Artistic, romanticised view of women in fishing

‘Do not romanticise poverty…There is no joy in dirt and squalor. Nor in having to slave from dawn to dusk merely to survive. Take a close look at the fishwives who are your age. They are bowed in body, their eyes hard from fighting to survive and they look so old.’[1] This brief excerpt from a novel is unusual in that it depicts fishwives more as they really were as opposed to the romantic sometimes glamourised versions that have been representative of both fishwives and herring girls. Considering the stigmatisation fisherfolk were subjected to in relation to social status, outsiders became fascinated by the fisherfolk which resulted in them being represented through the arts of literature, poetry, painting and photography. This fascination may in part have been due firstly to a visit by King George the Fourth to Edinburgh, followed by Queen Victoria, both of whom were charmed by the fishwives. ‘Of late our fishwives have been considering themselves of some importance. When the Queen came first to Edinburgh, she happened to take notice of them, and every printshop window is now stuck full of pictures of Newhaven fishwives in their quaint costume of short petticoats of flaming red and yellow colours.’[2] Whilst some artists or writers may have portrayed fisherfolk in a realistic fashion, others have romanticised or glamourised their lives, particularly the fishwives and herring girls. What is interesting to consider is why fisher women were romanticised and glamourised when the work they were doing was not in any way desirable, but also did these representations help in any way to raise the social status of fisherfolk?

Fishwives captured through Art and Photography

Even though, like crofters, fisherfolk contributed valuable food sources to the market, they were deemed to be of lower status than other working class people. According to Hall, ‘correspondents who sold fish in the 1930s told of people whom they met on public transportation, while carrying their creels, looking askance at them [fishwives] and moving away to another part of the bus or train.’[3] That kind of reaction supports the notion that fisherfolk were unfairly, by some, relegated to pariah groups such as mass murderers and gypsies. Even though fisherfolk had this low status, the fishermen were hardworking and scrupulously honest. The women however, were described as loud and unfeminine and yet there was a market for capturing the fishwives in painting and photographs albeit quite often in a romanticised way that was far from reality.

The life of a fishwife was hard, dirty and laborious and yet from the new art form of photography came a social history of Newhaven fishwives by Hill and Adamson that gave viewers a different perspective.  David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson formed the first photographic studio in Scotland in July 1843 and produced a remarkable body of work that included portraits, landscapes and social documentary, with their photographs of Newhaven being some of their most enduring images.[4]

The Letter was one of approximately 120 calotypes taken by Hill and Adamson in Newhaven and depicts two fishwives intently looking at a letter with the third fishwife close by listening to what is being read out. We know by their names, Marion Finlay, Mrs. Margaret (Dryburgh) Lyall and Mrs. Grace (Finlay) Ramsay that two of them may be related, therefore perhaps it is news about a loved one.

Photographs are very much open to interpretation and this one provokes questions such as, is the letter good or bad news, are the fishwives actually literate or is the photograph staged so that they appear literate, perhaps to increase their social status? The three fishwives all look extremely clean, tidy and respectable, quite demure even, which is a contrast to the terms of loud and unfeminine that fishwives were tarnished with.

The German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist, Walter Benjamin gave his thoughts on photography in relation to painting and chose to do so through the analysis of Hill and Adamson’s Newhaven Fishwife, Mrs. Elizabeth (Johnstone) Hall.

After two or three generations this interest [in paintings] fades; the pictures, if they last, do so only as a testimony to the art of the painter. With photography, however, we encounter something new and strange: in Hill’s Newhaven fishwife, her eyes cast down in such indolent, seductive modesty, there remains something that goes beyond testimony to the photographer’s art, something that cannot be silenced, that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name was, the woman who was alive there, who even now is still real and will never consent to be wholly absorbed in “art”.[5]      

Hill and Adamson potentially did something more for the fisher communities than just demonstrate their daily lives. Although their photographs highlighted social class distinction, they may also have helped to raise the social status of fisherfolk in some respect. ‘Rather than just use generic titles, such as “fisherwoman,” Adamson titled some of the Newhaven images by the specific person’s name, such as Mrs. Barbara (Johnstone) Flucker, Opening Oysters or Willie Liston Redding the Line. One image in particular, titled The Beauty of New Haven, could have been a socialite portrait taken in his studio, but for the dress the “Beauty” wore.’[6] By naming the subjects in the images, it advanced their social standing. They were not just a nameless fisher person, they were someone of note, someone who was deserving of being photographed much like the prosperous town people.

Paintings were another medium where fishwives were portrayed in a more romantic light, as seen in Edward Charles Barnes’ The Fishwife. This painting depicts a striking woman, beautifully dressed, wistfully looking in the distance whilst carrying  a small platter of fish. This woman appears to know nothing of hardship, she does not look like she has walked for miles with a creel on her back carrying over one hundred pounds of fish. This fishwife has grace, she would never be judged as uncouth or relegated to a pariah group. This painting, however beautiful, is not only unrealistic but has glamourised the role of the fishwife.

Herring Girls captured through Literature and Photography

The herring girls have been commemorated through song, poems, plays, art, statues and novels and while many have honoured them in a realistic way others have immortalised them in a romanticised fashion. It is known from pictorial and oral testimony that the working conditions in the curing yards were exceptionally hard for the herring girls and yet most of the photographs have them laughing and smiling as if they do not have a care in the world. Although there was a great spirit of camaraderie and good humour, the photographs seem in conflict with the truth as if they were a marketing ploy to entice more young women to come and gut fish.

