A Living from the Sea

A Living from the Sea

The sea has always been a major influence on Cornwall’s development. Throughout prehistory and well beyond medieval times it afforded a superior avenue for immigration, communication and commerce when overland travel was tedious, cumbersome and at times well nigh impos­sible. It has provided generations of merchants, mariners and fishermen with a living, if often a tenuous one, and continues to determine the very identity and personality of the county in the eyes of the outside world.

The title of this chapter quite literally covers a multitude of sins, for the coastal communities of Cornwall have not always exploited the sea with due regard to the finer points of English law. Piracy, smuggling and wrecking may well have entered the annals of Cornish folklore and provided the substance of countless popular books, but in the days of remoteness from officialdom they all played a very real part in the growth of a flourishing clandestine economy. Piracy was endemic along the whole Channel coast from the 14th to the 17th centuries. As early as 1348 the practice was sufficiently established for the archdeacon of Cornwall to receive a royal mandate instructing him ‘to take action against the pirates who infested the Cornish waters’, while the monks of Tresco abbey were forced to complain of being exposed to the ‘many privateers and their vices’ who frequented the Scillies. The peak of piracy, however, came later, during the 16th and 17th centuries when a complex organisation grew up between the Cornish pirates and those of Wales. The trade was controlled and the merchandise disposed of by the gentry, attracted by the prospect of £1,000 cargoes, while the pirates generally received only about one-fifth of the haul.

The most important target for the pirates appears to have been coastal traffic; Spanish and Gascon wines, wheat and salt, were in great demand and easily disposed of. The Fal and Helford estuaries, with their numerous coves and creeks, were ideally suited to the trade, and prominent local families like the Killigrews of Arwenack were heavily involved. In 1557 three members of the family attacked a vessel off Land’s End and seized its £10,000 cargo, while in 1582 Lady Killigrew and her household boarded another, removed the cargo and drowned most of the crew. The Killigrews also had relatives in high places in South Wales, including John Godolphin, steward of Laugharne, and Sir John Wogan, none other than the vice-admiral of South Wales, had between them they established a complex operation which took in scores of easily corruptible government officials and lesser landowners. Piracy, however, was far from a one-sided profession, and the activities of the infamous Turks caused considerable distress on many occasions; in 1625 Looe lost 80 inhabitants to these slavers and there are many references to the entire crews of fishing boats being seized and never heard of again. By the mid 17th century, however, organised piracy was fast declining. The wars against Spain had not only reduced the number of Spanish. ships venturing into English waters but caused large concentrations of British warships to be stationed off the south-west ports which made the work of the pirates much more difficult. By 1700 the privateers had all but disappeared from Cornwall, and fortunately so had the Turks. (The Turks of North Africa traded in slavery for about three hundred years until 1830 when the French took Algeria thus stopping slavery at last, it is reckoned well over a million Europeans had been condemned to slavery over this time, the Turks sailed mainly in the Mediterranean but ventured as far as Britain, Ireland, Iceland and the Netherland, but slavery by Muslims started in the seventh century when they set out on their Crusade against the world of infidels, when they conquered Christian North Africa and beyond).

If plundering a vessel on the high seas failed to offend the Cornish conscience, pillaging others driven onto the rocks did not either, and it quite clear that wrecking was a common enough practice along all arts of the county’s hazardous coastline. Much has been written about the subject, perhaps as much fiction as historical fact, but we are still dealing with a practice which, legends aside, can be accurately docu­mented from an early date. For many coastal communities this was not just an occasional pursuit but often an essential ingredient of their otherwise meagre and precarious lives. All sections of society put great value on what turned up on Cornwall’s shores, and the Revd. John Troutbeck aptly summed up the popular feeling of many com­munities with the plea, ‘We pray Thee, 0 Lord, not that wrecks should happen, but that if wrecks do happen, Thou wilt guide them into the Scilly Isles, for the benefit of the poor inhabitants’! Traditionally a shipwrecked vessel and its contents belonged to the Crown or to the lord of the manor, although local custom dictated that half of the spoils belonged to the salvors.

This is clear from the plight of the Gabriell of Milford Haven, driven onto Wolf Rock in 1394. Her merchandise, valued at £1,000, was washed ashore and we are told that ‘the men of those parts removed ic cargo as wreck. . . and refuse to restore it’. Gradually the right of wreck passed into the hands of the lords of coastal manors such as Connerton which came to control this valuable privilege over the treacherous shoreline around Land’s End. In the case of the equally dangerous Lizard peninsula the right was parcelled between the manors of Methleigh, Winnianton and Predannack, and the records contain several references to these catastrophes. During the 15th and 16th centuries, in particular, many Spanish, Flemish and Portuguese treasure ships were washed ashore, including the St Anthony, en route from Flanders to Plymouth, which was wrecked at Gunwalloe in January 1526 carrying £16,000 worth of bullion and silver.

