‘Spitting on her hands she firmly grasped the rope and stepped over the edge.’ Brave fisher girls of the 1860s who abseiled over 200ft cliffs to scoop up shellfish from jagged rocks are revealed in stunning portraits by Victorian diarist

  • Pictures from the 1860s and 1870s have given a glimpse into the lives of fisher girls in Yorkshire and Tyneside
  • Girls as young as 11 would scale down slippery 200ft cliff faces to collect baskets of mussels and limpets
  • What they returned with was used as bait on fishing boats in the North Sea to keep the trade going 
  • 1800s diarist Arthur Munby was fascinated with working class women and photographed their efforts 

Fascinating pictures have revealed a glimpse into the life of 19th Century fisher girls who abseiled down huge cliff faces to fetch mussels and limpets.

Rare photos have emerged from the collection of Victorian diarist Arthur Munby, who chronicled the lives of women and girls doing punishing jobs in the 1860s. 

Mr Munby befriended fisher girls in Scarborough, Flamborough and Filey in Yorkshire and others in Tyneside, visiting them several times and eventually photographing their efforts.

The mussels and limpets were collected and then passed on to local fishermen to be used as bait on their boats at sea, which kept the trade thriving.

The women and girls, some aged as young as 11, would come from towns and villages in Yorkshire and displayed great bravery, with Mr Munby writing they were fearless while descending down cliffs, while he said they also claimed they could walk dozens of miles from town to village over near 24-hour days.

In a diary dated 1867, he wrote: ‘The men clung to the rope with both hands in climbing, while the girls used only one hand, steadying their baskets with the other.’ 

The diarist, who died in 1910 aged 82, was from a very different social class to the women and studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, which led to him making some judgmental comments in his notes on their exploits.

In one passage on Sally, he wrote: ‘Spitting on her hands (vulgar creature!) and rubbing them together, she firmly grasped the rope and stepped over the edge.’

Fishergirls Molly Nettleton, left, and Sally Mainprize, right, are pictured on Flamborough beach in Yorkshire after collecting mussels and limpets, with Sally shown balancing a full basket on her head in an impressive display of strength. Fisher girls would take the shellfish they collected back to their towns and villages to be used as bait by their fathers’ and husbands’

Molly, left, and Sally, right, are pictured at Flamborough in 1867 with an unidentified woman after collecting baskets of shellfish. The women are wearing sturdy shoes which helped them avoid slipping on the rocks, although the diaries of Arthur Munby, who commissioned the photos, revealed they frequently did fall. He also revealed Molly would scale down cliff faces hanging on to a single rope, sometimes by just one hand

Fisher girls Annie Born, far left, and Hannah Hunter, are pictured left in Filey, Yorkshire, in 1867 posing for Mr Munby while right are two unidentified fisher girls next to a boat on a beach at Cullercoats, Tyneside, where another close knit fishing community existed. Girls would often start working on the cliffs aged 11 to help their families, with duties including attaching hooks and gutting and cleaning fish brought back from sea 

Molly is pictured here with some of her colleagues in Flamborough in 1867. The women are all wearing a similar outfit, with their baggy leggings worn above their boots to avoid getting caught underfoot. They also wore shawls over their shoulders to keep warm on cold and windy days. It is unknown exactly how much fisher girls like these were paid but many would not have been if they were doing the work to help their families fishing trade

They included Molly Nettleton, who had been working on the cliffs since she was 11 years old and would often descend 200ft down slippery rocks secured by just a single rope. 

Mr Munby also wrote about how resilient the fisher girls were, including one in Flamborough called Sally Mainprize.

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He said: ‘Even Sally’s practised foot was not always safe on the slippery weed: looking up, and raising her arm to wave me a salute, she slipped and fell sideways into a pool; but was up again in not time, uninjured.’ 

Who was Arthur Munby? The poet, barrister and philanthropist who took a special interest in the work of women 

Born in York in 1828, Arthur Munby was a member of high society in the 19th century and worked in a number of prestigious jobs.

