Updated: Dec 10, 2019
As most of you know I've been in Eastbourne for a few weeks supporting my unwell, 91 year old, mum. Whilst in Eastbourne I became interested in the comparison between vernacular fishing boats from nearby Hastings with those from Shetland. The common denominator between Hastings and Shetland is that boats were launched and recovered from the beach. Beach based fishing boats were in common use around much of the coast of the United Kingdom until the early part of the twentieth century; and it is quite remarkable how hull-form and construction varied between one county and another (March 1970, McKee 1983). The fascinating thing is that boatbuilding localities always claimed their boats to be the best and, as boat ethnographer, Eric McKee pointed out "... It is hard to recall a single boatbuilder praising another’s work, unless it was the master that taught him or, more rarely an outstanding apprentice. This is not through any lack of generosity of spirit on the part of the boatbuilder, but it seems to grow out of a need to believe that the way that he builds a boat is the ideal way, with the rider that any other way is not” (McKee 1983: 45).
Shetland Boat imports
The Norse began to colonise Shetland during the middle part of the ninth century. Shetland was treeless by this period, and so the colonisers had to import timber, and wooden goods they needed, which included boats, from their west Norwegian homeland. This import trade lasted until the mid-nineteenth century, with boats being imported either ready built or in rough-cut component form (Batey 2016: 39-40, Chivers, Stratigos, and Tait 2019: 442-446, Christensen 1968: 30-32, Davis 2011: 34, Fenton 1978: 552, Osler 1983: 15, Sunde 2010: 19, Thowsen 1969: 147). Originally Norse these boats overtime developed, and by the nineteenth century these boats had become a uniquely Shetland product (Chivers 2017: 287-377).
Hastings links with Normandy
It might be surprising to learn that Hastings also had close connections with the Norse. The Norse colonised the northwestern part of France in the nine century. This region became known as Normandy. The term Norman is derived from Old Norse meaning 'north men.'
These Norse colonisers made Hastings the centre of a herring fishing enterprise (Hornell 1938: 259). The earliest documented evidence for the types of boats employed in this type of fishing are described in a charter granted between 1140-1149 by Henry, Abbot of Fécamp in Normandy. Henry held overlordship over much of the land around Hastings, and within this charter the use of 14 and 26, or more, oared-boats are mentioned (Brooks 1929: 149). Also described is that these Rye and Hastings fishermen went each Autumn to the North Sea port of Yarmouth in their 14 oared boats (Hornell 1938: 259). It is important to recognise that from the early ninth century large portions of what is now the United Kingdom were under Norse rule.
So, Hastings and Shetland have a Norse ancestry, and no doubt the small boats and ships used during the medieval period will have been similar in both these locations. However, by the end of the nineteenth century the vernacular boats found in Hastings were very different to those built in Shetland. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that in Hastings the influence on boat design and construction shared similarities with boats from Normandy; this no doubt was because of the close trading and smuggling connections between these two places. Indeed, the larger fishing boats in Hastings adopted a three-mast lug rig similar to that used by the French auxiliary navy to harry the British ships during the reign of Louis XVI and which continued in use through the Napoleonic wars (Hornell 1938: 260). By the beginning of the nineteenth century the whole of the Hastings fishing fleet was comprised of two-masted clinker built luggers (Hornell 1938: 263). A famous Hastings two-masted lugger called the Industry RX 94 was built in 1870, this boat had a keel length of 28 feet 10 inches and was 32 feet 8 inches in overall length with a beam of 12 feet, and a fishing measurement of 7 to 16 tons. As well as luggers there were also a smaller class of boats called boggs, which were between four to seven tons, and a yet smaller boat type called a punt, which was usually under four tons. All these boats were clinker built from elm, and were iron (and later copper) fastened, on oak keel, stems and frames (Hornell 1938: 263-264).
Unlike Shetland (where all boats were double-ended) the boats from Hastings had transom sterns. There were three common types of transom stern found on beech boats in Hastings: the lute counter; flat transom, and elliptical transom (Hornell 1938: 264).
As you can see from the photographs Hastings beach boats were heavy built and this made their launching and recovery difficult. Boats were hauled-up by means of a horse drawn capstan. And in rough conditions there was always a risk of the boat being pooped by a wave, flooded, and swept broadside onto the beach (Hornell 1938: 410). By contrast, Shetland constructed boats were built to be as light as possible, and all their internal furniture was designed to be easily removed thus making the boat even lighter when hauling and launching. These lightweight boats, unlike the boats from Hastings, were designed to flex in a seaway thereby making their operation and handling easier for the crew (Chivers 2017: 299). Shetland boats, like their Hastings counterparts were, by the nineteenth century, dipping-lug rigged. In Shetland however these boats were for the most part single masted, and they were also designed to be very capable rowing boats. The smaller four-oared variety of boats locally called fourareens, the name taken from the Norwegian færing, were very versatile and were used by Shetland families in much the same we we use a car of today.
This brief comparison between the boats from Hastings and those of Shetland illustrates that even though boats may share a cultural origin, their evolution results in very different boat types. As discussed, this boat evolutionary process is complex, and is the result of a variety of geographic, economic, and cultural factors. This for me is what maritime ethnographic inquiry is about, it's the differences that are important, not the similarities. These differences are what make us culturally unique and these should be celebrated.
Marc Chivers, December 2019
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