Extinct Yorkshire Fishing Craft [1] A Summary Of The Different Vessels

An historic craft; a Yorkshire five-man boat on the beach near Whitby, from a contemporary sketch by George Weatherill. These 3-masted boats were the largest and fastest craft in the British Isles, but died out during the 1850's.

D. E. WHITTAKER

 

Introduction

The Yorkshire and North-East coast is home to one of the most well known types of fishing craft, and one of Old Englands most ancient and historic boats, the coble, by which is usually meant the high-prowed, flat-bottomed and square-sterned craft, so beautifully adapted for launching and landing at the beaches adjacent to the ancient fishing hamlets of the coast. Even today, in places such as Flamborough, Filey, Skinningrove and Saltburn, they can still be seen in their relatively unchanged, but now motorised, form, and yet still being launched, as they were originally created so to do, from the open beach.

However, research shows that the term ‘coble’, in referring to craft of the Yorkshire coast, was far more generic and inclusive in past centuries, and referenced a number of craft. Even the largest fishing boat of the coast, the Five-Man Boat, some of which exceeded 60 feet in length and a tonnage of 64 [O.M.], were also referred to in contemporary material as ‘coble lugger’ or also simply as ‘coble’, while the term ‘big coble’ has been used to refer to any one of three distinct craft. In researching the craft and fishing history of the district therefore, it can never be assumed that the smaller, flat-bottomed and square-sterned craft is always the one that is being referred to in earlier references when the term “coble” is used, and references must therefore be evaluated carefully; similarly, the term ‘mule’ has also been applied to two distinct types of  ‘coble’ craft.

With the exception of the small Sailing Coble, none of the other sailing fishing craft of Yorkshire have ever been thoroughly described in print, and reference material is constantly being sought for the Archive, by which to gain greater detail of all these extinct Yorkshire sailing craft.

A typical Yorkshire Yawl. Note the section of bulwark removed for launching the coble, which is being towed aft, stern first, the deep forefoot acting as a keel.

Sailing Fishing Craft Used On The Yorkshire Coast

Twelve historic types of craft from the days of sail may be defined from early references, paintings and photographs as relevant to the Yorkshire coast and its fisheries, together with their synonymy that has been encountered in contemporary references :-

1.] The Five-man boat; Coble Lugger; Coble; 5-Man Coble; Three-masted lugger.

2.] The Scarborough Yawl; Yorkshire Yawl.

3.] The Plosher; Big Coble

4.] The Sailing coble; 3-Man coble.

5.] The Mule coble; Double-ended coble

6.] The Herring coble; Big coble; Mule; Herring Mule.

7.] The Corfe, Calf

8.]  The early Cutter-rigged Smack or Long-boomer

9.]  The Cutter-rigged Yawl, an early type of Scarborough trawler.

10.] The ketch-rigged Smack or Dandy, including lengthened Long-boomers.

11.] The Iron Smack, the ‘Contrast’, SH 221, of 1862

12.] The Keel-boat

The works of Edgar J March are the most well-known and most consulted by those wishing to know more about bygone British sailing fishing craft, including the great variety of off-shore sailing drifters and long-liners, the smacks or trawlers, and the numerous smaller inshore craft.

The researcher will find however, that March had little detailed material to go on with regard to Yorkshire craft, other than the sailing coble, and the others are dealt with rather summarily or not at all.

His description of the largest, the Five-Man Boat, is based on the damaged and restored model, found in Scarborough in Edwardian times, and now in the Science Museum, London. Material relating to these long-gone craft is rare, and subsequent writers of historic craft desirous of mentioning these craft have all drawn on the singular description of this incomplete model, by March in his volume on “Sailing Drifters”.

The few details he gives of the Yorkshire Yawls are culled from the Washington Enquiry published in 1849, and although he stated his intention to give a fuller description of these craft in a later work, further data on these vessels eluded him.

Similar descriptions of the Herring Coble and its inboard companion, the Corfe, the most misunderstood boat of the coast, are also brief.

