The Transformation of Southwold Harbour
Ernest Read Cooper and the Transformation of Southwold Harbour 1891–1914
 

E.R. Cooper's name is well–known to historians of Suffolk and his books and articles reveal his gifts for research and for vivid writing. But his life had many sides. He was a skilled yachtsman and a solicitor and Town Clerk of Southwold from 1895. Born in 1865, he was brought up at Westwood lodge and by 1891 he was living and practising in Southwold. Constantly in boats himself, he felt a great affinity with the local fishermen, especially those he met and worked with on the lifeboats, and he knew the poverty they endured and which at this time was widespread in the town. He was also painfully aware that Southwold harbour which in earlier days had brought trade and work to the town was now derelict. He considered also that the harbour piers and the flowing out of the river were vital to the defence of Southwold against the sea. But he knew too that the impoverished town council could never find money to rescue the harbour and in face of this he conceived his daring scheme to make Southwold into a third East Anglian port for the Scottish herring fishery which was booming at this time.

A preliminary attempt to procure a better rail link failed but he pressed on and in 1898 after a fund-raising effort the Council obtained re-possession of its harbour. Bodies representing Scots fishermen and fishcurers were then approached and their positive response induced Messrs Fasey & Son of Leytonstone to take over as developers of the harbour, backed by a grant from the Board of Trade. Plans for receiving 250 fishing drifters went ahead. The harbour piers were to be extended and along the quay there was to be a 1000 foot wall, behind which the sales office and the curing plots would be accommodated. The fish, packed in barrels, would be rolled straight on to German steamers for export, thus solving the transport problem.

In July the Corporation sold the harbour to Faseys and work began, only to be soon impeded by the need to lengthen the north pier. Fasey asked the Council to contribute to this expense and having no money the Council agreed instead to schedule an additional 27 acres of town land. A local row broke out over the 27 acres and this frightened Fasey into stopping the works - a delay which the project could ill-afford. However, at last in October 1907, the first Scottish drifter entered the harbour. Cooper was both Clerk to the Council and also Secretary and Manager of the Harbour Company, a dual position which some people attacked. He maintained that he was only keeping the books but his experience as a seaman must have been invaluable.

Large numbers of drifters entered in 1908–9 and the Scots girls who lodged in the town were busy in the curing plots. 1910 however was stormy and only 477 fishing boats came. Consequently only two curing firms operated in 1911, and again fishing was poor causing the curers finally to desert. 1912 and 1913 were record seasons on Lowestoft but no drifters came to Southwold. Locals landed sprats which only high-lighted the lack of rail transport. Not until November 1914 was a branch line from the Southwold railway constructed and its gauge was still three feet.

The war and the later decline of the herring fishing ended any hopes for Cooper's great scheme but he could still claim that he had saved the harbour from dereliction.

See: Suffolk Review, Autumn 1997, pp.2–12.

Rachel Lawrence, Southwold, January 1998.
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