Extinct Yorkshire fishing craft

A Summary of the Different Vessels

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, theFive-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.

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 thesailing 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.

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