came down specifically just for as a as a working labouring job to gut the fish to then so the fish could then be taken off elsewhere. Was the fish put on ice. Or did they get that somewhere else?

    it was in, in salt in the early days in the barrels, it would have gone in with salt. And a lot of the salted herring was exported, funnily enough to sort of Spain and France they’ve preferred the the salted herring. Later, of course 1845 The railway arrived in Scarborough, and that took a lot of fish off. And of course, the British had a flavour for sort of cod really didn’t they and haddock, so that went into the big cities. So Scarborough’s as I say, it’s been it’s been a you know, if you’re looking at the harbour these days as there’s only a couple of trawlers and mostly it’s crab and lobster. And, you know, that sort of fishing; shell fishing really.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, it’s all fundamentally changed. Just going back to these railways. I’m fascinated by this. I wonder if they had refrigerated cars.

    I think in the early days, probably not; we’ve certainly read tales that the rail lines got so slippy from all the oil dripping from the herring, that the trucks couldn’t move.

    Sam Willis
    That;s disgusting. are oh my god, imagine the smell. So um, the other thing that these herring attract, of course, is other types of fishermen because the herring itself can be bait, can’t it? That’s

    right. Yeah. And certainly they did attract other species, and one of which, of course, was the tuna fish, bluefin tuna. And in the 1930s to the 1950s. Scarborough was the kind of UK Centre for tuna fishing. We had very rich people coming up here Lord Baron Rothschild, Hedley Lewis, Colonel Peel, and a chap called William Walter Downing. All very rich men came up and fish for these tuna that weighed the biggest weighed 821 pounds.

    Sam Willis
    I was being completely blown away by this and I’ve been looking into it a bit myself. I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a kind of a photoshopped joke. But people were catching fish. I mean, there was one with a guy standing next to a tuna that looks like the size of a cow. I mean, it’s the biggest fish I’ve ever seen. Yeah,

    well, that may have been that may be the 821 pound one. And there was an argument over that by one of the other members of the of the Tunny club that the the wet rope that was holding the fish up weighed a pound so he reckoned it was 820 pounds and not 821.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah. Oh, wow. There was some pride there wasn’t there. That’s a fascinating story. Yeah. How would they catching them? What hang on what period is this is this 1930s

    1930s to 50s? That’s right. And they just with a rod on line. I mean, local fishermen would use their cobles to row out the tunny fishermen were harnessed into the boat on a special seat. And their rod was harnessed to them. You know, this is like a scene from Jaws, you know, once they get hold of the, the bait there, they would pull the boat along. So yeah, they would fish and it would take a couple of hours to land them till the tuna were worn out. And then they would use a huge gaff hook and then pull it on to a trawler, you know, or one of their yachts that was there. We’ve got one photo of a woman fishing there was one woman that caught some fish, which is great. But it all died out in the 50s because we overfished the herring really the herring stopped coming. Or the numbers were very severely reduced. So they’ve not reappeared. Occasionally there are sightings of very small bluefin tuna off the coast of Scarborough. We get porpoises as well. But yeah, if they came back, they’d be worth an absolute fortune, that sort of size of fish, they say would be worth about 10,000 pounds in fresh tuna. Wow.

    Sam Willis
    Wow, amazing. More needs to be known about this. So I’m a fisherman myself. You see, I’m quite interested in this. What? How do you what do they make their rods out of Do you have any idea? What were they fishing with in 1930?

    Very strong. Have you ever heard of Zane Grey? No. He’s an American fishermen. If you Google Zane Grey he was. He was actually a writer. He wrote scripts and books, nonfiction – fiction books, sorry. And he made a thing called a Zane Grey rod and reel freshwater saltwater reel. And they’re really strong, very short, stubby fishing rods. And the reels were made by Hardy’s of Alnwik very expensive. They have a royal seal on them. They were made by Royal approval, stainless steel and their eight inch reels. Absolutely. You can hardly lift the things with a very strong line you can imagine 800 pound line

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, like a rope.