Fishermen of this North Sea coast-line had traditionally used many types of static gear, including Brat-nets, crab and lobster pots, and various types of long-line, all of which daily cluttered the sea-bed. This coastline was also a major centre for the herring fisheries, and every summer the fleets assembled, and each evening for months on end, spread a large volume of herring drift-nets over the grounds. As a consequence there had been no employment or development of the conflicting drag method of fishing using the trawl, which was present on the coast only in a small version, fished close-in by cobles for the capture of shrimps etc. Not surprisingly, there was eventual conflict with the visiting Devonshire trawlermen, when the local fishermen realised the visitors were becoming too frequent, and spending a little too much time on the local grounds with their more aggressive and conflicting type of fishing gear.

However, as the method of trawling began to be accepted as a means of capturing whitefish on these grounds, the working of the trawling gear as practiced by the North Sea men in ports such as Scarborough, began to alter not just the method of working the trawl from that which the Devonshire men had always used, but also led in turn to alterations in the layout of the trawler.

From the 1840’s to the early 1880’s, by which time the sailing trawlers were already being eclipsed by the introduction of the steam-trawler, the development of the North Sea sailing smack and the trawl proceeded at a rapid pace, the vessels converting from cutter to ketch; these years also witnessed the introduction of the first iron-hulled fishing vessel, the Contrast, SH 221, an historic and battered portrait of which, depicting her arrival at Scarborough in 1863 for owner Josiah Hudson, is preserved in the Archive.

In describing trawling vessels in his Sailing Trawlers, March does however give good account of the build and rig of the early Cutter-rigged Smacks that ventured to both Irish and Yorkshire waters in the early decades of the 19th century, and in addition a little of the subsequent changes and evolution of the sailing trawler.

There remains, however, much to be discovered about Yorkshire’s sailing fishing craft, and about the evolution of both craft and gear generally, participating in the Yorkshire fisheries.

Extinct Yorkshire Fishing Craft [3] The Scarborough, Or Yorkshire, Yawl, And A Note On “Duck” Lamps

When this very early view of Scarborough harbour was made, the fishing industry was booming and numerous yawls were being built within the harbour. The photograph shows early double-ended yawls as well as those with lute sterns.

D. E. WHITTAKER

 

 

 

Prior to 1830, three types of multi purpose fishing craft dominated the Yorkshire fisheries. All were used in the pursuit of the seasonal herring fisheries, but only the fully-decked, Five-Man Coble or 3-Masted Lugger, was capable of long-distance working, of being able to stay out in all weathers, and of having the capacity, during this fishery, of working the greatest number of drift-nets and of retaining a catch of several lasts of herring.

Nationally, the herring industry had been increasing in catching and processing intensity since the close of the Napoleonic wars, with progressive substantial investment in fishing craft. On the Yorkshire coast, the Five-Man Cobles required massive investment, and by the close of the 1820’s, the principle builder of these craft, Robert Skelton of Scarborough, took the speculative decision to build a cheaper, smaller vessel with two masts, double-ended without the favoured lute stern of the larger craft, but still capable of handling a sizable catch. Built on speculation, the first vessel, which he called a yawl, is identifiable to 1830, and was purchased by Filey owners.

An early photo of lug-rigged yawls in Scarborough harbour. Such images of the yawls rigged in this way are rare due to the change over to gaff-rig in 1870, but are essential in working out how the vessels were rigged.

Despite forty years of recent collecting and research for this Archive, no images or early models of the very first yawls have so far been found, and their exact appearance, until such evidence is found, is therefore unknown, but they were evidently very lightly constructed, and were probably entirely open. Their registered tonnage of only about 17 tons [old measurement] shows how much larger these early experimental craft were than the contemporary herring cobles of 8-12 tons [O.M.], but further illustrates how small they were when compared to the three-masted luggers of 45-60  tons [O.M.], that they would ultimately displace, and how unlike the later yawls, well known from later photographs and the sketches of the artists working the coast in late Victorian times.

The early Yawls quickly evolved to be partially decked, and then as the size further increased, finally became fully decked. Photographs of the yawls at this stage of their development are known, but are rare, and more early photographs of this period need to be discovered to help reveal missing details of their rig and build.

The new boats were an instant success with the fishing community, since they combined a useful size and capacity with far more affordability than the old Five-Man Boats, which were, however, still a much loved craft on the coast. A number of the new yawls were produced by Skelton, and also copied by his fellow Scarborough fishing boat builders, one of whom seems to have taken the lead in their development, during that decade.

