Making a living from the sea
Exactly when fishing in Cornwall became an industry is impossible to say, but by the time Richard Carew published his Survey of Cornwall in 1602 it was of national importance. Detailed records of shipments earlier than the 16th century are rare. Records of exploratory shipments of pilchards in very small quantities do exist but by 1555 shipments of pilchards from Looe are clearly recorded and the export of these and other fish, chiefly hake, was established.
In the decade 1747-1756 the total number of pilchards dispatched from the four principal Cornish ports of Falmouth, Fowey, Penzance and St. Ives averaged 30,000 hogsheads annually (making a total of 900 million fish). Much greater catches were achieved in 1790 and 1796. The majority of the pilchard catch was exported to Italy. Before the mid 18th century the season generally ran from July till November or December but during the 19th century usually from August to October.
In 1847 the exports of pilchards from Cornwall amounted to 40,883 hogsheads or 122 million fish while the greatest number ever taken in one seine was 5,600 hogsheads at St. Ives in 1868.
Huers (cliff top lookouts) helped locate shoals of fish. The huer would shout 'Hevva!, Hevva!' to alert the boats to the location of the pilchard shoals. Cornish tradition states that Hevva cake was baked by the huers on their return to their homes, the cake being ready by the time the crews returned to land.
In 1582 there were nearly 2000 seafaring men in Cornwall, more than any other county except Devon, and the trade was improving fast. The Market House in Penzance was built in 1615, and by 1763 the market was busy with 'fish in great plenty' and merchants coming from Penryn and Falmouth to buy. Boats came from London to collect cured pilchards. But the busiest harbours in the 17th century were St. Ives, Padstow and Looe. Only six boats were registered at Penzance itself in 1665.
Up to the early 20th century, Newquay was a small fishing port and even smaller were Port Isaac, Port Quin and Boscastle which have all relied on fishing, though there is a larger harbour at Bude.
Cadgwith was established in medieval times as a collection of fishing cellars in a sheltered south-east facing coastal valley with a shingle cove to subsidise local farmers' livelihoods by fishing. Other coastal villages around the Lizard Peninsula such as Porthoustock, Porthallow, Coverack, Kynance Cove, Mullion Cove and Marazion were also used for pilchard fishing by small boats.
Many types of small boat were built in Cornwall. The seine boats were low, broad in the beam and sharp in the bows. The boats which laid drift nets were mainly 'luggers' with masts fore and aft. Gigs, shorter and narrower than seine boats, had a crew of four including the cox and were fast. They were used for hand lining for mackerel.
Other industries flourished as the numbers of fishermen increased, they included boat builders and coopers, rope and net makers. Virtually the entire community in a fishing port was involved directly in the industry and, many back yards and cellars were converted to baulking houses, their walls and floors became encrusted with salt and fish scales etc.
Much remained unchanged in 1890, when tourists and artists began to 'discover' Cornwall. Thousands of hogsheads of pilchards were still being sent to Italy through the ports of Naples and Genoa, and indeed the Newlyn firm British Cured Pilchards was still in 1990 sending pilchards to Italy, though by road. The hub of the pilchard industry had moved in the mid-19th century from the south coast between Plymouth and Mevagissey to the west Cornwall coast.
One great change had occurred, however, which was a catalyst of further change; in 1859 the railways of Cornwall were connected to the national railway system. This was a golden opportunity for Cornish industries to develop. Although the marketing techniques of the fishing industry needed to improvement, important new markets were opened up.
Industrial fishing began to be dominated by a few fishing ports. The fishing villages which had become ports all had good sheltered natural harbours and potential for pier construction. Newquay, Padstow, St. Michael's Mount, Newlyn, Mousehole and Bude all had pier or quay construction as early as the 14th or 15th centuries. In the 19th century increased quay construction took place at Porthleven, Polperro, Mousehole, Mevagissey, St. Ives and Newlyn.
It was Newlyn which was to develop as the main port in the south-west. Its advantages were proximity to rich fishing grounds and to the rail terminus, and a large local population which had been committed to fishing for centuries. The new South Pier was opened in 1866 so that boats could now moor up here instead of in the bay or on ropes in the central harbour area. An even longer North Pier was completed in 1894, enabling every boat to tie up alongside the quay for safety. At last it seemed that life for the local fisherman would be easier, but a new problem lay ahead. The port facilities were now so good that they began to attract other fisherman from outside Cornwall.
Fleets of east coast boats began to arrive on the Cornish fishing grounds between 1860 and 1870, By 1878 there were about 100 east coast trawlers fishing in south-west waters, as well as steam drifters. A steam-powered fishing boat had been built at Hayle in 1876, and proved her worth many times when the sailing vessels were becalmed. The Cornish fisherman's reluctance to change from sail to steam was not purely conservatism, The east coast ports were near enough to coal fields to have the benefit of cheap coal, whereas in Cornwall coal had to be bought from South Wales and was expensive.
