Who was ever ‘a fisherman’? Revisiting Paul Thompson’s Living the Fishing

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This article revisits Paul Thompson's major oral history project of Britain's early twentieth-century fishing industry, situating it within the emergence of oral history as a practice in the 1960s and 1970s, and interrogating assumptions over the fixed category of 'fisherman' which informed the original research. Through a detailed look at interviews collected with those involved in the herring fishing of East Anglia and north-east Scotland, it finds that Thompson and his colleagues were still as informed by social science interviewing practices as they were oral history as an evolving methodology, and framed their approach at a time when fixed worker identities were taken as given. Revisiting the transcripts with a different set of research questions revealed how 'fishermen' moved in and out of fishing, with 'farmworkers' equally being found as regularly employed on boats. Thus the article argues that instead of fixed and life-long fisher identities, precarity, migration and seasonality were key features of many fishers' involvement in the herring industry. Through focussing on mobility - across place and types of employment - this piece also reveals the central role of personal preference and intimate decision-making in mediating individuals' choices to 'follow the herring'.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)416–440
Number of pages25
JournalTwentieth Century British History
Issue number3
Early online date31 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2021

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