Film ID: YFA 1273 Video of YFA 1273 The egg harvest - Cliff climbing at Flamborough 1908 THE EGG HARVEST - CLIFF CLIMBING AT FLAMBOROUGH 1908 Visitor TabsDescription Filmed in 1908, this film shows a group of men, known as climmers, who collect eggs from bird nests on the cliffs at Flamborough. A group of men emerge from a dugout at the top of the cliffs. They are carrying ropes, pickaxes, and other implements. One man sits on the ground holding a rope that is tethered to the ground with a metal spike. Another man climbs to the cliff edge whilst a third abseils down the cliff. He kicks off the cliff face, and each time he falls back to the cliff, he collects eggs from the birds’ nests placing them in sacks hanging around his waist. The film then shows a close-up of a man collecting eggs from the cliff face. (It is most likely this scene had been set up – it not being possible to film this any other way at the time.) The next portion of the film shows the man pulling himself back up the rope as he ‘bounces’ off the cliff face. On top of the cliff, five men sitting on the ground pull up the rope. The climmer turns to the camera holding up an egg. The eggs are unloaded into a basket, later being distributed into several baskets. The climmer then holds a Puffin in one hand and a Guillemot in the other. He pushes them together as if to enact a fight between them as the birds struggle to escape. Context This film was made by George Howard Cricks and John Howard Martin, who founded a film company together the year that this was made, in 1908. Using the Lion's Head as a brand trademark, they made many films until they broke up in 1913. They each continued in film production, with Martin setting up Merton Park Studios. They were pioneering filmmakers making a range of different kind of films, including short comedies, melodramas and industrial subjects. The Egg Harvest is an example of the latter, and the same year they also made The Birth of a Big Gun. (See the British Film Institute webpage, References) In his book of reminiscences (References), climmer Sam Leng relates, without giving a date, how a filmmaker came from London. Wanting to give it a go himself, Sam took him to ‘Jubilee Corner’ at Bempton, “where the sea never leaves the shore”. The filmmaker asked Sam how far he would have to swim to reach a place to land if the rope broke. When Sam answered 2 ½ miles, and that there was a drop of 350 feet, the filmmaker seemed unconcerned – that is, until he reached the water! Starting his exploits down the cliffs at the tender age of just 8 years old, Sam’s rare book (Beverley Local Studies has a copy) is invaluable as a personal account of being a climmer. ‘Climming’ or ‘Scoot-egging’ goes back to the sixteenth century in Bempton, on the Yorkshire coast. It consisted of two small groups of 4 to 5 men, and at times women as well, from Bempton, called ‘egg-climmers’, who would gather eggs from the steep sea cliffs in the early summer of each year. One of them, the gatherer, would descend the cliffs by rope. He wore a kind of sling-chair made of strong webbing, strapped from the shoulders and around the waist and thighs, and carried two large canvas bags for collecting the eggs. Two ropes were used, a guide rope and a hauling rope, the latter attached to the waist of the gatherer by a metal ring. The ropes were staked into the ground and kept from chaffing by pulleys. The other members of the group stayed on top, sat on the ground with their feet dug in, and lowered the rope. Before the advent of the Wildlife & Countryside Act (1981) the right to collect ‘sea fowl’ eggs belonged to the farmers tenanting the land adjacent to the sea cliff. This right was commonly given up to the climmers. Most of the eggs are from the guillemot, razorbill and kittiwake; puffin eggs were difficult to get to. The Climmers, usually fishermen, concentrated on the cliffs where these birds bred, notably between Speeton and Flamborough. The men worked the nests so as to gather eggs before they were incubated, and this encouraged the birds to lay more. They were mainly sold as food in local towns, but they were also sold for commercial uses (eg in making leather) and to collectors . The eggs usually all had slightly different markings and these were particularly sought after. There are many stories of the climmers going down the evening before with eggs that had been painted with coloured flecks to make them different, and therefore more collectable, and then 'collecting' them the following day and auctioning off to the highest