Of all the books mentioned in this guide no other storyteller has used the particular blend of historical fact, imagined fictional happenings and stunning first-rate contemporary photography to such good effect as Theresa Tomlinson does in the two related volumes “The Flither Pickers” (1992) and “The Herring Girls”(1994). The small fishing communities to the north of Whitby and the small town itself are the locations for these two moving stories. The turn of the 19th to the 20th century is the period in which the stories are set and the remarkable photographs of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe that are incorporated in each book reinforce without overwhelming the author’s careful recreation of both the people and the places.
Her stories are ones of loss and love, of tragedy and triumph, of the spirit of independence and the sense of community. Although both the stories are told from the point of view of teenage girls, strong links are built to the experience of their elder siblings and to the world of their fathers and grandfathers and most particularly their mothers and grandmothers. More than anything else the author has been meticulous and inspired in her description of the hard and sometimes dangerous physical work involved in being a fisherman, a flither picker or a herring girl.
Liza Welford in “The Flither Pickers” has a special feeling for her grandmother who she realises is on the very brink of death. She cannot feel the same sense of closeness to her mother who seems to fret all the time about Liza’s younger brother. Before she dies the old lady seems to have something that she wants to tell her granddaughter before it is too late. However, the opportunity passes and Liza finds herself slowly discovering information from some of the older women in the small community. Uncovering this mystery, which somehow links to her own mother, takes the rest of the book. At its basis is a tragedy which sounds all too probable. What happens to John Ruswarp is an even more poignant disaster. Young John has got Irene, Liza’s elder sister, pregnant and, though the two want to marry, there is the inevitable family upheaval on the same day as the old woman’s funeral. When Liza’s father quickly accepts the situation and talks about a new life coming to replace the old one that has gone, it seems that events have taken a positive turn. But life by the sea is so hard and so dangerous that an inevitable new peril is just around the corner.
The days of terrible storms bring renewed danger and the author conjures a spell-binding but spine-chilling scene in which the lifeboat is launched with an old man as the coxswain, young boys at the oars, and all the women and children in the village dragging the heavy, lumbering vessel across the sand to be catapulted into the tumultuous waves. It would be all too easy for the author to turn this attempt at rescue into a triumph but her theme is the harshness of the life that was led by these resilient people. It is with a shudder that we hear Liza think of one of her hated items of clothing.
“It was special for funerals, and we had plenty of them.”
There are many more details of the horrors that these little communities sometimes had to face. Even Frank, the elder brother who joined the army to escape the dangers of fishing in the small cobles, returns with stories of the concentration camps in the Boer War to remind us of the other horrors that are to be found in this world. There is seemingly no easy escape from a life of grinding poverty and relentless hard work.
Liza’s way out would be through education. Her teacher thinks highly of her but Liza knows that she must miss school in order to help her family through its time of trial. For a while she must become a “flither picker”, undertaking the hard manual labour of searching the beach and rocks for the bait that will serve to entice the cod and haddock on to the lines of their menfolk. Only then can she get close enough to her mother to talk about the secret that her grandmother had wanted to pass on.
Amongst the horrors that Sandswick people always dreaded was the thought of your family being taken into the Workhouse. It was the lowest point on the scale of ignominy. In “Herring Girls” it the possibility that has to be faced when Dory Lythe’s mother who used to take in the village’s washing collapses with a stroke and cannot move. It falls on Dory to make some money so that the family can be safely got through the winter. The local clergyman believes that Dory could be found work as a laundry maid but she is determined to be a herring girl and the whole community of women close round her to defy the Reverend Hawkins and his plans for the workhouse for the rest of the family.
But herring gutters work in teams and, though Dory can count on her friend Mary-Jane, there seems to be no one else willing to make the short journey to Whitby for the herring season. Only Nelly Wright puts herself forward and neither of them like Nelly. Although she is twenty one, she is one of the few girls in the village who has never had a boy courting her.
The rest of the story is about the time the three girls spend in Whitby and it would be a shame indeed to steal the plot from the author and reveal all its details here. There are memorable scenes of the individual efforts of the girls as they work at the fish-quay, struggling to master their new skills, experiencing both the hostility and later the friendship of the Scottish professionals, and almost collapsing with the exhaustion of maintaining the frantic pace of gutting (“gipping”) , sorting, packing and storing. As they learn their trade so they and the readers begin to understand the whole concept of the “herring season” and the way in which it brought a huge influx of strangers and a brief prosperity to the small fishing town. Whilst we follow the story of the herring girls the author continues to let us know what happened next to the other characters we met in “The Flither Pickers”. In particular Liza Welford’s struggle to use her education to better herself runs in parallel to the efforts of her friends from Sandwick to earn enough money for the coming winter.
