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 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.

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