[From An Accurate Description by T Callister, 1815]
HERRINGS is the staple commodity of the Island, and since the manufacture of red herrings commenced, which is upwards of thirty years, they have become the chief article of commerce in the export line.
In Douglas there are five large red herring houses, and they are so constructed as to be in a peculiar manner adapted to the purposes of curing them :- the bounties allowed by Government, was a great inducement to the Merchants to carry on both the red and the white herring business with spirit; however, these bounties have for some years back been discontinued, in consequence of the revenues of the Island falling considerably short of the expences of Government, (while the bounties were allowed, in addition to the salaries of the Custom-house officers, &c) nevertheless, as the Merchants are mostly Gentlemen of considerable property, a great deal whereof was laid out in the building of these herring houses, and likewise of smacks and fishing-boats, (particularly the former) they have therefore abated very little of their usual ardor in pursuit of the business, which they find their account in ; for the superior quality of the herrings caught on the coast of the Isle of Man, is such, that they always obtain a preference, and command a market, even when the same is glutted with those of other places.
The red herrings, (especially the largest and best sort) have principally their consumption among the gentry of the surrounding kingdoms, and frequently several cargoes of a smaller and inferior kind, are sent to Italy, and are there invariably preferred to those which are cured in Yarmouth, or elsewhere, and fetch a higher price accordingly ; but the pickled herrings are exported to many ports in England and Ireland and actually constitute a great part of the diet of the poorest sort of people. In many of the villages and inland towns, but more especially so in Ireland, and the Isle of Man.
In the year 1794, there was an act of Tynwald based by the Manks Legislature, for the better regulation of the herring fishery wherein it sets forth, that great loss and damage frequently occurs to the fishermen by casting (or shooting) their net; from different sides of the boat, and on different tacks which caused many boats to run foul of one another, often to the loss of their trains of nets, and sometimes to the loss of the boats, and even the lives of the fishermen ; wherefore it was ordered, that one uniform mode of shooting the nets should prevail throughout the whole fleet engaged in the said fishery, which mode consists in shooting the nets from the starboard-side only, and never on the larboard side, under fines and penalties therein mentioned, And in the year 1796, another Act of Tynwaldl passed prohibiting the practice of tarring; nets employed in the said fishery, as the same was by experience found to be very prejudicial thereto, and the master of every boat who should infringe this law, was subjected to a fine of ten pounds.
Before I proceed farther in describing the herring fishery, it may prove an agreeable digression to the reader to be informed, that herrings do in general abound most in the western islands of Scotland, Brassa Sound in Shetland, and the coasts and bays of the Orkney Islands, Lochbroone in Ross, also in Lewis, Harris, Skye, and the lesser islands adjacent, and it is confidently asserted by the most intelligent among the old Manks fishermen, as well as by many others, that it is from these parts the three great bodies of herrings proceed which annually visit the English, Irish, and Manks coasts; one of these bodies or large shoals, steer their course down St. George's channel towards Yarmouth, and the places adjacent, another to the northwest part of the Irish coast, and the third along the coast of the Isle of Man ; moreover, a great deal of these latter, as they proceed on their ways to the Irish and Manks coasts, are taken on the coast of Cumberland and the very last year, 1814, unusual quantities, part of which sold in Douglas, about the middle of June, at six shillings per hundred.
Now, with respect to the Manks herring-fishery the season for fishing usually commence, about two or three weeks after Midsummer, and closes for the most part, at or about Hollantide, with some few occasional variations and exceptions. Some weeks previous to this period, the herrings move slowly in large shoals, round the south part of the Island, towards the two coral rounds, which are situated pretty high to the northward and southward of Douglas bay, the former being the chief, lies, just off Clay-head, and the latter behind Douglas head ; in both of which places, large shoals of them rub their bellies against the coral, and thus here spawn for a new brood.
During the time they are in this act of spawning, is uniformly the time that the largest quantities of them are caught, wherefore at this particular period, all is bustle and hurry in the town, on the quay, and in the harbour of Douglas, for what between the fishermen counting out their fish, and the buyers receiving, curing, and paying for them, the streets, quays, shops, and public-houses, are remarkably crowded with the fishermen, as well as a great many others; in the bay likewise, the smacks belonging to the herring houses, have each two, three, or more boats alongside at once, delivering their herring, and many sloops from different parts, are at the same time loading herein, in the bay and harbour, some in bulk, but most generally packed in barrels upon deck, and after being; coopered and pickled, they are stowed way in the hold, for their respective markets ; so that between these strange buyers, and the herring-houses, particularly the latter, a great number of poor people of both sexes, are kept busily employed every season, (which lasts above three months,) in gutting, salting;, packing, pickling, &c.