bidder on the cliff top. The ornithologist Thomas Hudson Nelson – who amassed a huge collection of bird eggs from Yorkshire between 1870 and 1900,and who wrote a two-volumed Birds of Yorkshire, published in 1907 – reports that the average daily take of eggs by each gang was in the order of 300-400, giving a total for the Speeton -Flamborough section of about 80,000. In 1907 Guillemot eggs were sold at a shilling (5 new pence) for 12 to 16 eggs, and 3d (old pence) each in the late 40s. Given the diet of the birds, the eggs tasted a bit fishy. Although the collection of eggs may seem bad to us now, it was not the worst fate that the birds faced. It was estimated that in the 18 miles of coast between Bridlington and Scarborough between the months of April and August some 120,000 birds were taken annually, of which about 108,000 were shot. Day-trippers, many from the Sheffield region, were particularly active in this way. Many opposed this, and the first significant bird protection society, the Association for the Protection of Sea-Birds, was established in 1868 in Bridlington. This campaigned for legislation to protect birds, resulting in the Sea Birds Preservation Act which reached the Statute Book in 1869. This provided protection for 35 species. More legislation followed with the Wild Birds Protection Acts of 1872 and the Wildfowl Preservation Act of 1876. These statutes were consolidated in 1880 under the Wild Birds Protection Act of that year. Further Wild Birds Protection Acts came onto the Statute Books in 1881, 1894, 1896, 1902, 1904 and 1908. Then came the Protection of Birds Acts of 1925, 1933, 1954 and 1967. Each of these strengthened the protection afforded to wild birds to a lesser or greater degree. But collecting eggs wasn’t prohibited until the Protection of Birds Act in 1954; and although this still allowed for some exceptions, the climmers didn’t last after this. The cruel treatment of the guillemot and puffin by one of the climmers at the end of the film was probably not illegal at the time of this film. It may well have been with the passing of the first Protection of Animals Act in 1911, which made it an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to any domestic or captive animal – including to cruelly ill-treat, infuriate, or terrify any animal. The Bempton Cliff Climbers are featured in a film called The Dangerous Edge, where they save the life of a child who has fallen some 200 feet over the cliff edge at Ravenscar, using the same methods of rope and pulleys they used for collecting eggs. This was one of four fictional films made by Sydney Carter at Ravenscar in 1912. The originals of these may have been lost in a fire, although copies may still exist (see Carol M. Robinson, References). Two other films in the YFA show the climmers, North Landing, Flamborough, which has a long sequence from 1933; and Our Native Shore has a short shot from the 1950s. References Sam Leng, Experiences and Reminiscences of a Cliff-Climber, with description of Flamborough, Bempton and Speeton cliffs, and the birds that inhabit them, Steel, Adams and Company, Manchester, 1931. Rachael Low, The History of the British Film 1906-1914, Allen and Unwin, London, 1973. Charles Kightley, Country Voices: Life and Lore in English Farm and Village, London : Thames & Hudson, 1986. Chapter by a former climmer, Sam Robson. Brian P Martin, Tales of Time and Tide: stories of life on Britain's shores and coasts, David and Charles, 1994. Howard Peach, Curious Tales of Old East Yorkshire, illustrated, Sigma Leisure, 2001. Howard Peach, ‘The Climmers of Bempton’, Yorkshire History Quarterly, Vol. 4 No.3 February 1999, pp.115-117. Carol M. Robinson, ‘The Lost Films of Ravenscar’, Down Your Way, Issue 55. George Bernard Wood, Yorkshire Tribute, Methuen, 1950. British Film Institute entry on Cricks and Martin: The Egg Harvest is given the alternative title here of Cliff Climbing. For a short historical article online see, ‘The "Climmers" (or Egg Gatherers)’, by Pam Smith. A good description of the climmers – and how the birds reacted! – can be found in, Yorkshire Tribute, by Bertrand Wood, 1950. On Thomas Hudson Nelson A good source of information on the historical use and protection of sea birds is the Brynmor Jones Library, at the University of Hull. This has a good collection of material relating to ornithology as it developed in the nineteenth century from Paragon Review. Further Information George Rickaby, A diary of Bempton climbers, Peregrine Books, Leeds, 1997 (this has a copy of the above as an appendix).