When the gull yeller boomed on Birnbeck

As the autumn mists come down and the Flat Holm foghorn is heard at nights some of the oldest Westonians may dream nostalgically of Weston sprats

As the autumn mists come down and the Flat Holm foghorn is heard at nights some of the oldest Westonians may dream nostalgically of Weston sprats. They will recall how Weston's blue-jerseyed fishermen used to stand at the top of Palmer Street and on the Plantation beside trucks piled high with the silver harvest of the Severn Sea. In their ears will ring the cry of "Sprat-o!" as trucks were wheeled through the streets. Splitting the Sunday afternoon peace of the tree-lined highways came also the shout of "Fresh shrimp!" And how fresh they were! Pink and warm, a veritable cocktail in the fisherman's glass as he measured them from his basket and poured them onto plate or into bowl. Fishing is probably the oldest of Weston's industries, but it is now almost extinct.The earliest picture of Weston we have is of a few squalid shacks built among the sand dunes by squatters, who got their materials for them by robbing the Bishop or the lord of the manor of his rights of wreckage washed up on the beach. They were beach scavengers and fishermen.The Birnbeck fishery, whose stakes continue to stand the ebb and flow of fast flowing tides, is hundreds of years old. As long ago as 1492 there was a lawsuit over the Birnbeck fishery. John Payne claimed that he owned the fishery off Ankers Head, and that John Arthur, the lord of the manor, with 10 of his servants, "by force of arms on the 30th November, 1491, fished the area and took a hundred horse loads of fish called 'barons', four hundred young cod or tubbelyns, three hyndred Haddokes, and two hundred whitynges." I have not been able to check what 'barons' were but they were a small fish, most likely sprats. John Arthur's reply to the charge was that the fish were taken on the foreshore, which belonged to the lord of the manor. We do not know how the action ended.There is a record that way back in 1660 the lord of the manor used to grant the use of fishing stalls, often in conjunction with cottages or land. Weston's first guide book of 1822 says: "Near Anchor Head, the original bathing place, is a small island, called Birnbeck; the passage to which is dry at low water, and the communication with the shore is by a causeway thrown up by fishermen to hang their nets on. During the sprat and herring season, a most animating scene is there exhibited."The fishermen of Weston (some nearly 90 years of age), who rent the stands, go on donkeys and ponies after every tide to collect the produce of their nets. Numerous jobbers are in anxious attendance to purchase the marine harvest, and the children of the village, with happy faces, flock to Birnbeck with their baskets to glean the fishes which have fallen from the nets; and which from time immemorial, has been considered their perquisite."Weston's first guide book mentions among 1920s the sailing trips from Weston those to Burnham, "which place is famous for salmon with which it supplies Weston-super-Mare".Salmon were also plentiful at Weston. The first salmon caught in the season had to be taken up to the Lord of the Manor at Brockley. One of the old fishermen of the early years of the last century said: "I carried up the largest one ever caught here. It weighed 32 pounds and a quarter, and I rode up to Brockley on a pony with it. I caught it in a net on the west side of Knightstone."The harvest of the Severn Sea in former days was huge. Within living memory every winter many tons of Weston sprats were despatched by rail to all parts of the country. Sometimes the catches were so large that they were taken away by the cartload and dumped as manure.Before the Birnbeck island was linked to the land with a pier, the fishermen had to wait until the tide had gone down before they could get to the nets they had placed on stakes around the island. The steppingstones had to be just showing before they could venture across.This meant that for some time their catches would be showing above the water at the mercy of the sea gulls. To keep the gulls away the local fishermen, every fishing season, employed two men to live on the island as gull yellers. A little hut was erected for them, and their job, when the tide was ebbing, was to scare the gulls away from the nets by yelling at them.One man had the job of attending to the stalls west of the island, the other to those to the east. They were paid £1 a week, and the fishermen contributed to this according to the number of stalls they rented. The gull yellers fed chiefly on sprats.Ernest Baker tells us: "There was one gull yeller, named Bill Hurle, who lived at Ashcombe. He was a man with terrific lungs, and a huge cavernous mouth."A most celebrated yeller he was," comments Baker. "No gull could be seen when he was near - in fact, the uninitiated stranger thought that his head was going to divide in two when he opened his mouth. His