Sunniside Local History Society

The Cullercoats Fishwife



Cullercoats is a small village on the north east coast of England, adjacent to Tynemouth and ten miles from Newcastle upon Tyne. The land which became the site of Cullercoats was originally owned by Tynemouth Priory, but had been seized by the Crown in 1539. It was offered for sale in 1588 and was purchased by the Delaval brothers, later passing into the hands of Thomas Dove. The place was then locally known as Arnolds Close or Mardon Close. In 1644 Dove let part of his ground to a Richard Simpson, giving him permission to fish with one boat which was to be built, repaired and managed in partnership with Dove. This appears to be the earliest record of 'commercial' fishing in the settlement. Thomas Dove also enclosed a small area for use as a Quaker burial ground.

By the 1670's Cullercoats was developing as a small port for the shipment of coal from the nearby Whitley collieries and salt from local pans. A quay was erected between 1677 and 1682 and a primitive waggonway laid down to transport the coals The expense of the quay was met jointly by the colliery lessees and Lady Elizabeth Percy, daughter of the eleventh Earl of Northumberland. These small industries brought prosperity to the village and more people moved in,setting up their own trades, establishing a community which supported and served all basic needs.

A storm demolished the end of the quay in 1710 and excessive costs prevented repair work from ever being carried out. During the same period difficulties with the coal working at Whitley affected shipments from Cullercoats and the Jacobite uprising of 1715 unsettled the country's trade in general. Eleven years later the salt pans were transferred further up the coast to Blyth marking the decline of Cullercoats harbour for exports, although oats and wool continued to be transported from there

These incidents were significant in that the population was forced to turn to another available resource for its livelihood, fishing. By the end of the eighteenth century the local newspaper reported that Cullercoats, pictured above on the left, had the best fish market in the north of England. This growth was helped by the natural harbour at Cullercoats which was geographically better than any other place in the immediate area. Cullercoats also became a fashionable resort at this time.

By 1801 the village had a population of 452. Cullercoats was described in these early years of the nineteenth century as a small bathing town inhabited chiefly by fishermen, with the ruins of an old pier and waggonway for coals and behind the village a neglected Quaker burial ground. This gives an indication that Cullercoats had already fallen into some decay and was regarded as rather old and quaint. This picturesque setting inhabited by fisherfolk attracted many artists to paint there, such as T.M. Richardson (picture above left), Perlee Parker and later Robert Jobling. The American artist Winslow Homer also spent a year at Cullercoat (1881-1882), employing the local folk as his models, many of whom are now immortalised in examples of his work held by national museums throughout the United States

Certain improvements to the village were carried out under the benefaction of George Richardson, a local Quaker. He obtained better water supplies for the existing houses, some new housing, the installation and maintenance of footpaths and the building of a schoolhouse for the instruction of local children. A primitive Methodist Chapel was built in 1869 and on October 13th 1879 the 'Look-out' or Watch House was officially opened for the use of members of the Volunteer Life Brigade. These two buildings are significant landmarks in Cullercoats, symbolic of the community's faith and affinity with the sea. Cullercoats today, pictured above on the right is now a major tourist attraction in the North East.



At the turn of this century the industry depended chiefly upon 'white fishing' which was done from September to March. At one time the most profitable branch of the fishing was for herring. It was not uncommon to land 12-14,000 herring at one time, caught just offshore. This livelihood diminished with the advent of the steam trawler, particularly those of the Scottish fleets which would follow the shoals down the east coast, er:lcroaching upon the Cullercoats grounds. Latterly therefore, the Cullercoats men came to depend more heavily on salmon fishing which by Act of Parliament They were allowed to do from February 1 st to August 31st each year. For this the fishermen had to take out a licence, the right of which was handed down from father to son. They had to pay for the licence and combined with the cost of their boat (locally known as the 'coble'), nets and bait it was an expensive business. Crabs and lobsters were also potted, the sale of these supplementing the income from the fish. The fishing lines used were 68 fathoms long with 900-1,000 hooks apiece and. each hook required at least two mussels, this being the main type of bait although lugworms were an occasional substitute. The lines were baited up in the house in the evenings for use the next day and the women would help to complete this chore In fact they helped in most of the activities associated with the fishing, except for going out in the cobles.

