If you’ve ever visited the cliffs at Bempton or Flamborough, you’ll know just how terrifyingly vertiginous they are. Imagine abseiling down them wearing little more than your everyday clothes, a basic leather harness, and a recycled tin helmet.
That’s what the ‘climmers’ of this coast did regularly. For hundreds of years, climmers descended the cliffs that range from Filey down to Flamborough collecting seabirds’ eggs. The eggs were sold as souvenirs, for use in sugar refining, and in the manufacture of patent leather. Most, though, were for food – gull, guillemot, razorbill and other seabirds’ eggs were highly prized.
Climming was an essential part of the economies of those small villages, and the gangs respected their prey. Which is more than could be said for the Victorian shooting parties which sailed by the cliffs slaughtering thousands of birds for sport. The climmers had always been careful not to over-harvest the birds. The less conscientious ‘sportsmen’ were eventually halted by The Seabird Preservation Act 1869, but not before they had taken an enormous toll on seabird numbers. This meant fewer eggs for the climmers: in fact they stopped climming altogether for a few years.
The Act was advocated in Parliament by East Riding MP Christopher Sykes, in a speech which earned him the nickname ‘Gull’s Friend’. He described how the slaughter was affecting local people, many of whom relied on the yearly harvest of eggs for food and a small income from selling the eggs; and how many more ships had been wrecked as the calls of the birds in bad weather and fog had warned sailors that they were near the cliffs. The Act became an important milestone in wildlife protection.
In the years that followed, seabird numbers on the cliffs increased and climming resumed, continuing for nearly 100 years until The Wild Birds Protection Act 1954 made the taking of wild birds’ eggs illegal.
Our picture shows a climming kit now in the collection at Scarborough Museums and Galleries – the helmet, probably ex-military (at one point the climmers used an even more primitive straw-stuffed cloth cap); the spike that anchored the rope at the top of the cliff; and the padded leather harness that attached them to the rope.
Also, just to note that climming is the correct spelling and that we haven’t mispelled climbing 🙂