5 Best Places to Visit in City of Suffolk

For centuries, herring were gathered in their millions off the East Anglian coast every autumn, and from very early on were pickled or kippered. Coastal towns were assessed for their fisheries in terms of the number of herrings as early as the eleventh century, while in Elizabethan times Thomas Nash praised the herring for bringing prosperity to the coast of Norfolk and Suffolk.

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The port towns of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk and Lowestoft in Suffolk were the centre of the East Anglian herring trade. Herring were still the basis of Great Yarmouth’s prosperity in the nineteenth century when the author, Charles Dickens, commented on the all-pervading smell from the fish when he stayed there in the 1840s. In the latter half of the century around sixty curing houses were occupied gutting, salting and spicing herrings to produce the kipper, and a local man, Mr Bishop, created a method which left the fish moist and full of flavour, so creating the Yarmouth bloater. Although the herring trade was decimated in the mid-twentieth century by a decline in stocks due to over-fishing, it has begun to make a small comeback in recent years. The Broads are stretches of shallow expanses of water formed in medieval times when peat was dug out to provide fuel.

The majority lie in Norfolk to the east of Norwich, with a smaller percentage in Suffolk. These waterways have always been important transport routes, and now form Britain’s finest wetland area. The traditional Broads boat was the wherry, a large single-sail vessel of shallow draught which transported cargoes of corn, coal and reed. As rail and road transport took over, the wherrys’ original role was lost and many were converted for leisure use. The River Waveney, which forms a natural boundary between Suffolk and Norfolk, was also widely used by wherries and barges trading along its length, but is nowadays mainly used by pleasure boats. A wherry on the Broads at Reedham. The Suffolk coast stretches nearly forty miles along the North Sea from Lowestoft in the north to Felixstowe in the south.

Felixstowe is still one of the largest container ports in Europe. Although never a major shipbuilding area, there were some places where it did flourish. The riverside town of Woodbridge, for instance, owes its affluence to the related industries of shipbuilding, sailcloth and rope-making. Slaughden, just south of Aldeburgh, was also once a prosperous shipbuilding centre. Although this declined as the river silted up, it is still popular with sailors. Suffolk’s best-known poet, George Crabbe, was born here in 1754 and often described his surroundings and the village’s decline in his work. His solitary fisherman, Peter Grimes, became the subject of the opera composed by Aldeburgh-based Benjamin Britten.

A fish auction at Southwold harbour. On the foreshore, north of Whapload Road in Lowestoft, several large anchors mark where the beach companies operated between 1762 and the 1940s. Their main business was recovering (known as swiping) anchors which had been lost from vessels waiting in the offshore anchorages for the wind to change so they could sail round Lowestoft Ness. The anchors would be subsequently sold to ships that needed a replacement. Now well known as a holiday resort and yachting centre, Southwold has a long history as a fishing port, being named in the Domesday Book. Just inland is Blythburgh, a thriving port until the river silted up in the sixteenth century. The ports at Felixstowe, Lowestoft and Southwold were built in the early 1900s by the Coastal Development Company, which ran the Belle steamers that brought day trippers up to the coast from London Bridge.

Now the county town of Suffolk, Ipswich was originally a Saxon development, which became a thriving port and important ship-building centre. Ipswich is still used for both commercial shipping and pleasure craft. The striking Orwell Bridge carries Ipswich’s eastern bypass across the docks and estuary and the nearby hamlet of Pin Mill on the south bank of the Orwell estuarys is a popular yachting centre, always crowded with boats, including some old spritsail barges. Although the rivers and streams of Suffolk supplied trout in large numbers in the past, it is the coast which is best known for fishing. Ports such as Dunwich, Walberswick, Southwold, Easton and Covehithe specialized in fishing for cod off Iceland as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, travelling in convoys of 100 to 200 vessels and making enormous profits. Lowestoft led the way in herring fishing as it was close to the shoals of fish and to Yarmouth, the centre of the herring trade. The seemingly limitless supply of herrings also attracted the Dutch fishing boats, although they were mostly driven off in the seventeenth century.

In more recent times it was the Scots who came south in their trawlers. At the turn of the twentieth century between 400 and 500 Scottish fishing vessels based themselves in Lowestoft and Yarmouth for the herring season each year, supported by large numbers of Scottish women and girls who came to gut and clean the fish. This trade was in its turn increased by the railway, which enabled the fish to be delivered to London quickly and efficiently. Although over-fishing resulted in the collapse of the herring industry by the 1960s, Lowestoft is still a base for fishing, albeit much reduced. Martin Wilcox’s Fishing and Fishermen: A Guide for Family Historians (Pen & Sword, 2009) describes the fishing industry and its records in depth. Information can be found in a wide range of sources including census, parish registers, wills, business records and trade directories. In Norfolk, for example, the parish registers for Wells-next-the-Sea famously include entries for people from as far away as Iceland and Scotland, particularly in the burials.

Local newspapers also reported fishing catches and carried advertisements from those in related trades. People working as mariners, in shipbuilding or associated trades such as ship chandlers, shipbrokers, sailmakers and anchor or chain manufacturers frequently served apprenticeships. This was the case for William Hurn of Sheringham, whose apprenticeship as a mariner to Henry Gooch of Great Yarmouth was arranged by the Sheringham parish authorities in 1779. Ship owners were often merchants with trade interests and links to other parts of the country. William Crow, for example, was a Norfolk-born man who later lived in Halifax in Yorkshire, but owned part shares in the Packet built at Yarmouth in 1817, along with several others in different areas of the country. All local offices have records relating to ship ownership, including registers of ships and fishing boats and log books. Some are held by borough or town archives and others in private collections.

Very few are indexed in any detail, but many of the record office catalogues give summary details which can include some names of ships, owners and masters. Cambridgeshire Family History Society has an index to 94 vessels logged at the port of Wisbech between 1863 and 1913, which are taken from documents held at Cambridge Record Office. Either a CD or downloadable PDF can be purchased. For the download search under indexes on their website: www.cfhs.org.uk.

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