Great Yarmouth: Plague and Depression

In the 1334 Lay Subsidy, Yarmouth paid more tax than other town, apart from London, Bristol, York, Newcastle and Boston (Dyer, 2000, 755). It is likely that the bulk of the money raised in Yarmouth derived from the herring industry. The figure is, however, misleading, as the town was about to experience a rapid and extreme reversal of circumstances.

The Black Death had a drastic effect on Great Yarmouth: over seven thousand (of a population of 9-10000) people died in 1348 (Manship, 1854, 37)*. Yarmouth suffered (proportionally) worse than any other English town, apart from Winchester and Shrewsbury (Platt, 1996, 27). The town was badly depopulated, and large areas inside the walls became vacant - so much so, in fact, that Manship records the rebuilding of plots laid vacant in the 1348 plague in the late 16th century (Manship, 1854, 37). Tradition in Great Yarmouth claims that the North Gate of the Town Walls was built by those who had made their money burying the dead of the 1348 plague (Manship, 1854, 221). Despite the large death toll due to the Black Death, there is very little evidence for it in the archaeological record: no plague pits have been discovered, and the areas of abandonment mentioned by Manship are not visible archaeologically.

The Black Death was a contributory factor, but not the main cause of Yarmouth's economic decline: the 14th century saw several changes in the herring trade: in the mid 14th century, Yarmouth had difficult relations with London, the principal buyer of Yarmouth herring. Similarly, trade with Bayonne (Yarmouth's other main market) dropped considerably (Saul, 1981, 36). Naval actions of the Hundred Years War drew some ships away from the industry (Saul, 1979, 108), while attacks by Flemish navy and privateers caused some difficulties for the industry (Saul, 1982, 84). Coincidentally, reduced population pressure inland (caused by the Black Death elsewhere in the country) led to healthier diets and less reliance on preserved herring (Platt, 1996, 34). The response to this pressure in Yarmouth was that the town increased the price of herring. Edward III introduced the Statute of Herrings (1357) to maintain cheap prices, but the Statute was of limited effectiveness, and was not enforced. Herring fishermen in Flanders, Holland and Zeeland began to concentrate on acquiring high quality fish, and curing them to the highest possible standards, further weakening Yarmouth's hold on the herring market.

It is interesting to note that it was not just Great Yarmouth that was suffering in the late 14th century: the settlement of Northtown, on the West side of the river, was last recorded in 1349.

However, the economic decline was affected by other matters, not least the sea. The 14th century was a time of climatic upheaval in the North Sea region (Lamb, 1982, 172): Dunwich harbour was blocked and cleared several times in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, culminating in a harbour mouth opening in Southwold (Bailey, 1991, 197). At Great Yarmouth, the river mouth began to silt up noticeably by 1337, and had become impassable by 1347. The first haven was cut near Corton in 1347, but had silted up by 1375. In all, seven haven entrances were cut, between 1347 and 1567, representing a constant drain on the resources of the town (Manship, 1854, 78ff), and contributing to the economic depression in the late Medieval town. As yet, there is no direct archaeological evidence to indicate the location of any of these former entrances. For more information on the Havens of Great Yarmouth, click here.

*These figures are probably grossly overestimated. The 1377 Poll Tax listed 1941 taxpayers in Great Yarmouth (Dyer, 2000, 758). Taking into account non taxpayers and allowing for a higher than average death/depopulation rate of 60%, Yarmouth's pre-plague population was probably between 5000 and 6000.

Click here for the Great Yarmouth bibliography.

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