Fishing communities in the 19th Century
Fishing communities in the 19th Century

In a genuine effort to prevent such mishaps, several primitive light‑houses were erected on some of the most notorious headlands, usually by priests or benevolent town gilds. Charles Henderson suggested that the coastal chapels which overlooked Hayle, Bude, St Ives and Rame Head may have been erected for this purpose, and this function may also have been associated with the medieval chapel which stood on the summit of Chapel Cam Brea, towering over Land’s End and Cape Cornwall. There is documentary evidence, again, of a light on St Michael’s Mount from the 1430s. Such Christian considerations, on the other hand, were rarely shared by the local people, and when a light­house was built at the Lizard in 1619 they complained that it took away ‘God’s grace from them; meaning that they now shall receive no more benefit from shipwreck. They have been so long used to reap profit by the calamity of the ruin of shipping, that they claim it as hereditary’.

Wrecking gradually died out during the early 19th century as a consequence of a more efficient coastguard service and an increase in the number of lighthouses along the more notorious lengths of coast­line. Its end was contemporary with the decline of another pursuit, smuggling. Although there are several medieval indications of this practice, smuggling on a large scale developed in the late 16th century and, according to one authority, G. N. Clark, the smugglers’ share in national commerce soon amounted to as much as one third of the legitimate traffic. In Cornwall’s case, most early smuggling was actually out of the county when the principal commodity was tin. Since 1198 all tin had been liable to a royal tax, and it is clear that large quantities were illegally exported to avoid paying the duty. Penzance appears to have been heavily involved in this activity, and Belgium and Italy were the chief markets. Economic historians have concluded that this illicit trade had assumed such formidable proportions by the end of the 16th century that it renders the official tin production figures inadequate barometers of the true state of the industry. By the middle of the following century, however, the government was making a determined effort to curb tin smuggling by appointing smelting supervisors to make sure that each smelting works could account for every block produced. Not surprisingly, we learn from the correspondence of one supervisor-general, George Treweek, that this was a daunting task, not least because of minimal co-operation from the interested parties.

Cornish smuggling was at its peak in the 18th century, when it had assumed the proportions of a major industry rather than an occasional sideline High import duties which often doubled the price of some commodities, like tea, an expanding and more prosperous gentry class with a growing appetite for the fineries of life, and a hopelessly inade­quate customs service all contributed to its success. Highly organised bands, more often than not in league with local officials, brought in large quantities of spirits, tobacco, silks, laces, and French salt, much Preferred by the pilchard curers but heavily taxed by the government. As with the privateers, a complex network was established with Brittany and the Channel Islands, and the exploits of some individual smugglers assumed legendary proportions. High in the ranks of the infamous was John Carter, locally known as the ‘King of Prussia’, who operated from the little Mount’s Bay inlet at Porthleah, known ever since as ‘Prussia Cove’.

In spite of the increased efforts of the Revenue cutters and the Preventive boats, it proved impossible for the authorities to curtail the scale of smuggling. Corruption at high levels, hostile and tightly-knit communities, an elaborate network of landing and storage places, all were insuperable barriers. Even the offer of very substantial rewards, untold riches by the standards of the day, like the £200 which followed an incident at Mevagissey in 1814 and £500 following an attack on a customs man in 1831, made very little impact. Even when offenders were actually arrested, the old saying that ‘a Cornish jury will never convict a smuggler’ points to the difficulty in securing a conviction. Some parts of the county were more involved in the trade than others and the south coast, closer to France and the Channel Islands and with more secluded landing places, was easily preferred. The shores of Mount’s Bay provided many a haven, particularly around Mullion, while the men of the Scillies were the most notorious of all. A determined effort to stamp out smuggling from the islands was so successful that in 1818 the magistrates of Penwith reported that the islanders were in a state of abject poverty; ‘for generations [they] had been brought up in this mode of support’ but had now lost ‘almost every comfort’. By this time, in fact, the days of large-scale smuggling everywhere were numbered and the end of the war against Napoleon allowed the govern­ment to concentrate its naval resources against the contraband trade, and a new Preventive force was established. Their renewed efforts, coupled with the triumph of free trade, proved decisive. During the 1840s Robert Peel reduced the import duties on hundreds of foreign items which helped to remove the economic base of most smuggling operations. Small-scale activities continued, as shown by the arrest of several St Ives fishermen for tobacco smuggling in 1884, but the advent of a more law-abiding age and the strict rigours of Methodism ensured that they would not return.

