Cat no. 178


Running time1:00:40 Silent 1929 Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

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The North Sea herring fisheries, filmed at Lerwick, in the Shetlands, Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and in the North Sea.


DocumentaryIndustrial / Sponsored Film

The exodus of the fishermen from Hamna Voe, Lerwick. Shots of the low white-washed cottages and of the men marching across the grass, through a few black sheep, carrying brown paper parcels. There are shots of the sea and of the gulls feeding on the water, a recurring theme.

The East Anglian coast. Shots of Yarmouth and Lowestoft are combined to give an impression of a fishing port. Drifters moor alongside the quay at Yarmouth, several deep. One drifter, `The Maid of Thule', is preparing to leave. Shots on board of the men preparing the nets. The captain, an elderly men with grey hair and whiskers, smoking a pipe, gazes out of the wheelhouse. Coal is loaded aboard the drifter and the engine crew prepare the engine ready to depart. Mixes are used in the sequence to superimpose shots of the engine room with shots of the sea. As the boat leaves Lowestoft harbour, there are shots of the quay and of other drifters. The harbour entrance is filmed and then the drifter is out to sea. There are shots back to shore and shots showing the sea breaking on rocks, the engine room and of other drifters. The log line shows the miles passing as the drifter goes further out to sea.

Shots of herring swimming in water as the nets are cast when the drifter is forty miles out. This is a lengthy sequence as there are two miles of nets. These shots are intercut with domestic scenes from the living quarters of men preparing food. One of them is smoking a pipe. Two lengthy sequences feature a young boy working aboard the drifter. The mizzen sail is adjusted before the men eat. There are green-tinted night shots of the nets out at sea. These are mixed with scenes of dogfish, conger and herring swimming in the nets, and of the men asleep in their bunks. There are blue-tinted shots across the sea at dawn and of other drifters. The men wake and dress, pulling on water proofs, prepared for another day's work.

A montage of shots of the men on deck, interior cabin views, the engines at work and the winch pulling in the nets. The men pull the nets over the side of the ship, shaking out the fish. The weather is bad and deteriorates whilst they work. In all, it takes eight hours to pull in the two miles of nets. Shots taken during the storm show water coming up onto the deck and convey the power of the sea through their shaky nature. A porpoise is filmed coming up close to the boat. There are shots from the engine room as the men continue to pull the nets aboard. The catch nets one hundred and fifty crans of herring - a thousand herring to the cran. The fish are stored in the hold. The drifter builds up full steam to head for the harbour to catch the earliest possible market. The engineer prepares the engines. The sequence that follows intercuts shots of the engines at work, with shots of the men on deck and the sea pounding. Shots across the sea show a line of drifters steaming in the same direction. There are shots of the men below. In the engine room the fireman opens the boiler and takes out a shovel of burning coal which he uses to light his cigarette before returning it and closing the boiler.

The quayside at Yarmouth, a hive of activity and anticipation as the port waits for the drifters to return. There are carts loaded with swills, ready for the incoming catch. Lorries are full of coal, ready to load onto the drifters for the next sailing. Fisher girls wander across the quay. The auctioneer wanders along the quayside ringing his bell, calling the buyers to the sail. The drifters at sea enter Lowestoft harbour mouth and steam up the river. There is a coal tug amongst the drifters. Their registration numbers reveal that some are Lowestoft boats, but most come from Scottish ports, Fraserburgh, Banff, Peterhead and Inverness, as well as Lerwick. The men leave the hold and raise the mast. The approach to the quay is filmed from the drifter. At the quayside where the drifter moors, boats are moored several deep. Shots of the boat at sea are superimposed over shots of the buyers meandering to the auction, which is filmed at Yarmouth. The catch is unloaded by a rope and pulley system that moves the crans to the quay. There are shots of the auction. Some of the herring are boxed whole, packed in salt. Others are gutted by the fisher girls. As the barrels roll away to be loaded onto cargo ships, the scenes are mixed with further shots of the sea. The catch is loaded onto the ships and also onto trains. Concludes with the ironical shots of the herring being taken by steam train over the Forth Bridge and back to Scotland - where the trawlers and their men originated.


Not merely the drifters but the whole industry came down from Scotland during the herring fishing season - between October and December. The fisher girls came down by train. In this film there is a cart featured on the quay, on the side it reads James Sutherland, Carter, Peterhead. Grierson had early aspirations as a journalist. He joined the staff of the Empire Marketing Board in 1927. The Empire Marketing Board worked to promote the marketing and products of the British Empire and encouraged research and development. The decision to make the herring drifters the subject of a film was that of the Secretary of the Empire Marketing Board, Stephen Tallents. The film was formally commissioned in 1928. The village used in the production was Hamna Voe in Shetland. The bird scenes were shot at Noss Head, Lerwick. The ship's interiors were re-created in the fishing market at Lerwick. The crew of the Maid of Thule, the first drifter commissioned by Grierson, re-enacted their lives below deck, even swearing at the cook. Grierson found that he couldn't get film of a decent catch off Shetland. He initially decided to try to stage a catch, buying up herring and placing them in the nets. These scenes had to be discarded. He moved to Lowestoft and commissioned the Renovelle. They went to sea in a gale to achieve the dramatic shots that Grierson wanted. Most of the trawlers had taken to harbour. Grierson wrote of this episode; `By a crazy piece of luck, a whale .. came alongside ... and took its share of the catch'. The underwater scenes were shot in tanks (scratches on the glass are visible in some shots) at the Plymouth Marine Biological Research Centre. The 'herring' were roach; herring do not survive out of the sea. The dogfish and conger eels filmed with them were young, to retain the perspective. Shooting was over by the end of November, 1928. New Era Productions developed the negatives and printed the 'rushes.' In the summer of 1929 the film was shown to the Empire Marketing Board's film committee. They didn't like the film montage effect; they had been expecting a straight documentary and were not prepared to settle for anything else. Grierson re-cut the film for the Empire Marketing Board and then sent his own cut to Olympic Kine Laboratories independently. This film was show to the London Film Society on November 10th, 1929 alongside the film which had inspired its montage effect, `Battleship Potemkin'. The film that Grierson re-cut for the Empire Marketing Board was called `Our Herring Industry'. The Archive has a copy of this film.The film was greeted by the `Spectator' as the best British film which has ever been made. (See John Grierson,` A Documentary Biography' by Forsyth Hardy. Faber and Faber, 1979). `Drifters' marked the beginning of the documentary movement in this country. The film was made for the Empire Marketing Board, and the success of the film led to Grierson setting up the Empire Marketing Film Unit. (See Ernest Lindgren, `The Cinema'. Vista Books, 1960). Grierson described `Drifters' as more a myth than a film. (See J. Grierson `On documentary'. Collins, 1946.)

Featured Buildings:

The Forth Bridge

John Grierson

Basil Emmott

John Grierson

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