A typical day saw the men off fishing in their cobles in the early hours of the morning. The cobles were clinker built boats rigged put with square shaped red sails, each with a coal-fired brazier on board for warmth and the boiling of kettles. These braziers each had different cut out patterns so that by their glow at night each family boat could be distinguished from the shore. The fishing was done mainly close inshore and one of the best places for salmon was considered to be the south side of Tynemouth pier. The fishermen took their own food, known also as 'bait' locally, in square shaped biscuit tins. If the catch was good they would often extend their fishing time and the wives would go down to the quay to hand them more food to keep them going. When they eventually returned the fishermen would sometimes race each other to the shore, the older retired men standing on the bank top would shout encouragement to the boats, which were often given family Christian names such as the 'Mary Jane'.

In former times, the women went down to the beach to help land and sort the fish Once the trawlers had taken over from private small-scale fishing, the wives travelled to the neighbouring town of North Shields each morning to buy fish from the commercial quay where it was landed and auctioned. The wives had to be there for 8am., although during the last World War not until 9am. to comply with the blackout regulations. If the wife was going on a particularly long round she might keep fish on ice overnight. The ice was carried from North Shields too. The war was also to blame for a scarcity of fish since the best trawlers were requisitioned for mine-sweeping duties.

The cost of fishing rose dramatically. Nets shot up in price, previously costing £5.6s.0d they rose to around £22 each. At this time salmon fishing licences were £5.3s.0d each and bait mussels were six shillings a bag. Wholesale fish prices reflected these increases Around 1910 haddock had been eighteen old pence for a stone, one shilling for a stone of codling and two shillings per lobster. By 1939 codling had risen to thirteen shillings and sixpence a stone, lemon soles cost eighteen shillings a stone and halibut was considered extortionate at twenty-three shillings per stone

Once the fish was bought and sorted the heads were cut off (unless taken to be sold as pet food) and packed into the creel, lying in alternate directions so that greater quantities could be carried. When the women were loaded up they might catch a lift on a cart or truck if they were lucky, otherwise they set off up the bank on foot, heavily laden with fish The rope of the creel on their backs left permanent marks on the shoulders and upper arms of the fisherwomen.

Until as recently as the 1950's and early 60's the North Eastern railway network was spread widely across the region although there were many subsequent closures of the colliery lines and smaller stations. Whilst these local lines existed the fishwives took the train to Elswick, Gosforth and other areas of Newcastle or perhaps further afield up the Tyne Valley as far as Hexham, Stocksfield or even Allenheads. Others went out into County Durham, Fencehouses or Annfield Plain perhaps, in fact anywhere within a forty mile radius. Some of them kept a barrow at a local shop nearby their destination and sold from one spot near the station entrance. Otherwise most wives had a regular round of customers for whom they would take the best fish in season, at the best possible price. They would also take special orders if the fish was available. Some took smoked fish as well.

It was usual practice to deposit the order in the buyer's dish at the door and to fillet the fish. The bones were wrapped up in paper and brought back in the basket at the end of the day. The fishwives were often given cups of tea, or even lunch and many would accept more than they could really manage for fear of showing any favoritism between customers.

If a fishwife had a small baby she left it at home in the charge of an older village woman who minded babies for one shilling a day. The older children looked after the toddlers and prams could be hired for a penny an hour (World War II prices). At the end of each day it was back home and having cleaned up there were the lines to be baited, housework to be done, perhaps dough to be prepared for the next day's baking. Weekends saw the nets spread out over railings on the sea front or on adjacent spare ground, in Beverley Terrace. The women helped to mend these too, in fact everyone in the family shared the duties.



On summer days the fishwives might sell dressed crabs and lobsters from little tables outside their front doors. They also sold winkles or 'williks' as they are locally called. A cupful was scooped up and placed onto a square of paper. The corners of the paper were pulled up and secured at the top with a pin, which was subsequently used to pull the 'williks' from their shells.

The fishing cottages were very tiny, some of them had just one room where all the family lived. They had stone flag floors covered perhaps with linoleum, oilcloth or homemade 'proggy' (rag) mats. A big bed took up one corner, alongside a basic table and chairs and a few ornaments on the mantle above the coal range. Toilet facilities were across the back lane outside.

As well as being so hard working the fishwives were incredibly house proud. Their fastidiousness was epitomised by one local woman who said that, "you could eat your meat off the back lane" In their precious spare time the women would sit out in the lane on stools or 'crackets' and chat, smoke their clay tobacco pipes and knit ganseys (jersey’s) or seaboot stockings for their husbands. Ganseys were knitted by the traditional circular, four needle method with a seamless, gusseted finish but incorporated a unique Cullercoats pattern with occasional personal variations in stitch



The fishwives living in Cullercoats are identifiable by their own very distinctive and unique style of dress. There were other groups of fishwives working around the British Lsles, notably the Newhaven fishwives in Scotland, but each group dressed differently. It has been impossible to trace the origin of the Cullercoats costume outfit was certainly uniform by the mid-19th century.

