In the words of Thomas Hinderwell’s 1811 History, “Numerous parties from Scarborough...make excursions to Filey in the summer-season”. However, he continued, “notwithstanding its peculiar advantage for sea-bathing, it has few accommodations for permanent visitors”.
It seems that Hinderwell made no concessions for people like Charlotte Brontë, who, at a later date, was a “permanent visitor” to Filey and much preferred its slow pace and quiet atmosphere to the hustle and noise of Scarborough’s summer season.
In 1811, Hinderwell described Filey as “a small fishing-town eight miles south of Scarborough” and he was rather puzzled why it seemed to be so stuck in the past. After all, its “beautiful and spacious bay” was protected “by an extraordinary ridge or mole of rocks called Filey-bridge” so that it made “an excellent harbour”. Moreover, Filey’s superb shore sands, which ran in a crescent for nearly three miles, were “esteemed the finest on this part of the coast”. With such perfect natural advantages both as a port and a sea-bathing resort, why had Filey, unlike Bridlington or Scarborough, remained only “a small fishing-town?”.
Hinderwell had nothing but the highest praise for the people of Filey. Nearly all of them lived by fishing and they were remarkable for “their sobriety and industry, their cordiality as neighbours, and their inter-marriages with each other”. Aware of the genetic dangers of in-breeding, two hundred years later, we would be more cautious than Hinderwell of such a small community inter-marrying with each other.
In fact, the first national census of 1801 had revealed that only 505 people lived in Filey and that a significant proportion of them were called Jenkinson or Cammish! Here then was a society that had hardly changed for centuries, devoting itself almost entirely to one occupation, fishing, which engaged fully all its male and female population. One family historian of Filey has discovered that for nearly 200 years all its fishermen were drawn from no more than 12 families!
There were several reasons why old Filey was so exclusive, isolated, conservative and small. First of all, there was only one main source of employment and income and the whole community was dependent on them. They fished all year round: in-shore during the winter with three-man cobles and out at sea during the summer in five-men boats, three-masted luggers with a crew of five men, a cook and a boy.
They used baited hooks on lines to catch demersal fish such as cod that lived near the sea bed, and drift nets for pelagic fish such as the herring which swim near the surface. Herring were caught at night: their peculiar glow visible at a distance. Between August and November, they fitted out their five-men boats to follow the great shoals of herring southwards down the coast as far as Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.
Unlike Scarborough’s fishermen, whom he thought were lazy and unenterprising, Hinderwell believed Filey’s were “exceedingly stout and hardy”. He did not mention their women, who were just as stout and hardy as their menfolk.
Wives and daughters collected the bait: they would “skein” or prepare the “flithers”, whelks, winkles and mussels, and use them to bait the hundreds of hooks, 280 to each line. The three men in the cobles had each three lines, so that when fastened together as one line it stretched nearly three miles long and carried 2,520 baited hooks! The younger women and girls often walked many miles with their flither baskets and some even climbed or descended rope ladders to gather bait from the seacliffs. Older men, women and children repaired nets and every fisherman wore a home-made gansey (guernsey) as a top coat.
The cobles were versatile: they could be beached on and launched from Filey’s sandy shore without the need for quays or piers. This explained why other “foreign” boats did not normally seek shelter in Filey’s natural “harbour”: they could only anchor their vessels in the bay and come ashore in rowing boats.
Old Filey was self-sufficient. The villagers had their own arable and pasture and they took their water from springs in Church Ravine which was also tapped for centuries by Dutch seamen until as late as the 1930s.
Until they were enclosed in the 1790s, Old Filey had three open arable fields. Church Field was north of St Oswald’s and is now the Country Park; the Great Field lies under the new housing estate north of Scarborough Road; and the Little Field straddled West Avenue, formerly Little Field Road. Altogether they covered nearly 700 acres. Predictably, after enclosure, the lord of the manor got the lion’s share, 376 acres.
Hinderwell concluded his brief description of Filey as it was in 1811 by telling the reader that the lord of the manor there was Humphrey Osbaldeston Esq. of Hunmanby and that as such he had “a right to the fishing to a small distance from the shore”. Perhaps he did not know that by ancient custom a representative of the lord threw a javelin into Filey Bay and where it entered the sea then became the furthest limit of the new lord’s free fishing rights.
Neither did Hinderwell try to explain a puzzle that has long baffled many historians and antiquarians. Why did a community, settled almost entirely on the south side of a steep-sided ravine or “deep chasm”, have their only church and its graveyard on the opposite north side? Until a local authority boundary change in 1889 St Oswald’s stood in the North Riding and its parishioners lived in the East Riding along what became Queen and Church Streets. St Oswald, king and martyr, is one of the patron saints of fishermen, but in the late years of the twelfth century the Black Canons of Bridlington Priory built his church in what was a most inconvenient place for its lay population. One explanation might be that, as at Whitby and Scarborough, the parish churches came to appear isolated and remote because the earliest settlements they were meant to serve were once adjacent, not distant. Was this also the case at Filey?