After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1851, he became a barrister four years later and was called to the bar.

Then in 1858 he began a 30-year job with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners as a civil servant, retiring in 1888.

But it was his extracurricular exploits that he has been remembered for, including his fascination with working women.

He was particularly interested in their bodies, writing in diaries about how fisher girls and miners had ‘very large arms and hands’ and were ‘sturdy’.  

A passionate photographer, he took hundreds of pictures of working class women over the decades including kitchen maids, milkmaids and even acrobats.

He was also an amateur artist and would include sketches of working women in his diaries. 

Mr Munby’s interest in working women also extended to helping them improve their standing, and he helped set up an adult education school in north London in 1864.

It came after he spent the previous decade teaching Latin at a similar school for working men. 

Mr Munby was also well known for his relationship with Hannah Cullwick, a maid from Shropshire.

They married secretly in 1873, but their relationship is said to have been more ‘master and servant’ than husband and wife. 

The marriage ended four years later and was only revealed by Mr Munby to his brother months before his death. 

Describing watching Sally and her friends in action, he wrote: ‘Sally, who was most picturesquly dressed, adjusted her short red petticoat. Gathering the hinder part in between her knee, she converted the loose, cumbersome skirt into a pair of easy serviceable breeches. 

‘Then she stood up, and shook herself, ready for the plunge, and nothing could be more striking in its way.’

He added: ‘Without stopping she seized the rope and gaily danced, as it were, letting it slip through her hands, as far as the foot of the incline, where it meets the summit of the main wall of cliff.

‘Here, at the corner of the jutting craig, is a ledge, on which before now I have seen this very girl sit at ease, and whistle to the waves.’

On Molly, he added: ‘Hand over hand, sticking her toes into the crevices of the chalk wall, she went up as easily as one might walk upstairs.’

He added: ‘I, the man of the party, was left in a ridiculous position; a useless spectator of these vigorous athletics.’  

On meeting the girls at a railway station, he wrote about how out of place they looked compared to other women.

He said: ‘The well-dressed mobs on the platform looked astounded at the strange dress and stalwart forms of the barbarian fisher girls.’ 

Mr Munby had a fascination with the bodies of working women and showed this in his diaries, writing about how the fisher girls had ‘very large arms and hands’ and were ‘sturdy’ and how they were just as important as men in their villages.

He wrote: ‘They work harder than the men ashore. Poor things. But then the men are almost always afloat, you see.

‘They are big, strong lasses, with hands and arms “very large”.’

Fisher girls would tailor their outfits to suit their trade, wearing cushioned hats to help balance their baskets and soften the weight.

They also wore strong shoes to avoid slipping on rocks and woolen stocking for warmth, with a frock ‘kilted up’ to avoid getting trapped under foot. 

The women were able to use special fisher girl train tickets to get to the coastal areas, costing 3p, or around £3.30 today.

But Mr Munby said those tickets were only introduced in the late 1860s and previously the fisher girls would have worked long and arduous days, walking from town to village.

He wrote: ‘Before that [the tickets] the women used to walk to Cloughton and also to Robin Hood’s Bay for bait, and back the same day – 44 miles! (or so they protested), starting at 12.30am or 1am.’ 

Even after the train tickets were introduced, one of his diary passages reveals groups of 20 women walked at least eight miles back from Scarborough to Filey on the Yorkshire coast with their full loads. 

He added: ‘In the late autumn and early spring they go in troops to Scarborough to gather flithers [limpets] for bait, travelling thither by rail.

‘Then they walk on, fill their creels or sacks and walk back loaded all the way to Filey.’ 

