Cobles in Art & Antiques

Celebrating the Northumbrian coble and Yorkshire cobble in popular culture

Coble origins

There are a number of clues that give some idea about the early types of North Sea fishing boats.

Three bronze age boats found in tidal mud at Ferriby on the River Humber have been carbon dated to 2030-1680 BC .

Remarkably, they are planked, caulked with moss, stitched with willow stems and reinforced with cleated stays and ribs. They are Europe’s oldest known sea craft.

Meanwhile across the North Sea, the oldest known clinker planked boat was found in a bog at SundevedDenmark, carbon dated to 310-320 AD.

Following the decline of Roman influence and the subsequent mass migrations of Saxons, Jutes and Angles into Britain between 450-700 AD, followed, in turn, by those of Danes, Swedes and Norwegians between 800-1000, it seems safe to suggest that almost all craft operating in the North Sea during the Anglo Saxon and Viking periods, belonged to the same broad church ie clinker built, double ended, with one mast and a side rudder. As such, all can be said to have a common ancestry.

It’s also safe to assume that the sea fishing of those times was largely basic and inshore based, and that the boats used were probably no more than scaled down versions of their much larger brethren, such as the Scandinavian trading Knars and the raiding Longboats.

Over time, distinct fishing boat types began to emerge as local circumstances began to dictate design – one strand ultimately evolving into the quirky but ‘fit for purpose’ Sailing Coble.

For example, between 1400 and 1500 it is said that British waters were being used by more than 60 different types of craft or at least 60 different type-names which changed over time and varied from region to region.

Whilst it is difficult to be certain about what they all looked like, most can be distinguished as being either large or small.

Local circumstances, such as large stretches of coastline with few if any natural harbours, as found in eastern England and in north east Jutland, dictated that in such locations fishing had to be carried out from open beaches.

Which, in turn, dictated that the boats had to be light (to be carried ashore above the surf line), strong (to withstand being launched through heavy breakers), shallow drafted (so they could be beached without toppling over), broad beamed (to carry net/line, bait and catch) and able to be worked by two, three or four men (a family or extended family unit).

The Norwegian Oselvar is fairly typical of its type, being a simple but strong boat with graceful lines.

It was exported to Shetland in large numbers during the Viking Age from where it is said to have influenced boat construction and shape throughout northern Britain, giving rise to the Fourern and perhaps, the coble. 

The basic construction of these and similar boats use the shell method by which frames are fitted after the planking is complete. 

Traditionally, they were built using only three or four broad strakes (or planks) on either side supported by struts from an overhead beam or gantry while the planks were shaped, scarfed, clamped and fastened together with iron nails and wood trennals.

Note: the pottery and half hulls examples featured on this site show early four and later five plank cobles - the latter, presumably, as a consequence of declining ‘big’ timber supplies.

However, another school of thought says that the coble did not originate in Scandinavia – either brought to the North East and Yorkshire coasts by Angles from Germany or Danes or Viking Norwegians, who all came to establish fishing settlements from the Humber estuary northwards - but is of Celtic origin.

Notwithstanding the opposing camps, all agree that the coble is a very ancient form indeed.

The case for a Celtic origin is based upon the boat’s linguistic roots and its physical similarity to Welsh skin-boats and more particularly, to the Irish Curragh.

The name coble (pronounced kCbl) and derivations such as cowble, cobill, cowbill, cobyll, kobill, cobbill, cobile, cobell(e, cobel, coible, cobble, koble, covbille, kɔbl, kobl, kʌubl, kɔ́ubl have been in use for well over 1000 years.

The name has connections with the Celtic root ceu or caw as in the Welsh ceubal or Breton caubal – both, perhaps, earlier borrowings from the Latin caupulus which means a small kind of boat.

Note: the old British name for long vessels was formerly written as ceol and cynlis. In Icelandic, kjoll means barge or ship and in Danish, kiel means vessel.

Meanwhile, the coble is said to resemble the traditional Irish, west coast, double ended curragh which is built around a strong but light wood slatted frame and, as with the Welsh Coracle, covered with waterproof leather or tar dressed canvas.

The curragh’s bold high bow is said to resemble that of a Norwegian Pram.

It is easy to launch and retrieve from beaches and, because of its shallow rounded floor and small draft, can ride safely over rocks. Its design varies around the coast and each has its local characteristics, much like the coble on England's east coast.

