Lowestoft makes its appearance in the Domesday Book of 1086 as an agricultural village of 20 families. It was a sub-manor of Lothingland, under the manor of Gorleston. It would be several centuries before its heyday as a major fishing port.
There was no access to the sea from what are now Lake Lothing and Oulton Broad. What fishing the men of the village were engaged in was from the beach, just as it was and would remain at neighbouring places such as Pakefield and Kessingland. However, through medieval times the beach fishing grew in importance, and wills and inventories of the 15th and 16th century illustrate that the economy and the physical location of the village had shifted to benefit from the sea.
The neighbouring town of Great Yarmouth had become the great herring port of the east coast and for many years controlled the fishing at Lowestoft. The continuing rivalry was epitomised in the two towns taking different side in the English Civil War. Eventually the shackles of its neighbour were thrown off, and Lowestoft thrived of its own accord.
The town was gradually constructed, the merchants building safely on the cliff tops, whilst only the functional support industry for the fishing grew on the wide open areas of the beach, the Denes. Gillingwater's history of Lowestoft illustrates what a thriving town it had become before the construction of the harbour and its development as a resort.
In the late 18th century it developed as a fashionable seaside town, as did a number of other places, following but not so grand as Scarborough and Brighton. The great step forward came when the merchants of Norwich, which itself operated as a port, became so frustrated with the problems of their goods coming through Great Yarmouth - cost, theft and physical problems at the harbour mouth - that a plan was devised to create a new outlet to the sea at Lowestoft. The building of the 'New Cut' from the river Waveney to the river Yare meant that Yarmouth could be avoided. For some years success looked possible, and sea-going vessels journeyed both to Beccles and Norwich. Then the lock gates at Mutford failed, and trade began to fail.
Enter Sir Moreton Peto, now regarded as 'the father of modern Lowestoft'.He purchased the harbour at Lowestoft and built a railway line to the town, thus opening the whole of England as a market for the town's fresh fish. A quay with railway siding was built, and then an outer harbour, with a north pier for the fish markets and a south pier for the tourists.
A trade shipping cattle from Denmark further enhanced the success of the harbour, and sheep and oxen followed. Rolling stock and engineering supplies for Peto's overseas railway ventures were also shipped from the town. Peto's overseas adventures overstretched the capabilities of the business he had set up, but the demands of the fishing would ensure that the Waveney Dock and the Hamilton Dock would be added to the harbour facilities and the fishing ensured prosperity through to the 1960s.
Lowestoft had continued to develop as a tourist resort, with the help of course of the railway and entrepreneurs constructing seaside hotels and other facilities. However, the herring fishery and its drifters, together with the white fish industry and its trawlers, dragging the seabed for cod, haddock, plaice and skate, were the principal planks of the local economy. Sailing craft gave way to steam powered vessels, the harbour tugs busily assisted and smaller size merchant vessels continued to use the harbour.
At the peak of the trade, in the first decade of the 20th century, many hundreds of vessels made their way in and out between the twin piers of the harbour mouth. Net lofts at the foot of the cliffs were busy, the 'beatsters' skilled at repairing the nets. Poles were set up across the Denes for nets to be hung out to be dried. The herring industry was boosted in the autumn by the arrival of the Scots drifter fleets who followed the fish down the east coast. By rail, they brought their own support workers, the Scots fisher girls, who gutted and packed the herring in the style required by their customers.
At the far east of England, Lowestoft would be an important base during both the First and Second World wars. In the former conflict, the town suffered shelling as the enemy navy sought to draw the British fleet south from its base at Scapa Flow. During the latter war, the town featured five distinct naval establishment, with 200 officers and 7,000 ratings based there. Mines-sweeping, motor torpedo boat patrol and training at Europa, the base on the North Denes, were amongst the activities. The shores of Lake Lothing, where wooden steam drifters had once been built, saw motor minesweepers and power launches under construction.
The herring fishing would last just two decades after the war, and the trawling until more recent times; boat building by such companies as Richards' and Brooke's would continue through the 20th century whilst specialist constructors like SLP arrived to support the gas and oil industry which had developed in the North Sea.
Industries ashore were often substantially in support of the fishing. Clothing and foodstuffs for the boats, salt for the curing of herring and ice for the trawlers were all imported, developed and traded in the town. Around the market the fish merchants had their offices, buying the catches and arranging onward shipment, sometimes by rail to other parts of Britain and sometimes by sea to more distant markets.
Two other past industries deserve mention. Lowestoft china was produced in the second half of the 18th century and it remains a very collectible item today. In more recent times, in the 20th century, Eastern Coach Works probably traces its origins back to a pool of skilled builders of horse drawn carriages who had turned their hands to building bus bodies just before the First World War.
Today the economy of the town is more varied, though merchant vessels continue to use the harbour. The fishing industry gradually declined as catches were reduced in line with conservation requirements. Regeneration in the town is accompanied by developments to meet the needs of the growing market for leisure sailing through marinas.
The bascule bridge that joins Lake Lothing to the outer harbour symbolises the development of Lowestoft as a port in the 19th century - and can be a considerable irritant to drivers!
The story of Lowestoft and fishing is summed up in this famous picture of the pier heads, a steam drifter and a sailing trawler
The narrow lanes that form the ancient links between the main town on the cliff top and the beach are known as 'scores'
A print of a sailing vessel in the inner harbour at Lowestoft; St John's church in the background
A tug completes construction on the shores of Lake Lothing, a reminder of 150 years of shipbuilding, now gone