The Cullercoats outfit consisted of a jacket or 'bedgown' (locally known as the 'bedgoon' or 'bare-goon') which covered the top half of the body along with a shawl. The shawl was generally plain for working, perhaps knitted or crocheted in grey or black wool and fringed. It was worn crossed over at the front, wrapped around the body, tucking in at the back waist. The fringe was allowed to hang over the skirt waistband at the front. In latter days cardigans were sometimes bought and worn in preference to shawls, particularly in the summer months.

The bedgown is a name applied to the simple 'T' shaped jacket and also to the similarly shaped, but shorter printed blouse worn for best. The blouse is sometimes also referred to as a 'magyar'. The bedgown jacket was an outer garment, of thigh length,which tied across the chest with tapes. The front hem corners of the jacket also had tapes attached which tied behind the body to,keep the lower front open and away from the legs The blouse bedgown was worn in cross-over fashion, tucked into the waist, with a silk or other fabric square worn to fill the neckline. Simple rows of feather stitch, called 'herringbone' by the fishwives, were added to sew down 2-3 tucks at the shoulders of these garments. The basic difference between the two bedgowns is that the jacket had long sleeves which were worn turned back into a cuff and the blouse had long sleeves gathered into a buttoned cuff at the wrist. The blouse was completely lined. Earlier jackets were made of a double thickness of fabric, but latterly of a single thickness only. The name 'bedgown' could be taken from the 18th century countrywoman's three-quarter length garment of that name. Other explanations offered include 'bare-gowns' as a corruption since the jacket was tied back leaving one 'bare' at the front. One fishwife pointed out that the women sometimes took an afternoon nap when they would slip off their skirts but keep on their upper garments, hence bed-gown. The question is inconclusively answered

The skirt was worn just above the ankle, or up to mid-calf length It tied at the back waist with tapes but its most distinctive feature is the tucked hemline. The number of tucks was optional, dictated by personal preference. It is argued that the greater the number of tucks the more stylish the skirt, but the reason is probably more practical in that they added weight and warmth around the legs, providing insulation for an outdoor life. The Victorians added tucks to the skirts of fashionable dresses to add detail, but also so that clothes could be lengthened. There is no evidence of this reason in photographs or surviving examples of Cullercoats skirts, except for one photograph of an under-petticoat of lighter weight fabric which shows released tucks. The outer skirts were also called petticoats or 'perrikets'.

On top of the skirt would be worn a 'pocket' or money apron which the fishwives would make out of any old cloth and bind the edges with tape. Sometimes an old coat would suffice for the purpose. Over this again was worn a large plain apron. The fabric for the main garments (jacket, skirt and top-apron) was of very dark navy blue, or sometimes black wool flannel, 'doctor's' flannel it has been called. Sometimes a heavy serge fabric was used as a substitute. The fabric was stocked at the local 'Hill Carters' drapery shop.

If a person could not sew themselves then Ellen Stocks acted as dressmaker to supplement her family income. She lived locally in Simpson Street and was also a fishwife. Around 1910 the cost of the outfit was ten shillings inclusive. The outfit was completed with grey flannel bloomers, plain linen and navy and white striped flannel petticoats (left off in summer), black stockings (or coloured for best), optional fingerless mittens and strong leather ankle boots or shoes. Sturdy footwear was essential to the job. In winter socks were sometimes worn over the shoes to prevent slipping.

Although the younger fishwives tended to go bare headed the older women covered their heads with a shawl or wore traditional straw bonnets. Late nineteenth century photographs show linen caps worn under the bonnets. During pre-war years the bonnets were made at a shop in Front Street in Cullercoats by two sisters, the Misses Gibson. They were made of black finely plaited and lacquered straw, although examples of very dark navy blue straw bonnets exist. The style greatly resembles the late Victorian 'matrons' or Salvation Army bonnet. The angle of wearing varies as does the method of tying the ribbons, or 'strings'.

Sometimes these were fastened in a bow to one side of the chin, or might pass under the chin and be tied back on top of the head in a bow. Occasionally they were allowed to hang loose over the wearer's shoulders to the front. When the ribbons became worn the bonnets were returned to the maker for re-trimming with a new 4 % yard length, which was the required quantity. For special days, weddings, galas or studio portraits, pretty printed cotton or silk bedgowns (blouses) with matching aprons were worn, with perhaps a concession to coloured bonnet strings and stockings. Polly Donkin's best bonnet was actually made of a black mesh fabric with applique black panne velvet flowers. The fishwives also kept best shawls of brightly printed wools or cashmere.

