‘They put a creel aroond my back and bid me call my haddies’​: The Newhaven Fishwives, Preserving Lost Community History and Cultural Transmission Through Generations.

By Fraser Linklater, UOSH Volunteer

When the willowbank tree withers away, the fishing trade shall also decay 

Newhaven saying, painted on the facade of the Harbour Inn Public House, Fishmarket  Square, Newhaven

Recently preserved and digitised sound archive material from the ​National Library of Scotland sound and moving image archive offers us a fresh angle to study the lives of the Newhaven fishing community in its latter years. A proud maritime community on the shores of the Firth of Forth, Newhaven was granted royal charter by King James IV in 1511 as ​Novus Portus de Leith, with his ship the ‘Great Michael’ being built and launched from the port that year. Thereafter, it developed as a steadfastly self-dependent fishing community, fully equipped with its own form of labour organisation, customs and identity. Nowadays, the village sits subsumed within it’s larger neighbours, Edinburgh and Leith, both in physicality but also, in the last half century  culturally. As one of the interviewees in the collection notes; ‘It’s all away now, Newhaven; it’s not Newhaven now’​.​ The bricks and mortar of the port, the red-painted wooden facade of the fish market and the traditional forestaired buildings, typical of many east coast fishing towns, is all that survives of the village’s original and unmistakable maritime character. Even at this, the south side of Main Street tells a very different story to the north, with the architecture evoking themes of post-war rethinking and utilitarianism, not preservation of cultural forms and ways of life. The same goes for the fishmarket, now transformed into a space for  up-market restaurants and bars. Without the functionality of the old buildings being fulfilled or the community which inhabited them existing within their walls, they stand more as kitsch relics of a pastoral life than a reminder of the real and existing community that once called Main Street, and wider Newhaven, home. 

In particular, the stories of the famed Newhaven fishwives, who played an essential role within  the local economy and culture, are at the forefront of the recently digitised collection donated  by Edinburgh Museums and Libraries. Within the collection sits a handful of interviews and recordings from the mid-1990’s with living ex-fishwives and fishermen, as well as other  recollections from family members and participants within the Newhaven fishwife choirs. What  marks this collection as unique is that it allows us to add greater depth to our existing  knowledge of Newhaven and its fishwives, which has until now been mostly drawn from lore and the images produced by those artists keenly interested in the culture of the community.  

The interviewers, upon showing participants pictures of gala-day, the choir or working life in  the community, tease out additional details that are otherwise left in the dark; the subtle differences in clothing, local shopkeepers and their role within Newhaven life, as well as  first-hand accounts of the nature of fishwife work. In particular, the source provides us with  key information on the period 1950-1990, in which the decline of the fishing industry was  cemented and the rise of the ‘Newhaven as a northern suburb of Edinburgh’ mindset normalised. By complementing often romanticised illustrations of Newhaven Fishwives with 
personal accounts of everyday life, I believe we can reach a far more nuanced and relatable  idea of how the community attempted to retain its traditions as well as functioned as a working neighbourhood with its own special form of labour relations. Indeed, it is vital for residents of Newhaven that the history of the village remains remembered in real terms. Above all, this means avoiding relegating the stories of Newhaven lives to romanticised  stories of yesteryear. What we need, in order to give the history the place it deserves, is anecdotes which paint them as dynamic and hardworking people, not postcard models or the  subjects of idealised impressions of the past. 

UNLS005/170, Interview with Mrs Harris, 1984. Part of Museums Galleries Edinburgh collection, digitised by National Library of Scotland for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

On top of the oral history material within the collection, recordings of traditional songs are of  great importance. From a heritage perspective, these songs could vastly increase the interactivity and level of engagement with any future exhibit exploring the topic of Newhaven.  There is a utility in exploring these further as they also relate to the history of Newhaven  choirs, from the early Fishergirls choir of the late 19th century, ran by Dr Cook at Victoria Primary School, to the modern day Newhaven Community Choir, who still perform traditional songs from Newhaven such as ​Caller Ou’. What remains important is that this archive material  can help us reconnect with lost communities of Scotland whose traditions have been eroded  by the powers of modernisation, globalisation and drastic shifts in the world economy. By preserving cultural artefacts, such as songs, we open the gate to a flexible and creative approach to preserving community history, and one that invites involvement by avoiding alienating historical language, instead promoting the use of song and music.  

While community heritage could benefit greatly from this recent collection, there is also a claim to be made that it could massively contribute to new conversations concerning labour relations, particularly gendered labour dynamics in this period. As with many fishing villages on the East coast of Britain, Newhaven’s fishing industry was one which incorporated all  elements of the community, both men and women, young and old. Central to this  community-economy dynamic was the co-reliance of women and men for income – the men caught the fish and the women sold it and mended lines, marking the women as heavily responsible for the final household income. Indeed, one ex-fishwife, Nelly Walls, discusses her  daily routine; waking at 6:45 to collect the fish from market, before setting off from Newhaven  Station to Waverley and then subsequently to Falkirk, where she would sell the fish before returning to Newhaven for 1:30 that afternoon. Despite being 6 stone and carrying 8 stone of fish in her creel, she insists it was a good life, an honest living and a type of economy where  all knew their place. The co-reliance of the community members is particularly highlighted in these interviews. If one member of the community failed to provide their function, all would fall apart slowly. No repaired lines meant poor fishing the next day; no fish caught meant less  work for the fishwives; less work for them meant insufficient income for the household and therefore a lack of capital to pay the overheads of the fishing expeditions. This was an economy where all jobs relied on each other. This was an economy in which wholesale and retail were avoided, profits kept close to the origin of their extraction and people were given a  sense of direct control over their income. As our modern economy drifts further away from this past reality, it grows ever more vital for us to record and discuss the history of communities that functioned in this way, especially when they are so close to us geographically and, arguably, in time. Perhaps in the future these sources could be utilised to write a more comprehensive study of the fishing economy of Newhaven, shedding a light on forgotten economies that have been overshadowed by an academic obsession with industrial  labour above smaller local economic configurations. 

