Industrious Women: The Herring Girls of Barra

Industrious Women: The Herring Girls of Barra

This week, Helen Antrobus (People’s History Museum) discusses the herring women of Barra and the concept of ‘the modern woman’.

In 1929, Middlesbrough MP Ellen Wilkinson delivered a speech to the Manchester, Salford and District Girls’ Club Union, which was summarised as such: ‘The young woman who shrinkingly retired from view and distinguished herself by her love of housework, cooking and sewing lived up to an ideal that had now been broken down due to modern life. Girls had to live in the modern world, and the ideal of implicit obedience and complete ignorance of the dangers that had to be faced left them unfitted to face the world they now live in.’

This speech was meant to rally young women, who, at the age of 21 were able to vote, to the cause of the modern woman. Wilkinson herself represented the ideal of the ‘modern woman’. This was a working woman; a woman with a trade, with experience – an unkept woman; somebody outside of the traditional roles of mother, daughter, and spinster. Indeed, her shingled hair and style for convenience caused outrage in House of Commons, her hair in particular hitting the headlines in most national newspapers.

In 1929, with her feet firmly in parliament, Ellen Wilkinson was able to act as a spokesperson and an advocate for these women.

These women, however, did not come into existence in 1929, nor was the ‘modern woman’ an idea that had trail blazed into parliament with Ellen Wilkinson. Wilkinson had seen firsthand from her time as a trade union women’s organiser what industrial women were capable of. Often these women would have their freedom – and their wage- cut short by the inevitable beckoning of domesticity.  These young women had been working hard for their families for decades – now, Ellen advocated that they worked for themselves. This can be no more relevant when looking at the women in the British fishing industries for almost fifty years, where women had been working in prominent roles as herring girls.

Between the late 1880s and the early 1900s, these women were young and unmarried. The work that they carried out – gutting, cleaning and packing the herring – was gruelling, and whilst it was skilled work, requiring precision and speed, it would often leave their hands covered in injuries, not helped by the mass of salt that would be rubbed into them during the curing of the fish.

One of the large herring ports at the time was situated on the Isle of Barra, in Castlebay. Today, a small heritage centre stands nearby, and tells its own story of the impact of industrialisation on creating and furthering the cause of the modern women. At a time when the women of the metropolitan areas of London, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh were strengthening their campaign to achieve suffrage for women, the women of Barra were experiencing a journey of independence, hard work, and emancipation from the traditional role of the wife and the mother – the woman as the domestic servant.

These herring women, though not, perhaps, deliberately so, embodied the idea of the modern woman, borne through skilled work and industry – and their story has fallen to the footnotes of history. Before the vote, before advocates like Wilkinson were actually seated in parliament, these women were furthering the cause not by advocating it, but by living it, experiencing it, and bringing it back to the remote islands of the Outer Hebrides.

In the heritage centre, a small display is made up of ceramics, trinkets, and ornaments – inexpensive items that seem not to have travelled far from the mantelpieces of 20th century homes. These items have been on an incredible voyage, travelling the length of the United Kingdom – North in the summer, and south in the autumn, most notably down to Great Yarmouth, one of the most prominent herring ports in the country. The women of Barra, whose lives before their work in the herring trade had been spent on one of the most remote islands in the United Kingdom, brought back these trinkets from the industrial ports of England, where, for the first time for many, they experienced the excitement, adventure and independence of modern life.

What can be deduced from the accounts that remain of the Hebridean women from Barra’s travels is that this journey was indeed a rite of passage. From 1882 to the 1938, the women of Barra carried out the same procession across the island, with their kists; large trunks holding their belongings, oilskins and equipment, travelling on carts with them. Once waved off on the ferry, they would travel down to Great Yarmouth on chartered trains (there are accounts of them alighting to dance the Highland Fling in Carlisle) to begin their work.

The wage was moderate; in 1911, Fishery Board reports show that the 704 women from Barra earned between £13 and £12 in 29 weeks. The accommodation was small and cramped, and the hours were long. This migrant labour system did indeed provide cheaper labour (which was challenged in 1938 and 1949, when the Scots women went on strike for better pay), but from firsthand accounts of these women, we can deduce that despite these drawbacks, (they) these women didn’t always mind. What they were offered in return was a new world, and an adventure. These women were exposed to a life they could live on their own terms, of working in the day and socialising in the evening, of companionship and relationships. They were experiencing the life that Ellen Wilkinson would later set out in 1929, as an ideal for a working, modern woman. 

As a museologist, my interest lies in the objects that these women brought back, things that still survive in houses and in heritage centres across the isles of Scotland today. These gifts, demonstrating the still tightly knotted ties to their families and friends back home, are symbols of independence. Despite the low wage these women received, they were able to spend this wage not only on their essentials and their socialising, but on gifts for their families.

One of the best modern accounts of these kists, filled with treasures, comes from the archive of Angus Macleod,  from Lewis, in which he describes the return of his aunts – and their kists – from Great Yarmouth. He wrote: ‘The ‘kist’ always contained tit-bits such as Yarmouth rock and other delicacies such as fruitcakes, which we were not used to, and which were therefore highly acceptable. Every dresser in the Island also contained evidence of the fishing girls travels to the various fishing ports in the shape of dishes and ornaments such as butter dishes marked ‘a present from Fraserburgh’, or Yarmouth…’. These gifts, not only symbols of independence,  served as objects of pride; treasures from a faraway land, proof of where they had been, the hard work carried out, and their earnings. We can take from Macleod’s account the anticipation and the excitement stirred amongst the children of the islands for the return of the women and their kists. It’s easy to imagine the young girls hearing their stories and receiving these trinkets, and perhaps starting to anticipate their own journeys, following the ‘silver darlings’ as the herring were called, on the long road down to modernity, independence, and adventure.

Soon, the idea of the modern woman would sweep across the nation, and by 1968, women were not only striking and fighting for better pay, but for equal pay. Though the herring industry had ended, and the journeys of the Hebridean women ceased, their adventures are testament to the achievement modernism through industry. Their stories should have their place in the journey of the modern woman and the long fight of women workers for equality and independence.

Helen Antrobus has an MA in Museum and Gallery Studies, and has worked the People’s History Museum for two years, working to engage sponsors and audiences with the lives and the collections of the museum’s Radical Heroes. She is currently developing and coordinating the exhibitions and events programme for the centenary of the Representation of the People Act. Her previous role in the archive informed her research into the lives of radical women and how they are interpreted through their collections. Her work focuses on engaging audiences with these stories, from women such as Ellen Wilkinson and more recently Betty Tebbs. A specialist in the life of Ellen Wilkinson, she is a regular on TV and Radio, most recently taking part in Great Lives with Matthew Parris and Maxine Peake, The Last Word, and Clare Balding’s Ramblings on BBC Radio 4. She has appeared several times on BBC News and BBC Breakfast.

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