By the late 1830’s, the Yawls were being produced to larger dimensions, and were now fully decked, with ancient traditional features of the three-masters being reintroduced, including the heavy covering boards fore and aft through which substantial timberheads were fitted, the continued use of the ancient form of capstan, and the retention of the removable section of bulwark to allow the launching and retrieval of the coble, carried on deck, for fishing operations out at sea; registered tonnage had risen to about 20 tons (old measurement).

The lute stern of the old luggers was reintroduced to the new craft around 1840, and at the same time a leap in the size of their construction occurred, and the evolution of the morphology of the yawl, that had thus taken a decade to achieve, was almost complete. As was the traditional practice during the herring season, the new Yawls joined with the Five-Men Boats in following the shoals south to Yarmouth, and working out of that port until late November, when they returned back home, and began refitting for the winter/spring long-lining fishery for cod, haddock, skate, turbot and halibut.

The yorkshire yawl alpha, one of the last to survive, showing her sail plan under gaff-rig. Note the lute stern, a feature carried on from the ancient five-man boats.

Skeltons foreman, John Edmonds, in evidence to the Washington Enquiry of 1849, stated that the Yawls had achieved their most useful degree of capacity about 1840. If Edmonds meant that the evolution of their design had fully matured at this time, this was true, but if in terms of their actual capacity or size, his comment was premature, and the Yawls were to continue to become increasingly larger. By 1850, Filey and other owners had dispensed with their earlier double-ended Yawls, or “yalls” as they were referred to by the fishermen in their broad local dialect, and had upgraded to the newer, larger, lute-sterned models. A small number of Yawls, principally owned by Staithes families, now sailed off the beach fronting the village, or from Whitby, where for a short while boat-builders had also turned their hand to building these craft.

The Yawls reached their zenith in the 1860s as fine powerful craft around 65 feet in length, and a beam of 18 feet. At this culmination of their evolution, the yawls had become, with very few morphological changes, the major ones being the reduction of the sail-plan to two masts instead of three, and a deeper hull with more deadrise to the floors, almost a copy of the old five-man luggers they had, by means of their greater affordability and greater ease of sailing, replaced and assisted into extinction. By the 1860s they had, themselves, become comparatively just as expensive to acquire as their predecessors had been, and like them, were usually acquired by multiple ownership.

The only remaining change to their design was to take place abruptly, sweeping through the entire yawl fleet around 1870, when the old standing-lug rig, which had been used on large fishing-craft for centuries, was suddenly replaced by gaff-rigged sails. Unlike the smacks, whose sails carried a boom, the mainsail of these re-fitted yawls remained loose-footed, the sheet traveling across another new addition, a large bar of iron, the “horse”, that traversed the vessel and was bent over, and bolted to, the outer bulwarks, while her mast rigging was altered and set up with chain plates and dead-eyes. Her sail plan now consisted of jib, fore, loose-footed main, and mizzen with a boom; aloft, the yawls carried lug-topsails, carried on long yards, to both main and mizzen.

Off to sea, a Filey yawl skipper at the helm in fine weather.

By 1890, the harbours were filling with steam-powered vessels and it was clear to all that sail-powered craft would soon be an unwanted thing of the past. The Yawls, which had been the most substantial fishing craft in the Yorkshire harbours from the 1850’s, were now aging and being roughly treated by the large iron steam trawlers now filling the harbours, while in the summer herring fishery, they were jostled by the larger and massively built Scottish Zulus which came to the Yorkshire ports in droves. Many of the yawls were given a second lease of life by being “doubled”, involving a feather-edged plank being nailed over each clinkered strake to produce a smooth hull, before the whole hull was re-planked on top, carvel-fashion.

Although the yawls had all long since paid off their original debts and mortgages, and a small number of owners, like those of the sailing trawlers, had invested in a steam-powered capstan on deck to replace the old laborious tramp around the ancient style of hand-spike capstan, their returns from the fishing were not keeping pace with other sections of the fleet, yet they could still return a profit for some owners for a few more years provided their repair and maintenance costs could be kept to a minimum. At Staithes, many owners of both cobles and yawls, were seeing a fall in revenue from the fishing, a consequence of the extensive trawling effort, and the boats began to be sold off. Many of the Staithes yawls were sold to Scarborough owners, including the “William Ash”, whose proud registration of WY 1, emblazoned on her bows for so many years, was now painted out, to finished off her last few years with the Scarborough registration, SH 210.

