Great Yarmouth: The Medieval fishing industry

Yarmouth's prosperity was also due in no small part to the herring industry. The Herring Fair in Yarmouth lasted from Michaelmas to Martinmas and was administered by bailiffs from the Cinque Ports (this was the cause of much friction between the Cinque Ports and Great Yarmouth. See Manship, 1854, pp185ff and Ecclestone, 1959, pp105ff). The herring fair was held in the Market Place. The Medieval Market Place stretched from St Nicholas Priory southwards to the Dominican Friary on Friars Lane, and was bounded by the Town Walls to the East and the Rows to the west. King Street and the buildings on the east side of King Street were built in the early eighteenth century (e.g. NHER 34309, NHER 34310, NHER 42921 and NHER 43006).

There is little direct archaeological evidence for the herring industry in Yarmouth (although there is plenty of historical evidence). Certainly herring were only in the waters off Yarmouth for the autumn: the time of the Herring Fair (Cushing, 1988, 82). The herring were cured on the day of catch, by salting, followed by drying or smoking. Drying was either sun-drying, or by light smoking. Direct evidence for this exists in the form of saltern mounds in the area around Yarmouth (NHER 4322, NHER 4323, NHER 10412, NHER 24208, NHER 28930, NHER 42159, NHER 42168, NHER 42174, NHER 42216, NHER 42215, NHER 42416, NHER 42415, NHER 43488). Curing houses and smoke houses (fish-houses) were located in one area of the town (Rutledge, 1990, 44). Saul (1981, 35) suggests that the fish-houses were self contained units, incorporating residential, storage, salting and smoking areas. Saul's claim that the structures were tall, with small floor areas suggests that either large amounts of masonry were imported or that fires were frequent in Medieval Great Yarmouth.

Click here for the Great Yarmouth bibliography.


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