Photographing Britain's fisherwomen – the generations of workers who anchored an industry

A photographer documents the modern incarnations of the UK's ’herring lasses’ – and explores the history of a unique band of female workers.

Photographs By Craig Easton
Published 3 Mar 2021, 10:38 GMT, Updated 3 Mar 2021, 16:21 GMT
“I was one of the fastest gutters – it took me a couple of months to ...

“I was one of the fastest gutters – it took me a couple of months to learn it and a year to pick up speed. My hand used to cramp up and I used to stab my finger all the time.’ So says Louise Hutchins, a filleter at Aberdeen (left). On the right Glynys Stews stands outside a smokehouse in Lowestoft, Norfolk.   

Photograph by Craig Easton

IN 1843, pioneering photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson were looking for a subject of sufficient social character with which to test the new calotype process of photography. To find it, they didn't head for the slums of Edinburgh, or the halls of government. Large-format plate camera in tow, they instead made for the working docksides of Newhaven – and pointed its lens at the fisherwomen working the quays. 

Breaking the mould both for their immediate backdrop (the street, rather than the studio) – and with the industrial revolution gathering steam, the wider economic one too – their images are considered the very oldest social documentary photographs. But the broader story of their subjects, now known internationally as the ‘Newhaven fishwives,’ was largely lost between the cracks.

‘Newhaven fishwives’ Jeanie Wilson and Annie Linton, photographed in 1845 by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Pictured in an east coast Scottish village demonstrating worker's fortitude against a backdrop of widespread industrial and economic change, they are considered the first social documentary images. 

Photograph by David Octavius Hill / Robert Adamson

Working long hours processing caught fish with tough, nimble hands and razor-sharp knives, the women – dressed in distinctive striped aprons and headscarves – were more than simply quayside labour.

In a time where women working in industry were rare, theirs was a story of a generation that had stepped out of the societal norm, with many later electing to live an itinerant life – much of it spent following the herring fleets as they ploughed bracing waters between the UK and Scandinavia, from Shetland to Norfolk. 

(Read: why were these ancient Peruvian shark fishermen buried with extra limbs?

A trade often passed from mother to daughter for generations since the early 1800s, independence defined these ‘herring lasses’ – who, according to the photographer behind this series of images, were fiercely respected for their necessarily galvanised work ethic.

Old trade, new perspectives

“I’d seen old sepia postcards of women gutting and packing herring into barrels in open yards and quaysides, and I got to wondering who was doing that work now?” says Craig Easton, whose photographic work Fisherwomen follows the historical trail of a group of workers defined by their tenacity and draws the circle to a close by photographing their modern counterparts. 

“The answer was still, to a large extent, women,” he says. “But nowadays they are almost all working out of sight behind closed doors in processing factories and smokehouses.”

Tracing the route of the traditional herring fleet, from Unst in Shetland to Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, Easton began the project to document “the connection between today’s fisherwomen and the history of previous generations.”

While some – such as the Newhaven ‘fishwives’ – were local workers, many women who later 'went to the herring' became travellers. Moving down the country on land as the fleet moved on water, the women would stop in the ports to acquire cheap digs and receive, gut and and salt-pickle the fish. Finishing the season in Norfolk around Christmas, both on- and off-shore contingents would travel north again, to begin again the following spring. 

“In terms of shared experience, I think that women in fishing communities have always been incredibly strong.”

Craig Easton

[The fish] “was piled up for us to cut and we never saw the bottom of the farlan [a wooden trough] for three weeks. They kept on piling them up and up and up every day, but we made up for it when we went to the Palais at night. We had good times. Every Saturday night. Dancing.” Mary Williamson, left, photographed in Shetland. Right: a portrait entitled 'the hands that gut the herring.'

Photograph by Craig Easton

“I knew the paintings of people like Winslow Homer, John McGhie and others who had been inspired by fisherwomen of yesteryear – when they were celebrated.” Easton says, of the photographs and paintings that showed what he saw as “proud working women as individual characters in their own right.”