By Edwardian times, “t’ord yalls” remaining were now generally leaky old vessels approaching forty, or in some cases, even more, years of age. The pattern of fishing was now to fit out the yawls for long-lining, during the winter, for cod until March, and then from late March until July, for haddock.  During the haddock season, weekly trips out to the Dogger were made, the landings being chiefly made at Grimsby, where a better price could be made, rather than Scarborough. Entrance to the Grimsby Dock was charge free, but after landing, when the yawls went straight back out to the Dogger, a charge of seven and six-pence had to be paid to get back out of the dock.

On board a Yorkshire yawl. A contemporary drawing showing the coble alongside after retreiving the lines and the catch of cod, while other members of the crew gut and pack the fish

Out on the fishing grounds, the yawl was put by the wind and her forty or fifty long-lines, each carried on a traditional wicker “skep”, were slowly paid over the side, each being tied to the next line in sequence. After every fifth skep, a buoy, or “kess ‘n’ thing”, as they were traditionally known along the Yorkshire coast, was made fast and thrown overboard. If shooting lines in the dark, it was the job of the boys on board to hold the “duck” lamps, which burned with a flare-like and very sooty flame, while the men shot the lines over the side. With all the lines being shot, the yawl now sailed about, jogging to and fro within a short distance of her line of buoys for two hours, and then made ready to retrieve the gear and its catch, which was done from the coble that now had to be launched from the deck.

Duck Lamps In The Yorkshire Fishing Industry

Early 19th century ‘duck’ lamps, also known as ‘flares’, were of cast iron, and were big, kettle-like lamps, with a large spout and wick, sometimes with two spouts, and burned whale oil, and were carried on all sizes of fishing craft, from the Five-Man Boat to the Sailing Coble, as the main source of light when working gear. Later they were made in large numbers by the local tin-smith, and burned paraffin, but by the late 1960’s were a unknown and forgotten bygone to most of the fishermen of the coast. The duck lamps were, however, remembered by the oldest of the fishermen interviewed at Scarborough, Whitby and Filey in the late 1960’s, since these lamps survived the days of sail for a short while, to be used on motorised cobles and steam trawlers. After a long search, examples of various duck lamps were eventually located for preservation in the Archive, the most curious example being donated by Filey fisherman “Chicken” Cammish, from the depths of his old store in the town.

The last local ship tin-smith, at Scarborough was “Tinner Sam” Cammish, who had followed his father into the business. Sam was still alive in the late 60’s, and despite his advancing years and poor eye-sight, was able to describe and roughly draw the construction of the duck lamps, and to relate where his very last workshop had been, in a dark, rough building in Quay Street. The building had been unused for some years, and fortunately, most of Sams tin-smithing tools, including the heavy soldering irons with their massive copper tips, still lay on his old bench, and were recovered for the Archive.

Extinct Yorkshire Fishing Craft [2] The Five Man Boat, Coble Lugger Or Yorkshire 3-Masted Lugger

D. E. WHITTAKER

 

 

This ancient Yorkshire fishing craft was the largest and fastest fishing vessel of the British Isles, renowned for its safe sea-keeping abilities, until it finally became extinct about 1850/1860.

Although mentioned in text through the centuries, representations of their appearance is none existent until the early 19th century, and most descriptions and illustrations today are based on the old Scarborough model, repaired in the early 20th century, and now in the Science Museum. Because so little has been recorded about these craft, they have been the subject of particular research for the Archive, and a limited amount of new material has come to light that is the basis a re-appraisal and re-description of the morphology and use  of these famous craft.

Used for the traditional North Sea herring and long-line white-fish fisheries, this craft probably derived from the cog, evolving through the Medieval period, and getting its name from the custom of five men of the crew being equal partners dividing the proceeds into five equal shares, while two or three other crew members, usually boys, were paid a set amount.

