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The herring girls came to town, progressing down the east coast

The girls are back in town

How would they look?  Single girls in their dozens arriving at the station with gutting knives hanging from their belts and smelling slightly of fish? Back in 1881, when our drama is set, they are a future anachronism – sassy women of independent means and with, yes, plenty of guts! HOT’s Chris Cormack writes about a musical drama hitting our shores at the Stade next Thursday and Friday.

Spring is tipping over into summer and the herring should be here. In the 1800s, the fishing fleets would follow the abundant herring shoals from Scotland down the east coast to land their catches at the nearest ports. Hastings boats would have been among them at the southern end. The herring lassies in teams of three, two to gut and one to pack, followed on to process the ‘silver darlings’ in their thousands at the quayside, whence the fish were exported far and wide.

This year the story of these women migrates down the coast from ports in Scotland – a play has toured 12 venues – each with their own local choir – starting from Musselburgh in May, down through Berwick, Hartlepool, Hull, Great Yarmouth, Margate and Folkestone, and reaches Hastings on 31 July and 1 August. The Hastings choir set up specially is called the Herring Girls and is led by Carol Prior, who is well-known in Hastings for her excellent work with local community choirs.

Tying fingers ready for work.

Get Up And Tie Your Fingers, the title of the drama, is the call to work – knives at the ready and strips of cloths to be tied around thumbs and forefingers to protect from the blades and the salt in the curing and barrelling. It gives a dramatic account of  one herring team, Jean, Janet and young Molly, as they go about their daily lives, telling us of their hopes and dreams and dealing with their devastating losses. Beyond the grim toll of the sea, there lies a remarkable tale of endurance, survival and courage of the east coast herring fishing communities.

It is a family drama set around the worst fishing disaster Britain has ever known. On 14 October 1881, 45 six-man fishing boats left Eyemouth and sailed into a freak storm that took the lives of 129 men and boys all from the one small community.

Hastings' Herring Girls led by Carol Prior (centre in orange top).

Just as the fishermen had their work-songs, so the repetitive nature of fish-gutting lends itself to brisk tempo songs to maintain the workflow and make the time pass quickly – there is a wealth of songs that accompanied the herring lassies in the archive.

Another scene from the play.

Over 400 people have learnt to sing the specially commissioned score by Karen Wimhurst which clearly draws on this folk tradition of work-songs, but includes some haunting modern a cappella musical effects which resonate with wind, sea and sea birds. The Hastings performance at the Stade is the only one in the open air with natural wind and sea birds for extra sound effects.  Adding even more to the realism, it could be taking place within yards of where actual fishwives gutted fish in the open air back in the 1880s!

The play is written by Ann Coburn, lead produced by the Customs House, South Shields, and the Guild of Lillians and supported by the Arts Council, among others. In Hastings, the project has the support of Hastings Fisheries Local Action Group (FLAG), and it is hoped that the Herring Girls will continue to take part in cultural events relating to Hastings fisheries with FLAG support, for example the Herring Festival in autumn.

Get Up and Tie Your Fingers (aka Follow the Herring) – Two FREE performances on the Stade Open Space, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings TN34 3FJ  at 7.30pm, Thursday 31 July and Friday 1 August. This is a two-hour performance so you may need chairs, blankets and something in a flask!

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Posted 20:00 Sunday, Jul 27, 2014 In: Performance

1 Comment

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  1. Eva Cat

    Actually, you won’t need chairs – there’s seating there for this one!

    Comment by Eva Cat — Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014 @ 20:56

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