The concept of the Yorkshire Maritime Archives date back to 1967 when David Whittaker, who as a student had already started to observe and photograph the marine life of the coast some years earlier, joined the old Scarborough Corporation’s Museums and Libraries Department as one of the two curatorial staff stationed at the Woodend Natural History Museum, a former residence of the Sitwell family, which after a period of dereliction, had been converted and opened as a museum in 1952.
Shamefully for a coastal Natural History Museum, the collections at Woodend contained very little that referenced either the local marine biodiversity or the related history and development of the important fisheries of the port and coastline on which it was situated. With the exception of the mounted sea-birds, the only collections at Woodend of relevance to the subject were the shell collections of the Rev. Hey and William Bean, whose data in the collection, from a biological standpoint, is notoriously vague and unreliable.
In fact, it was at that time discovered that many marine specimens that had been deposited both in the old Philosophical Society collections at the original Rotunda Museum, and the Harbour Commissioners Lighthouse Museum, established in 1932 in the old Harbour Masters residence, and that should have been extant, had been purposely thrown away in the early days of moving the collections about in the run up to opening Woodend as the Natural History Museum.
In 1967, therefore, an active project was immediately started at the museum to enhance the research work on the local fauna by extending this to offshore observations, if possible by using the local fishing fleet, and in tandem thereby, to establish reference and display collections of marine zoological material, from the central North Sea area, at Woodend Museum.
Coincidentally, two or three simultaneous events further enhanced the project. Two interesting occurrences, of a large Dealfish, Trachypterus arcticus, and a female White Sided Dolphin, Lagenorhynchus acutus, presented themselves on local beaches for examination, and determined a further policy of adding to the collections by a program of the casting of such relevant specimens, using plaster, latex or silicone silastomer, and accordingly a casting room was set up in the basement at Woodend. It was also realised that the paucity of Yorkshire reference material, in any of the County’s museums, of the whales and dolphins occurring along this coast should be addressed, and so in addition to taking off a cast of the dolphin, it was also prepared as a skeleton, the first of many.
At the same time, the late Ben Colling, a much respected and leading fisherman of the community, began sending some of the oddities from his trawl nets up to the museum to discover more about them. After a meeting with Ben it was realised that if all local skippers and crews could be encouraged to bring in, as part of a daily and continuous survey, the oddities in their nets, and in particular the fishes, a valuable amount of local data that would be unattainable in any other way, could be accumulated over time. With Ben’s assistance, most Scarborough coblemen and trawler skippers and their crews became involved and so the ongoing Yorkshire Rare Fish Survey came into being, accumulating some valuable data on the occurrence of fishes and other marine life in this sea area, while a daily watch of the local fish market also ensured that little of interest was missed.
Bens sudden interest was timely; not only did his contact stimulate the establishment of the daily rare fish and offshore biological recording, but his contact was also to ensure that many items connected with the old fishing history of the port were saved from destruction.
Ben Colling was a descendant of an old Filey fishing family that had in Victorian times owned the Yorkshire Yawl, the Eye of Providence, SH 50, and who, together with his father, Frank, had a great interest in his family history and in fishing ways of the past. During the many interesting talks with Ben and his father it became obvious that the fisheries and marine biological collections should be extended to include historical items from the past days of the Yorkshire fisheries and its maritime communities, since it was obvious from what was related by these two ‘salts’ that many bygones of past fishing ways had already been thrown away. Some odd items that some families had realised might have a certain monetary value had, already by the late 1960’s, been discarded another way, by dissipation into the antiques trade, and by which means some of this local maritime heritage, as future years were to reveal, had travelled as far away as America.
Although Ben never had a desire to collect these old bygones himself, and had seen many of them disappear over the years, yet he was almost alone in the fishing community in realising in 1967 that this attempt to preserve and accumulate whatever was left should be supported, and it is due entirely to his knowledge and interest in the history of the old town and fishing industry, and his ever generous and friendly co-operation, that much of what was around at that time was located and saved from destruction. Ben further kick started the collection by opening up the old stores belonging to Frank and himself, an old 19th century fishermens cottage in Quay Street, rummaging through and donating anything of interest.