    So these things are around we have got a rod and reel in the centre from the 1930s. We’ve got the whole history of what it caught and who fished with it. It was an amazing time.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, I’ve just found one actually, this was sold by Bonhams. It is an 82 inch palicola fishing rod by Hardy brothers of Alnwik in six alternating hexagonal sections of bamboo and hickory, so Wow, with brass and steel fittings. So short but incredibly strong. I suppose bamboo gives you the bend and hickory gives you the strength. Yes,

    yeah, yeah, absolutely amazing. And so they set up the British Tunny club in Scarborough. It’s now a fish and chip shop. And there’s pictures of all these guys in their suits and ties with their pipes. And they used to funnily enough they didn’t used to eat the tuna they used to flog it to a local farmer to plough into their fields rather terribly, but they would stuff the tail so there’s lots of pictures of these stuffed Tunny tails in the club.

    Sam Willis
    I do any survive have you got any in the museum.

    We haven’t got a tail. The Scarborough gallery might have one I think. I think they had one stuffed tuna quite hard things to keep aren’t they.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, yeah. Well, fascinating. Now a bit later on in life. Tell us about Scarborough becoming a seaside resort.

    Mark Veysey
    Well of course it’s the first seaside resort in Britain. In 1626, spa water was discovered basically dribbling out the cliff. And a local woman Mrs. Farah discovered that if you drink a pint or two of it, it acts like a laxative and flushes you through.

    Sam Willis
    A fine discovery.

    Mark Veysey
    So I apparently in those days back in the 1600s people suffered a lot from constipation. Their diets were very poor. So they could come to Scarborough and it was recommended they drink seven or eight pints of this a day, and then flush them through. And then a bit later, I think 1670 a doctor Witty discovered that if you throw people into the freezing cold North Sea, they come out feeling amazingly good.

    Sam Willis
    Do you have to have the eight pints as well?

    at the same time, yeah. So sea bathing was really kind of promoted and invented here with the first bathing machines for women to get changed in were about 1735. The men used to swim completely naked apparently. But the women had to be covered, you know, from head to foot without showing an ankle or an elbow.

    Sam Willis
    So tell us about this water. Where does the water water coming out of the cliff does that bubble up from some kind of underground source?

    It’s just a spring basically from the bottom of the cliff.

    Sam Willis
    Just normal water so it’s not like hot water like you’d have in the bath.

    Mark Veysey
    it’s not at all. No, it’s just what we’d call mineral water, I suppose these days. And they bottled it, bottled it and sold it. I mean, sadly, today, all we’ve got is a little rusty dribble, coming out with a little plaque saying do not drink the water.

    Sam Willis
    What I really like about that story is that someone had a couple of pints of it, it gave them the trots. As they were sitting there in their griping misery they went, do you know what? I can make a fortune out of this.

    Yeah. Great entrepreneurship. Yeah.

    Sam Willis
    Very good. So the sea bathing thing’s also quite interesting. So I tell you why it’s interesting because I live in a bit of regional competitiveness here. I live in Devon, right. And I would argue that some of the beaches in the southwest are a bit better than up in Scarborough for sea bathing. And I’m wondering why it happened up there. And not down here. Or Brighton or somewhere like near London, you know, it seems strange to me.

    Brighton was about 50 years later than Scarborough. You know,

    Sam Willis
    That’s a seriously long time. 50 years!

    Mark Veysey
    Yeah. Do you? Yes. Yeah. Well, that I mean, we’re talking historically proven facts. I think there’s a letter from some lady visiting Scarborough, you know, in 1730, or something saying, I’ve come here to take the waters and bathed in the sea. So that, you know, history is about facts isn’t it. So we don’t know what happened before that. But certainly, historically, isn’t it people were afraid of the sea, there were monsters in the sea. It was dangerous, it drowned fishermen. It was a place that people kept away from. So the invention of the well, the discovery of the spa water attracted people to Scarborough, it was a port where they smuggled brandy and tobacco and tea and everything. So there was already a beginnings of an interest in Scarborough as a place to go to drink water and gamble and drink. And then obviously this invention of freezing cold water making you feel a lot better in yourself. Added to that really so. Yeah. You know why specifically Scarborough and not Devon or Brighton. Only history can tell us really.