James Hornell carried out a meticulous survey of curraghs in the 1930s and recorded that ‘(it) was the favourite vessel of the hoards of the plundering Irish who descended on the shores of Britain during Roman times… and were particularly active during the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries.’

However, it is hard to fathom out how the curragh could have become so embedded on the east coast that it influenced coble development when there is no reason to believe that any large-scale Celtic migration could have so radically failed to leave behind linguistic traces in the North East or Yorkshire.

Indeed, there is now real uncertainty about the existence of the Irish-Scottish Dal Riata as there is no archaeological evidence to support either a recognisable invasion or migration of the Irish into West Scotland (Argyll).

It has also been suggested that the Irish monks who brought Christianity to pagan Northumbria may have influenced east coast boat design through their knowledge and use of the curragh ... hard to imagine ... but then again!

In contrast, Anglo Saxon settlement has left a deep legacy.

For example, it is calculated that there are around 1500 distinctive words in north east dialect that could be of Norse origin (ie scaurs meaning rock).

And the ancient Northumbrian dialect (the forebear of much modern English) owes its origins to a language spoken by 5th century Angle mercenaries from southern Denmark.

Indeed, the English language is closest in structure to Frisian, the language once spoken on what is now the northern coast of The Netherlands. Dutch influence is also mirrored in the coble’s design.

The best that can be said is that the coble, given its construction and the prevailing culture of the time in which it is said to have evolved, is primarily of Scandinavian design with, perhaps, some Celtic overtones.

The Coble Timeline below helps put more meat on the bone.

A caveat: in the past the word coble and its derivations were used as a generic term to denote a complete family or class of boat, rather than a specific, individual vessel.

280-430 - Saxons raid Britain.

410 - Rome officially abandones Britian.

430 - Angles, Jutes and Saxons (known collectively as the Anglo Saxons) begin to settle in Britain.

448-9 - Anglo Saxon mercenaries arrive in force, hired to fight invading Picts. Verstegan says,'the Saxons came over in three large ships, by themselves Keeles.’

450-60 - Angles and Frisians become established on the east coast and in East Anglia and Kent.

460-700 - a period of conquest, settlement and consolidation. Germanic control spreads outwards from the east and south.

New kingdoms are established as is, eventually, Anglo Saxon England (Land of the Angles).

500-600 - Anglo Saxons (the English) win control of the bulk of lowland Britain.

The Britons - known to the Anglo Saxons as Wealas or Walas (meaning foreigners), from which the modern English Welsh and Wales are derived - are displaced north, west and across the channel into the Roman Armorican peninsula in such large numbers that it becomes known as Brittany.

A new minimalist view believes that the native Britons were assimilated rather than displaced.

However, recent observational and linguistic research shows that the traditional view of mass displacement is correct, at least for the east and south.

The number of Anglo Saxons crossing the North Sea using open clinker-built, oar-driven warships (such as the North German Sutton Hoo Nydam and the West Norwegian Kvalsund) is also subject to some debate.

Estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000 but in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) Bede says numbers were so great that parts of the continent were left depopulated.

Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany - Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. From the Angles, are descended the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, all the race of the Northumbrians, that is, of those nations that dwell on the north side of the river Humber, and the other nations of the Angles.

Archaeological and palynological evidence from Schleswig-Holstein appears to support Bede's account of a dramatic depopulation of Angulus during the fifth to eighth centuries.

557 - the Saxon King Ida lands on the east coast with an invasion fleet of forty ships. He becomes King of Northumbria.

560-616 - Aethelbert of Kent styles himself rexAnglorum (King of the Angles).

565 - St Columba (founder of the Christian community of monks on the Isle of Iona) on a mission to convert the Picts, confronts a water monster in the river Ness.

His biographer, Adomnam, writes in the Vita Columba (the Life of St Columba) that the saint drove it off by virtue of prayers,  

‘... when he (St Columba) reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water...

'The blessed man (St Columba), on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble (boat) that was moored at the farther bank.

'Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, 'Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.'

600-700 - archaeological and literary evidence indicates that Scandinavian and northern Germanic peoples - including the Anglo Saxons - adopt the mast and sail.

700-1000 - the Anglo Saxons start to develop their own types of vessels but little evidence remains of specific designs.

In some areas, such as in the Danelaw and the coastal settlements of Viking Ireland, native shipbuilding traditions may have been completely overlaid by those of Scandinavia.

Around this time the one masted rig with a single square sail becomes ubiquitous throughout north Britain.

