The rivalry between Great and Little Yarmouth and Lowestoft over the herring industry goes back hundreds of years, probably since the communities began. Herring was a high-protein food eaten in great quantities all over England, so anyone who controlled the source of the fish became wealthy and powerful.
All three communities are mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. King John granted Great Yarmouth a charter in 1208, making it a self-governing community, and, soon after that, the famous annual Yarmouth Herring Fair was established. But Lowestoft and Little Yarmouth (to the south), which were smaller fishing communities, jostled with each other and with Yarmouth for status and wealth.
Yarmouth tried hard to keep out other fishing boats and traders, not only from the English coast, but also from Holland and the Baltic. The authorities introduced a system known as ‘hosting’, in which a local person would equip and supply a fishing-boat for a whole season, in return for which he or she would have the right to buy the entire catch of that boat. Alternatively, a visiting merchant could be assigned to stay with someone who provided accommodation and assistance in trading. The visitor would then have to give his host a quarter of his merchandise.
Yarmouth’s wealthiest families used this system to their own great advantage. They also used threats of violence to discourage others from competing fairly. The Statute of Herrings of 1357, brought in under Edward III, was an attempt to stop such corruption, but it was very difficult to enforce, as the people of Yarmouth did not support the Statute.
In 1372, Yarmouth persuaded Edward III to make it illegal to load or unload cargo anywhere within seven miles of the town. The king also granted Yarmouth a monopoly on holding a Herring Fair. Lowestoft responded by getting Parliament to repeal the law on where fish and other merchandise could be unloaded and sold, and, for over 30 years the matter was passed from king to Parliament and back again until they reached an uneasy compromise in 1401.
The Norfolk Record Office has over sixty documents connected with the herring industry on the east coast (Y/C 36/7/1-68) which show that, despite the compromise, the fierce rivalry continued. For example, one document (Y/C 36/7/5) dated 1596-7, concerns ‘Allegations made on behalf of Yarmouth against Lowestoft at Parliament’. Another document in the same series (Y/C 36/7/14) is ‘Yarmouth’s answer to matters complained of by Lowestoft.’
The series of records also documents disputes between Great Yarmouth and Little Yarmouth. One document (Y/C 36/7/64) has no date (though all the documents in the series predate 1835) and is a ‘Draft petition of Great Yarmouth to the Lords against the bill for settling differences with Little Yarmouth touching the lading and unlading of herring and other merchandise.’
Not surprisingly, during the English Civil War (1642-51) the towns took opposite sides. Yarmouth declared for Parliament and Lowestoft for the King. With their longstanding rivalry, it was inconceivable that both would support the same side!