    Mark Veysey
    Yeah, it’s interesting also hearing about the the herring of being so thick you could scoop them out in a basket and also the size of these tuna, these cow size tuna that the point is, is that there were monsters in the sea. And everyone you know, it’s quite easy to ridicule it but actually if you look at these old charts, they’ve got huge creatures but even the normal fish were massive like a cod…

    Yeah. At least a yard long weren’t they the old photos of Scarborough fishmarket the cod are lying there and yeah, there was long there were over a yard long metre long and it’s because we allowed fish to grow to their maximum capacity and uh, now if you see you know, Sainsbury’s has got tins of tuna and it says ethically caught by rod and line, but if you see the videos, they’re pulling out little fish, you know, there might be 12 inches long, they’re babies they’re not they’re not letting them live long enough to grow to the size as they could. And yeah, you’ll know from all the old see charts, all they had was pictures of monsters all over them wasn’t it really.

    Sam Willis
    you also have some fascinating military history up there maritime military history. Tell us about John Paul Jones.

    Mark Veysey
    Oh goodness. Yeah. I mean, it’s a real saga with John Paul Jones. He was a Scottish captain. And during the American War of Independence, he he was sailing a French ship or the Bonhomme Richard, and he sailed along the east coast of Britain, specifically off Flamborough ahead, which is a few miles south of Scarborough and decided to attack some English shipping. So this is in 1779. So this is, as far as I’m aware, this is the only ever recorded attack of British ships by American ships in English waters.

    Sam Willis
    It certainly gave the English a hell of a fright. And also you have a famous a famous Admiral born in Scarborough, tell us about John Lawson. Yes,

    There’s very little actually publicly known about him. Fortunately, a woman’s written a new biography about him. So Admiral Sir John Lawson, was born within a few yards of the Maritime Heritage Centre in Scarborough, I think the house, the original house is probably gone now. But there’s a blue plaque on the corner of the street there. Born in 1615. And so he was a son of a merchant, a local merchant. And in 1642, he was a captain during the Civil War. And he helped, Hull that was being besieged. And he helped to blockade the royalists in Scarborough. Scarborough changed hands a few times between the royalists. And he sort of went on to get quite heavily involved with, with with civil wars basically. So in 1659, he took the fleet, as they call it to the mouth of the Thames to stop this sort of revolution going on against Parliament by the the army uprising. So he supported the parliament and changed the course of history really, although he was a royalist at the time. And he was sort of Cromwell didn’t like him, locked him up for a little while. But then after after that all sort of settled down King Charles the Second, knighted him and then he went on to fight in Anglo Dutch wars. He was in the Azores and he I think he was wounded in Lowestoft in the Second Dutch War, died in 1665. So amazing story of a little Scarborough lad, that really did some very interesting things in history, and, you know, really not commemorated in any great shape or form, locally in Scarborough. We were trying to change that. Yeah,

    Sam Willis
    it was a fascinating story an amazing period as well. I’m very interested in that period. Well let’s just finish off. Tell us about your, your red phone box, which is the world’s smallest Maritime Heritage Centre. This sounds brilliant.

    A couple of years ago, just before lockdown, COVID lock down. A local woman approached us and said, the red telephone, the last red telephone box on the seafront by the harbour is going to be removed BT are going to take it away. Everybody’s got a mobile phone, nobody’s using it. You know, surely this is a historical thing. Can’t we do something to save it. So we contacted them. And for the princely price of a pound, we adopted it. As you will probably know, some phone boxes have been turned into defibrillator sort of sites or libraries. So we decided to do a mini Maritime Museum. So we’ve got some lovely black and white pictures in there of the harbour in the early days, and we’ve got an audio recording when you go in the light comes there’s an audio recording. And I think the best thing for me about it is we found a photograph of a Victorian man standing on the exact spot this phone box is in about 1890 or something. Little did he know you know the phone was going to be invented and he would have been standing in our phone box.

    Sam Willis
    That’s wonderful. Mark thank you for sharing these wonderful stories with us. And hopefully it will encourage lots of people to go and visit Scarborough and to investigate the wonderful maritime history of that area.

    Mark Veysey
    Right Thank you very much

    Sam Willis
    Thank you all so much for listening to that episode. I hope to bring you more port town material soon in the coming months. Please remember that the podcast comes from both the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Society for Nautical Research. You must do everything you can to find out what those two brilliant institutions are up to in particular, please check out maritime innovation in miniature. It’s the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s heritage and Education Center’s latest project filming the world’s best ship models with the latest camera equipment. It’s absolutely phenomenal and you can join the Society for Nautical Research at snr.org.uk It’s a fantastic way not only a finding out about the maritime past from the very best in the business, but also it’s a really nice to meet people and to have a nice time whilst you’re learning. You can’t fault it at all.

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