The more legitimate activity of fishing, from such a long and indented coastline, has made a substantial contribution to the local economy. For thousands of years and from scores of natural havens men have ventured out, in the words of the 16th-century antiquary John Norden, to take advantage of the ‘greate store and manie kindes of verie excel­lent fishe, whose particular names are infinite’. The exploitation of the sea and shoreline from the Mesolithic period onwards has now been well established by archaeologists. Several prehistoric sites have yielded large numbers of limpets, cockles, mussels and crabs, as well as a wide variety of whitefish bones from the waste tips or middens. Primitive nets and long-lines, probably baited with limpets, appear to have been in use during the Iron Age, and were probably set both from the shore and from small skin-covered vessels. These practices are assumed to have continued throughout the Romano-British and early medieval periods, though very little evidence has come to light. There is no documentary evidence, and very few later coastal sites have been excavated except for Mawgan Porth which shed little light on the subject. We learn nothing about sea-fishing, either, from Domesday Book although its compilers were concerned with sources of manorial income, so the omission is not significant. At the same time we should not ignore the references to freshwater fisheries; medieval lords attached great importance to their weirs which trapped salmon, eels and trout along the Tamar, Lynher and other main rivers. Oysters from the Fal estuary were also in demand from at least the late 13th century, when they were being shipped to Exeter, Bristol and other up-country markets.

By this time the picture for the wider sea-fishing industry is beginning to clear. In 1202 King John granted licences to three merchants from Bayonne to fish ‘for whales, conger and hake, from St Michael’s Mount to Dartmouth’, and by 1213 Bayonnese and Gascon merchants had come to control much of the Cornish market. Henry III’s Cornish poet, Michael Blakenpayne, was able to write of his native county in the mid-13th century, ‘In fish and tin she knows no rival coast’, a conclusion which others had also reached, and we know from a charter granted to Guernsey fishermen in 1288 that they regularly fished the Cornish waters for mackerel and conger. The native contribution to the industry was also expanding, and from a Survey of the Manor of Aiverton of 1327 we learn that there were 13 fishing boats at Penzance and 16 at Mousehole. Ten years later the men of St Ives were paying a Port Farm, an annual render to the Duchy calculated according to the number of fishing boats of £6, while the Mount’s Bay boats paid just over £9 between them. Fishing had clearly progressed from an occasional pursuit into a well organised commercial concern, and after tin it was Cornwall’s most important medieval export; in 1438 over £1,000 worth was sent abroad, not to mention that which must have gone to other parts of England. Hake was the single most sought-after species at this time, although by the early 16th century the fish had changed its migratory habits and had been replaced by pilchards.

The humble pilchard was to have a profound effect on Cornwall’s coastal communities. By 1602 it had become so plentiful that Richard Carew was able to assert that ‘the least fish in bignes, greatest for gain, and most in number, is the Pilchard’. Exports had already risen to 600 tons p.a. and the industry and its organisation had assumed all the trappings of a capitalist enterprise. The season usually began in late July and extended until the end of the year, occasionally into January and February. The traditional catching method involved the use of a huge seine net weighing up to three tons, and the operation was directed either by a small boat known as a ‘lurker’ or from the shore by the ‘huers’. The seine boat and its attendant craft would be allocated a particular length of the coast or ‘stem’ at the beginning of each season and would wait at anchor until the huers on the cliff top identified an approaching shoal from the distinctive colour the fish made in the water. The sighting would be followed by the cry of ‘hevva’ which would arouse the whole village as well as the waiting seiners. The whole operation of encircling the shoal and casting the net was then directed by the huers using two ‘bushes’ which were employed in a kind of semaphore manner. The ends of the seine were then drawn tight by ‘blowsers’ working from the shore and the whole net, with the pilchards trapped inside, was then anchored to the sea bed. Once secured, the fish had to be removed from the seine by a process known as ‘tucking’, which involved bringing proportions of the trapped fish to the surface in a small net and then scooping the catch from the water in wicker baskets. The pilchards were then carried ashore for curing, and if the shoal was a large one, the whole process could last for several days.

