Fishing was the mainstay occupation of the town and an Elizabethan survey of 1566 estimated that there were thirty three boats in the town worked by a hundred and sixty men. The survey was more guesswork than an accurate count, but it can be deduced that there were a lot of boats and a lot of fishermen.
Fish were a valuable and limited resource. Any industry exploiting such a resource is highly regulated, and fishing was no exception. If, during your imaginary walk through Hythe you had turned up on the beach with your boat and nets, you would have been regarded with considerable suspicion, even hostility. The fishing season was tightly regulated in terms of who could fish, and when, with what and with whom.
These regulations were taken seriously. In 1616, Richard Hutson filed a complaint against Nicholas Salisbury, another fisherman. Salisbury had taken to sea a man whom Hutson had already signed on for the winter fishing. The magistrates, many of them fishermen themselves, took a very dim view of the crime and Nicholas Salisbury was fined and forfeited the freedom of the town.
The seasons were divided into ‘fares’, some for local inshore fishing and some in deeper waters. From April to June, Shotnett fare, the Hythe men fished for sole and mackerel in all sizes of boat. Then in summer came Harbour fare, the smaller boats catching conger with ‘harbour hooks’ in home waters, while larger vessels headed north to Scarborough fare for cod and ling. From September to November, the bigger boats with crews of a dozen or so sailed to Yarmouth, the most profitable fare of all, for herring. When it was over, the boats returned to Hythe and continued to fish for herring in home waters until the end of the year.
In home waters, there was also a short sprat season, which was not very lucrative, but trammelling for plaice from March to October was. Trammels were nets consisting of a triple wall of mesh, of up to 18 furlongs in length which rested on the sea bed. Trawls were more economical, but the Hythe men were conservative, and hung onto their trammels. The trammel boats were small and only carried a crew of six or seven. These smaller boats were sometimes referred to as ‘stade boats’, the stade being the open beach where they were hauled up by means of horse-turned ‘vernes’ or capstans. There is still a Stade Street in Hythe today, leading from the sea to the town centre.
The dates of fares were strictly controlled by the Crown, but Shotnett fare, particularly, was sometimes brought forward. February often saw the Hythe men petitioning to set sail early, either because the French had already started fishing or because Lent , when meat could not be eaten and fish was in demand, was early. In 1622 they skilfully managed to combine two gripes in one petition as they asked
for licence to go to sea forthwith to catch soles, being unable, if we wait the limited day, to supply the increased demand for fish occasioned by the Proclamation for strict keeping of fish days, as the soles which are now in season will meanwhile be swept up by trawlers
Trawlers were a big bugbear for the Hythe fishermen who believed that they were over-fishing. Their 1622 complaint was against men from Rochester and Strood, which they rather spoiled by overstating their case: ‘the town is ruined by such proceedings’, which was not strictly true, but as they had been shot at by trawlers in 1617, they felt they had an axe to grind. Two of the fishermen, Richard Hutson and Thomas Wallop even went to London in 1621, taking with them a purloined trawl net to show to a parliamentary committee. In 1631, the culprits were ‘the Barking men’, using huge beam trawls, which were subsequently banned. On this occasion, one of the Essex men was apprehended and sent to the Lord Warden, but it turned out he had a perfectly good licence from none other than the king’s fishmonger, William Angel.
Apparently the fishermen of the Cinque Ports decided that if they couldn’t beat the interlopers, they would join them, as thirty years later the Duke of York, then Lord Warden, wrote to the Ports that he was
‘very sensible of the great and many abuses that have of late years been committed in the fishing on the English coast’
and ordered Ports fishermen to stop using unlawful nets
‘whereby the brood or fry of fish may be any ways prejudiced or destroyed, or to take or catch any fish at unseasonable times contrary to the law or the ancient custom in fishing affairs’
It is hard to blame the fishermen, as they had been operating under difficult conditions for years. Every time there was a war, against Spain, France or the Netherlands, which was more often than not in the seventeenth century, the fishing industry suffered. Sometimes they were confined to port, as in 1627, when Buckingham believed they might be passing intelligence to the French. The next year some Sandwich fishermen were actually taken by a French man-of-war. In 1656 the Ports joined together to ask for the protection of a navy convoy against the enemy of the day, the Dutch, and in 1672 Hythe was virtually besieged by four Dutch privateers ‘so that no fishing or other boat dare peep out’.
By then, French ships from Dieppe dominated the herring and mackerel fisheries in the Channel. This, the lack of a proper harbour, the obstacles faced, the effects of impressments for the navy on a dwindling population, and the decline of the Yarmouth fisheries all helped ensure that Hythe’s future was not to be as a fishing town. By the end of the eighteenth century, not a single boat remained in the town.