Throughout  their history, these large clinker-built luggers, ranging from 55 to 65 feet in length, were built up without any form of internal frame being put in until the planking had reached deck level, whereupon timbers were cut, shaped and joggled to fit over the lands of the clinkered planking. This same skillful construction method for such large craft continued with the introduction of the Yorkshire Yawls, which evolved as a two-masted reconstruction of the ancient luggers, eventually bringing about their extinction, and is shown on rare old photographs of the yawls being built in the Scarborough shipyards

Evolution of the Five-men boats was essentially that of a two-masted vessel, which through the necessity of rigging a small mizzen sail at the stern while drifting to the herring nets, became a three-master. However, while the two main masts were substantial and stepped in deep tabernacles slewing off the centre line of the vessel, the mizzen, of which two sizes appear to have been carried, was never situated on the mid line of the vessel, but was simply stepped on the port or starboard stern quarter where and when required, and a crutch to support the main mast, when dropped back while the boat laid to the nets, or when not working, was staffed on the opposite stern quarter.

The hull was beamy, and the floors had little rise, due to the necessity of the craft having to dry out and moor up on the beaches or tidal harbours along the coast, and to land their catches. They appear to have had a long tradition, as with the small sailing cobles of the coast, of painting the bulwarks in broad and narrow stripes of bright colour. Contemporary reference material shows that various emblems were also painted on the bows and that, in some vessels at least, the graceful lute stern was elaborately decorated, a feature which, along with many others, was also carried forward to the Yorkshire Yawls as they evolved during the 1830’s. The main mast carried a fidded topmast, to carry a large lug-topsail.

Capable of great speed, it is recorded that in the 17th century, a five-man boat returning to Scarborough from the fishing grounds was chased by a French pirate vessel, but managed to out run them, getting safely into the harbour. After quickly taking on weapons, the fishermen set sail again, and gave chase to the French pirates. Due to the swift sailing abilities of the fishermen’s five-man boat, the Frenchmen were soon overtaken.

Their speed, sea-worthiness and offshore capability, made them superb vessels to engage in smuggling as well as fishing, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, this activity was rife at the various fishing hamlets along the Yorkshire coast, and the activities of these boats, and the communities that used them, particularly at Staithes, Robin Hoods Bay and Filey, were frequently watched by the Revenue men.

When line-fishing, two cobles were carried on deck, which were launched and retrieved through a removable section of the bulwarks, and the fishing lines and catch were hauled in using the cobles, while the five-man boat dodged about or laid to.

During the herring season, which in the early nineteenth century sometimes began in June on the Yorkshire coast, the luggers carried only a single coble on deck. In the height of the season, as the boats came together in number from the various hamlets in order to land their catches at the beaches and harbours of the coast, they must have presented a glorious sight, with their large red and brown lug-sails, and their bulwarks gaily painted in stripes of different colours, while their black hulls contrasted with the vessels’ small cobles, whose planks were again painted in reds, blues, white and green, and which busily ferried the herring catches back to shore.

This old painting from the 1830’s shows such an animated scene, with the Yorkshire fleet of five-man boats laid off the sands at Whitby, their main masts laid back in their crutches, and with the shore-line and  beach a hive of activity with herring workers, agents and carters.

As the herring season advanced, the five-man boats followed the shoals south, working off the beach at Yarmouth, where a very similar craft was also in use, until the end of November, when the boats finally returned home and were  given a brief lay-up for refitting for the eventual start of the winter line fishing.

No photographs of these three masted luggers have yet been discovered during the authors research, but since they survived the advent of photography by some years, it is just possible that one day such an image may be discovered.

Extinct Yorkshire Fishing Craft [4] The Big Coble/Herring Coble, And The Corfe

D. E. WHITTAKER

 

 

The Herring Coble

A typical herring coble, also known as a mule, running off under the big lug-sail and a jib, but she carries a number of big sweeps in case the wind drops.

The origin of this craft is unknown, but in the early nineteenth century these ‘big cobles’ as they were more frequently referred to, were to be found both as partially-decked or entirely open craft, and were more usually fitted with two masts. Built with both ends alike, or double-ended, the top strakes were wide and had a certain amount of tumble-home. These boats were considerably larger than the typical Yorkshire sailing coble, being of about 8-12 tons, old measurement, and about 30 to 35 feet in length, with a beam of 10 to 11 feet, but by the end of the century the length of some of these craft exceeded 40 feet. Worked by usually four men, sometimes with a boy, these boats had beamy sterns and thus had considerable carrying capacity for fishing gear and catch.