The closeness of death to the life of the fisherman is recaptured by another dramatic scene under the cliffs and quays of the small harbour and the words of the old hymn that Dory hears the Cornishmen singing in the chapel are brought vividly to life.
“Will your anchor hold in the straits of fear,
When the breakers roar and the reef is near”
This time, however, the ending of the book avoids the tragedy that is so profound in “The Flither Pickers”. All the girls have gained pride in themselves and felt the comradeship of the other gutting teams. Nelly Wright, most unexpectedly, has discovered something even more worthwhile that has transformed her character and changed the adverse opinions of the other girls.
The meticulous attention to detail gives the the books a feeling of authenticity that convinces you from the start. However, the very human scale of the girls’ experiences ensures that the main sensation is of being involved in the lives of very ordinary but very remarkable human beings.
Many other of Theresa Tomlinson’s books are worthy of note and some are clearly set in the north-east. “The Night of the Red Devil”(2000), for example, is intended for younger readers and fits into the genre of what nowadays would be called the “time-slip” novel. A lump of jet found on the beach near Whitby and his friendship with his new friend, Naomi, transforms Sam’s boring holiday with his family into an exciting adventure. When he goes through the magical doorway to the past Sam finds himself in Henrietta Street in 1870. The “Red Devils” of the title are the jet polishers of the famous Victorian industry that was then at the height of its prosperity. However, very soon both Sam and the reader know that somehow disaster is looming.
In “Beneath the Burning Mountain” (2001) Theresa Tomlinson takes her readers even further back into north-eastern history to the days when all the ghastly processes concerned with the production of alum dominated the lives of certain working class communities. Once again Ann and Polly Langtoft, living in the 18th century, are facing poverty and danger with nothing to rely on but their own reservoirs of courage and the strength of the community that they live in. Set in a fictional village just beyond the fishing community of Sandwick described in the other two tales, the author brings out the harshness of everyday life for the two teenage girls who have to collect urine for use in the final stages of the making of alum crystals. However, this is the time of the wars against Napoleon and even the rigour and stench of these revolting conditions is to be preferred to being taken by a particularly ruthless press-gang operating out of an inn in Whitby. The author has managed to mix real events from history with the story of two humble teenage Yorkshire girls. The landslip that destroys their community is based on a recorded event at Kettleness and even the riot against the press-gang is suggested by something that really happened. An old rumour about how George III was secretly brought to the Yorkshire coast to help cure his madness is also cunningly incorporated into the story. The strength of the family pulls the Langtofts through their time of crisis, and the reader can see that new alliances have also been forged between the people of the fishing village (the “fish faces”) and the alum workers (the “piss-pots”), not least through the growing love between Ann and Tommy.
Although she calls her little town Seaburn, all the details of Theresa Tomlinson’s modern story “Riding the Waves” (1990) suggest that she is in fact thinking of the Victorian spa resort of Saltburn on the Cleveland coast. Two characters dominate the story. Matt is an eleven year old in the first year of the comprehensive school who has been sent on a local history project to visit Florrie, an old lady that has some remote connection with his family. From this starting point the story then begins to unravel the different ways in which the lives of the two characters both resemble and differ from each other. It involves the young boy and the old lady taking a trip into their memories and their feelings about the past. This also involves drawing the reader into an exploration of what Seaburn/Saltburn was like in the days before it fell into decline. The relics of the town’s former glory are all around Matt : the pier, the famous hydraulic lift, the remains of the splendid hotel. They are also there inside Florence’s head, wrapped up with the memory of her love affair and the baby that she had to give away. When the reader gradually works out that Matt was adopted, the emotional link between these two characters at the opposite ends of the age spectrum is strengthened and begins to have a beneficial effect on both of them. Matt’s ambition is to join the surfers and ride the waves back onto the Seaburn beach. Florence begins to show him that learning how to do this is a metaphor for life, how you must climb back and start again every time that you are knocked down.