The Scarborough – Or Yorkshire – Yawl and a Note On “Duck” Lamps

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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