The other parts of the outfit were really the tools of the trade, the wicker baskets and creels, which cost around nine to ten shillings each in 1910. Frankie Stocks, Ellen Stocks the dressmaker's husband and Jack Lisle made these. The wicker creel was carried on the back and held about four to six stone of wet fish. On top of this would be carried another basket or sometimes the creel was fitted with a small board as a lid which could be lifted off and used for filleting the fish The women also carried oval shaped baskets over each arm. A very sharp filleting knife was slotted into the wicker on one side of the creel and some women also took with them a spring balance to weigh out the fish They all carried a wad of paper down their backs between their bedgown and the creel to absorb the moisture from the fish, which must have become soggier as the day went by. The women were trained to carry the creel from childhood, small creels being made with a load proportionate to and increasing with their age and strength. The fishwives started work when they were quite young, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old. They generally worked with their mothers and gradually took over their own rounds.

The fishwives had two or three sets of working clothes At the end of each day the worn clothes would be stripped off in the yard and dunked into a pail of cold water and scrubbed clean with a special broom. The clothes were left to drip dry outside and finished off in the house over a clothes horse. The second or third set was worn next day in rotation. The creels were also scrubbed in water until they were scrupulously clean and almost bone white when dry.

The purest form of the working dress survived until the last war when fabric was difficult to come by and rationed. Changes occurred, such as the wearing of berets in favour of bonnets, and gradually the traditional costume disappeared, although it did outlive its practical use continuing to be worn as a uniform by members of the mission choir.



The fishing families were extremely 'close-knit' and intermarried. It was basic good sense to marry someone already versed in the lifestyle, skills and duties involved, who could assume their married role without fuss or disruption of routine If anyone married an outsider it was quite difficult to gain full acceptance and the newcomer was always considered an interloper or 'interlouper'. As a consequence of this system a handful of family surnames were shared; Taylor, Storey, Lisle, Brunton for instance and nicknames were used to distinguish people with the same name Grandparents were universally called 'ganny' and 'gaffy' Cullercoats people had a vocabulary of their own, for example: stocker: a fish other than a salmon caught in a net, nammie:a big turnip, soomin: swimming, the retley's: in a minute, kneef: fist, gullie: breadknife, paddock: frog.

The fishing community were very superstitious. As far as religion went the fishermen held very strong beliefs but were not chapel or church goers. There was a strong male and female choir attached to the Primitive Mission and at the beginning of each season a service was held on the beach, at the water's edge, which everyone attended for the blessing of the sea The word 'salmon' was taboo, 'redfish' was substituted. The word 'pig' was never mentioned, particularly on a Friday as this was a 'funny' day anyway If a stranger used the word in your company touching the nearest piece of cold iron could avert the evil omen.

If fishermen heard anyone whistling or saw any cross-eyed person they would not go out fishing or would at least go home and set out again. Sea boots had to be carried in a certain way to avoid the prospect of drowning that day. It was considered unlucky to meet or to cross a funeral procession. In the event of a death blinds were drawn and mirrors covered until after the funeral When a dead person was collected for burial there was singing on the doorstep then the body was taken directly to the cemetery. not to church Old fishermen who died were taken in procession around the village on what was called 'their last trip'. 'Professional', unpaid mourners or 'servers' were empl0yed at the death of children or young unmarried girls. Six unmarried girls were selected for this role, though only two attended the funerals of young men. They wore black dresses with white hoods and shawls of white spun silk around their shoulders.



The fishwives are renowned for their charitable work; especially their collections for the Lifeboat fund Three women in particular were known as the 'Lifeboat Ladies' - Polly Donkin (b.1858); Nannie Lisle (b.1875) and Bella Mattison (b.1885) - and were awarded the Gold Brooch for their dedicated service. On the annual Lifeboat Saturday the lifeboat was hauled manually up the bank and during the 1920's and 30's Polly Donkin was to be seen standing in the boat, her black velvet bag on a cane extended into the crowds collecting money

The Cullercoats fishwives, in general, are recalled with great affection for their good humoured and direct manner, hard work and longevity, which seems to have been particularly prevalent.



Cullercoats village is now quite changed, many of the small cottages having made way for new development.In more prosperous times eighty cobles, as pictured above, worked out of Cullercoats.

By 1905 the number had fallen to thirty five and it was down to only six in 1974 The fishing tradition has become something of the recent past, but a particularly strong spirit of community continues to keep Cullercoats alive.