However, academic considerations aside, this collection does also allow us to find a less serious and more warming side to the working-culture of the fishwives. As is often associated with street sellers, their methods of securing buyers came with some light entertainment to entice customers. In the fishwives case this came in the form of songs, or ‘cries’ as they were  known within the community, to sell their fish. Among these are tunes such as ​Caller Herrin’,  Caller Ou, and ​Curds and Whey, all directly speaking to the customer to endeavour them to buy the product being sold. While some are directly linked to work, others, such as ​‘A Wee Lassie from Newhaven’, which is sung by Nelly Walls, are more reflective and reveal in greater detail the self-identity of the Newhaven community. The song describes the subjects’ experience of being brought up in Newhaven, ​‘a wee fishing toon’ ​, to being sent out with ​‘ a creel aroond my back’ to hawk fish to the residents of Edinburgh and Leith. Upon listening to the songs, one is struck with a deep sense of nostalgia and longing for a way of life that is  now sadly forgotten. Other songs such as ​Caller Herrin’ ​remind us of the close relation that  these fishing communities had with their location and natural surroundings, with the fish being  caught ​‘fresh fae the forth’. Indeed, it’s hard to detach such a trade from its surroundings, as well as the trade from the culture. The cyclical relation of culture to economy to trade and  community continues and seems inescapable in the case of Newhaven. These songs and interviews highlight this perfectly, in an informative yet emotionally engaging way.   

Newhaven Fishwives by Hill & Adamson, 1843-47, Creative Commons CC0

While these recordings, in themselves, provide us with no major breakthroughs in the field, what they do achieve is giving us a parallel to the depictions of the fishing communities  recorded by artists and photographers such as Hill and Adamson or Alexander Roche, whose  images of fishwives lean to the side of romanticisation, not necessarily reality. Indeed, while one should not minimise the importance of Hill and Adamson’s ​Newhaven Fishwives ​or ​The Fishermen and Women of the Firth of Forth as a ground-breaking exercises in photo-ethnography and sociology, it is important to remember that these were staged  early-photographs (calotypes), not action shots depicting the hustle and bustle of 19​th​ century  work. Indeed, the fact that the Newhaven fisherwomen were wearing ‘gala-dress’ in these  pictures reveals it was not an accurate portrayal of them going about their daily work, but  instead a picture of a romanticised and imagined community based on some form of semi-truth. Interviews with Nelly Walls and Mary Kay reveal to us further details regarding the  uniform of the Newhaven fishwives. Indeed, the usual garb of the fisherwomen was a navy  blue thick flannel petticoat, not the red, yellow and white as is often depicted in artistic  accounts of the community, a navy blue and white ‘brat’ and a dark shower gown, to be worn  in more harsh conditions. Walls also explains that, unlike the gala-dress, the working uniform  was not kilted. She also notes that the material for the outfits was bought from a shop named  Jefferies in Leith, as well as explaining where the creels were purchased and for what price,  namely the Blind Asylum in Leith for 6 and 6. While to many these might seem menial and  mundane facts, I posit that these are important, and the kind of information that if one was to comprehensively understand the community as a working collection of people, we must bear in mind. Understanding these small details greatly assists us in, once again, grounding their  experiences in reality, avoiding polishing their stories to an image that dissuades further thinking and investigation. 

On top of the above discussions, one might also claim that the previous depictions and  knowledge of the community don’t do justice to the importance of community ties between fishwives in the operating of the community. Indeed, in one interview Cathie Ligherneis, an ex-fishwife, describes the importance of ‘kyling’, or chipping together to buy fish to sell. What  is apparent here is that these were not women in competition to sell the most fish, but instead a community unit whose aims were to better the wealth of all through hard work and mutual assistance. Furthermore, few of the artistic depictions can bring the same intense emotional sense of community than the chorus of singers from the Newhaven Fishwives Choir do, even if those singing in the recording had unlikely met or been a fishwife themselves. The replicating of a lost trade in this sense keeps the memories alive and the culture living, even where over-dredging has left Oysters unfishable and the modern economy left a hawking trade unattainable. 

Common to all interviews with the former fishwives is a shared bemoaning of the changing nature of Newhaven. One of the interviewees laments that there is ‘nothing in Newhaven  now’, another claims that she doesn’t know what the next generation will talk about, ‘maybe tv?’, she laughs. However, as long as these excerpts of a lost community’s history remain protected and preserved for longevity, we can still discuss them and talk about a shared culture lasting through the ages. The old fish-stores of Newhaven harbour may now be the  home to Prezzo, a fancy Italian Pizza restaurant, or Loch Fyne, serving up Oysters (or, we  should call them Ou) at extortionate prices, albeit as long as we have the tools to imagine a  community past, it does still survive in a strange way. With the recent collection at the National Library of Scotland, perhaps we can start a new chapter in the history of the Newhaven fishwives by encouraging further research that breaks from seeing them as a last-stand of cottage industries and instead a dynamic and richly cultured form of flexible labour relations.