The Herring Cobles were decked over near the bows for about a quarter of their length, thus giving a cabin or cuddy, with a small stove, where the crew could sleep and cook a meal and boil a kettle, while the rest of the boat was open. The open part of the boat was shallow, the bottom boards being only about 2 feet below the gunwale, thus leaving an appreciable space below them, to be used as wells for the stowing of herring nets and other fishing gear. Two thofts were situated near the stern of the boat, while another was situated a short distance behind the decked-in cuddy.

The mast, which carried a big lug-sail, was stepped into a tabernacle let in to the aft side of the cuddy, and when hauling the herring nets, the mast was lowered back in a gantry formed by timbers bridging the cuddy and the thoft behind it, and was laid to rest upon a forked rest or crutch, one arm of which was extended as a round pin, upon which, when working gear in the dark, a lantern was fixed.

By the 1860s all these craft were half-decked and carried a single mast and bowsprit. These were all-year, multipurpose craft, used for long-lining, potting or herring fishing, which became their principle use in the latter half of the nineteenth century when increasing numbers of this craft were produced.

The arduous work of hauling herring nets was done by sheer manpower, but a few rare craft later in the century were fitted with a small mechanical hauler, fitted with two handles, standing on the starboard stern quarter. Two men stood on opposite sides of the hauler to crank the handles, while the warp of the nets came in and was pulled off the hauler by another member of the crew and lead down into the starboard well of the boat. A fourth member of the crew stood towards the forward thoft and hauled the foot of the net inboard.

The Corfe

When long-lining for whitefish out of the herring season, the procedure on board the herring coble was the same as that adopted on the larger vessels, the Yorkshire Yawls, where the lines, coiled on the traditional wicker-work skeps, were shot from the deck of the yawl, and then retrieved, a couple of hours later, by launching the coble(s) carried on deck, the lines and their catch being hauled back into the coble, and later transferred to the Yawl.

For this same task, the herring cobles carried a small, locally built, and quite unique boat, known as a corfe, a corruption in dialect of calf, for hauling in the long-lines and retrieving the catch.

Like its host vessel on which it was carried, the corfe has never been fully described, and in fact the term corfe has frequently been misunderstood in most accounts of Yorkshire’s fishing history, and is more often very incorrectly used as an adjective to refer to any small boat carried on board another. In fact, the corfe was a very distinct boat of specific local build, for use only with the herring coble, and like its parent craft, was restricted to the Yorkshire Coast. It was best and succinctly described, by the artist Ernest Dade, as a cross between a coble and a smack’s (sailing trawler’s) boat, a description fully confirmed by examining those contemporary photographs and models that show any detail of these little boats.

Despite a length of only 10 feet, they could carry two men together with a ton of fish, and the retrieved long lines coiled back on their skeps. The corfe was lightly built, with clinkered strakes, the top two strakes being wide with tumble-home, coble fashion, but the strakes became very narrow as they nipped in to the stern, which, unlike the coble, was vertical, not raking. Three thofts were fitted across the boat with another across the stern. Unlike the coble, which worked substantial oars consisting of wash and clog that worked on pins, the corfe was set up with two pairs of rowlocks and was worked with short, ordinary oars.

Extinction of the Herring cobles and corfes

With the coming of engines, the herring coble could be adapted to this form of propulsion fairly easily, and some thus survived for some years after their local contemporaries, the smacks and yawls, had become extinct; nevertheless, by the 1930’s nearly all the herring cobles had disappeared. A few of the little corfes found another use for some years, by yachtsmen as harbour tenders for their boats, but a search of Scarborough’s yacht harbour in 1967 showed that they too had vanished. The last remains of a herring coble, a former Scarborough boat, were photographed for the Archive in 1970 as she lay collapsing in the mud at Whitby, where she had laid rotting for some decades.

Research of these two boats, as with other types of Yorkshire’s fishing craft from the days of sail, has been ongoing for some time using the essential material of photographs and contemporary paintings and models, but there is still much detail to be learned and further material is constantly being sought.

EXTINCT YORKSHIRE FISHING CRAFT [4] THE BIG COBLE/ HERRING COBLE, and THE CORFE

THE HERRING COBLE

The origin of this craft is unknown, but in the early nineteenth century these ‘big cobles’ as they were more frequently referred to, were to be found both as partially-decked or entirely open craft, and were more usually fitted with two masts. Built with both ends alike, or double-ended, the top strakes were wide and had a certain amount of tumble-home. These boats were considerably larger than the typical Yorkshire sailing coble, being of about 8-12 tons, old measurement, and about 30 to 35 feet in length, with a beam of 10 to 11 feet, but by the end of the century the length of some of these craft exceeded 40 feet. Worked by usually four men, sometimes with a boy, these boats had beamy sterns and thus had considerable carrying capacity for fishing gear and catch.

