If you enjoy your morning kippers, then you are partaking of a very historic tradition here in Whitby! In times past, fishermen and women went through a great deal to help bring this iconic food to the table ... 
 
So … What Are The ‘Silver Darlings’? 
 
Kippers are the smoked version of the herring, an oily, silvery fish that once shoaled in vast numbers along our North Sea coastline. 
 
The silver darlings, as the herring were often referred to, swam along our coasts in the late summer and into autumn, with the Scottish (and some English) fishing boats in their wake. 
 
Herring Girls 
 
And it wasn’t only fishing vessels that followed the fish. The herring girls, as they were known, followed the menfolk from their homes, travelling right down the East Coast by rail and on foot. In the time of photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and through to the Edwardian era, this pelagic fish was plentiful. 
 
Fast Workers 
 
In 1913, just before the outbreak of World War One, it is thought 10,000 Scottish boats were involved in the herring industry, the largest fleet of its kind in the world. 
 
Herring was often transported by railway to West Yorkshire and beyond, including to Russia where it was considered a delicacy. 
 
The herring was caught on a daily basis by line or net; the womenfolk were up at all hours to help prepare the landed fish for transportation. 
 
Once the fish were caught and brought ashore, depending on the harbour’s size and location, the catch was tipped into wooden troughs called farlans. The slippery fish were then prepared the herring lassies, who bent over the farlans and barrels for hours at a time. 
 
The herring lassies were skilled and quick – they could gut the fish with one slick movement at the rate of one a second, removing the innards and then placing the fish in a barrel full of salt. 
The Power of Three 
 
The herring lassies often worked in teams of three – two gutters and one packer. 
 
The womenfolk also had to sort the fish by size and condition, and while the guts were sold for fertiliser, the fish themselves were placed in a skilled spiral in empty barrels. One layer included the fish with tails to the middle then the next layer with the heads in the middle, and with a generous cover of salt to each layer. 
 
Tough Cookies 
 
The herring lassies were physically tough, with layers of clothes to protect them from the elements. 
 
Cuts from the gutting knives were commonplace, so rags were used to protect hard working hands, but many herring lassies suffered salt literally being rubbed into wounds as speed was of the essence with preserving the fish. 
Walking Across The Decks 
 
Some of the local fisher folk will still remember the crammed harbours in late summer and early autumn, when it was possible to walk from one side to the other across the decks of visiting vessels. 
 
Yet, sadly, the herring shoals seemed to keep away from the Yorkshire Coast from about the 1970s onwards. 
While this could be a natural cycle – the fish moved instinctively to prevent dwindling stocks – it might also be the result of climate change and alterations in sea temperatures. 
 
So next time you tuck into your Whitby kipper, spare a thought for the thousands of women and men who used to catch the silver darlings! 
Tagged as: Whitby Kippers
Share this post:

Leave a comment: