The first record of egg collecting at Flamborough and Bempton Cliffs were from notes written by Charles Waterton in 1835 but it was believed that the practice had been taking place for hundreds of years previously by the villagers of Flamborough, Bempton, Buckton and Speeton.
How did the climmers collect the eggs?
The climmer had a harness made from leather, to which a thick rope was attached. This rope could be 350 feet in length and capable of taking his full weight. He also had a thinner rope (the hand rope) that he used to stop him spinning around and hitting the cliff face. The climmer’s cliff top team would consist of three men. Two men to lower and raise the climmer, and the third man to act as an anchor. The anchor man was given the task of receiving communications from the climmer via bounces in the harness - 2 to go down and 3 to come up.
Which eggs were collected and why did they collect the eggs of the seabirds?
Firstly it was for their own personal consumption and any excess eggs would be sold in the local markets and restaurants in Sheffield, Birmingham and London.
Around the middle of the eighteenth century the new Sugar House opened in Hull. They used eggs for refining the sugar. This requirement was likely to have caused an increase in the number of eggs taken annually from the cliffs. Large numbers of eggs were also sold to egg collectors and tourists.
The eggs of the guillemot and the razorbill were favoured because of their large size and thick, hard shells. This made them less likely to crack or break when being transferred to the top of the cliff.
The egg collectors would gather on the cliff top waiting for the climmer to return. They would then barter a price for the more unusually coloured or marked eggs.
The Sugar House closed in Hull around 1840 and after that time any unsold eggs were bought by the leather industry in Leeds. The egg whites (albumen) were used in the process of the manufacture of patent leather.
Eggs were also used for clarifying wine.
As the nineteenth Century progressed into the twentieth Century public transport became more affordable to many more people.
The fame of the egg collectors spread far and wide. Hundreds of visitors gathered on the cliff top watching the climmers swinging side to side on the end of their long ropes. Tourism had arrived at the cliffs!
When the days egg collecting work was finished, if any visitor wished to try their hand at egg collecting (the climmers called them the amateurs) they were placed in a harness and lowered down the cliff face. Being ‘canny Yorkshire men’ there was no charge for being lowered down but there was a price to pay for being pulled back up to the top! This practice brought much needed revenue to the local economy.
How many eggs were being collected?
In 1884 it was estimated by John Cordeaux that the annual number of eggs taken from the cliffs was around 130,000.
This figure was later found to be totally incorrect, as the climming teams only collected eggs on a maximum of forty days each year. At the end of the nineteenth century, a more accurate figure was calculated and agreed by all to be 80,000 eggs annually (Nelson).
By the time egg collecting ceased in 1954, which was the result of the passing of The Wild Birds Protection Act, fewer than 10,000 eggs could be found on the cliffs. This shows the catastrophic decline in the numbers of seabirds breeding on the cliffs.
During the 1850’s and 1860’s many seabirds were shot for sport. Men hired boats from Scarborough and Bridlington with the sole intention of shooting as many seabirds as possible.
The Rector of The Priory Church in Bridlington, The Reverend H.F. Barnes-Lawrence, was so appalled by the annual slaughter of the seabirds that he, together with the Member of Parliament for East Yorkshire, Christopher Sykes, introduced The Protection of Seabirds Bill to The House of Commons on 26th. February 1869. The Bill became Law on 24th. June that same year.
This Law made it illegal to shoot any wild seabirds in the breeding colonies anywhere in the UK with the exception of St. Kilda.
It was the passing of The Wild Birds Protection Act in 1954 that also made it illegal to collect the eggs of wild birds and so brought about an abrupt and permanent end to climming at Flamborough and Bempton.
This also brought to an end a very much loved local dish known as seabird pie, with its filling of local seabird eggs.
C. Waterton (1835) Notes of The Visit to the Haunts of the Guillemot, London Magazine of Natural History
J. Cordeaux (1834) The Seabirds at Flamborough, Naturalist
T.H. Nelson (1907) The Birds of Yorkshire, vol 2, London: A. Brown & sons.
S. Leng (1931) Experiences and Reminicences of a Cliff-Climber. Manchester:Steel, Adams & Co.
J. R. Mather (1994) Where to Watch Birds in Yorkshire and Humberside. London:Christopher Helm, A & C. Black
Richard Vaughan (1998) Seabird City, Smith, Settle Ltd., Otle
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