Herring Busses – The Dutch Pre-Industrial Fishing Fleet

The herring buss (haring buis, if you feel authentic) is an example of fishing a monumental scale before the invention of machinery. The busses, although somewhat small (probably about 20m) and well proportioned, being designed as both nippy and spacious. Unfortunately all there remains of the herring buss are drawings and descriptions – not a single example survives. At least, none that are known or have been identified – a shame, when history tells us that the Dutch herring fleet was several hundred vessels strong.

Herring busses utilised drift nets (gill nets) and moved with the herring – they started in Shetland and moved their way down to Yarmouth and Lowestoft over the course of the year. This was a pattern that continue largely uninterrupted for several centuries, from the 1600’s right up to the mid 19th century. This fleet developed and evolved over the centuries, with both ships and trade changing with the times. At its peak, this fleet was so large and well organised that no one else had a chance to operate on the same scale.

The buss itself became a kind of factory ship – herring caught, salted and packed on each vessel, with the final product then handed off to other, smaller ships which would journey to and from the mainland while the busses remained at sea for the season. The British tried to get in the herring action but never had the capital to make any impact on Dutch activities. Plenty of  diatribes and fist-shaking was to be had, right up until the issue of money and resources was mentioned. As a naval nation, Britain preferred warships to busses. Still, this leaves us with the wonderfully titled The Herring-Busses Trade: Expressed in Sundry Particulars, both for the building of Buses, making of deepe Sea-Nets, and other appurttenances, also the right curing of the Herring for Forreine Vent. Written by Simon Smith, ‘Agent for the Royall-Fishing’, and published in 1641, we can see how early on the Dutch dominated this fishery. there is one example of a English herring buss here: English Herring Buss c.1750 although it a century later and made according to the specifications laid down be a Swedish shipwright, Fredrick af Chapman.

But why Dutch herring? One word: quality. The salted herring provided by the Dutch was considered the best, and in early modern Europe this was an important consideration when purchasing your salted herring. and why was this? Another singe word: Christianity. Meat was an expensive resource at any times, but even the richest had to abstain on fridays, during Lent and feast days. In that time, that was a hefty chuck of the year that there was no meat. Fish, one the other had, was acceptable – but did not keep well on the long journey from the coast to inland towns, so had to be preserved. The sheer volume produced by the Dutch and its good quality led to the Dutch dominating and relying on the herring for a huge part of their economy for several centuries – so its true what they say – Amsterdam is built on herring bones!

Haring Buis - Wikipedia Commons

Haring Buis – Wikipedia Commons