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History: The Tudor Fishing Fleet

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The Booke Of All The Auncient Customs, 1580

Two small boats on the lower
promenade outside
the Fishing Museum

The fishermen of Brighthelmeston had a grievance: they were paying too much tax. They felt that too much of the cost of the upkeep of the parish church (St Nicholas in Dyke Road) and of the town's defences against invasion fell on them, and not enough on the town's other inhabitants, the 'husbandmen and Artificiers', that is, the farmers and artisans.

The town had been raided and burned to the ground by the French earlier in the century - either in 1514 or 1545, the date is uncertain.

The threat of invasion from Catholic Europe hung over Elizabethan England (the Spanish Armada finally set sail in 1588) and defences were being reinforced all along the south coast.

In 1558, the first year of Elizabeth's reign, the lords of the manor of Brighthelmeston granted to the town's inhabitants a small patch of land on the cliff between Ship Street and Black Lion Street. It measured 30 feet by 16 feet and was used as the site for a blockhouse, in which was stored armaments such as canon and gunpowder. The cost of the blockhouse was met from the quarter share, that is, a local tax levied on every catch landed by the town's fishermen.

In 1579 the fishermen petitioned the Privy Council which decided to set up a commission to investigate the matter, and the commissioners (local landowners) instructed "certeyne of the saide auncient ffishermen to sette down in wrytinge their auncient customs and orders concerninge the true makinge payment and imployinge of the saide Quarter share".

The Book was signed by 91 inhabitants of the town starting with the name of Richard Stoneham, the town's constable, and one of the few who could write his name. Most made a mark after their name, and each signatory had his own distinctive mark.

Tyme Out Of Mynde

From The Book of Auncient Customs we learn that the fishing year was divided into a number of seasons, know as Fares, when the fishermen went after specific species of fish, mostly locally caught but also as far afield as Scarborough and Yarrow. The description of each fare's rules begins with the assertion either that the practice had existed for "tyme out of mynde" or "since the memorye of man".

The Book lists the following fares: Tuckett Fare (February to April for plaice), Shotnett Fare (April to June for mackerel), Skarborow Fare (June to September for cod), Yarmoth Fare (September to November for herring), Cokfare (October to the middle of December for herring), Flewfare (November and December for herring), Harbour Fare (throughout the summer for conger eel), and Drawnett Fare (May and June for mackerel).

 

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