by John | Jun 15, 2011 |

A History of Fishing on the Suffolk Coast


Fishing has been one of Suffolk's most important industries for at least 900 years. So good were the catches that there was a tithe levied on fish to be paid to the local parish or the Bishop.

In 1042, Bishop Alfric awarded the Manor of Southwold to the Monks of Bury St Edmunds. Southwold was obliged to pay the monks an annual 'tribute' of 20,000 herrings. Herring was the most popular catch in the waters close to the Suffolk coast with fishing fleets venturing out from quays at Orford, Slaughden, Aldeburgh, Thorpeness, Dunwich, Walberswick, Southwold, Kessingland and Lowestoft.

Dunwich was, in the 16th century, Suffolk's chief fishing port, with 166 mariners and a ship of over 100 tons, the larger vessels being sent to Iceland for catches of cod and ling. Suffolk fishing boats had strange names, crayers, busses, pinks and ketches.

Buss Creek, which runs from Southwold harbour to Might's Bridge was developed in the 18th Century as a haven for busses, 'Buss' being the Dutch name for a kind of stout fishing boat which doubled as a cargo ship.

Coastal erosion is a perennial problem for the Suffolk coast and the ports at Dunwich, Orford, Slaughden and Thorpeness have all been lost to the sea within the last five hundred years. With the demise of these ports, thriving towns became quiet villages, whilst new quays were hurriedly built and rebuilt at seaside villages where coastal erosion had been less damaging.

Meanwhile as deep sea fishing became more economic, the Suffolk fishermen turned to the smaller, clinker built fishing vessels not dissimilar to those used by fishermen today at Aldeburgh for their onshore fishing. In 1839 there were 192 boats in Southwold catching herrings, sprats, smelts and shrimps as well as sole and cod for the London market. Most operated from the beach.
The boats were pulled ashore with ropes wound round primitive windlasses known as 'crabs' fixed in front of the boat owners' huts. The fishermen worked from black-tarred sheds, still to be found at Aldeburgh, Thorpeness and Southwold - made famous in Crabbe's story of the Aldeburgh fisherman, Peter Grimes, best known as an opera of the same name by Benjamin Britten.

The nineteenth century saw the town of Lowestoft became famous for its hanging gardens and fine terraced gardens that descended from merchants' houses to the base of the cliffs. This was the heyday of Lowestoft's fishing industry, one of its most lucrative exports being herring (known locally as the 'silver darling') and workers were brought in from all over the country to assist in handling the catch.

Today the Suffolk coast is still popular for sea fishing, with inshore trawling fleets at Aldeburgh and Southwold fishing mainly for sole and plaice, and lining for cod. Sprats are caught by Southwold, Aldeburgh, Thorpeness and Orford fishermen from October to January, whilst from April 'til November shrimps, lobster and crab are the main catch.

Fish can still be bought direct from the fishermen's sheds on the beach. With the catch coming in early in the morning this is the time to get really fresh fish. Some fishermen sell direct to fish stalls and there is good fish to be had at the Shed at Felixstowe Ferry, and down by the quay at Orford.

Fancy fishing on the Suffolk Coast? Read our guide here.

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