The history of the wider area we now know Great Yarmouth goes back to prehistoric times, with knapped flints and carved bones being amongst the evidence found in the area. In Roman times there was a great estuary on this stretch of coast. It had both a northern and southern entrance around the sandbank on which Yarmouth now stands, and was guarded to the north by the fort at Caister and another to the south at Burgh.
The Yarmouth we know today begins to emerge in later times. In 1086 Domesday records 70 burgesses, probably merchants living in the Gorleston area. It seems likely that the fishermen of that time would draw up their boats on the great sandbank, and eventually began to settle there permanently.
In medieval times we find Yarmouth emerging as the major port on the east coast. By the time of King Edward III's fleet sailing to the sea battle of Sluys in 1340 and seven years later the capture of Calais, Yarmouth ships and men made up a large part of the fleet. Even London did not supply as many vessels. The commander at the battle of Sluys was John Perebrowne (Perbroune) of Yarmouth. Yarmouth's coat of arms dates from this time, when Edward permitted the town to merge his royal lions with the town's silver herrings.
By this time, the town wall at Yarmouth was already being built. Started in 1281, it would take a century to complete. With ten gates and eighteen towers and turrets, the flint wall was a massive undertaking and would control the development of the town until the 19th century. Every person in the town had to help with its construction - unless of course you were rich enough to pay somebody else to do your share of the job.
Yarmouth's closeness to Europe and Norfolk's importance in medieval times made it a busy trading port. With flint being a less than satisfactory material for building, great quantities of stone were shipped through Yarmouth from Caen, for such buildings as Norwich Cathedral. But Yarmouth was already best known as a fishing port, and particularly for the catching of herring. Through Tudor and Stuart times, the merchants built their offices and homes in grand style. In the English civil war, Yarmouth was a parliamentary town, and Miles Corbett, town Recorder and Member of Parliament, was one of those who signed Charles I's death warrant. In a less provocative role, as Recorder, he was responsible for collecting the dues from the herring fleet which was used to pay for armed vessels to protect the fishing fleet against North Sea pirates.
Scarborough and Brighton started the fashion for people to visit the seaside, and Yarmouth began to develop as a seaside resort in the early 1800s. William Absolon began to paint plates and bowls at his shop in the market place, and the Yarmouth souvenir industry was under way! It was about this time that the town began to build outside the medieval walls, and it is still possible to see some of the fine Georgian architecture from that time. Charles Dickens was one of the first guests at the Royal Hotel on the seafront, and of course featured Great Yarmouth in David Copperfield.
The nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century saw thousands of fishing vessels, at first sailing luggers and then steam drifters, working from Yarmouth to catch herring. Many of the boats were Scottish, following the herring down the east coast and making Yarmouth their base in the autumn. As well as the boats, the Scots fisher girls arrived in town, to gut and process the fish when the boats arrived at the quayside. Fishing for herring became uneconomical in the 1960s, but the hunt was on for oil and gas in the North Sea, and Yarmouth soon changed its role to become the base for exploration and service vessels.
Yarmouth is famous for its piers and seaside entertainment, particularly the Pleasure Beach. All along the seafront are attractions and rides, from the Model Village to the classic roller coaster. The Wellington pier and Britannia pier have hosted many shows starring famous names.
In the twentieth century, Yarmouth was in the front line in two world wars. It was shelled from the sea in the First World War and heavily bombed during the second. It was this bombing which led to the destruction of many of the 'rows', the traditional narrow lanes which made up the old town, inside the ancient walls. The church of St Nicholas was hit and burned out, but was fully restored after the war.
Looking to the future, as industry and employment changes, there are plans for a marina and an outer harbour. Every year in September a maritime weekend is held on the recently regenerated town quay. Time and Tide recalls Yarmouth in times past and on the quayside the Norfolk Nelson Museum features Norfolk's greatest hero. So whether it's the excitement of a ride on a traditional waltzer at the Pleasure Beach, an historic journey at one of the museums or a lazy afternoon on the miles of beaches, Yarmouth has plenty to offer.
SECTLINK('Great Yarmouth - History, Herrings, Holidays'^Video#DVD005), is available as a DVD or video, recounting the town's history from earliest times.
SECTLINK('Great Yarmouth at War' by Colin Tooke and David Scales^Wartime#B14841), recalls Yarmouth as a front line town in World War II
If you'd like to take a tour of Great Yarmouth today, then we recommend Tour Norfolk
Part of the walls of the fort at Burgh castle still stand to remind us of the power of the Roman empire
Throughout the centuries, herring and the herring fisheries were the backbone of Yarmouth's economy. Sailing luggers like these operated almost until the end of the 19th century, when the steam drifters gradually took over
Great Yarmouth harbour entrance today. Once there were two entrances, the other further to the north. Over the years there have been half a dozen sites for this southern entrance.
Thousands of Scots fisher girls travelled to Yarmouth to gut and pack the herring as the boats brought them in. Whilst waiting for the boats they would generally be found knitting. These ladies were photographed about 1904
The replica frigate Grand Turk and Gorleston lifeboat, pictured at the annual Maritime Weekend, held each year in September