The 75th anniversary has just been celebrated of the prestigious Prunier Trophy, awarded for the greatest catch of herring in one night’s fishing.
Hundreds of herring drifters used to fish from the ports of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth during the East Anglian ‘Home Fishing’ period – sometimes over 1,000 vessels. Many of these drifters were from Scotland, particularly Fraserburgh and Peterhead and other east coast ports, and indeed, many of them won the coveted award or were runners-up.
The rules were strict. The competition was open to vessels taking part in the Home Fishing and a claim had to be with the committee within 48 hours of the landing of the fish.
The first trophy winner ever was Boy Andrew __BF592 with 231 crans, and the last winner was Tea Rose FR346. She won with only just over 128 crans in 1966 – a sign of the depleted herring stocks – when the total number of Scottish vessels working from Great Yarmouth had fallen to 30. In the early years of the competition they had numbered over 400.
When the fishing was good, there was employment for thousands of shore workers as the fish were landed, transported and processed. The herring were salted or pickled, kippered or bloatered, distributed to the home market or exported by the shipload. In times of glut, large quantities were sold for fish meal. Gangs of Scottish fisher girls arrived to gut and pack the fish and the two ports bustled with activity.
The Prunier Trophy, which came from a most unlikely source, was first presented in 1936 to the skipper and crew who landed the biggest haul of herrings. Madame Simone Prunier owned restaurants in Paris and London and had inherited the prestigious family business in Paris at the age of 22, on the death of her father.
Descended from a family of distinguished restaurateurs, Simone Prunier opened her restaurant in St James’s Street, London, in 1934. It quickly gained a reputation for its outstanding fish and shellfish dishes and was the capital’s most fashionable seafood restaurant for many years.
In 1935 she decided to open a branch in London and became aware of the plight of the British herring industry. Though the fish were plentiful, demand was low, and their culinary value was unappreciated. Fish were being dumped or sold for fish meal and vessels were being laid up, with a consequent loss of jobs, .
Simone Prunier realised that those very men who crewed the fishing boats were those who formed the Navy in times of war. Her brainchild was the presentation of the Prunier Trophy, to boost morale and create a spirit of competition among the drift net fishermen, and to publicise the fact that herrings were tasty, nutritious – and available.
Freshly caught herring were high on the menu at her famous London restaurant, despatched by rail for her chefs to prepare. At the beginning of each herring season, the first catch to be landed at Lowestoft or Yarmouth early in the morning was presented at her customers’ tables at lunchtime – rather like the first bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau being rushed from France, or the first grouse of the season arriving at the top tables.
The competition encompassed the two full moons, peak periods when the herrings were expected to swim in huge numbers. The hunter’s moon was eagerly anticipated. The drift net method of fishing was considered a sporting, though commercial, venture. Herrings could only be caught when the shoals decided to swim, as opposed to spending their time deeper in the sea. A skipper might see great shoals on his echo-sounder, but if the fish didn’t swim there was little or no catch.
Vessels could shoot their nets in close proximity, with one vessel catching hundreds of crans and a nearby one very little. Sometimes there were not enough herrings for the crew’s breakfast in almost two miles of nets.
If the winner should be an East Anglian drifter, the rules stipulated that the runner up must be a Scottish vessel, and vice versa.
Competition between skippers was intense. So many fishermen wanted to sail with the top skippers that they could hand pick their crews.The crews, too, were keen for big catches at top prices, as their basic wages were made up with a share of the boat’s earnings.
When word spread around Lowestoft and Yarmouth that a drifter was returning to port with an exceptional shot of herrings there was great excitement. Rumours of the catch abounded, and spectators gathered at the pierheads.
One such day, in the 1952 season, the news broke that the Lord Hood was returning to Lowestoft with a gigantic catch. The skipper had radioed in from a few miles off, and another Lowestoft drifter went to escort her in. She was a sight for sore eyes as she negotiated the piers, loaded to capacity, with only nine inches of freeboard amidships. The few crans of herrings unable to be accommodated below decks had been washed overboard by rough seas, and it looked as though a few more herrings would have sunk the vessel.
After hauling for 15 hours, it had taken the Lord Hood another 22 hours to steam home, averaging a speed of two knots, with a winning catch of over 314 crans. The skipper, Ernie Thompson, the only man to win the trophy twice, was successful again in 1958 with a much more modest haul of just over 162 crans.
The trophy, made of Purbeck marble, was designed by sculptor Charles Sykes, and unveiled by Madame Prunier at the annual oyster and game feast at her London restaurant in 1936. The sculpture, depicting a hand rising from a wave, clasping a herring, bears on the base photographs of all the winning skippers. A weather vane was also installed at the masthead of the winning vessel.
The winning crew received a £25 prize and a tour of London, including a meal at the Prunier restaurant. This was later amended, so that the skipper received an inscribed silver cigarette case, and each crew member a silver ashtray.
First published in English in 1938, Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book quickly became famous. In 1957 she wrote La Maison, the History of Prunier’s. The restaurant closed in 1976.
This lady endeared herself to the herring fishing industry. Even now when the Home Fishing crops up in conversation the Prunier Trophy is brought to mind. Such was her esteem, that in later years, Lowestoft named a drifter in her honour – The Madame Prunier.
The trophy and one of the weather vanes are to be seen in Lowestoft’s Maritime Museum.
Mick Harrod is a freelance writer whose career path has changed a great number of times. In younger days he worked as a fisherman, both trawling and herring fishing – often reflected in his writing.Tweet
This is an article from the March 2012 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.