The Herring Cobles were decked over near the bows for about a quarter of their length, thus giving a cabin or cuddy, with a small stove, where the crew could sleep and cook a meal and boil a kettle, while the rest of the boat was open. The open part of the boat was shallow, the bottom boards being only about 2 feet below the gunwale, thus leaving an appreciable space below them, to be used as wells for the stowing of herring nets and other fishing gear. Two thofts were situated near the stern of the boat, while another was situated a short distance behind the decked-in cuddy.

The mast, which carried a big lug-sail, was stepped into a tabernacle let in to the aft side of the cuddy, and when hauling the herring nets, the mast was lowered back in a gantry formed by timbers bridging the cuddy and the thoft behind it, and was laid to rest upon a forked rest or crutch, one arm of which was extended as a round pin, upon which, when working gear in the dark, a lantern was fixed.

By the 1860s all these craft were half-decked and carried a single mast and bowsprit. These were all-year, multipurpose craft, used for long-lining, potting or herring fishing, which became their principle use in the latter half of the nineteenth century when increasing numbers of this craft were produced.

The arduous work of hauling herring nets was done by sheer manpower, but a few rare craft later in the century were fitted with a small mechanical hauler, fitted with two handles, standing on the starboard stern quarter. Two men stood on opposite sides of the hauler to crank the handles, while the warp of the nets came in and was pulled off the hauler by another member of the crew and lead down into the starboard well of the boat. A fourth member of the crew stood towards the forward thoft and hauled the foot of the net inboard.

THE CORFE

When long-lining for whitefish out of the herring season, the procedure on board the herring coble was the same as that adopted on the larger vessels, the Yorkshire Yawls, where the lines, coiled on the traditional wicker-work skeps, were shot from the deck of the yawl, and then retrieved, a couple of hours later, by launching the coble(s) carried on deck, the lines and their catch being hauled back into the coble, and later transferred to the Yawl.

For this same task, the herring cobles carried a small, locally built, and quite unique boat, known as a corfe, a corruption in dialect of calf, for hauling in the long-lines and retrieving the catch.

Like its host vessel on which it was carried, the corfe has never been fully described, and in fact the term corfe has frequently been misunderstood in most accounts of Yorkshire’s fishing history, and is more often very incorrectly used as an adjective to refer to any small boat carried on board another. In fact, the corfe was a very distinct boat of specific local build, for use only with the herring coble, and like its parent craft, was restricted to the Yorkshire Coast. It was best and succinctly described, by the artist Ernest Dade, as a cross between a coble and a smack’s (sailing trawler’s) boat, a description fully confirmed by examining those contemporary photographs and models that show any detail of these little boats.

Despite a length of only 10 feet, they could carry two men together with a ton of fish, and the retrieved long lines coiled back on their skeps. The corfe was lightly built, with clinkered strakes, the top two strakes being wide with tumble-home, coble fashion, but the strakes became very narrow as they nipped in to the stern, which, unlike the coble, was vertical, not raking. Three thofts were fitted across the boat with another across the stern. Unlike the coble, which worked substantial oars consisting of wash and clog that worked on pins, the corfe was set up with two pairs of rowlocks and was worked with short, ordinary oars.

Extinction of the Herring cobles and corfes

With the coming of engines, the herring coble could be adapted to this form of propulsion fairly easily, and some thus survived for some years after their local contemporaries, the smacks and yawls, had become extinct; nevertheless, by the 1930’s nearly all the herring cobles had disappeared. A few of the little corfes found another use for some years, by yachtsmen as harbour tenders for their boats, but a search of Scarborough’s yacht harbour in 1967 showed that they too had vanished. The last remains of a herring coble, a former Scarborough boat, were photographed in 1970 as she lay collapsing in the mud at Whitby, where she had laid rotting for some decades.

Research of these two boats, as with other types of Yorkshire’s fishing craft from the days of sail, has been ongoing for some time using the essential material of photographs and contemporary paintings and models, but there is still much detail to be learned and further material is constantly being sought.