As the local market was only capable of absorbing a small propor­tion of the catch, from the earliest days of the industry methods of preserving the fish had to be employed. Smoking or ‘fuming’ was common in Tudor times and the process gave rise to the term ‘fuma­does’, corrupted into ‘fairmaids’, as the local name for pilchards. Pickling in brine was also common at this time, but by the late 18th century dry-salting or ‘hulking’ had become the norm throughout the county. This involved transporting the fish to specially-built cellars or ‘palaces’; in his Tour of 1780 the Revd. John Swete described the next stage: ‘their method of curing them is to place them whole in large bulks for many days; they are then washed and placed under large stone weights, by the gentle pressure of which large quantities of the common train oil are drained from them into proper vessels. They are then pickled and prest into barrels’. This pressing into barrels or ‘hogsheads’ took about a week, after which they were sealed and made ready for market. The whole process was clearly very labour intensive, and during the second half of the 19th century a more efficient method of curing in large tanks was adopted from Spain, although it was unpopular among the fisherfolk, and there were complaints of a deterioration in the quality of the final product.

The greater part of the pilchard catch was exported, initially to the West Indies and then to the Mediterranean world, especially Italy. With the eating of meat during Lent forbidden by the Catholic Church, pil­chards were a cheap and ready alternative, prompting many an offering of the old toast:

‘Here’s a health to the Pope, and may he repent, And lengthen by six months the term of his Lent. It’s always declared, betwixt the two poles, There’s nothing like pilchards for saving of souls’.

Fishing has always been a precarious livelihood, and though today’s fishermen are capable of adapting their gear and methods according to market demands and the seasonal movements of different species, their 18th- and 19th-century counterparts were less flexible. Pilchard seining involved vast capital investment on the part of the many business consortiums who owned the seines and, beyond the odd shoal of mackerel, the equipment was unsuitable for any other work. As a result, when there were no pilchards there was no work, and there are huge variations in the annual catch figures. The second half of the 18th century saw a prolonged national decline in the industry, and fish exports fell from 2.6 per cent of total exports in 1722 to only 0.7 per cent by 1772. While the respective statistics for Cornwall are far from complete, the picture seems to have been little different. In 1786, only 7,000 hogsheads left Cornish ports, although by the end of the century there had been a dramatic recovery with 65,000 hogsheads exported in 1796. No one port illustrates these fluctuating fortunes better than St Ives, the county’s premier pilchard station throughout the following century. A Board of Trade enquiry of 1874 listed a total of 272 boats operating from the port which employed 1551 men, not to mention the hundreds of women and children who were traditionally involved in the curing processes. Sometimes no shoals were spotted for years on end, as was the case between 1818-22, while at other times the catches could assume staggering proportions. In October 1851 the ‘Hope’ seine netted a huge shoal which took a fortnight to remove from the water and to process, and at the end of the whole operation some 5,600 hogsheads had been packed, representing 18 million pilchards. The price was 45s. Od. per hogshead, quite a fair one, which meant a grand total of £12,600,, and a profit after expenses of £7,569. Another substantial catch, this time of 8,000 hogsheads, was landed at Newquay in October 1866, but these were exceptions, and it was more usual to count catches in hundreds of hogsheads, not thousands.

During the late 1870s pilchard seining fell into rapid decline, having already disappeared from most of the south coast. In 1878 only 170 hogsheads were processed in the entire county, and the newspapers were full of advertisements as the owners tried to dispose of their boats and nets before the situation deteriorated still further. What caused this decline is uncertain; some blamed a slight change in the direction of the Gulf Stream which took the fish and their feed else­where, others blamed the recent increase in drift net fishing which had been causing friction for some time. Drift netting involved working in deeper waters and setting long lengths, sometimes as much as a mile/1.6km, of finely-meshed net just below the surface, usually just before sunset when the pilchards rose to feed. The seiners argued that this method dispersed the shoals before they could move inshore and from the earliest days of drifting there had been attempts to curtail it. In 1841 the St Ives seine owners secured the passing of a local Fishery Act which outlawed drift netting between 25 July and 25 December within 2,400 yards/2.194m of the coast, but this and similar restraints had not prevented the number of drifters from increasing. Their methods also allowed greater flexibility and enabled the boats to take part in the Mount’s Bay mackerel fishery, which expanded rapidly in the 1880s, attracting vessels not only from other Cornish ports but from Lowestoft and Yarmouth. The drifters could also fish the Irish waters for herring when things were slack at home and, set against this versatility and mobility, the old seining methods appealed less and less. The intro­duction, just before the First World War, of the internal combustion engine enabled the drifters to fish more distant waters and in worse weather, and within a few years seining had become a thing of the past. The St Ives men shot their last seine in 1928 and most of the fleet ignominiously ended as firewood. For the drifters, however, as we will see in the final chapter, their supremacy proved to be relatively short, and by the late 1950’s ‘King Pilchard’ had all but deserted them as well.