There is some debate on whether or not the ships used in the earlier mass migrations of Angles, Jutes and Saxons had sails.

The Sutton Hoo burial ship (among others) had no mast or block in the hull to erect one, so there's no evidence to prove they did.

However, some suggest that these northern tribes would have been well aware of Roman naval and trading ships with sails, and without windpower it would have been difficult to transport huge numbers across the North Sea to Britain.

793 - a cloud appears on the Anglo Saxon horizon ... Viking raids begin. Lindisfarne (Holy Island) is sacked.

800-900 - Britain's south-west tip, Cornwall (Corn-Wealas), succumbs to Anglo Saxon control.

850-900 - waves of Danes and Viking Norwegians, former trading partners from across the North Sea, now begin to use their boats for conquest and settlement.

865 - the Danish 'Great Army' under Ivar the Boneless invades East Anglia and, after a winter respite, turns north to attack Northumbria - the largest Anglo Saxon kingdom which stretches down from the Forth to the Fens. York and much of the land south of the Tees is captured.

867 - Whitby Abbey, built in 664, falls to Viking attack and is abandoned until 1078.

867 - King Aelle of Northumbria is killed by the Danes who begin 200 years of rule, mingling blood and language with the Angles with whom they have much in common.  

At times, England becomes a sub-state of Denmark.

871 - Alfred the Great of Wessex halts Danish expansion at Ashdown but most of the country continues to remain under Danelaw.

875 - Danes invade again!

875 - Ivar the Bonless is suceeded by his brother Halfdene who defeats the Mercians and rules from York.

890s - Vikings from Northumbria and East Anglia raid the south coast of Wessex.

900 onwards - Norwegian Vikings  begin colonising Galloway, Cumbria and North East England so that from coast to coast, the north of England is under Scandinavian control (a possible corridor for the curragh migrating west to east?)

937 - Athelstan, King of Wessex, stops a combined force of Danes, Northumbrians and Scots at Brunanburgh.

950 - the first documented reference to a coble (as ‘in couple’) is found in the Anglo Saxon Lindisfarne Glosses - a late 10th century Old English translation of the Latin Lindisfarne Gospels.

Alfred, a Northumbrian monk, writes in Matthew VIII, 23, ‘he astes in lytlum scipe vel in couple.’ (and when he entered into the boat, his disciples followed him).

954 - Eadred, King of Wessex, ousts Eric Bloodaxe from York and kills him at Stainmoor.

959 - Edgar, King of Wessex, starts to consolidate the country into one.

991 - Athelred II, King of Wessex, buys off Olaf, King of Norway and Svein, King of Denmark from invading - the first Dangeld!

1013 - it doesn't work. King Svein invades and becomes King of Northumbria and then, King of England.

1016 - Danes consolidate rule under King Canute.

1033 - King Canute becomes concerned with events in Denmark and places Northumbria under the stewardship of Earl Siward.

1044 - Danish support crowns Edward the Confessor, King of England.

1066 - following his victory over an invading Danish army (and his brother Tostig) at Stamford Bridge near York, Harold Godwinson falls to William, Duke of Normandy at Hastings. The age of direct Scandinavian control and influence begins to ebb away.

1069-70 - William’s harrowing of the north is perhaps an act to stop the development of a separate anglo-scandinavian identity which is being egged on by ambitious Scandinavian kings. 

1100-1400 - the widespread double ended hull with a side or quarter rudder is supplanted by one with a blunt stern and central rudder.

1264 - written,‘In constructione vnius noue batelle et cobelle.’  

By the 1290s - the terminology used by shipwrights in York and Newcastle (both deep in the former Danelaw) has a distinctly Scandinavian flavour compared to that in East Anglia or further south.

For example, the names used for coble parts underpin the likelihood of a mixed extraction with Teutonic (draft or draught describing the bilge keels or rolling chocks) and Norse (skorevel for the same).

1300 onwards - the first official encouragement for fishing comes from the Church which buys fish for distribution to the poor.

1342 - written,‘In factura de crouys, et conduccione cobellorum et retium.'  

1400-1600 - Dutch gain supremacy in North Sea fishing during the next two centuries. East coast English fishing is largely restricted to inshore work using small boats.

1476 - written,’A lytill kobill thare thai mete, And had thame owre, but langere lete ..... To prufe that thare vakit a fisching of a cobil of Speye belanging to the said prioure before the vaking of the fisching of the cobill that is contenit in the soumondis producit.’  