Now this is the time that money circulates among all classes of people in Douglas, more so than at any other period : Moreover, a great number of coopers are employed by the merchant curers all the year round in making of barrel: to pack: their red and white herrings in ; and divers other crafts, periodically, as smack, and boat-builders, sail-makers, &c, however, notwithstanding; all this, whenever a scanty fishing season occurs, which is now and then the case, the poor fishermen, as well as a great many others begin to be downhearted, and sad complaints by every body of the great scarcity of money, is the never failing consequence.
The herring most generally make their first appearance, either between Peeltown and Dalby, or between Dally and Port Iron. Some years back, vast quantities were caught near Peel for several seasons successively, contrary to the usual custom, insomuch that many new houses were built in that town, as the inhabitants began in consequence thereof to grow richer, and more populous than usual, but as there has of late years been very few caught thereabouts, so the place became as poor and as thinly inhabited as formerly; nevertheless, in the beginning of the season of 1813, they had some very good hauls there ; likewise during the early part of the season of 1814, so that if this continues for a few more seasons, Peel will recover once more its usual smartness.
In old times the herring fishing boats were small, but nowadays they are pretty large, stout fast, sailing boats, all clincher built, and generally reckoned from twenty-four to thirty tons by measurement. In those times too, they carried only one large square-sail, whereas for many years back, they have been and still continue all cutter rigged, and there are at this time between four and five hundred of them belonging to the Island, having for the major part not less than nine men to each boat. Each man provides (in general) one pair of nets, thus his nets and himself make two shares, and the owners of the boat have four shares, so the take of every boat is thus mostly divided into twenty-two shares.
The owners of the northside, boats are chiefly snug farmers, who for the most part get them built the largest and strongest of any in the Island, and they have the fewest old boats, as they commonly sell them before they become so, to people from the neighbouring parts of England, Ireland, and Scotland, who afterwards get them raised ;and decked, so as to render them nears, as serviceable as the smacks, for bringing cargoes from one port to another. When the fishing season ends, the Merchants generally keep several of their smacks employed in bringing cargoes of herrings, (red and white) from Douglas to Bristol, Dublin, Cork, and other places, from which ports they sometimes bring goods in return, and other times they carry cargoes from some of the before mentioned ports to the other, and mostly continue so employed till the next fishing season comes on.
At the commencement of the fishing season, and for some weeks after, the, fresh herrings, being then in their prime state, are considered a rarity, and as such constitute a delicious repast for immediate use, by the rich as well as the poor, particularly fried : about this time many Manks boats, as well as Irish wherries, bring from forty to one hundred mease at a time, to Liverpool and Dublin, where they are bought up with avidity, to use fresh, and this mostly out of the frying pan; the fishwomen who hawk them for sale in Dublin, call them fine Dublin Bay herring. While they continue in this their rich state, the inhabitants of the Island have many ways of preparing them for immediate consumption ; however, the usual method is merely to gut, scale, wash, and nick them, preparatory to putting them into the pan, With scallions, leeks, or onions cut small, and a little flour thrown upon them : most people prepare them this way, but some put them into the oven in a variety of modes, and with different sauces, as suits their several tastes, and also for variety sake; others take their bellies out, cutting their heads off, splitting, peppering, and salting them, and then hang them up by the tails before the sun, and when sufficiently dried, they broil them, in each of which ways they are much esteemed, especially by way of snack, and by such as have no natural aversion to herrings, as some few have.
Those who lay in their winter stock, which they generally do while they retain their rich quality, make use of them two or more days in the week, all the year round, (especially in the country, according to their circumstances;) boiled with potatoes, and when they are not long in pickle, they make a very nice meal, with potatoes bruised particularly when a lump of butter is put into the potatoes. Such as salt them down in this their rich condition, just mentioned, for family use, wash them well pretty often, and otherwise manage them so as to prevent their fat and the salt from causing them to grow rusty. The people of the red herring houses, and those who pack large quantities of them in bulk for a short time only, procure a deal of oil from them ; as long as they continue fat, which of course reduces their first cost ;but when they cease to be fat, which is towards their time of spawning, their bellies begin gradually to grow large ; at this period, and at the time of their spawning, they are but very indifferent eating.
Housekeepers who have laid in their stock of herrings in their rich state, take them out of the pickle occasionally, and after watering them sufficiently, hang them up to dry and bloat under the sun or near the fire, and when they are properly dried, they broil them, and to such as like them this way, they prove an agreeable repast for a change, with the accompaniments of bread and butter.
But the fishermen themselves have the most curious method of all of cooking them fresh, for after gutting, scaling, and washing them, cutting off their heads, tails, and fins, they put a good quantity of them into a large pot, adding plenty of scallions and leeks cut small, with a little pepper and salt, which being well boiled, makes a noble mess, and the soup it produces is excellent; yet they have frequently, (especially of a good season,) flesh meat for a change ; and when the herring:, grow poor, they use plenty of butter with them, which butter they bring from home in little curious butter boxes, made by farmers for the purpose, so as to screw and unscrew them when required; and of these each man has one in his bag that he carries from home with bread, cheese, and dried fish, of several kinds, which he gets replenished at least once a week.