FOOD HERITAGE: Salmon from the Tweed, Herring from the Sea, and Malt from the Barley. This was the story of Berwick’s food heritage told to Glendale Local History Society by Derek Sharman MBE on December 14.
Derek – local historian, enthusiast for traditional local food and town guide (he was awarded his MBE for services to the Heritage of Berwick) – illustrated a suitably seasonal talk with numerous quotations from copies of 19th century local newspapers.
So what were Berwickers about in Dickens time, and does Berwick still do it now?
Derek told us of salmon netting on the Tweed. This is a practice that has been carried on since at least the 12th century and still continues today, albeit to a much reduced extent.
He explained about the shiels on the river.
How the men used to live in these through the season and watch out for the fish moving up river.
Some fish were taken by sea to London in fast boats called smacks, with some actually transported live in water ballast tanks in the boat’s hold.
Salmon were preserved by pickling and, after the technology was brought in from Scandinavia, in ice houses on the river bank, sometimes for a year or more before sale.
Herring, ‘the silver darlings’, was the other great fish species associated with Berwick.
These were cured by smoking and also pickled. Derek showed us some photographs of the ‘fisher lasses’ – girls and women with strong striking characterful faces.
There were girls who could gut up to 60 fish a minute and pack a barrel of 800 fish in 10 minutes.
The high point of the trade came in the 1890s when Berwick had the fifth largest herring fleet in the UK.
One member of the audience recalled how, in her family’s memory, the river was so thick with boats that adventurous boys would walk across from the Spittal side to the town, dodging the skippers as they went!
Huge amounts of herring in brine were exported to Germany and the low countries – a trade that came to an end after the First World War.
Today some say this was because stocks were fished out, while others blame dark political forces!
An interesting side issue to the fish trade was that tons of fish guts had to be disposed of, and so were converted to agricultural fertiliser at a factory in Spittal.
The factory chimney still stands as a reminder of those times.
The fertiliser went onto the land to help produce Berwick’s third great food product – malt from barley.
Derek took us on a virtual tour around the town.
The buildings – granaries with their malting floors – still stand but are now put to very different uses.
All physical labour generates a good thirst so there were once three breweries in Berwick and one distillery.
With numerous barrels needed for both the brewing and the fish packing industries, cooperage became an important ancillary trade in Berwick.
During the 19th century huge advances were made in agricultural practice – prompted by the need to feed an expanding urban population.
Northumberland was at the forefront of these advances.
New breeds of cattle and sheep were developed – breeds that were exhibited and sold at local agricultural and fatstock shows.
The Highland Show was held at Berwick in 1841.
The introduction of novel implements increased arable production, and the growing use of steam power for threshing and ploughing began the long process of displacing the draught horse from the farm.
Farms are still today dangerous working environments, and an interesting sidelight pointed out by Derek was the increasing occurrence of reports in the newspapers of accidents on the farm as mechanisation progressed – some sadly fatal.
As well as the standard grain crops, potatoes were an important part of the Victorian diet and particularly so of the labouring classes.
Famine due to potato blight is most often associated with Ireland but it occurred here too in the mid 1840s with similar social consequences but on a smaller scale.
In Victorian times, the poor as they said were ‘always with us’. The Poor Laws led to the establishment of the Workhouses.
However we view these establishments now, the fact is that at certain times of the year particularly, they fed large numbers of people a basic but nourishing diet that was sourced locally.
Such supply was an important contributor to the local economy.
In contrast some of the reports of the fine foods supplied for public celebrations – harvest homes, Burns suppers, summer ‘picnics’ – had the audience’s taste buds going!
The advent of the railways meant that food distribution became much quicker, and, salmon, for example, could be transported to London faster than the smacks could take them.
Retail chains began to establish shops in Berwick and the first Walter Willson’s came in 1887.
The railways also led to people visiting Berwick by the train load to sample and purchase local delicacies. Perhaps this was the first instance of food tourism.
Derek concluded with an intriguing thought.
The ‘silver darlings’ are now increasing in number and could be viable to fish again.
What if one of the smokeries could be re-established to produce Berwick kippers? That would be a food coup!
Glendale Local History Society meets in the Cheviot Centre in Wooler.
The next meeting is on Wednesday, January 11, at 7.30pm when the topic will be The History of Our National Parks and the speaker Sandra Gann.