For generations, Filey fishermen have lived, worked and died following a dangerous and often precarious existence on the waters of the North Sea. Despite their sometimes homely, sterile and romantic lifestyle portrayed by some museums, they often in the early years at the mercy of poor housing, poor amenities and inadequate healthcare, relying on the seasons "fishings" to provide and existence for their families, which could spell hard times if they were unsuccessful.
The benevolent ocean that gave sustenance in the good times took life in a trice when its face darkened. Whole ships and crews, many from the same family disappeared without a marker on the turbulent face of the sea. We remember a phrase written many years ago relating to the loss of a vessel which ended "and then they were gone". These five words summed up the loss in a twinkling of an eye of fathers, brothers, sons, breadwinners - all gone and families plunged into desolation.
About three hundred years ago, Yorkshire was the equivalent of a Third World country by today's standards and ship losses up to the early 1900's were as common as road traffic accidents are today. In an age without Welfare care, the loss of a breadwinner often brought about ruination to a family. Mortality was high and what the poor conditions did not take on land, the sea took in abundance.
The older generations travelled little beyond their own boundaries on land but traversed great distance on the high seas in sailing Yawls, Herring Cobles, Steam Drifters and from their own homes in the Yorkshire Cobles. They knew intimately the moods of the weather, the tides and the bottom of the sea that they had never seen. They were the masters of sail land oar and amongst the finest boat handlers in the world the saying that described the old "shell backs" of the Clipper ships - "Wooden ships and Iron men" applied to this race apart. Filey men sailed the oceans of the world in a variety of crafts, under sail, steam and motor in the two navies and as private crews.
Over the years, the fleet modernised, from sail and oar to steam, petrol/paraffin and thence on to diesel. Navigation systems were obtainable for the small boat due to the advance in electronics and direct voice communications became the norm, all contributing to safety at sea, however, even today, the sea claims those who are unfortunate or unwary enough to be outwitted by it. Today, the fleets on the East Coast and in particular, Filey have been decimated by a change in the economic climate, political will and a steadily declining catches, resulting in a fall from 190 fishing Cobles in the 1880's, to 17 in 1984 and seven in 2001. In the words of Donald G Shomette of the Cultural Resource Management of Maryland, USA, "they are a none renewable resource".
When John Wesley came to Filey, called it a Godless place but nevertheless, in the revival of Methodism in Filey in 1823, the Filey Fishermen's Choir was borne and many fishermen became Lay Preachers, ("Sky Pilots" or "Ranters") and From this Choir sprung the modern Harmony Group and latterly the Filey Men. The hymns that the fishermen sung often reflected the life and the elements that they dealt with and in Hymn books like Sacred Songs and Solos by Ira D Sankey, phrases like "Will your Anchor hold", Anchored in Jesus", "Let your lower light be burning", and "Jesus, at thy command we launch into the deep" are common place.
This page will be added to as time goes by, in the meantime please take a look at the Filey Gansey Page
Story © A Green 1970
Photo © R Green 1929