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Working coast

The ocean has long shaped Britain’s human geography and industry. Explore the ways that people have used the waters around the British Isles as a source of sustenance, transport and commerce, in the process adding vitality to the soundscape of its working coast.

Fishing for survival

For millennia, fishing has been at the heart of many coastal communities, supporting the most basic need for sustenance. Although there is evidence that people have been eating fish since as early as 140,000 years ago, fishing as a practice has since evolved in technique and breadth.[1] While the earliest fishing implement would have been a barbed pole, today commercial fishing uses anything from hand-cast nets to huge trawlers that catch many hundreds of fish at a time. Changes in equipment have also led to changes on an industrial scale.

In Britain, supporting this industry are fishing villages that pepper its perimeter, from the southern tip of Cornwall up to the Shetlands. From these villages come the busy sounds that characterise hard-working ports, from the bumping of boats docking and the piercing cries of greedy and ever-watchful gulls. Against this noisy backdrop, the voices of fisherman enrich our understanding of coastal working lives through stories of hardship, resilience and resourcefulness. Listening to the stories and tales of fishermen provides reminders of the work that happens before a fish might arrive on a plate, battered, with a side of chips.

Maritime trade and transport in the 18th and 19th centuries

Like fishing, trade has long played an important part in Britain’s economy. As an island nation, boats and maritime trade were essential for exchanging goods with even our closest neighbours. Ports and harbours launched vessels that were the first recipients of enticing goods brought back by travellers returning from the four corners of the world. Fresh ideas from different places also arrived at Britain’s shores with each new docking ship, and the soundscapes of these bustling ports would have been full of foreign languages, music and exotic wildlife.

Music certainly would have been heard on merchant boats throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Sailors sang sea shanties as they carried out laborious work on sailing ships. These maritime songs were especially useful for tasks that required coordinating many actions and people at once, such as rigging sails, pulling ropes and hoisting the anchor.

Alongside authorised trade, smuggling was an illegitimate but profitable way to make a living. The 18th century was the zenith for smuggling in Britain but it was fraught with danger for those who took part; any trade of goods not declared to the customs house was considered illegal and so injurious to the state that those found guilty would face death by hanging. One of the most notorious groups of smugglers in Britain’s history was the Hawkhurst Gang, who reportedly had supremacy in the south in the 18th century. Rumoured to have built vast underground networks and tunnels, the terror that they spread inspired local folklore that persists to this day.

Britain’s energy industry

A more recent addition to seaside industry, driven by the increasing demand for power, is offshore drilling. Indeed, Britain has come to be dependent on the coast to supply a large part of its energy. Traditionally, much of this energy comes from drilling in the North Sea. In 1965, off the coast of East Anglia, the first British discovery of gas was made. In the decades that have followed, many coastal towns have grown and expanded as a result of drilling offshore.

Working by the coast is not without its dangers, however. In 1965, just days after the discovery of the West Sole field near East Anglia, the rig that discovered it, the Sea Gem, capsized and 13 lives were lost. Two decades later, on 6 July 1988, the Piper Alpha disaster struck. That day, Piper Alpha, an oil rig based off the coast of Aberdeen, suffered an explosion, and the resulting fires claimed 167 lives. The devastation it caused spurred legislative changes in offshore safety regulations.

Harnessing wind for electricity is seen as a current alternative to oil and gas, but the power of wind has long been known. Before the discovery of electricity, people harnessed wind to power machines. From as early as the 7th century BCE, windmills began to appear in other parts of the world, while in Britain windmills began appearing around 1180 CE. These machines and buildings would have been used for anything from grinding corn and milling to papermaking and gunpowder manufacture, smelting lead or tanning leather.

Today, wind power is harnessed in a quite different way. Modern windfarms generate electricity, which is transported through cables buried beneath the ground back into the national grid. In particular, Britain’s growing number of offshore windfarms currently has the largest capacity in the world and plays an important role in reducing carbon emissions nationally.

The richness of Britain’s coastal resources is made more complex by the markets that depend on it. The impact of these economies is vast, supporting communities and bringing vibrancy and texture to coastal life.


[1] C W Marean et al., ‘Early Human use of Marine Resources and Pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene’, Nature, 449 (18 October 2007), pp. 905–08. doi: 10.1038/nature06204. BL shelfmark: 6045.000000.


Banner image © Jonny Hannah

  • Cheryl Tipp
  • Cheryl Tipp is the British Library’s Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds. With a background in zoology and library services, Cheryl has spent the past 15 years looking after the Library’s world- renowned collection of over 250,000 species and habitat recordings. She has worked extensively on projects that encourage the creative reuse of archival content, from student videogames to short films from emerging filmmakers. She is currently Secretary of the International Bioacoustics Council which seeks to promote discussion and the exchange of ideas between scientists, engineers, sound archivists and field recordists working with natural history sound recordings.

  • British Library Learning
  • The British Library’s Digital Learning team welcomes over 10 million learners to their website every year. They provide free learning resources that allow audiences to access thousands of digitised treasures from the British Library’s collection, and explore a wealth of subjects from children’s literature and coastal sounds to medieval history and sacred texts.