Homer, who painted the fisherwomen on Cullercoats beach near Newcastle in the late 19th century, himself described them as 'the working bees, the stout hardy creatures' – though this unique band of working women  would quite literally fall from the public eye with the changing practices of their industry.  

Boom and bust

Herring, a small, slender fish nicknamed the 'silver darling,' has been exploited by humans for thousands of years. Despite becoming periodically depleted due to overfishing, its ability to reproduce in large numbers has led to an increasing – albeit periodically see-sawing – population in the North Sea. It remains a staple of both the fishing industry and the restaurant menu: the ever-popular kipper as well as the less-popular bloater are both types of smoked herring.    

(Read: how the world's deepest fish survives bone-crushing pressure.)

Patricia Wylie holds a cod, Peterhead, Scotland. 

Photograph by Craig Easton

Paulina Efczynska, a shellfish processor at Stromness, Orkney.

Photograph by Craig Easton

Margaret Smith with a rack of smoked haddock – to be made into the 'Arbroath smokies' – Arbroath, Scotland.

Photograph by Craig Easton

In the 19th century the herring boom made the Scottish fishing industry the largest in Europe. Of some 30,000 vessels at trade in the North Sea, around 10,000 were Scottish – the turnover reaching its peak in 1907, when 2.5 million barrels of herring were exported to the continent. The ‘herring lasses’ became an ever-more integral cog in the industry, with the fat-rich fish needing preparation quickly to stave off rapid rot. 

The declaration of the First World War in 1914 saw many of the boat crews called for service; then, after the attrition of this and the Second World War came a period of increasing mechanisation. Gradually the fisherwomen left the bustling quayside and entered the shuttered mass-production realm of the factory, or into other roles. 

“After about 1920 the representation of women in fishing – where it exists at all – was principally wide [shot] editorial photographs of bustling quaysides as opposed to individual portraits,” Easton says. “In recent decades it feels like the fishing industry has mostly been represented by photographs and stories of fishermen working the heavy seas. I wanted to redress that and put the spotlight back onto the women in the industry.”

Left: An easing in the cliffs at Eshaness, Shetland. The islands were the northerly point of Craig Easton's photographic project. Left: Right: the last smokehouse in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. 

Photograph by Craig Easton

‘Strength of character’

As well as being a record of the people – the portraits span generations of women now in their 90s, to those working in modern factories – Easton's images follow a geographical trail, “to illustrate the land and seascape of these journeys and reconnect visually all the ports along the route.” The series book's accompanying interviews, printed verbatim with every regional phrasing intact, illustrate the colourful personalities the photographer found along the way.

“Sometimes I’d feel like I was taking my life in my hands going into the cacophony of a busy fish processing house,” he recalls. “The banter is constant, and sometimes singing too. The smells are fine – it’s all fresh fish they are working with of course – and in the smokehouses the smell is is delicious. One of the fisherwomen in Hull talked about the smells, and insisted that ‘there are worse places to work... the perfume counter. Ugh, no, I couldn’t work there’.”  

Amidst this living history of images and audio recordings, Easton says some of his subjects were themselves unaware of the heritage that they were part of – but that “despite the Mickey-taking, I was welcomed and people really got behind the project and wanted to take part.” 

He adds: “In terms of shared experience, I think that women in fishing communities have always been incredibly strong; the men after all were often at sea, and everything else was done by women; everything. From child rearing, to managing the finances, baiting the lines, gutting the fish and selling it. That strength of character I’m sure has been passed down from generation to generation.”

With the UK fishing industry in turbulent waters post-Brexit, the shape of its future may look uncertain. But for Easton, the parallels of the past resonate clearly with the present.

“I often feel, as a documentary photographer, that my role is more of an historian. The history and heritage is here to act as context for the contemporary portraits,” Easton says. “It is all about making the connection between today’s fisherwomen and the extraordinary history of previous generations.”
 

Craig Easton is a multi award-winning photographer based in the UK, who shoots long-term documentary projects exploring issues around social policy, identity and a sense of place. His book Fisherwomen is available now.

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