tongue was tremendous, large and long; people said that if he put it out and twisted it round he could touch the nape of his neck with it."This, I only repeat from hearsay evidence," said Baker. "I was not born early enough to know him personally, and count this a misfortune. If a good westerly breeze were blowing when he was yelling, his voice could be head for miles inland; some say they have heard it on Rhodyate hill just before you enter Cleeve, on the way to Bristol, whilst many others affirm to hearing it on Congresbury bridge; such was the strength of this man's mighty voice. He was a very king of yellers."One of the old fishermen whom Ernest Baker interviewed was Aaron Fisher, and he told him: "I have often been to Birnbeck all night to shout the gulls away from the nets. I collected the money to pay for the thatching of the hut on the island, in which we stayed all night. Every fisherman paid a trifle toward it."Edward Harse, the gull yeller, of course, I knew well, and I believe his yelling could be heard at Congresbury bridge, as people say. Why, I know on a quiet day, when I was at Birnbeck, I have heard Atwell hammering rails on Steep Holm distinctly."Fisher also related how after the fishing season, about Christmastime, he maintained his family by shooting. "When the tide came in great quantities of wild geese and ducks came up, and we used to go out by night with a bonny box to shoot them. A bonny box was about a foot square with two lighted candles inside showing through a sort of bullseye. The birds couldn't see us on account of the light so we could get quite close to them before we fired, sometimes within two yards. I carried a big gun made for me by Blood of Birmingham. The barrel was five feet long and it had an inch bore."The fishermen also used to shoot wild fowl in Sand Bay. They would take a brawler or billy of straw and walk across the mud until they came to one of the natural channels caused by the sea draining off. They would then sit on their billy of straw and wait until the incoming tide brought up the birds and they could shoot with the certainty of obtaining a good bag.Weston fishermen also eked out a living with smuggling.The quaint thatched cottage of the fisherman, Billy Board, once stood in the Claremont area. It was said that he was ready to catch any fish ordered by a customer. He was so expert that it was his custom to take the orders first and catch the fish afterwards! Billy Board, it seems, also blew the bellows of the Parish Church organ. An old inhabitant commented on the Parish Church's music in those days: "Talk of church music! You should have heard the singing in those days - such holloaing scraping of fiddles, and blowing you never heard. Billy Board always blew the organ as soon as there was one to blow; and as his church salary was small he would go round every Christmas collecting money for 'playing' the organ."'But you don't play Billy,' people would say. 'Don't I?' said Billy. 'I know very well they couldn't get on without me; I do the hardest part of the work and the most difficult - I blow the bilise'."Porpoises and even whales used to be seen in Weston Bay. In 1863 it was reported that a shoal of 10 or 12 whales was seen off Birnbeck, and that boatmen gave chase. One whale was hit by a shot but the whales made off to Cardiff Roads where one of them was caught.The pollution of the Channel in modern times is undoubtedly to blame for the decline in the fishing industry. Hardly any of the local boatmen today bother with fishing, but in strolling through one of Weston's side streets the other day I was surprised to see a sign out "Weston Sprats," and to hear the vendor asking, "Would you like them hot or cold?"A distant relative of mine had a cow that was tethered every day near where the Kewstoke toll house now stands. One day the farmhand whose job it was to lead her back to the cowhouse undid her and she rushed away, jumped into the sea and swam out to Birnbeck island.Let Ernest Baker tell the rest of the story: "After this it was useless to attempt to tie her up. She spent the greater part of the time on the island, swimming to the mainland and back, perhaps once a day. She generally chose high water time for her swim, preferring the bathe to the walk across the muddy and slippery rocks and pebbles."If the whim seized her, as it sometimes did, she would swim into Kewstoke Bay, or perhaps into Anchor Head Beach, and immediately she landed, wherever it might be, she would browse as if nothing had happened, and as if it was the usual thing for cows to swim a quarter of a mile across a tide running like a mill stream, just for the fun of it."A very untimely death was hers. After three years' swimming, she fell down a small crevasse on the north side of the island, somewhere near the place where the present jetty commences, and couldn't be extricated."* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on October 13, 1967


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