1492 - written,’That thai eik na covbille for the said fischingis bot as vse and wont wes of before.’  

1495 - written,’The proffitis of the twa parte of a cowbill and xij vther nettis of the said watter of Spey.’

1498-9 - written,’As to the cobil and laxnet, the proffittis of the fisching that he mycht haf had of the baite and cobill.’ 

1503 - written,’To the man of the cobill … feryit the king and court our the Water of Tay....A fre cobill on the water of Forth, with the fisching and proffitis thairof.’

1508 - written,’Hymself the cobill dyd with hys bolm furth schow ....Dongallus come to the watter of Spey, and gat ane cobill to pas ouir the samin.’ 

1528 - A (coble) is mentioned as belonging to a Hornsea fisherman.

1542 - written.’To vphald ane sufficient rowar to the cobill, and cariage man to cary the fysche.’

1562 - written,’The teynd fisches of the boittis and cobillis of the said hevin.’ 

1564 - written,’Croftam vulgo lie Cowbill Croft cum cymba lie cowbill de Casteltoun.’ 

1566 - Cobil and net, used as a symbol of transferring the ownership of a fishing right. ‘The forsaid landis...to be knawin to the samyn … be thak and raip, clape and hoppir, cobble and nett, … as ws is in sic thingis.’ 

1566 - written,’(Giving) Donald McIllechoan reall possession of the half cobyll salmon fysching … be deliuering to hym cobyll and net.

1571 – written,’Ane alde coble thare he fand, That mony hoilis in it had ....  All fysche faltis, nettis, coiblis, and wther fysche grayth (pertaining to the fishings in the water of Bewlie). 

1572 - written,’Quhair certane thair nychtbouris … wes tane be the way at the cobill of Dryburgh.’  

1578 - written,’Salmonum piscariam unius cimbe lie cowbill.’

1580 - written,’Thair scarring and debarring of the salmound fischis with cobillis, aris, and nettis.’ 

1581 - written,’The tackis of the teynd salmon of the thre coblis of Innerspey.’ 

1581 - written,’Robert Fraser arrestit the said fyschis … , lyk also possest the said Robert … be deliuering of cobill and net.’

1593 – written,’To fische the said watter … be bottis, cobillis, nettis, and leastouris.’ 

1600- 1700 -  some (Dade, March and McKee) infer that an Elizabethan letter (by Sir Thomas Chaloner of Guisborough) comes close to describing the coble as,’a three man boat constructed from wainscotte (thin oak) which can easily be carried by two on land.’ Quoted: E Dade in the Mariner’s Mirror XX, p199; Edgar March’s Inshore Craft of Great Britain Vol 1, p94 and; Commander McKee (editor,The English Coble, National Maritime Museum Mongraph No 30, 1978).

1608 - written,’Quote It sall not be lesum … to stent net or netis be fassening of the samen on ilk syd of the watter … without cobill.’

1613 - written,’The impost … to be tane ans in the ʒeir, … of ilk cobell or four oirit bott.’

1634 - written,’Certane new slayne blak fisches slayne be them with cobill and net wnder the silence of nicht.’

1688 – written,’Ponto, a ferrie bote or coble .... Thay gat about threttie chalderis of vittel and siluer rent out of the bischopis kavell, consisting of thrie cobles on the water of Done - Robert Bartoun, somtyme keipper of the coble of Cramond.

1738 - the Gaelic word coit (recorded as coi in the Highlands) is described in dictionaries as a small inland boat and is included in the Gaelic wordlist of 1741 as culaidh or coitte, then described as a 'boat or coble' - being considered not so much as synonymous but comparable with the small, flat-bottomed boat (known as) the coble.

1750 - by the first half of the 1700s it appears that the word coble becomes the dominant term used for a small boat.  

1754 - written,’for lands, earth and stone; . . . for parsonage teinds, a sheaf of corn; . . . for fishings, net and coble.’

1760 - a footnote in Izaak Walton’s The Complete Angler describes the use of coracles in Monmouthshire as thoracles, truckles, cobles and corbolas.

1786 - a coble is converted into a life-saving boat by Lionel Lukin and is stationed at Bamburgh, Northumberland.

1791 - an account from Haddington (East Lothian, Scotland) states that,‘the fishers on this coast use two kinds of boats, the larger called cobles are different from the fishing boats generally used, being remarkably flat in the bottom, and of great length, measuring about 30 feet in the keel.’ Quoted: C R Denton in the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

1814 - the first illustration of a coble, shown as a coloured aquatint entitled Yorkshire Fishermen after G Walter, is published in The Costumes of Yorkshire.