For some 250 years, Cornish fishermen had observed the religious command not to work on Sundays; the spread of Methodism had strengthened this attitude; and everyone observed the strict preachings of the local minister. Only rarely did someone who had had a bad week's fishing give way to temptation if a large shoal of pilchards was sighted on a Sunday. The east coast men did not accept this local custom, and bought fish ashore on Monday mornings, so it made a good price because there was no competition from the Cornishmen. this was cause of dispute for many years, and culminated in riots in Newlyn and Penzance in 1896. Although people were injured and various Newlyn men appeared in court, no heavy sentences were imposed. Eventually calm was restored and in time the problem was forgotten.
When internal combustion engines first became available, between 1905 and 1920, the Cornishmen were quick to see their advantages. With power, boats could now go to sea in weather which would be dangerous to sailing boats and could motor home without the frustration of being becalmed or suffering an adverse wind.
More and more fish had to be caught in the shortest possible time to meet the demands of the market. More trawlers began to arrive from the east coast to fish on the well-stocked banks to the far west of the Isles of Scilly.
As the drift net fishery increased, and steam-powered trawlers made it possible to catch larger fish such as cod, ling, hake, conger and pollack, the pilchard seine-fishing industry was doomed. Demand for pilchards dropped, and it was no longer economic to maintain seine or drift net fleets.
Although pilchards were still being caught with drift nets as recently as the 1930's, boats were going further and further afield to locate them. Once landed they could be sold locally, salted for the Italian market, or put into cans.
By the early decades of the 20th century, many buildings used for pilchard processing had been converted to stores, the seine boats tied up and the nets piled in lofts, many rotting there to this day. It was the end of a grand era in the history of the fishing community in Cornwall.
Some families continued fishing with long-lines until the 1970's. The long-line was thrown over the side to lie on the sea-bed overnight. The beginning and end of the line would be marked at the surface with 'danns' - large floats of cork topped with a coloured flag. This method of fishing bought many fine specimens of hake, cod , ling and conger.
Since the early 1900's, the patterns of catching, handling and marketing fish in Cornwall have changed dramatically. traditional methods of catching with seine's, drift nets and long-lines using sailing boats were superseded by trawls and motor powered vessels. Ice superseded brine, smoking and drying. The demands of merchants in the large cities led to a more sophisticated approach to the packing and marketing of freshly caught fish.
The pilchard is not the only species to have declined in importance. The herring fishery suffered from an influx of French trawlers around the turn of the century, and their activities, together with those of Plymouth based trawlers, are said to have decimated the herring stocks.
The third species caught in quantity was the mackerel, and upwards of 400 Cornish mackerel drifters and 200 steam drifters at work in the late 19th century clearly affected stocks. The fishery virtually closed in the 1930's, and by the 1960's stocks had naturally improved again. Hundreds of small boats and several of the new 'purse-seiners' arrived off the Cornish coast. These modern seiners have nets wound on a huge drum and paid out through a gantry on the stern of the vessel. The smaller boats used lengths of line with fifteen feathers concealing hooks attached, held by hand over the side and moved up and down in the water. This may seem primitive, but thousands of tons of mackerel were landed this way each year until the early 1980's. They were either sold fresh, smoked or frozen, catering for a new wave of demand for this relatively cheap and prolific fish.
Throughout the the 20th century, fishing communities have been slow to to adopt to new fishing methods, and demand for different species. Nowadays the distant water fishing grounds towards the edge of the continental shelf are being scoured for stocks of high-value fish which are often sold to France and Spain at high prices.
There have been admirable improvements lately both in keeping fish on board and handling and packing fish once it has been sold on the local market. Many boats have refrigerated fish rooms where flake ice, superior in quality to the traditional lump ice, is used.
Although the railway still terminates at Penzance, it is now rarely used as a method of transport for fish. There are no special fish wagons any longer, and without special wagons, containers and staff, modern health regulations make this method of transport difficult. Road transport has therefore replaced the railway. Refrigerated lorries, new motorways and modern shops and markets have all contributed to the efficient sales, marketing and distribution network, and further improvements to vehicles, premises and the presentation of fish are raising the perception of the fish trade to even higher levels.
Hygiene, presentation and reliability are high in the priorities of today's consumers. This means in some cases attractive packaging, sell-by-dates, exciting books and leaflets on fish cookery, and a movement away from the 'smelly fish-shop' image of the past. This is already being achieved, accompanied by a natural rise in the price of various species of fish.
In the Helford River oyster fishing has been carried on, though pollution has disrupted this. At Port Navas is the Duchy Oyster Farm.
The present Cornish fishing industry is predominantly that of Newlyn, where there are some 50 trawlers based, perhaps half a dozen regular Irish visitors, and a few others who come occasionally to land catches. Whereas in the late 1970's there were between 100 and 150 small boats fishing for mackerel, there are now less than ten. Of the working trawlers, about half are privately owned, and the rest are owned by W Stevenson & Sons, who are also the leading auctioneers. the crews are almost all self-employed share fishermen, there are some 500-600 men in full time fishing.
The future shape of the Cornish fishing industry, and even its existence in years to come, will depend on what consumers in Britain and the rest of Europe want of it, and that at present would seem to be fish of the highest quality.
Cornwall's History Angling in Cornwall Farming in Cornwall The Pilchard Works Cornwall's Shipwrecks