“A link in the chain that binds fisherfolk together”

For this week’s blog, Chelsea Marina West shares an extract from her thesis on ganseys as intangible cultural heritage, showing how ganseys truly identified with the daily lives and customs of fishermen and fisher lasses.

The Customs in Cullercoats

Within the blog post published 20 November 2020, Dr Annie Shaw detailed the subversive event that took place in Cullercoats in the mid-19th century following the arrival of their new vicar. Unaware of the traditional custom that men wore their ganseys and women their shawls and pleated skirts to service, the vicar introduced a strict dress code – one that banned ganseys, as he claimed that they were working garments. As a result, the fisher people erected their own church, demonstrating the prominence and value of the jumper which was firmly entrenched in the community’s socio-cultural practices and beliefs.

But why did the fisher people of Cullercoats react this way? Why were ganseys so significant to these communities, and in what ways have ganseys contributed to the creation of a fishing identity?

Ganseys as a Symbol of Pride and Identity

The so-called, “blue suit” was a source of pride for the women who knitted them, and the men who wore them. In her book, This Golden Fleece (2019), Esther Rutter states that the gansey was the main item of a fisherman’s uniform from the early nineteenth century until the invention of the waterproof PVC in 1913, and much like tartan, ganseys became viewed as a tribal garment among fishing communities. [Rutter, E., 2019, p. 37, 55]

According to Michael Harvey and Rae Compton, ganseys were a marker of a wearer’s social status, a “coat of arms”, and a symbol of belonging (belonging to both a community and to the profession of fishing in general). [Harvey, M., and Compton, R., 1978, p. 6]

An identifying garment was of particular importance to these segregated communities as Robert McColl Millar states that fishing villages faced great prejudice from neighbouring farming and merchant peoples – as the old saying goes, “the corn and the cod dinna mix.” [Millar, R. M., Barras, W. and Bonnici, L. M., 2014, p. 19] It is reported that fisher people underwent forms of ghettoization by the non-fishing population, they were isolated from the greater British public and stereotyped. [ibid., p. 24]

‘The Tartan of the Sea’

Resultantly, navy blue is the most classic and significant gansey hue because it was a cheap and dignified colour for fishermen. More generally, Richard Rutt states that blue has historically acted as a marker of honour for the poor, witnessed in cultures globally from France to China [Rutt, R., 1987, p. 132]. For these reasons, Deb Gillanders notes that ganseys could be described as a fisherman’s tartan, as their unofficial uniform was so deeply ingrained in fishing cultures from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century that fishermen were immediately recognisable throughout the nation. [Gillanders, D. quoted in Campsie, A., 2015, The ‘tartan of the sea’ enjoys a huge swell of interest | The Scotsman]

Mary Murray claims that “fishermen had a sense of belonging as they stood side by side in these garments,” and retells a famous local story from the 1920s when fishermen were invited to a Sunday service in Anstruther:

“The kirk was a solid mass of men each wearing his best guernsey… The sight of them, and the sound of their singing is a lasting memory, a link in the chain that binds fisherfolk together.” [Murray, M., quoted in Gordon, J., 2010, p. 102]

These jerseys were historically signifiers for the sea, fishing, hard labour and the working class. Accordingly, they were so highly regarded that fishermen wore ganseys to church, and grooms wore ganseys to their weddings. Ultimately, they were a fundamentally working-class garment that played a vital role in the construction of fishing identities. So much so, that Mary Wright declares:

“Their use and wear throughout the British Isles for at least a century and a half almost justifies qualification for a national costume.” [Wright, M., 1979, p. 3]

An extract from the thesis: The Needles have Dropped: An Investigation of Fishermen’s Ganseys and Intangible Cultural Heritage in the United Kingdom, by Chelsea West, Masters Graduate from Christie’s Education.

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