1814 - written,’The rights of net and coble in the water and loch of Veolan.’

1816 – written,’He was no ill friend to our folk when he could protect us, and far kinder than Basil Olifant, that aye keepit the coble head doun the stream.’

1820-40 - souvenir pearlware coble models are manufactured by the Stockton and/or Sunderland potteries, which indicates a design widely established and admired.

1822 - written,’The river taking a sudden bend, broadened and deepened into a wheel, on the breast of which, a salmon cobble, or currach swam.’

1827 - written,’A skull o’ herrings thick, Amid whase millions, flikkerin’ quick, His coble seems to stand and stick.’

1828 - The Highland Society dictionary defines coit as 'a small fishing boat used on rivers', comparing it again with the coble.

 

1828-29 - drawings by E W Cooke of cobles as far south as Great Yarmouth in his Shipping and Craft series show eight different views of boats, one of them having Gt Yarm 2 on the starboard quarter showing it is a resident rather than a northern visitor.

1867 - Admiral W H Smyth gives a fine short description in The Sailors Word-Book, ‘(Sailing) Coble: a low flat-floored boat with a square stern, used in the cod and turbot fishery, 20 feet long and 5 feet broad, of about 1 ton burden, rowed with three pairs of oars and furnished with a lug (square) sail...

1869 - Sir John Craster writes in a letter dated 11 October that the coble is descended from the Viking longboat.

1869 - a yatchsman describes the coble as,'boat and harbour in one and each the very worst and most dangerous order.

1881 - written,’In going past a salmon cobble in the harbour, a fisherman would not have allowed his boat to touch it.

1883–86 - written,’I’ve seen my three-score an’ ten years, an’ anither half-score to haud them hale wi’; sae I am content to tak’ staff in han’ an’ try the crossin’ o’ the Jordan by sic fords or coble as may be granted me. 

'....net and (Scottish) coble, a method of fishing usual in tidal rivers, the stream being swept with a net one end of which makes a circuit with a coble, the other being held by a man on the river bank; the term is in use only in connection with the legal rights necessary for employing this method of fishing ....to keep the coble head doun the stream, to take the easiest course.’

1906 - H Warington-Smyth in his Mast & Sail in Europe and Asia (Chapter VI) says, ‘While the bilge keels and tumble-home of the top strake of the coble are very suggestive of Dutch origin, there are certain points in which this boat seems to retain some relics of distinctly Norse influence.

'The simple form of the pins set under the gunwale for belaying halyards to, the flat shape of the loom of the oar and its method of shipping with an iron ring set over a single thowl, as well as the flat head and low peak of the sail, and the light shades of green and blue used in painting the hulls, all flavour of what one meets to-day on the Scandinavian seaboard.

1917 - George F Holmes writes in the Humber Yawl Club Year Book that the coble is probably a cross between the Norway Yawl and the Norwegian Pram as, like those types, it is built with very wide strakes (planks) on grown (fitted) timbers and similar to the Pram, is built on a ‘ram’ plank and not a keel.

1952 - T C Lethbridge is the first to suggest that the coble is of Celtic origin in his Boats and Boatman, p1870 as its name implies it is nothing more or less than a clinker-built version of a Welsh skin boat but he offers no further evidence.

It has been suggested that his theory may have been based on a previous article by James Hornell on British Coracles in the Mariner’s Mirror XXII, p 263.

Hornell demonstrated that the Irish curragh could have developed from a skin covered wicker frame boat to one with a planked shell and a canvas covering to make it watertight.

1978 - Commander McKee (ed.,The English Coble) suggests that the Highland coble could be the missing link between the curragh and the coble as it is carvel (edge on edge) planked below and clinker (lapped) planked above. He further illustrates his theory by identifying the coble features which may derive from a skin boat.

Note: coble builders worked from a basic set of dimensions. Having set up the ram plank and inner stem, they built the bottom out to the start of the bilge. The floor timbers were then inserted before the topsides were planked. The rest of the timbers and outfit then went in before the stern was closed. Dutch shipwrights use a similar method but end up with carvel (smooth) not clinker (overlapping) built hulls.

1978 - The Brendan Voyage outlines how Tim Severin sailed a curragh across the Atlantic in 1976 to recreate and support the legend that St. Brendan was the first from Europe to reach the North American coast in the 6th century.