For this week’s blog, we look at the role of the herring lasses during the 20th century.
During the 20th century, the changing role of women led to the progression of their economic, social, cultural and legal rights – creating a remarkable turning point for women in society.
Research of Herring Lasses
This blog is based on Jill de Fresnes’ lecture on the representations of Scots’ herring lasses. Jill used photographs and oral narratives to show the emerging independence of Scottish lasses, who followed the herring fleet up and down Britain’s coastline.
Women in the herrin’ industry
Fishing in Scotland was primarily associated with men, however the herring industry boom benefitted women in many ways. By the early 1900s, some 12,000 Scottish women gutted and preserved herring in different Scottish fishing ports, with many travelling south to the Yorkshire coast and Great Yarmouth in East Anglia. This really changed dynamics within a fishing community and herring lasses became admired throughout the country.
Oh for Yarmouth bustle and hurry,
Time for nothing but making money,
But still it has its little joys,
Hippodrome, theatre, Gem and Boys.
Elizabeth Bain, Nairn Herring Lass
The fisher lasses were hardworking and independent, demonstrating a strong work ethic in Scottish and English herring ports. Between 1900 – 1950 women were undergoing drastic change and campaigning for political suffrage and equal footing with male voting and employment rights, reflecting a prominent stage of global change for women. Following the herring was a way of escaping the boredom and drudgery of home life, and the lasses benefitted from their freedom.
Social and Cultural Changes
Jill was particularly interested in the oral narratives from 2003, when she carried out interviews with them in their homes. Jill discovered that the women remembered the good times rather than the actual work itself, for example going out to dance halls and meeting new people.
Through postcards, there was a definite ‘exoticisation of the fishing folk’. Postcards were primarily bought by tourists and also by Scottish people, as they were unfamiliar with the concept of women working away from home and earning a living. Jill showed the audience some professional and group photographs and described the lasses as a changing spirit, portrayed as independent and stylish to their friends and families back home.
Herring lasses were extremely talented knitters, as they learnt to knit from a very young age. Gansey patterns were passed onto them by their families and discovered in the different coastal villages and towns they travelled to. Patterns were rarely written down until historian Gladys Thompson began researching and documenting different gansey charts. Lasses would learn to knit the patterns through listening to others and feeling the stitches – enjoying knitting whenever they had a spare moment away from gutting herring.
Some Harsh Realities
Jill mentioned in her lecture that the lasses’ lifestyle should not always be romanticised. Perhaps there were some tragic stories that the women she interviewed did not mention, simply as they were reliving the good times. The process of gutting herring and travelling to different ports became incredibly demanding, both physically and mentally. In some circumstances, tragic cases of death and illness arose due to unsanitary and claustrophobic travel conditions. Poverty and alcohol abuse issues may have affected some of the vulnerable young girls who had never lived away from home before.
The herring lasses represented such an incredible change in the identity, roles and rights of women during the 20th century. Through positive, feminist movements and activism currently happening all over the world, we can pay massive respect to those inspirational herring lasses of 19th and 20th centuries.
By Carolyn Cluness, Learning and Engagement Officer at the Scottish Fisheries Museum.
Visual Narratives and Oral Histories: Representatives of the Scots Herring Girls 1900-1950, Jill de Fresnes, RCAHMS (March 2014)
Discover Jill’s work on the project Casting the Net, in collaboration with Clyde Fishermen’s Association and the Scottish Fisheries Museum: https://www.castingthenet.scot/