Pictured left are two unidentified women fixing a fishing net in Scarborough in 1876, proving their duties extended beyond the dangerous cliffs. Another unidentified women pictured right in Scarborough in 1875 is seen balancing what appears to be rope on her head, which may have been used in abseiling down the cliffs. Although some fisher girls were able to take advantage of special rate train tickets to get to coastal towns, which cost 3p in the 1860s, around £3.30 today, many more would have walked instead and had to be strong and fit to take their loaded baskets back

Mr Munby, pictured right in 1873, travelled the country to observe working women and is pictured here with female miner Ellen Grounds in Wigan. He wrote extensively about their different professions and also helped set up an adult education college for women in north London in 1864. Mr Munby was also a published poet and a civil servant for 30 years

Pictured left is 15-year-old Janie Crawford, a fisher girl in Filey, Yorkshire, in 1871 posing on a style while two unidentified women are pictured right knitting in Scarborough in 1876. After visiting Scarborough, Flamborough and Filey in Yorkshire several times during the 1860s and 1870s, Mr Munby was able to strike up several friendships with the local fisher girls and eventually persuaded them to pose for a local photographer, although he said they would only agree if they got a copy

An unidentified woman is pictured posing for a picture by standing on a rock on the beach at Filey in 1873. Mr Munby’s diary describes fisher girls as ‘big and strong lasses’ who had ‘very large’ hands and arms to be able to carry the heavy baskets, which could weigh more than a stone when full, with some women carrying up to eight baskets by fastening them to their shoulders and hips

Describing the women as they set off on a journey, Mr Munby wrote they walked with seven or eight baskets which would weigh more than a stone when full. 

He added: ‘They [the baskets] were fastened with ends on her back and shoulders and all resting on a pad on the hips. The baskets [were] all empty except one or two which held food and knitting. Folks stopped to look at ’em, boys shouted “flitherlasses”.’

Despite their hard work, fisher girls were living in poverty and Molly told Mr Munby she could not afford to replace one of her ropes after it was taken by ‘lads’ to be used in a net.

He wrote: ‘[She] cannot afford another; whereby they cannot at present go…and get flithers which they should share. And so I offered to buy a new rope, on condition that Molly should keep it as her own.’ 

Mr Munby added: ‘Molly chose a stout well-tarred rope, and it was weighed, and came to eight and threepence, being 14 pounds’ weight.

‘Molly joyously took up the tarry coil and carried it home on her arm, I going with her. She thanked me as if 24 fathoms of ship’s rope were the prettiest present a woman could have.’ 

Pictured left are Lizzie Holmes, 16, left, an unidentified woman, centre, and Alice Simpson, 18, right, in Filey in 1869 posing for one of Mr Munby’s photos.  Pictured right are two two fisher girls from Cullercoats, North Tyneside. Mr Munby’s diary described the women he met as ‘sturdy’ and he wrote that some claimed to have walked 44 miles to get bait in a single day, starting at 1am

Pictured left are fisher girls Elizabeth Jenks, left, and Fanny Scales, right, in Filey in 1871 while right is an unidentified woman preparing bait in Scarborough in 1876. Mr Munby also said the girls caused a storm when they arrived at railway stations in the late 1800s because higher class passengers looked at them like ‘barbarians’ due to their ‘strange dress’. But their efforts were well appreciated by those in their towns for keeping the local fishing trade thriving

Mr Munby teamed up with a local photographer to capture their portraits, which they would pose for readily so long as they received a copy. 

Others posed up in a studio still wearing work-gear. In some of the pictures the women grin and appear relaxed, which was unusual for the time. 

Mr Munby worked as a civil servant but was a dedicated philanthropist, teaching Latin at one of the world’s earliest adult education schools, the Working Men’s College in north west London after it was set up in 1854.

A decade later he helped set up a sister college for women, while he was also a published poet. 

Fisher girls were common throughout the UK in coastal towns and often worked long hours while also caring for large families.

Fishing communities were tight knit and fisher girls would often supply bait for their fathers’ and husbands’ boats.

But catching bait was not their only task as they would also chip in with maintenance tasks like cleaning nets and lines and then attaching the bait.

Each fisherman would typically use one or two lines on their boat, to which as many as 1,300 hooks might be added by hand by the women.

Once fish were brought back in, women would then help gut and clean them for hours at a time, and large groups could sometimes get through as much as 20,000 fish in a single day. 

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