The Herring Girls who helped the North Shields Fish Quay boom

Katie Cole found out about the Herring Girls and the role they played in the fishing industry for ITVX

From the 18th century to the 1960s, the Fish Quay at North Shields would be taken over by hoards of women who arrived with the herring catch between early summer and late autumn.

Known as the Herring Girls, they would gut, clean and pack the fish ready for sale while the men would be out at sea.

The women, who were predominantly Scottish, would follow fishing fleets down the east coast, stopping at each port for weeks at a time.

Sculptor Ray Lonsdale created a statue on the quay in tribute to the work of the Herring Girls.

"From what I gather, they were a very characterful bunch of lasses who weren't meant to be messed with," he said.

"You wouldn't think it, but they seemed to be a very joyful bunch. They would come down and be singing, they'd be carrying on, but they weren't to be crossed. That's what I tried to get across."

A sculpture now stands at North Shields Fish Quay in tribute. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

The women were known for their sharp knives, and their sharp tongues, and proved that the world of fishing was not only for men.

Historian Rory Page told ITV Tyne Tees the job was not for the faint-hearted.

"It was very, very labour intensive and a lot of men were out fishing so they couldn't get the people to work to process the herring," he said.

"It was a lot of argy bargy, you know, women can't do this and women can't do that. But, they came and they had an impact and it turned into a really, really good job, and was a very important job."

He continued: "Some of them could go a lot faster than men anyway. They could gut 50-60 herring a minute so that's pretty quick."

'They did all the hard work'

Ellen Mundy's mother and great-grandmother were Herring Girls.

She has carried on the tradition and now works at Seaview Fisheries in North Shields, but said she could never have endured what they did.

"There's no way I could've been a Herring Girl," she said. "I couldn't stand with my hands in the cold water. I just couldn't have done it.

"There's a lot of hard work. They stood there all day in all kinds of weather. They did all the hard work, really, I think."

Much of the business along the quay is now replaced by hospitality.

A decline in herring by the 1970s meant that the skills of the women were no longer needed. Some women did stay in North Shields though, where they married and went on to have families.

Lynn Collins comes from a fishing family and now is part of the North Shields Fishermen's Heritage Project.

Recalling the bustling industry on the Fish Quay, she said: "From me being a kid, this place, you couldn't stand here because it was just so busy everyday.

"It wasn't just a weekend thing. Every day this fish quay was mad. They said if you could drive down here, you could drive anywhere in the world."

Business on the Fish Quay started to slow in the 1980s.

Since then, the area has been regenerated with many pubs, restaurants and accommodations, while a heritage centre now stands where the Herring Girls once worked.

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