The image shown in figure 4 is a photograph taken of a herring girl in the 1920s in Great Yarmouth. Although it is a black and white image it is still clear the herring girl is covered in blood and guts past her elbows and her apron appears covered in unsightly matter. If the image was viewed from the torso up, her smile would indicate she is having a wonderful time and that there is no sign of hardship in her life.  Bochel (1979) as cited in Nadel-Klein stated ‘”dressing up to be photographed was one of the first things they did after settling in for the season,” suggesting that many of these illustrations were less than candid.’[7]

Sylvia Pankhurst, the English campaigner for the suffrage and suffragette movement, made an interesting observation in her book, The Suffragette Movement – An Intimate Account Of Persons And Ideals. ‘I sped north to Scarborough, to study the conditions of the Scotch fisher lassies working the east coast in the trail of the herring, beautified by their outdoor life, singing and chattering like a shoal of sea birds over the fish they were cleaning and packing.’[8]  Pankhurst later painted her depiction of a herring girl which was in stark contrast to her somewhat romanticised descriptive prose. Instead of a smiling, carefree girl was an old woman with a very pale face hunched over the farlan gutting the herring.

The romantic notion of the herring girl has been represented in contemporary historical romance novels with images on covers of the female herring workers used in very flattering ways to market the novels. According to Liffen, ‘considering the messy nature of herring processing work, it seems unusual that romance novels have employed figures of Scottish female herring workers as main protagonists.’[9] However, unlike reality, herring girls have adorned the covers of novels with flowing hair, slightly tamed by glamourous scarves and wearing crisp, clean clothes with not a smattering of blood or guts to be seen.

Two novels, The Fisher Lass and The Shimmer of the Herring, were the basis for a research article by Liffen, relating to images of Scottish herring workers on romance novel covers with one aspect of analysis being whether the book covers truthfully represented the role of herring workers.

Former herring girls were interviewed for the article in relation to their thoughts on the depiction of herring girls on the book covers and based on their reactions the covers portrayed highly romanticised versions of fisher girls as can be seen in figures 5 and 6. Indeed, the cover of Shimmer of the Herring is quite reminiscent of Edward Charles Barnes’ painting The Fishwife, (Figure 3).

In response to the cover of The Fisher Lass,  a former Scottish herring worker remarked that the main figure’s scarf  “would have been hanging in the barrel . . . if she bent over”…and that the scarf draped over the flowing hair of the figure illustrated on the cover of The Shimmer of the Herring looked “too glamorous…you didn’t have all that hair…that would have been all over our eyes before you know where you were.” Further, she remarked ,“looks like someone that has been dressed up.’’[10] As Liffen indicated, ‘her [former herring worker] terminology suggests that the cover figure is more akin to an actress who might be playing the part of a herring worker rather than an image of a woman familiar with fish processing work.’[11]

The misleading imagery of the herring girls through art and literature is somewhat comparable to what Walter Scott did for Scotland through his novels. To his readers, Scott’s prose in relation to the Highlands came to characterise the whole of Scotland and with it the image that everyone wore tartan kilts. This romanticism of the Highlands and Scotland as a whole remains as does the smiling imagery of the herring girls.

Photographers Hill and Adamson presented the fisherfolk of Newhaven as a community bound by tradition and honest labour and through their photographs helped to propel these ordinary folk into popular culture during the nineteenth century. These same photographs now grace many social media sites and have given the fishwives and herring girls a romanticised status. These glamourised images are now used for the marketing of heritage trails, museums and fishwife collectables along with a new trend to knit the type of shawls worn by fishwives. These idealised images reject the notion that these women worked as hard as they did but by the same token, for the fishwives and herring girls, the interest that artists and photographers showed in them potentially helped raised their status in their own eyes and have ensured their stories continue even though their professions do not.  


[1] Kate Tremayne, The Loveday Fortunes, (Headline Publishing Group, 2000, Google e-book).

[2] James Glass Bertram, The Harvest of the Sea, Contribution to the Natural and Economic History  of the British Food Fishes, (John Murray, London, 1865), p429.

[3] Valerie G. Hall, Women at Work, 1860-1939: How Different Industries Shaped Women’s Experiences, (The Boydell Press, 2013), p115.  

[4] Hill and Adamson, National Galleries Scotland, https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/features/hill-adamson.

[5] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934, (Harvard University Press, 1999), p510.

[6] Michelle Bogre, Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change, (Focul Press, 2012), p10.

[7] Jane Nadel-Klein, Fishing for Heritage: Modernity and Loss Along the Scottish Coast, (Berg: Oxford, 2003) ,p74.

[8] Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement – An intimate Account of Persons and Ideals, (Longmans, Green and Company, 1931),  p270.

[9] Jane Liffen, “A very glamorized picture, that”: images of Scottish female herring workers on romance novel covers, Social Semiotics, Vol. 18 No.3, (2008), 349-361, (p349), DOI:10.1080/10350330802217121.

[10] Liffen, Glamorized picture, (p355-6).

[11] Liffen, Glamorized picture, (p356).

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