There was, however, a problem with forming such a maritime collection under the auspices of the Corporation Museums; Woodend was strictly a natural history museum, with poor facilities, in fact with little more equipment than the basics needed for taxidermy, that was struggling to cope with the means of preserving and archiving the number of marine specimens now being brought in daily by the fleet, and with no policy or indeed interest, by management, to include marine zoological, fisheries and maritime related historical items into a major collection strategy at the museum. The Corporations other museum, the Rotunda, had been designated the archaeological and historical museum with the reorganisation of the collections prior to opening Woodend. The two museums thus had entirely separate regimes, and it was therefore an impossibility to create a maritime and fisheries collection, as envisaged, in either one of them.
In 1969 therefore, a maritime archive independent of the Corporation was launched into which all the specimens, research material, records and artefacts being accumulated have ever since been deposited. In view of the subsequent and continuing museum practices of the Borough Council that neglect the regions ancient and important maritime themes, and indeed the more recent destruction of the two Museums as they once were, and which has resulted in the throwing out and selling off, yet again, of many items from the collections, that has been a fortunate decision.
Ben Collings constant suggestions of where to look and who to approach for things he remembered seeing over his lifetime led to many finds and donations from people in Filey and Whitby also, while from many an old store and dis-used workshop in the town, including “Tinner Sams” workshop and Jack Johnsons trawler store, old sailmakers and shipwrights tools, herring industry, steam trawler and other related items were gathered. Even old pit-saws, once used to cut planks at old ship-yard sites now buried under the modern bustling road of Sandside, were located. Old leather sea-boots, the cause of the drowning of so many fishermen in the days of sail, when local cobles, smacks and yawls were caught out in squalls and gales, together with all the tools once used in their manufacture, were later secured from the basement of Beanlands cobblers shop in North Street, all thanks to direction by Ben.
The project was renamed many years ago as the Sealife, Fisheries and Maritime Archive, and has its own logo to trademark its work and the periodical temporary exhibitions that are put on display up and down the coast. It is maintained by a small informally constituted group that is also actively engaged in various research topics, with the archive as the recipient and focal point of the material resulting from that research.
Many fishing families have, over the years, given or sold items into this collection, but sadly there were many that failed to realise the importance of saving such material and artefacts, and would not contribute items which they possessed, yet had no interest or use in, and which have since sadly been consigned to the dustbin. Many that contributed to the archive have now passed away, but it must be said that none were more helpful, or interested in the project, than Ben Colling.
Apart from all that, the continually growing collection today spans everything from old documents and manuscripts, receipts and sale books, fishing gear, contemporary models and paintings relating to all extinct types of Yorkshire fishing vessels, to a large photographic collection, including also newsreel cine film of tunny fishing at Scarborough, lifeboat ceremonies and a sea-plane in the harbour. Among the many rare gems are some spectacular whaling exhibits, an 1831 study by Carter of one of Scarborough’s most important medieval port administration buildings on the site of the Newcastle Packet, the harbour engineers model of the harbour, made about 1818/20, depicting the old island piers and shipyards, and the only research material outside the Science museum in London, of the ancient Yorkshire Five-Man Boats, the largest and fastest fishing craft of the British Isles, that were constructed at yards along Sandside, and which became deeply involved in smuggling alongside their traditional role in the herring and cod fisheries.
Small parts of this collection have been on public display in the district for more than twenty years, including some seven years at Scalby Mills and fourteen years at a revamped museum at Scarborough Lighthouse, opened in 1980, until a drive for increased revenue by the landlord, Scarborough Council, forced its closure in the mid 90’s, echoing the fate of the earlier maritime museum that had been established at the Lighthouse in 1932, after it ceased to be the residence of the ports harbour masters, when it occupied most of the premises. It too was closed down in the early 50s, with the loss of many of the exhibits, when the quest for more revenue resulted in the letting of the property to the Yacht Club.
There have thus been maritime displays at Scarborough lasting about 35 years in total, and with no support to save them from any quarter of the town when these little museums were closed, and there is now very scant knowledge or interest in the town that they had once actually existed.